TDPS Alumnus Robert Cohen (‘61), the founding chair of Drama at the University of California, Irvine, has had a long career in theater — as an educator, director, actor, theorist, playwright, critic, and author of a dozen-plus books on acting, auditioning and theater. However, before he arrived at UC Berkeley, Robert seemed destined for another path. Despite a love of theater throughout his youth, he chose to attend college at Dartmouth and had decided to become a lawyer, like his father. A random road trip in his junior year led him to Berkeley — where he stayed.
Below, in select segments from his 2014 memoir, Falling into Theatre…and finding myself, Robert recounts his first impressions of Berkeley, the Department of Dramatic Art (as TDPS was known then), and how one fateful night catapulted him into a lifelong career in the theater.
“Berkeley was heaven. I had left the elite, preppy, snow-bound, all-male, frat-rat Dartmouth for a warm, urban, coeducational, multinational public university (ranked number one in the country at that time, I soon found out), plopped down in the midst of espresso shops, experimental film theatres (one run by the yet unknown Pauline Kael) and constantly beaming sunshine, redwoods, palm trees, a thriving International Club, and a Socialist Party recruitment booth on every corner.
I saw virtually all the plays of San Francisco’s Actors Workshop. Meeting cast members after some of the shows, I volunteered to work backstage for their productions. My new adventures in the San Francisco theatre did not prompt me to study or participate in Drama on the Berkeley Campus, however, as I was still planning on going to law school. But on one fateful evening in 1959 I happened to walk by a classroom that served as a dressing room for the campus’s Department of Dramatic Art, which at that time used an ordinary lecture hall in that building (Wheeler Hall) for it’s main theatre. Passing an open door, I was overwhelmed by, yes, the iconic “smell of the greasepaint.” I peeked in to see the actors—they were preparing for a production of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country—and I was as hooked as an ex smoker being offered a free carton of Pall Malls.”
One eventful evening, Robert stumbled to the hospital with a terrific pain in his chest and was diagnosed with pulmonary pneumothorax—a collapsed lung. After an emergency surgery, Robert’s recovery required him to lie patiently on his back, for days.
“This was anything but a tragedy, however. Indeed, it was perhaps the luckiest break of what was to be my professional life. Alone, immobile, and in fact flat on my back for a week, without a telephone in the room and with nobody—even my parents—having any idea where I was, I found myself in total isolation. All I could do was think—and think I did. It was the week when I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. What I really wanted to do was stay at Berkeley for the rest of my life. And that meant going to graduate school, getting a doctorate and becoming a professor.
But a professor of what? I had enjoyed my Political Science studies, but the field seemed to be stagnant at the time. A professorship in Drama, on the other hand, offered everything that excited me; intellectual adventure, artistic creativity, hands-on practical application, a great potential for opening new fields, and even a thrilling approach to Political Science. So I would go to Drama school, not law school. And I would become a professor of Drama!”
So when I finally walked out of the hospital, my lungs now breathing air freely, I did not amble back to my apartment but rather strode right back to the Department of Dramatic Art office and begged to add a major in Drama to my nearly-completed major in Political Science.”
After graduating from UC Berkeley with degrees in Dramatic Art and Political Science, Robert went on to receive a Doctor of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama in 1965, then became the founding chair of Drama at the newly-founded University of California, Irvine. Robert only retired from the faculty last year, having spent 50 years as a faculty member and directed more than eighty stage productions at Irvine, including new plays, classics, experimental works, musicals and operas, often of his own authorship or translation.
Beyond the campus, Robert directed more than a dozen professional productions at the Utah and Colorado Shakespeare Festivals and numerous other venues. He is also a longtime theatre critic for the London-published Plays International and formerly for Contemporary Literary Criticism. His written works include Theatre: Brief Edition, Working Together in Theatre: Collaboration and Leadership, and Acting One, one of the most popular acting textbooks on college campuses.
Of his recent retirement and newfound free time, Robert says that teaching is the one thing he worries about missing, since “working with bright, youthful, eager and often rebellious students has kept me young at heart, lively in spirit, and curious in all things.” But Robert doesn’t seem to be slowing down too much—he just released his latest book, Shakespeare on Theatre: A Critical Look at His Theories and Practices, is preparing to give lectures at UC Irvine for the campus’s 50th anniversary, and will soon release the 11th edition of his textbook Theatre. Happy retirement, Robert!