History of the Department

Auspicious Beginnings


The first production by the University of California on record took place two years after the University was founded, during its second semester of instruction. Staged in Oakland by the University Dramatic Association on May 20, 1870, a performance of a romantic Italian Drama in three acts entitled Marco Spada was followed by a “laughable farce, Hob-nob-ing.” Theatrical performance has been a constant on the Berkeley campus ever since.

Performance was generally undertaken by student groups in the early years of the University. Two student organizations, the Durant Rhetorical Society, a carry-over from the College of California, and the Neolaean Literary Society, organized in 1871, met at private homes for literary or musical evenings. The University Dramatic Society was founded in April, 1877, and the Berkeley Dramatic Club in 1878. In 1891, when public transportation to the campus had improved and a town had begun to grow around the University, three faculty members, William Carey Jones, William Dallam Armes, and George M. Richardson, sponsored the Berkeley Athenaeum, “to furnish the best possible entertainment in letters, music, and art to the University and to the people of Berkeley, by drawing to the University the best talent coming to the State.” In 1892, Louis DuPont Syle, a serious student of the theater, joined the English Department faculty. Under his direction, students produced full-length plays and presented them in rented halls in Berkeley and Oakland.

William Randolph Hearst’s Greek Theater gave a new prominence to drama on campus. Built in 1903 in the Ben Weed amphitheater, itself the scene of outdoor productions since 1894, the Greek Theater rapidly took its place among the leading stages dedicated to the new art-theatre movement in the United States. The Greek Theater opened with a production by students of Aristophanes’ The Birds on September 24, 1903, under the direction of James T. Allen. Thereafter, under the management of a music and drama committee headed by William D. Armes, it presented many student productions; the Theater also drew professional performers, including Sarah Bernhardt, Maude Adams, Nance O’Neill, Robert B. Mantell, Margaret Anglin, and the Ben Greet Players. In 1906, the English Club, at the suggestion of Professor Charles Mills Gayley, produced the first of an annual series of Elizabethan plays in the theater. Student productions continued under the direction of Professor Charles D. von Neumayer, and by the English Club, under the direction of Garnet Holme. In 1920, the Greek Theater Players, directed by Samuel J. Hume, and assisted by the talented young actor Irving Pichel, replaced the English Club productions. Hume, a former University student who had returned to Berkeley from Detroit, where he had launched an important little theater at the Detroit Art Institute, also developed student dramatic talent through the organization of the Wheeler Hall players who gave indoor performances of modern plays.

Student sponsorship of plays began in 1922 with a production in Hearst Gymnasium of Harley Granville Barker’s Prunella, directed by Morris Ankrum. For the next twenty years, University audiences were offered a wide variety of classical and modern plays by young performers, some of whom later became luminaries of professional theater and film: Irving Pichel, Everett Glass, Gilmore Brown (who later became the head of the Pasadena Playhouse), Michael Raffetto (star of radio’s One Man’s Family), screen star Gloria Stuart, Barton Yarborough, Nestor Paiva, Frank Ferguson, Baldwin McGaw, Lloyd Corrigan, Carol Eberts Veazie, and Walter Plunkett (chief costume designer for RKO studios). Berkeley also produced several known playwrights, including Sidney Howard, Dan Totheroh, and Richard Walton Tully.

In later years, the campus theater provided a training ground for actors such as Gregory Peck, Barry Nelson, Augusta Dabney, Jane and Gordon Connell, Kenneth Tobey, Elizabeth Berryhill, Lawrence Hugo, Maryester Denver, Geoffrey Horne, Jack Aranson, Crahan Denton, Stacy Keach, Karen Grassle, Joe Spano, Robert Hirschfeld, Michael Lerner, Harry Hamlin, Bill Bixby, Duke Stroud, Lorri Holt, Maureen McVerry, Roxann Dawson, Bill Kalmenson, Ruth Silveira, Sanaa Lathan, Jonathan Cho, among others. Berkeley graduates have also been drawn to related performance fields: television producer Mark Goodson, Art Linkletter, Ralph Edwards, writer Robert Emmett, composers Nathan Scott, Harold Swanton, and George Prideaux, lyricist William Engvick, newscaster Grant Holcomb, television columnist Terrence O’Flaherty, and Newsweek columnist John Horn.

