NEW HAVEN, CONN. -- he playwright and his director have come to look disconcertingly similar, even though they are a generation apart. Both have grown stout in the middle, have salt-and-pepper beards sprouting on their chins, and light brown skin. And neither August Wilson, the playwright, nor Lloyd Richards, the director, enters a room with any grand theatrical presumption; both are a little shy, or at least appear that way.

Wilson, the younger of the two, has received his share of plaudits and attention in the nine years since his first play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," was produced. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a Tony laureate, he has assured himself a niche as a major dramatist, in particular a vibrant black voice. But Richards, the older and more avuncular of the duo, is less celebrated, even though his role as discoverer and midwife to Wilson's plays is as integral to the process as an egg is to an omelet.

Now in his late sixties (he has the former actor's reluctance to be specific about his age), Richards has slowly come to be acknowledged as a major influence in American theater. His role in nurturing Wilson is but the most visible example. Before, during and after that, he has been one of the few directors in a position to affect future generations of theater artists, and to shape the intellectual content of the current.

As head of the prestigious Yale School of Drama, a post he leaves next year after an unusually long, 12-year tenure, he has influenced hundreds of actors, directors, designers, playwrights, critics, stage managers and theater directors. His parallel job directing the Yale Repertory Theatre gives him an artistic platform to produce the premieres of such writers as Athol Fugard and Lee Blessing, as well as Wilson, and to attract visiting artists such as James Earl Jones, William Hurt and Oleg Yefremov of the Moscow Art Theater. As director of the National Playwrights Conference, a summer program where playwrights work with actors, directors and critics on new works, he receives about 2,000 scripts a year (he reads about 80 himself, but reads reports on all the others).

Add to that Richards's membership on the National Council of the Arts, the body of august personages that advises the National Endowment for the Arts, and a re'sume' that goes back to his direction of the first production of "A Raisin in the Sun" (he is said to be the first black to have directed a Broadway play), and it is easy to see why this man has been inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

Wilson's last play to complete its development process on Broadway, the Tony-winning "The Piano Lesson," directed by Richards, recently became one of the rare non-musicals to pay off its investors. Almost concurrently, Wilson's latest, "Two Trains Running," is beginning its second stage of life, following an initial two-week run at the Yale Rep last spring and a summer of rewriting. It opened last week at the Huntington Playhouse in Boston, the second stage of a journey to regional theaters that will continue in San Diego and Seattle, all working stops on a potential road to Broadway.

As a man of the arts, as well as a departing member of the arts council, Richards is concerned about the debate over the role of the NEA. He sees a disturbing anti-art trend in the recent battle over funding the arts endowment and the controversial pledge not to produce obscenity that has turned the arts into a political hot potato of late.

"There was a time, in the mid-'60s and '70s, when you felt the arts were truly supported and respected at the top," he says. One of the first acts of the Reagan administration, he says "was to try to do away with the endowment. ... The original legislation {creating the NEA} came out of valuing what the arts contribute to society. It was the artists who questioned it, {worrying} that at some point people will want to control the arts. But it went on to prove its value to the country on every level.

"What are the things behind the new moves? Suspicion, distrust, anger, desire to punish, a notion that the arts are irresponsible. That is what hurts."

Thecompromise legislation, which extended NEA funding for three years, commits 20 to 27.5 percent of the money to control by state-run arts agencies, a change that Richards calls "pork-barreling that signals the mortal wounding of the animal. The arts have become just another pot to fight over. ... Now that the NEA is wounded, whatever it is that gathers around a wounded animal and picks it apart has started to appear."

He has thought about these things a great deal, and there is no doubt in his mind that federal funding of the arts is essential. The cutbacks that began in the Reagan administration -- funding levels stayed the same, which, with inflation, meant less money -- have especially hurt the development of new artists like Wilson, he says, who submitted scripts to the National Playwrights Conference for five years before "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was accepted. The NEA helps support the conference.

"The arts are always a vulnerable area," he says. "They aren't perceived as a necessity because they don't pay off in dollars made and profits earned. But it must be understood that the arts will ultimately be the record of our society."

Rehearsal Richards is not a tall man; in fact he barely hits five feet. But his bearing is regal. At first brush he even seems a bit imperial, gruff and not very thrilled to have a reporter along for the morning's rehearsal. He says later he is very sensitive to the "vibrations" in a room, and for that reason does not allow people he hasn't met ahead of time into a rehearsal.

This session, one week into the two weeks of preparation for this second go at Wilson's "Two Trains Running," is being held, appropriately enough, in a room rented from the Yale African American association. It is a high, vaulted room that looks as if it could have been a church were it not for the huge, unused fireplace at one end. The set, at this point a temporary one made of raw 2-by-4s and cast-off furniture, is a ghetto diner in Pittsburgh, circa 1969.

Richards directs the actors to sit at a nearby table and read a scene before they "put it on its feet." Four of the seven cast members are new to their roles; the lengthy Wilson-Richards development process makes it hard to retain actors through months of unemployment while the two work on the script or get support for a new production. The first production of this play last April got mixed reviews; most critics were intrigued by the characters, the setting and the situation, but felt the play lacked dramatic conflict, tension and a potent resolution. Wilson has worked on the play; several of the actors in the first production say the changes were considerable. The time was changed from the month after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 to a year later. The new crop of reviews is still mixed, with some critics complaining the play still lacks dramatic focus. Time magazine's thumbnail review calls it "the author's subtlest, shrewdest reflection yet about how to overcome the bitter past."

