ST. PETERSBURG — Long before he started throwing up stark sets for the abstract European plays he directed at Eckerd College, James Carlson preached the gospel of theater as an arena where big ideas clash.
He called it the "engaged theatre" (always with the British "-re"), and maintained that there was no better place to practice it than a college. Though widely praised for getting fine performances out of actors, he emphasized depth of understanding over technique, and preferred avant-garde works.
"They seemed to be disguised rants against communists, Nazis and dictators — against authority," said Peter Meinke, a retired Eckerd professor and St. Petersburg poet laureate, who credits Mr. Carlson with recruiting him to Eckerd. "They were highly subversive in certain ways. Not obviously, but they made everybody think."
Mr. Carlson, who founded Eckerd's theater program and designed its physical core, the Bininger Center for the Performing Arts, died Saturday of congestive heart failure. He was 94.
"Jim saw the theater as the center of the college community," said novelist Sterling Watson, a former student and longtime Eckerd professor. "Whether he was right or wrong about that, he believed in it passionately."
Mr. Carlson grew up near Staples, Minn. He studied at Hamline University, the University of Minnesota, the Shakespeare Institute in England and Columbia University. A religious scholar and devout pacifist, he obtained status as a conscientious objector during World War II.
He directed the theater program at Hamline from 1947 to 1964. He came to Florida Presbyterian in 1964, where he joined an interdisciplinary program that encouraged students of other disciplines to act in plays. In 1969, he opened the brand-new Bininger Center with the first American production of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, about a woman whose generous nature threatens to put her out of business.
The same commitment that brought Mr. Carlson to the college ultimately caused him to leave it. In 1978, after Eckerd's trustees moved to allow an ROTC program on campus over the objections of students and faculty, Mr. Carlson resigned.
"He stood for his principles, even when it would hurt him professionally, and he did it publicly," said Glenn Powell, a former student and high school drama teacher in Jupiter.
After leaving Eckerd, Mr. Carlson ran an art gallery in Gulfport for a while, but did little teaching. He remained in touch with former students, who remember him as an engaged thinker.
"He was constantly rubbing around his eyes and his ears and his head," said Greg Lawson, a cartoon animator and film director living in Amsterdam, "as if he was thinking so hard, he had to push the brains around a little bit."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com (727) 892-2248.