UC Irvine Department of Drama Founder Robert Cohen Retires

When Robert Cohen wakes up in his Laguna Beach home, Samuel Beckett is in the kitchen, cooking breakfast. Jerzy Grotowski is on his couch, watching the morning news. Patrick Stewart walks in the front door, carrying the newspaper. Or maybe it just seems that way. Read his newly published memoir, Falling Into Theater, or talk to Cohen—the father of UC Irvine's Department of Drama—and the biggest names associated with American and international theater since the 1950s drop as often as colorful insults from the mouths of Shakespeare's characters.

Theorist, educator, critic, practitioner and author, Cohen has met, worked with or communicated with a who's who of modern theater history—and contributed no small part. His 1978 book, Acting Power, as well as its subsequent editions, is the most used acting textbook in American drama schools. No less a luminary than Stewart, a close friend of his since the 1960s, contributed a blurb to the most recent revision: “If you have to/need to read a book about acting, here it is, all of it. Study it, know it.”

His introductory textbook, Theatre, now in its 10th edition, has been published in five languages, and he has lectured and directed in some two dozen countries, from Ghana and Stockholm to Korea and China. He's terribly Big News in the world of theater, and incredibly, he's accomplished so much while living and working in a place he had never heard of before being offered a teaching gig.

Cohen was offered two positions in his final semester at Yale graduate school. One was at UC Berkeley, an established university with a growing drama department. The other was at a new school in Southern California, where grazing cows around the campus far outnumbered the faculty and students. It took him 15 minutes to decide whether to be a cog in an existing system or to help create a new one.

“Berkeley's drama department was primarily an intellectual one, which it still is, and while I consider myself a writer and intellectual, I wanted to be involved in producing and working with actors and playwrights,” Cohen says. “I've written 23 books and consider myself in both camps, but if anyone asks what I do, I say I'm a play director.”

The first semester, fall 1965, UCI's School of the Arts (to which drama then belonged) had seven undergraduate students and three drama teachers. Today, there are 33 full-time faculty in the undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. programs, plus approximately 450 students.

“I never dreamed that it would grow so big,” Cohen says. “I had absolutely no expectations. Irvine wasn't even a city yet; Berkeley was only a few hours away, and [its drama department] had been around for 20 years. What we have become would have been unthinkable then.”

Cohen ran the department for years and pulled a major coup in 1982 by bringing Grotowski, a world-renowned guru of experimental theater, to campus. As Cohen relates in his book, Grotowski hated the main acting studio and wanted an immaculate space in which he could conduct his radically out-of-the-box classes. He wanted a barn. There happened to be a barn left over from when the land was part of the Irvine Ranch, before it was donated to build UCI. The building was cleaned out and became the site for Grotowski's all-night classes, which were closed to all but his students and incorporated everything from Haitian voodoo chants to Balinese dancing. As the world's foremost living acting teacher and theorist, Grotowski's presence also attracted interest from big-name donors, which boosted the entire department.

Cohen stepped down as chairman in 1990, focusing on teaching and lecturing and directing across the globe. And now, after 50 years, the doctor (he has a rare fine arts doctorate in directing from Yale) is leaving. He doesn't like driving at night, he says; he wants the freedom to set his schedule and the time to write. Plus, “50 years is enough,” Cohen says. “I love teaching as much as I ever have, and sometimes I wonder if I'm making the right decision, but I'm not reconsidering. It's time to open up a position for someone else.”

But his presence will still be felt. His name is on the 96-seat theater, formerly known as the Studio Theater. His textbooks will continue to be used. The department's current season is dedicated to him. More important is a track record that is as much an ethic as it is a legacy.

“It's impossible to describe the impact he's had on this department,” said Eli Simon, a UCI drama faculty member since 1987. “If the professors are planets, he's the sun we rotate around and have for five decades. He's really our inspirational leader in terms of research and production, teaching and service. He's had a hand in the creation of every program, every hire and every production, and that imprint will only continue.”

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