Wilson, wearing his familiar safari jacket and beret, comes in late and huddles with Richards. He is carrying a yellow legal pad, and after they talk, the director reads script changes to the cast. Some are cuts, some are new lines. One actor has a question about a line in which he says that the courthouse is closed at 3 p.m.; wouldn't a courthouse still be open then? Wilson scribbles notes on his pad.

Richards's method is generally Socratic, whether dealing with actors or a playwright. "What does that mean?" he asks at one point, trying to help two actors who are working on a scene in which he has told them they should be expressing the idea "do something or something will be done to you." Only once does he sound sharp, when an actor throws a wad of money, an action clearly wrong for the situation.

"Unh-unnh," he interjects firmly. "Hand it over."

Later, during another read-through, Richards listens as Al White, who played the part of Memphis in the earlier production and is playing it again, goes through a long, beautiful speech in which he savors an unexpected victory. Richards leans back in his chair, enjoying the words and the actor's skilled delivery. When White slips on one line, Richards corrects him from memory:

"Say it's from everybody -- everybody who drops the ball and goes back to pick it up," he says.

"We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come into contact," wrote Toni Morrison. Richards and Wilson chose the quote for the program of "Two Trains Running." It speaks to an important aspect of their collaboration, the depiction of black people in the same types of venues and human situations recorded by white writers like Arthur Miller. Most of Wilson's characters are working class, uneducated, struggling to survive in a world in which the odds are stacked against them.

That world seems very far from this room on the Yale University campus, from Pulitzer Prizes and opening nights on Broadway. One actor puts on a ghetto dialect as consciously (although skillfully) as a Yankee playing a Southerner; offstage his speech is as accent-free as any radio announcer's. This is not to suggest the portrayal here is in any way phony; rather it is a reminder that one of the theater's irreplaceable functions is to capture and preserve cultural differences and textures in an increasingly homogeneous world.

"It is my real life," said Richards later. "Whatever that depicts is my experience as a black person in this country. Otherwise I would not be able to deal with those plays. ... It's a way of preserving {the culture} and at the same time letting you see it. A number of the black writers are saying, 'Let's look at this black human being that when you drive up Seventh Avenue you lock your doors when you see him on the street corner.' They're saying, 'Let's get out of the car.' "

A Broad World View Richards has directed Ibsen, Shaw, O'Neill, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Miller and Williams as well as Wilson, Hansberry and Richard Wesley, and he calls Moliere a "playwright in residence" at the Drama School. His play choices reflect a broad world view informed by a non-racial interest in the human condition. But clearly he has found a special connection with Wilson's plays, rooted in Richards's youth in Detroit. His father died when he was 9, leaving six children. His mother became legally blind, and Richards and his brothers worked even as children to support the family during the Depression.

He graduated from Wayne State University, in his hometown, intending to become a lawyer. But after service (in a segregated unit) during World War II, he returned to Detroit, got a job as a social worker and started working in radio and community theater at night. After a few years he took the plunge and moved to New York, living at first in the YMCA with a single footlocker to hold his possessions. He and his wife, actress and dramaturg Barbara Davenport, now divide their time between houses in Manhattan and New Haven. Their two grown sons, Scott and Thomas, are involved in creative endeavors, Scott as a composer and Thomas as an actor working with the avant-garde director-teacher Jerzy Grotowski in Italy.

Richards had, eventually, success as an actor and then as a director, and ran his own acting studio for 10 years. When he was picked to succeed the controversial Robert Brustein at Yale in 1979, he had acted and directed in all of the major arenas except feature films: Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theaters, universities and television, and had been active in a wide variety of professional organizations.

For actors, the Yale School of Drama is now harder to get into than the Yale Medical School is for would-be doctors, with about 1,000 people vying for 16 places. It is an intense three-year graduate program, costing about $9,000 a year in tuition and untold hours of work. The school is scattered among six cramped spaces, with some performance areas being used virtually around the clock. Some students say the pace is too frenetic and pressured; some alumni and visiting directors say that is what makes the place a creative caldron. Nearly everyone says the school needs its own building.

The school has increased its budget, course offerings and faculty under Richards's tenure. His critics feel that all his activities, while expanding his sphere of influence, have spread him too thin to have much of an impact on individual students. He acknowledges feeling that way himself sometimes, but said the students feel his influence through the Yale Rep, where some of them get to work with professionals in their field.

As he looks ahead to leaving Yale, Richards declines to analyze his career. "That's for others to do," he said, allowing that one thing he is proud of is having expanded the audience for the Yale Rep not just in numbers but in diversity. His intention has been to develop a school that he would like to go to, to choose plays he would like to see, to bring out the best in the playwrights and actors he works with.

"There are always and only two trains running," wrote Wilson in the play's program. "There is life and there is death. Each of us ride them both. To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone."

Richards knows what he means.