Courtesy of UCI Libraries' Special Collections & Archives Founding faculty member Robert Cohen leads an exercise during a drama rehearsal in 1981. He has directed more than 70 campus productions.

A life well scripted

Claire Trevor Professor of Drama Robert Cohen to be feted with festival, theater renamed in his honor.

Robert Cohen, UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor Professor of Drama, keeps a career chronology that’s part “Who’s Who” of professional theater, part personal diary.

1956: With my high school friend Johnny Barchilon, I travel to New York, staying with Uncle Marty, and we see Broadway shows “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” with the original cast, and “Mister Johnson,” with Earle Hyman. I’m sort of hooked.

“Sort of hooked” only sort of says it. In the 55 intervening years, Cohen has become synonymous with the stage at UCI. A giant in theater research and acting, he has written many books and texts, directed at least 70 campus productions and helped launch the careers of countless thespians. He’s a busy actor and director off campus as well.

Robert Cohen has successfully merged his professional and educational endeavors for more than four decades,” says Joseph S. Lewis III, dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. “He has touched thousands of working professionals through his theatrical accomplishments, writings and teachings. His is truly a far-reaching legacy.”

This will be publicly acknowledged Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28 and 29, with the first-ever Robert Cohen Festival. Included are acting workshops, theoretical presentations, and performances of “Waiting for Godot” (directed by Cohen) and “The Misanthrope” (translated by Cohen), as well as the official ribbon cutting for a theater renamed in honor of the founding faculty member.

Following are some of Cohen’s career highlights:

  • 1938-1965: Born in Washington, D.C., in 1938, he does undergraduate work at Dartmouth College and UC Berkeley before earning a doctorate of fine arts from Yale University’s School of Drama.
  • Summer 1965: Two days after arriving in Laguna Beach prepared to join founding faculty at UCI, he attends South Coast Repertory’s “Trial of Gabriel Kapuniak” and meets Martin Benson and David Emmes after the show; soon he’s designing lights for their “Hostage” at the Laguna Playhouse and SCR stage.
  • Fall 1965: Teaches first classes at UCI – directing and contemporary continental drama.
  • Winter 1966: Directs “Night of the Iguana” at UCI.
  • Early 1967: Casts and creates UCI Student Repertory Theatre with 16 students.
  • Fall 1967: Plays Marat opposite Bob Gunton as Sade in “Marat/Sade.” Signs contract with Prentice-Hall to write directing textbook, Creative Play Direction.
  • Winter/spring 1968: His book Giraudoux: Three Faces of Destiny is published. Meets Patrick Stewart, Terrence Hardiman and Ben Kingsley on Royal Shakespeare Company’s Los Angeles tour.
  • Summer 1970: Lives in Los Angeles and writes “The Mobius Strip,” a play about gay and straight relationships within an East Coast family.
  • Summer 1972: Fellow faculty member Ashley Carr and Cohen run the Here & Now Acting Studio in Laguna Beach.
  • 1973: Studies lie detection and teaches experimental class in communication based on Paul Watzlawick text. Directs “After the Fall” at UCI.
  • Spring 1976: Sends book Acting Power to Mayfield and Prentice-Hall, then leaves with wife, Lorna, for a six-week “grand tour” of Europe.
  • Summer 1976: Arrives in Santa Rosa to direct “Ondine” at Summer Repertory Theatre and finds contracts from both publishers for Acting Power. Signs with Mayfield.
  • Winter 1980: Landmark decision to transform drama program: Cohen gets serious about teaching acting, expands M.F.A. to three years, begins Theatre Guild and starts fundraising. Directs “Equus” at UCI.
  • Fall 1982: Directs first non-Harold Prince production of “Sweeney Todd” at UCI. Gets great stomping ovations after every performance.
  • Winter 1983: Meets Jerzy Grotowski at the Players Club in New York, having already invited him to lecture at UCI, and makes plans for him to join the faculty. When he arrives, Grotowski is provided the barn and the yurt.
  • Winter 1985-86: Cohen directs uncut “Hamlet” at UCI with 14-week rehearsal.
  • Spring 1986: Spends a week speaking and teaching at the Stanislavsky symposium in Stockholm with Oleg Yefremov and Anatoly Efros.
  • Summer 1987: Directs “Much Ado About Nothing” in Utah and “Corpus Christi III” at UCI, earning a full-page Calendar rave review from Dan Sullivan at the Los Angeles Times.
  • Fall 1993: Is awarded the UCI Medal, the highest honor the university bestows.
  • Winter 1996: Directs first Medal dinner entertainment. Is a guest of Patrick Stewart at his star installation on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • Winter 1997- spring 2005: Directs “Misanthrope,” “Happy Days,” “Carmen,” “Oklahoma!,” “Castle of Perseverance,” “The Prince,” “Good Person of Szechuan,” “My Fair Lady,” “Pedro Gynt” and “Timon of Athens” at UCI and at least five other plays around the world while writing texts and teaching.
  • July 2005: Assumes chair of UCI’s drama department.
  • Summer 2009: Publishes seventh edition of Acting Professionally, co-written with James Calleri.
  • Fall 2009: Receives Honoris Causa in Cluj, Romania, and Medal of Honor from Poland’s Ministry of Culture.
  • April 2010: Delivers Samuel Beckett paper at Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Montreal. Travels with wife to Israel and writes “Abraham & Isaac in Jerusalem.”
  • Fall 2010: Produces “Abraham & Isaac in Jerusalem” at UCI and publishes Working Together in Theatre through Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Fall 2011: Produces “Waiting for Godot” at UCI. Publishes “Pozzo’s Knook” in the journal Modern Drama and “The Eyes Have It” in the magazine Dramatics.

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