Producer/Director - Writer - Teacher - Consultant
Association of Theatre in Higher Education
Lifetime Career Achievement Award
On July 28, the ATHE (Association of Theatre in Higher Education) awarded Bob Benedetti its Lifetime Career Achievement Award, its highest honor, at its annual conference in San Francisco.
ACCEPTANCE SPEECH FOR ATHE CAREER ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Robert Benedetti – July 28, 2005 – San Francisco, CA
I have been cautioned that as the last speaker, I am the only obstacle between you and your afternoon libation, so I will try to be brief.
First, thanks to ATHE for a wonderfully run event and for your generous treatment of my wife and I. Sincere thanks to my nominator, Donna Aronson, who did a tremendous amount of work, and the many dear friends she contacted who wrote on my behalf. I am trying hard to not let this award make me feel old.
Actually, the idea of a career achievement award is for me a bit peculiar, since I have in fact had at least three careers. And this very welcome recognition comes as I am again at a crossroad in my life. I started out wanting to be a lighting designer, and I went to Northwestern fifty years ago to study with the great Ted Fuchs. I did eventually work as his graduate assistant and learned a work ethic and attention to detail that has shaped my life ever since. But since Ted taught only graduate students, I had to kill a few years before I could study with him, I. I did this by studying acting in the department then dominated by a legendary acting teacher, Alvina Krause.
But I had an odd reaction to the version of the Stanislavski method taught there. I was sitting in class doing a sense memory exercise, feeling little blades of grass emerging from a non-existent pot, when I had the actual sensation in my fingertips. Alarmed, I stood and announced that I had come there to learn to act, not how to have hallucinations. I stormed out and promptly transferred into the Department of Oral Interpretation, where, it seemed to me, good sense and intellectual rigor prevailed.
Oral Interp is a discipline that has all but disappeared today. It was defined by our leader, Wallace Bacon, as “the study of literature through the medium of the oral performance.” Our little department, housed in an old prairie-style house near the water’s edge, was inhabited by Charlotte Lee, my dear friend John Edwards, and the man who became my intellectual father, Robert Breen, the inventor of Chamber Theatre. Even though I eventually did masters work with Ted Fuchs in lighting and theatre planning, all my formal degrees are in Oral Interpretation.
My first academic job was as technical director of the University Theatre at the University of Chicago, which was then still under the philosophical influence of its great president, Robert Maynard Hutchins. The U of C was a very special place then, very much a multi-disciplinary Renaissance academy. Even though it offered no theatre courses, it spawned people like Mike Nichols and the others who would eventually become the Second City. Hutchins had once been offered a big grant to start a journalism school, and had declined, saying that if you had something to say, you’d find a way to say it, and a University’s real job was to find things worth saying.
That is something that in our business we need to remember, now more than ever.
We had a summer program called the Court Theatre, and that summer we lost a director, so I decided, what the hell, I’ll direct, how hard can it be? And not knowing any better, I picked my favorite play, King Lear. The great neo-Aristotelian critic Elder Olson agreed to be my dramaturg (I could tell you some stories about that experience.) After a few more years running the theatre and directing at the U of C, I teamed up with one of the graduate students, a young Canadian from the yeshiva named David Steinberg, and we briefly did a coffee house act at various clubs in Canada. We soon went into Second City, and for a time I became a full-time performer. But after a couple of years, I found that improvisational comedy was not my life’s work, though I learned a great deal from doing theatre games with Viola Spolins and her son, Paul Sills.
I went back to school to finish my doctorate and won a place in a new graduate theatre company at Indiana University where I had the good fortune of studying with Oscar Brockett and Hubert Heffner, and there I became confirmed as a lifelong Aristotelian.
While at Indiana I taught an acting class in return for my graduate assistantship. After watching me teach one day, Brockett told me that I should write a book about what I was doing. I was dubious, but again, I thought, what the hell, and wrote The Actor At Work. Thanks to Brock, that book has become a sort of chronicle for me. It’s been in print for 36 years now, and with each of the nine editions, I’ve had the chance to crystallize my evolving understanding of the acting process, and to boil that down for my introductory book, The Actor In You, the third edition of which will be out in October.
My experience at Indiana convinced me that teaching was what I wanted to do. It was the best way I had found to explore and learn about theatre, and also because of the resonance – thorough my students, I realized, I could have a much greater impact on the world than I could by myself.
Best of all, while at Indiana, I met my wife, Joan, and next year we will celebrate our forty-year journey.
After Indiana, the teaching and directing came fast and furious, from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, to truly formative years at Carnegie Tech, where I learned so much from people like Earle Gister, Edith Skinner, and most of all the secrets of the body from Jewel Walker. Then to Yale to run the acting program for Bob Brustein and Howard Stein. There I learned a lot from Richard Gilman, Joe Chaikin, and others. Then a delirious two years as chairman at York University in Toronto.
But I missed America, and after directing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I made the mistake of thinking that the entire west coast was like just Ashland, so off we went to the University of California, Riverside. Soon thereafter, I began eight tumultuous years as Dean of Theatre at the California Institute of the Arts, where I had the freedom to experiment both pedagogically and artistically. The fundamental principles established at the Institute by Herbert Blau and the late Robert W. Corrigan continue to guide me to this day, ideas like “no technique in advance of need,” and that a curriculum should be cyclical rather than sequential, returning to root principles at regular intervals, and that “we’re a community of artists here, some of us called faculty and some called students,”
But in the early nineties, I lost the faith. The students in those years were coming into our schools regarding themselves as commodities to be prepared for sale. It was not at all Hutchins’ idea of first having something to say, then finding a way to say it, and a frightening change from my first teaching experiences in the sixties and seventies, when the students really did see theatre as a mechanism for social change, and really did question authority, to the point that every class was an audition for the teacher. Worse yet, without my missionary zeal, the politics of academic administration seemed like a mere pissing contest.
At this point, another friend came to the rescue. I jumped at the chance offered by my ex-student, Ted Danson, to take over his production company at paramount studios, and so I became a movie producer. Ted and I were committed to using film and TV to make a better world – the same motive that had first attracted me to teaching. We succeeded most with the HBO film, Miss Evers Boys, directed by my dear friend Joe Sargent, based on a play by David Feldshuh, now of Cornell, whom I had met when I was directing at the Guthrie Theatre.
Two years ago, however, I again became disenchanted by the changes that media consolidation have brought to the film and television world, which is now much more a corporate than a filmmaking culture. At the same time, I realized that working in the movies had taught me a lot about acting and live theatre. My ongoing part-time teaching also told me that today’s students are once again, as in the sixties, hungry for a sense of purpose.
Again, I have been lucky. I have found a congenial home at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where I can both teach and direct. I have also decided to launch yet another career and do some “real” writing -- my first novel, The Long Italian Goodbye, will be out next month. And I’m going to try expanding my teaching into the broader arena of human development and, with the help of my friend Cungliang Hang, who is here with me today, will do my first workshop at Esalen in September.
So this award comes at yet another turning point in my life and is a wonderful homecoming present as I return to the academic fold. It makes me realize how, for all of us, our lives are shaped by the great teachers, friends, and fellow artists we are fortunate to know through our work. I thank you for it from the bottom of my heart.
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