Carl James Walker
November 23, 1956 – July 8, 2018
Carl James Walker, a widely respected and award-winning New Orleans director, producer, actor, writer and teacher who played a leading role in New Orleans theater for more than 35 years, died unexpectedly July 8 at the home of his friend Jon Newlin, for whom he had provided care for many years. Carl was 61. A native of Lafayette and a longtime resident of New Orleans, he was predeceased by his parents, M.H. and Geneva Anderson Walker of Lafayette, and his sister, Lucretia Walker Behman of Saratoga, Calif. He is survived by the extraordinary plays and musicals he created and by the legacy of a remarkable run that included the direction of some 60 plays, many of them award-winning works seen here for the first time. Because his shows were staged at theaters all over town, “If you went out to theater in the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s in New Orleans, you probably knew Carl Walker personally; if not, you definitely knew his work,” said Gambit editor Kevin Allman, who called Carl's best work “as good as anything you might see on or Off-Broadway." Known for his sharp wit, high energy, formidable knowledge of the theater and exhaustive attention to the slightest detail of a production, Carl began to make his mark here in the late ’70s, after attending the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana-Lafayette) and founding with Michael Baham, Bart Bernard and Suzanne Stouse the New Orleans production group BLT, whose early shows included “Bad Habits,” “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “Loot.” After graduating in theater from Boston University and studying directing at Harvard, Carl returned to New Orleans, staging BLT’s local-star-cast “Talking with...” in 1983 at the Contemporary Arts Center, where he later served for several years as theater coordinator. Other CAC shows included his long-running hit musical "Where the Girls Were" and the regional premieres of "Cloud 9,” "A . . . My Name Is Alice," "Translations" and "Greater Tuna.” In 1988, he founded what would become his most fruitful theatrical alliance, the producing group All Kinds of Theatre, dedicated to “producing important contemporary plays and musicals and the development of new works by New Orleans writers.” As artistic director, he helmed more than 25 AKT productions, and true to his company’s name, the works covered a broad swath, fabulous parodies to offbeat little musicals to drama most high (think the long-running “Psycho Beach Party” to “Ruthless! The Musical” to “Doubt: A Parable”). Carl also directed the original show "Native Tongues,” a series of New Orleans-centric monologues by writers well-known here and nationally and performed by some of the city's best actors. A box-office and critical hit (as were virtually all of Carl’s plays), the show began at the old True Brew Theatre and spawned four new editions that played other local stages for years. But that was just a fraction of Carl’s output. There were AKT’s regional premieres of the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning plays “I Am My Own Wife,” and “Doubt, A Parable” (a production former Times-Picayune theater writer David Cuthbert told WWL was “superior in almost every respect to the Broadway staging”), and the Pulitzer-winning “Three Tall Women.” All of them and Carl’s staging of the Tony-winning musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” won Big Easy Entertainment Awards, as did the majority of his other plays; an armful of Big Easys went to Carl as a writer and director, and he also received Storer Boone, Ambie and Jay Stanley awards. There were other AKT hits: “Forever Plaid,” “Pageant,” “Dirty Blonde," “The Mystery of Irma Vep," “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” Carl’s original musical "The Class of '70something" and “The Last Madam," a play about Quarter madam Norma Wallace based on the biography by Christine Wiltz and co-written with playwright Jim Fitzmorris. Carl also created the musicals “A Cocktail Party in the Ladies Lounge” and “My O My,” the latter a salute to the late, great drag showbar at the lakefront, for the erstwhile Le Chat Noir, which staged AKT shows including “Fully Committed” as well as “Native Tongues” and “Love Letters”; the latter play debuted at True Brew in 1995 and has played various venues ever since. For the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, Carl directed the rollicking “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).” For the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, his plays ran a gamut from the hoot “The Glass Mendacity” to “Suddenly Last Summer,” performed at the Bultman House, where Tennessee Williams wrote the play. For Le Petit Theatre, Carl directed shows including a hit run of “Steel Magnolias,” “The Women,” “Master Class” and “Golda’s Balcony.” As an actor, he appeared on local stages including Le Petit and Tulane Center Stage and had a memorable, hilarious recurring role on the late HBO series “Treme.” Carl was known throughout the theater community as an “actor’s director” and indeed “I have never run into an actor who didn’t want to work with Carl Walker,” Le Chat Noir owner and friend Barbara Motley told The Times-Picayune. To actor and friend Sean Patterson, whom Carl directed in the 39-role, one-man “Fully Committed,” it was simple: “You could always trust him to guide you where you needed to go, but he wouldn't feed it to you. He wanted you to find it.” Veteran actress Carol Sutton, another longtime friend, said that although he hadn’t directed her in several years, “I still talked to him about productions that I