Retired founder of UCSD’s drama and dance department reflects on life in the theater
By Arthur Lightbourn
Arthur Wagner, 87, is a serious person.
He was serious about his career as a professor of drama that spanned 36 years at four colleges and about his retirement from UCSD 19 years ago.
“We don’t loll around in bed. No napping,” he says of his busy retirement lifestyle that he shares with his wife of 54 years, Molli, and which they orchestrate from their canyon-view home in Del Mar.
The New York-born Wagner is the founder and emeritus faculty member of UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance.
“I took my retirement very seriously,” he said. “I was ready to retire. I loved what I did. But what I did was the most stressful of academic jobs because I taught acting (and acting is one of the most stressful teaching work there is if you’re concerned about the acting students) because actors can’t see what they’re doing.
“They can’t see themselves, they can’t hear themselves. So, in an acting class, yours is the eye that they depend upon. And the way you respond to what they are doing can either support them or destroy them. It’s very easy to destroy. And I found that very stressful. So I was ready to stop.
“Besides. I have a lot of other interests. I do a lot of reading. Molli and I have a very full and hectic social life. We have traveled a lot since I retired. I still pay attention to the department and the department is very nice by including me in things. I still have an office. I go to faculty meetings periodically. Molli and I go to a lot of theater in town. And dance.”
Wagner was born in the Bronx. He traces his interest in the performing arts to when his two older sisters took him to dancing school as a youngster and later when he would perform in summer camp. His father was a women’s tailor with a loft on 57th Street in Manhattan whose customers included actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Fay Bainter.
Through a competitive examination, Wagner was accepted into Stuyvesant High School, an acclaimed, no-tuition public high school in Manhattan specializing in math and science. Contemplating a possible career in academia, he went on to study philosophy at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. In his junior year, in 1943, his Army Reserve unit was called up during World War II and he was placed in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP).
“The Army kept sending me to school,” he recalled wryly, “because they kept giving me the same test I took for Stuyvesant. It was literally the same test. I was sent to Randolph-Macon College for engineering, Rutgers for pre-med, and the University of Pennsylvania for medical school, all on that same damn test.”
He also performed in Army shows that revitalized his interest in theater; so when the war ended and he was eligible for discharge, he left med school and considered auditioning as a summer stock actor, but was told he didn’t have enough experience. His thoughts then turned to academic theater by way of a master’s degree.
A veterans’ advisor asked him where he was considering going for this master’s. He said: “Yale. Is there any other place? I didn’t know. New Yorkers are the most provincial people there are. They don’t know anything.”
The advisor suggested the prestigious women’s college, Smith, in nearby Northampton, Mass., which at the time was accepting a limited number of male veterans, and where the iconic Hallie Flanagan was head of the theater department. Flanagan was the former national director of the Federal Theater Project. She ran 3,000 theaters as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA program during The Depression.
“To make a long story short, that’s where I ended up going,” Wagner said.
He earned his master’s from Smith College in 1948. His first job was as supervisor of dramatic activities at the Jewish Community Center in Springfield, Mass., followed by another year as artistic director of the Springfield Civic Theatre at an annual nine-month season salary of $2,500.
Now in his mid-20s and deciding he needed to make a more substantial living, so he went into business with his brother-in-law who owned three shoe stores in New Jersey.
“To make another long story short, I spent the next five years in the retail business,” he said. “The best part of that, in fact, the only good part was, I would never have met Molli if hadn’t been for that, because I would never have been in a position financially to go skiing in Sun Valley.”
When he wasn’t selling shoes and managing the largest of the three stores, Wagner kept fueling his interest in theater by going to Broadway shows and studying at the Actors Workshop in New York City, along with another aspiring actor named Sidney Poitier.
“They had filmed ‘Blackboard Jungle’ [Poitier’s breakout film role], but it had not yet been released, and Sidney came to study with my teacher, Paul Mann, who was one of the few acting teachers in New York who had people of color in his classes.
“I finally decided the shoe business was not for me, told my brother-in-law I was leaving and he said, ‘What took you so long?’ And that’s when I started my doctoral work … at the University of Utah.”
Molli, who was a Pan Am stewardess at the time, lived in San Francisco.
“I went to visit her that Christmas and never went back to Utah. They’re still waiting for me. I transferred to Stanford University and that’s why I have a Ph.D. in drama from Stanford (completed in 1962).