In 1931, campus theatrical activity was concentrated in the Little Theater under the direction of Edwin Duerr, with additional productions sponsored by the Mask and Dagger, Thalian, and Hammer and Dimmer Societies. Duerr’s work on campus was of unusually high professional quality. Most at home in twentieth century theater, he gave the campus an opportunity to see excellent productions of modern plays during the Depression period, when few companies toured. Under his direction, campus actors produced the English language premiere of Jean Giraudoux’ Intermezzo, the world premiere of Robinson Jeffers’ s Tower Beyond Tragedy, Maxwell Anderson’s Elizabeth the Queen, and many other plays. Duerr’s Mask and Dagger Revues were eagerly awaited each year, and, under his sponsorship, student writers, directors, and actors received a thorough, if informal, training in all aspects of the theater. Duerr left the University to undertake the direction of the Henry Aldrich Show on radio, and later, on television.

Gregory Peck at UC Berkeley in 1939
Hearst Greek Theatre, Completed in 1903

Formation of the Department


Before 1941, instruction in theater and drama was included in the program of the Department of Public Speaking, under the direction of Professors Sara Huntsman Sturgess and Alan R. Thompson. In 1941, the academic study and performance of theater was given a curricular home in the new Department of Dramatic Art. Under the chairmanship of Professor Benjamin H. Lehman, and later, of Professor Fred Orin Harris, the Department developed a serious instructional curriculum, and, with its production arm, the University Theater, offered a series of distinguished performances of plays from around the world. Among these were memorable presentations of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and Eugene O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed, all under Harris’s direction. On the campus teaching staff during Professor Harris’s chairmanship were Margaret P. McClean, the eminent teacher of speech, directors Henry Schnitzler, who staged the world premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Private Life of the Master Race at Berkeley, John Barton, Alwin Kronacher, and Alexander Koiransky, who provided a direct link with the Moscow Art Theatre and the teaching of his friend, Konstantin Stanislavski.

Little by little, the departmental course offerings were further developed into a significant graduate discipline. By 1960, the Department had grown sufficiently so that, under the chairmanship of Professor Travis Bogard, it was approved to offer the Master of Arts, and within a year became the first campus in the University of California system to offer the Ph.D. in drama and theater studies. At that time, the graduate program concentrated on the training of stage directors, offering a wide variety of courses in technical play production and in theater history and dramatic literature and criticism, in an effort to capitalize the new alliance of professional theater groups and universities evolving throughout the country at the time.

The Department attracted theater and dance professionals such as Henry May, who assumed the department chairmanship in 1968 and who was executive Art Director for the CBS Television series, Omnibus. David Wood, an alumnus of the Berkeley campus who worked for 15 years with the Martha Graham Company as a dancer and rehearsal director, was recruited to the campus with his wife Marni Thomas Wood, also a Graham dancer, and teacher at the Graham school (she became chair from 1982-90). The Woods instituted a dance curriculum on campus in 1968, and the dance program has played a crucial role in the Department ever since. Robert Goldsby (chair 1973-77) long associated with the American Conservatory Theater as an actor, director and head of the ACT training program, was recruited to the faculty, as were award-winning playwrights William I. Oliver (chair 1977-79) and Marvin Rosenberg.

Given its place in the premiere public research university in the United States, it was also crucial for the Department to recruit an adept scholarly faculty, capable of training an emerging generation of scholars. Doctoral studies in theater and drama were led by Travis Bogard, the major scholar of Eugene O’Neill, Marvin Rosenberg, whose series of books on the stage history of Shakespeare’s plays have been central to Shakespeare studies, and Dunbar Ogden, a crucial figure in the study of the medieval theater. In later years, younger scholars like Charles Lyons (later Chair of the Drama Department at Stanford), Lorne Buchman (chair 1990-93) and David McCandless came to Berkeley. Faculty from other departments, notably Don Friedman, Professor of English (chair 1979-82) contributed to the Department’s success as well. The Department’s record of training a new generation of theater and performance studies scholars is exceptional, and many of the leading figures in the field—Margaret Wilkerson (UC Berkeley), Sue-Ellen Case (UCLA), Harry Elam (Stanford), Leigh Woods (Michigan)—pursued doctoral studies at Berkeley. Berkeley’s graduate program also sent important artists back into the sphere of professional theater, including Tony Taccone, former Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