was involved in. He's a brilliant director who I totally respected and depended on.” To his “Doubt” actress and friend Andrea Frankle, "Carl was hyper-empathetic -- a highly sensitive soul. As an actor, this can be tortuous at times, but as a director, what a gift.” Especially well-known for his work with actresses, Carl directed a plethora of all-female shows. “Before I really knew Carl well,” said Newlin, a “Native Tongues” writer, “we joked that he was the George Cukor of New Orleans because of his penchant for plays about, and often entirely cast with, women, as well as an almost supernatural skill in directing actresses.” Although he was “never happier than when preparing a play,” said Newlin, Carl also loved being a teacher, and he concentrated in recent years on his popular acting classes at Tulane University, where he had served as an adjunct instructor and director for many years. Because of his great ability to connect with students, according to Tulane theater and dance department chairman and friend Martin Sachs, many continued to stay in touch with him long after they had left the university. Sachs pointed to years of rave reviews from students in department surveys, several respondents calling Carl the best teacher they’d had at Tulane. At Carl’s invitation, New Orleans’ Tony-winning actress and playwright Mary Louise Wilson came to the university to teach a series of master classes, and during that time he staged an evening of her “Short Takes” (now “Theatrical Haiku”). Her review: “He knew from the first day of rehearsals what he wanted from his cast, and I saw the proof of his direction in the excellence of the performances . . . He was smart, sophisticated and funny and he could have held his own directing on and Off-Broadway.” In addition to his work at Tulane, Carl also taught and directed at the University of New Orleans, Loyola University and the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Valued by collaborators as highly as actors, his work prompted novelist Sheila Bosworth Lemann, a close friend who contributed pieces to “Native Tongues,” to tell Gambit that “more thrilling than seeing a book bound with your name on it” was seeing her words brought to life in the first “Tongues.” As an AKT producer, Jacquee Carvin said, “I realized I was fortunate enough to have been invited in 1995 by Carl, along with co-producer Carol Stone, to be a part of something special, to work with someone special.” Speaking as a fellow director, longtime friend Vernel Bagneris, best known for creating the award-winning musical “One Mo’ Time,” said that like other “actor’s directors,” Carl “always guided actors gently towards their personal interpretations rather than forcing them into his preconceived notion of the character.” Among many posts on Facebook came this from fellow producers: “The NOLA Project dims its lights today in honor of the loss of Carl Walker, one of the true giants of New Orleans theatre. So many great memories at the theatre were created by this incredibly talented and dedicated director. We will miss you, sir.” Jon Newlin said of Carl, “. . . there was only one, and then to use an old but apt cliché, they broke the damn mold.” Carl is survived by his niece Marejka Sacks of Campbell, Calif., and her daughter Carly Rogers. A celebration of his life will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9, in Tulane’s Lupin Theater. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Louisiana SPCA (www.la-spca.org) are suggested.
- Celebration of Life Sunday, September 9, 2018
Carl James Walker
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September 9, 2018
Carl, Thank you for showing me something about directing at UNO. Lynn Toal and I were very grateful for your wisdom. Tell her I said hi when you see her. NOLA will not be the same without you.
Joshua Allen- Nevels
July 18, 2018
Oh my dear Carl. How do I start I am lost for words. Your legacy will live on forever and ever. You are the reason why I am the person that I am today. You thought me well and did things for me that the world will never understand. I appreciate you to the fullest. I'll be there on today planning your final arrangements. I know this Journey will be hard because, you are absent from the body and now present with the Lord. I love you so much Carl.
If I had it my way, I would say Carl were not finished having fun. But you were a work of art. Your teachings has touched many of students, staff, and the world. Your living was truly not in vain. Im so emotional and very sorry that I had to see you go so soon. But one day I know that I will see you again. In the meantime, my studies at Tulane University are dedicated in your honor. Im so lost without my Carl Walker. But you have moved on up a little higher and you have received your just reward in Heaven. The Land where Jesus promised us a home over there.
July 17, 2018
Mr. Walker thanks for being a true friend. Working with you the past nine years was special. I will forever remember our conversations, laughs, and Boot visits.
July 16, 2018
Rest in Heaven Carl.
July 16, 2018
Carl, Thank you for all the opportunities you gave me to share your life and art. I will always remember you as a true friend.
July 14, 2018
Carl, you were such an amazing professor and friend to me, and you never failed to give me your support and encouragement. It’s sad to think that I won’t see you riding around on your bike or hear another “How you do?” from you ever again. It’s cliché, but words really can’t express how much I appreciate all that you’ve done for me and how much I miss you now that you’re gone. Thank you so much for being a part of my life.