“We were married in 1956 in the Stanford Chapel and I was offered my first (university) job… at Rollins College, a small liberal arts college, in Winter Park, Fla., where after the first year I was appointed head of the theater arts department and where I stayed for nine years while working on my Ph.D. from Stanford.”
At Rollins, in addition to acting and teaching, he became a director. He directed three plays a year, as well as playing the lead in and directing Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and the musical “My Fair Lady.”
From 1965 to 1967, he served as professor of drama at Tulane University in New Orleans where he established the graduate actor training program.
In an unprecedented move, he and six other Ph.D.s in the drama department resigned en masse in protest over the administration’s refusal to provide funds for building a performing arts center.
“Tulane has never recovered from that,” he said, “at least the theater department hasn’t.” He and his colleagues fanned out to other universities across the country to establish or strengthen other drama departments.
Wagner joined Ohio University as a drama professor and director of the graduate and undergraduate actor training programs, in Athens, Ohio “which is like nowhere,” he chuckled. “We went from New Orleans, with the greatest eating and everything, to a place that had two restaurants, both bad.”
He remained two years at Ohio University before accepting an invitation from one of his former Tulane colleagues to start an MFA program at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“After three years at Temple, I was recruited to come to UCSD,” where he served as the founding chair of the drama department from 1972 to 1977, and head of the graduate professional actor training program from 1977 until his retirement in 1991.
When he first arrived, he recalled, “There was nothing here in the way of a department. There were two faculty members who had been teaching courses before that, but when I came the department was established with four founding faculty, and I was told by the search committee that maybe the faculty would grow to seven.
“When I rotated out of my first five years of chairmanship, we were already 11, and now well over 30.”
The “department” is considered one of the top three graduate theater training programs in the country, along with Yale and New York University. It confers MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degrees in acting, design, directing, playwriting, sound design, stage management and dance theater, as well as a Ph.D. in theater in conjunction with UC Irvine.
Throughout his career in academic theater, when he could, he returned to the boards as an actor.
“One of my favorite roles was as Quentin in ‘After the Fall,’ the Arthur Miller autobiographical play, which I did in San Diego in 1984, downtown in what was called the Public Theater at that time. I was on stage for two and a half hours. I think it’s the longest role in American theater.”
His favorite playwrights include Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Chekov, George Bernard Shaw and, of course, William Shakespeare.
Among actors he has trained during his career, he lists character actress Dana Ivey, whom he taught at Rollins and who was a five-time Tony nominee; and, while at UCSD, 2004 Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays, Tom Nelis, film actor Don McKay, Jeanne Paulson, who was a leading actress at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Danny Burstein, a double Tony nominee.
He is a passionate supporter and board member of the La Jolla Playhouse, which enjoys a close relationship with UCSD, sharing production staff and providing internships for the theater students.
He concedes that directing is probably what he is best known for, “but acting is something that I love. If you ask me what I am as an artist, I’d say, an actor,” he explained. “But it’s a murderous life.
“If you’re an actor, you’re always out of work. As in all the performing arts, it’s not something you can sort of set out and do yourself. You need somebody else. Somebody has to ask you to do something. Somebody has to offer you the opportunity…
“So it’s working from one job to the next. That’s the American theater. It’s a very, very difficult row to hoe. Our graduate programs are three years. You could be a lawyer in three years.
“We audition 500 students for eight spots in our MFA acting program each year,” he said. “At Yale, they audition 1,000 students for 18 spots.
“It’s the same out there in the world, that’s the relationship of actors to work. That’s what I mean when I say ‘murderous,’ you really have to want it to do it. What do they call it? Fire in the belly.”
What qualities did he look for in aspiring actors when he was involved in the MFA acting auditions?
“There is such a thing as an histrionic capability. Not everybody can be an actor. Histrionic means that you can express yourself in such a way in a fictional situation that I will believe you. There are some people who will never be believed.
“Then, of course, we always look for vocal capabilities and for movement capabilities. Is the body one that can be free to play somebody who looks very free or somebody who looks very awkward? But you can’t be an actor if you are naturally awkward.”
Is it any easier for actors today than it was when he was a young man?
“No, well, yes. It’s easier from the point of view that now we have so many regional theaters, like the La Jolla Playhouse; whereas, when I was studying as an actor, it was either Broadway or Hollywood. So there are a lot more job opportunities than there used to be.”
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