2016 marks the 75th anniversary of the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. In honor of that anniversary we are reaching out to alumnus from each decade to share memories of their time in the drama department at UC Berkeley. Frances Pepper Tarson graduated from the University of California in 1948 with a major in Dramatic Arts.
Frances Tarson Pepper attended UC Berkeley from 1943-1948 and experienced firsthand the early years of the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, when it was then known as the Department of Dramatic Arts. Frances has a unique perspective of the time because, as she recalls, “The people that set up the department were Professor Durham and Professor Lehman from the English Department and Professor Pepper, my father, who was a professor of Aesthetics and chairman of the Art Department at that time.” Frances continues, “They hired Fred Harris and Henry Schnitzler to man the Department of Dramatic Arts. Those are the two people I started studying with—from Schnitzler I learned style and from Harris (and his wife Mary, who was an adjunct) I learned acting.” Frances was not what you would call a natural talent: “When I started it was clear that I didn’t know anything about acting. I was grateful for a chance to be taught to use the the qualities I have, since I needed an outlet for my emotions at that time in my life, and I found it in acting.”
Frances’s early years of college coincided with WWII, which meant there was a dearth of college-age men. As such, she recollects, “They did Journey to Jerusalem with an all-female cast, and I played Herod.” After taking a year off, Frances returned to UC Berkeley for her junior year, along with an influx of GI’s. “Those of us fresh from high school had the advantage of working with people who had been out in the world and were using their GI Bill to go to the University of California,” Frances remembers. “One of Fred Harris’s first shows was King Lear, and that was a very powerful show because most of the young men who were in it had seen war and knew its horrors.”
One particular moment during that production of King Lear became an unforgettable memory for Frances: “I was playing Goneril and a very talented man who had been overseas, Sam Levine, was playing Lear. Fred staged it on a very wide platform, and he had one of us on each side of the platform lit with blackness between us, then Lear tells Goneril that ‘Into her womb convey sterility./Dry up in her the organs of increase,That she may feel/How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/ To have a thankless child.’…Sometimes an experience I had onstage was so powerful that it has become a primary memory, instead of just a memory of being in a play. Well, that moment is so real to me—even now—that it’s as though it had happened to me.”
King Lear was one of three major productions that took place each year at that time, all of which were performed in Wheeler Hall. As Frances points out, depending on who taught classes in Wheeler on Saturday mornings, the cast and crew would have to take the set down on Friday night and put it up again on Saturdays. “My father, who often had a class there, said ‘If I can’t keep the attention of my class in front of your set, then I’m not a very good professor,’ and he allowed us to keep our sets up,” recalls Frances with a laugh. “The sets were built in the bottom of Eshleman Hall. It was a cave, and half of it was full of costumes that were just thrown in there haphazardly. Sometimes when we had late rehearsal, the next day I would lie down on the costumes and sleep so I wouldn’t have to walk home for a nap.”
When Frances was a student, in addition to the Department of Dramatic Arts, there was also a trio of honor societies which drama students belonged to. As Frances explains, “You had to be in three major productions to qualify for Mask and Dagger, which was for acting. There was Thalian, which was for directors. And then there was Hammer and Dimmer, which was the society for those who worked backstage.” Of course, Frances belonged to all three.
But it wasn’t just the students who were acting in those days, Frances recalls. The University had something called The Drama Section, where the professors would get together and read a play. “They would carry the script, dress to the hilt and act to the hilt!” Frances doesn’t remember the Drama professors ever taking part, but plenty of other university professors participated. “In those days, particularly during the war, the West Coast rarely got any productions of the shows playing in New York. But we could get the scripts and read them and that’s the way we knew what was going on in New York and what was going on in the drama field.” Frances says, “I remember seeing one play where a professor was carrying a script printed out on various sheets of paper and it slipped out of his hand and fell to the floor. Everyone rallied round to pick up the script and it turns out his next line was ‘Oh No!’”
Frances’s most memorable role came when she played Catherine in The Heiress, a then-new play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. “That was probably the best thing I ever did,” says Frances. “I was directed by Mark Patterson and he invited Mary Harris, who was my coach, to come to the dress rehearsal. She came backstage afterwards and said ‘You have built a beautiful lamp but you haven’t turned it on.’ She gave me some very good advice, reminding me of things I already knew, and I turned it on. I think that’s the best thing I ever did since it was deeply and completely understood. And felt.”
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Frances moved to Washington to complete an MA in Drama at the University of Washington, and then joined the outdoor theater group The Mountaineers. “And then I started looking for a husband,” she jokes. “I went to Princeton and didn’t get one and so I went to Yale, where I was a secretary. There I met my husband in a play. It was Danton’s Death; I played Mrs. Danton and he played Robespierre and he killed Danton and married me!” It was an exciting time on the Yale campus, with talented young people like Dick Cavett, Carrie Nye, Austin Pendleton, Sam Waterston and the future director Peter Hunt as students. “The drama school had women but there were no women on campus so I was able to be in their plays and they were happy to have me there and surprised to find a secretary who could act!”
Frances willingly gave up her career to start a family, and is the proud mother of two boys. However, she could not let theater leave her life. She joined the Elmwood Playhouse, a 99-seat theater in Nyack, where Frances resides, that has been in existence for almost 70 years. “I’ve been a member of it for about thirty years, and my husband for forty years,” says Frances. The Playhouse puts on six shows a year, one of which is usually a musical. “We have extraordinary people working with us, very capable people and we put on tremendously good productions. That doesn’t mean that we don’t, every now and then, kind of groan and say ‘how do we get this one up and running?’ but it’s very interesting and exciting.”
Frances is so inspired by the work of the Playhouse that she even used her recent 90th birthday party as a fundraiser for the theater. “We advertised to theater members and my friends, inviting them to buy a ticket to my birthday party. You could make a donation of $15 for a card, $30 for my years of service, or $90 for my years of life,” Frances explains. “For the event, we put on a show, and I decided on the songs. After all the songs they interviewed me in the style of Inside the Actors Studio. And we raised, after expenses, over $8,000.”
For young people entering the theater world today, Frances has two pieces of advice. First, she says, “I once heard a very competent opera director tell students, ‘Look on your playbill. How many people are actors, and how many people are doing other important things to make the production?’ There are many opportunities if you are open to them.” And secondly, “If you love the theater, but find that professional theater is not what you want to pursue, remember that there are theaters in many, many communities and they offer a place to engage and share one’s love of theater.”