On campus, the University Theatre continued its long tradition of student performances, often stimulated by the work of visiting professionals including directors Margaret Webster, Jan Kott, and Greek National Theatre Director Takis Muzenidis. Faculty-directed productions included such experiments in programming as cycles of plays devoted to a common subject, author, or style of theatre; for example, a bill of three plays on the Don Juan story, the Shakespeare Quadricentennial program of five Shakespeare plays, a season of Chekhov, and the French Neoclassical repertory. Student-directed workshop productions ranged throughout the literature of Western European drama. The Department expanded the role of dance on campus, not only offering the annual University Dance Theater concert, but developing a touring company of advanced dance students, the Bay Area Repertory Dance Company.

David Wood & Marni Thomas Wood, Co-Founders of the Berkeley Dance Program

Restructuring of the Department


The Department suffered difficult times with faculty retirements and the California budget crisis of the mid 1990s. Thanks to the efforts of the faculty from across the campus, the Department was reorganized—under the leadership of Don McQuade (chair 1993-95), Margaret Wilkerson, Professor of African American Studies (chair 1995-97), and then of Mark Griffith, Professor of Classics (chair 1997-99)—as an academic Department accompanied by a production unit, the Center for Theater Arts. This reorganization helped to preserve the Department’s relationship with a number of professional artists who provided exemplary teaching and artistic leadership: Marty Berman, Deborah Sussel, and Lura Dolas in acting; David Elliott and Kate Edmunds in design; and Stan Kramer and Roberta (Vance) Lemons in our shops. This reorganization also enabled a reconception of the Ph.D. program designed to make the professionalization of doctoral students and their preparation for academic careers both more successful and more consistent with UC Berkeley’s position as a premier research institution.

As part of this reorganization, the department was awarded three faculty positions, which were quickly filled: by Peter Glazer, Ph.D. in Performance Studies and an eminent director and adapter of nondramatic works for the stage; by Shannon Jackson, also Ph.D. in Performance Studies, a performance artist whose scholarship focuses on the interface of performance, history, and historiography; and W. B. Worthen, Ph.D. in English, who writes about dramatic and performance theory and history. Professor Worthen became Acting Chair and then Chair of the Department in January 2000, and instigated a name change that would restore a single name to the Department and express the Department’s multiplex investment in different forms of performance, and in the academic study of performance as well. As of July 2001, we are The Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, and the Graduate Group in Performance Studies.

Growth and Galvanization

The Department has made enormous strides since its near demise in the mid 1990s. We have been able to add new staff, both to production and academic operations,  who have enabled the Department to function more efficiently and professionally. The new faculty and reorganization of the graduate program and of the academic aspect of the undergraduate program have brought renewed and expanded energy to the formal study of performance in all its forms. The addition of Professor and renowned choreographer Joe Goode to the faculty in 2001 brought a new level of artistic distinction, and signaled our effort to integrate the study of dance with the study of theater, given the interdisciplinary character of Goode’s work. We also hired new faculty in the fields of Asian Performance, African American Performance, Latinx Performance, and performance histories who have helped to fulfill our commitment to a wide-ranging and diverse study of the forms and practices of theater and dance.

We reorganized the curriculum to place “performance studies” at the academic center of all our majors’ activities, alongside the unrivaled training in dance and choreography, and in acting, directing, design, and technical theater we provide. Our Ph.D. program has developed into one of the most competitive of its kind in the nation, recruiting a superb cohort of doctoral students from around the world. Our Ph.D. students remain competitive in a very competitive market for academic appointments, and recent undergraduate students have been admitted to the most prestigious professional training and M.F.A. programs in the country, including Juilliard, ACT, NYU, Yale, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, and many more.

Additionally, our annual production season involves a distinguished series of visiting artists and scholars, such as Caridad Svich, Rhodessa Jones, Cherríe Moraga, former Berkeley Ph.D. student Stan Lai, Tadashi Suzuki, the Split Britches Company, Tim Miller, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Carmelita Tropicana, Peggy Phelan, and members of The Gate Theatre of Dublin, among many others. We have been galvanized by a renewed commitment to maintaining contact with our alumni, and to fostering a more meaningful dialogue between our current students and students who have gone on to success in the arts and humanities as well as in the professions. We continue to rebuild a new department, the kind of department that suits Berkeley best: at the cutting edge of theater, dance, and performance studies.