Perspectives: Newsletter of the College of Arts & Sciences

Theater Pioneer Explores Early Years in Autobiography

Herbert Blau’s life has had more twists and turns than a mystery novel.  But Blau is sharing his life experiences in a book of a different sort: an autobiography.

Blau,  a Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor in the Humanities at the UW and a renowned pioneer in experimental theater, first envisioned a career as an engineer. But after studying chemical engineering at NYU, he made a bold move to theater, earning a scholarship to Stanford University’s graduate theater program. Disenchanted with the program, he switched to a PhD in literature, leading to a faculty position at San Francisco State University. Yet he couldn’t quite shake his interest in theater.

Herbert Blau
Herbert Blau. Photo by Dick Blau.

While continuing to teach literature, Blau co-founded The Actor’s Workshop, a San Francisco theater company. The company developed an international reputation in experimental theater, with productions that tested audiences and actors alike. A bold performance of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin State Prison also paved the way for prison theater programs.

Those formative years of Blau’s career are explored in As If: An Autobiography (Volume 1), published by University of Michigan Press in July 2011. The rest of Blau’s six-decade career will have to wait until volume two, which will likely cover his controversial stint as co-director of the Repertory Theater of  Lincoln Center, his leadership role as founding provost and dean of the theater program at the California Institute of the Arts, his years as artistic director of the experimental theater group KRAKEN, and his arrival at the UW in 2000, with appointments in the Departments of English and Comparative Literature and an adjunct appointment in the School of Drama.

Perspectives editor Nancy Joseph recently sat down with Blau to discuss his autobiography and the events it covers.

Why did you decide to write an autobiography?

I’ve lived a complicated life. Growing up in the neighborhood I did, wanting to be a ball player for much of that life, even while getting a degree in chemical engineering and then, by a series of accidents, ending up in the theater, and then not liking the theater all that much and going over to literature for a period of time, then teaching full-time and directing full-time, never sleeping…. There seemed be good reasons to write it. Also, my wife Kathy [Woodward, director of the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities] felt I should write an autobiography.

The book ends in the 1960s. Why divide the autobiography into two volumes?

That was my editor’s idea. After I read about 20 pages of the manuscript at a conference, people kept asking my editor when the book was coming out. So she told me, “You have to do a first volume.” I wasn’t too sure, but she said, “I’m going to come to Seattle, sit you down, and you’re going to do a first volume.” So I agreed to do a first volume.

"...Very early on I got very restive about 'What the hell are
we doing this for?' and 'If we do this play, shouldn't it
have some relationship to the previous play?' I always
wanted it to mean something."






Was it difficult to write something so personal?

All my essays have an autobiographical aspect to them. Though I’ve been a professor for years, my essays are not like ordinary scholarly essays by any means. There’s a very distinctive, self-reflective voice no matter what I’m doing, even when I’m writing about somebody else. So there’s always been an autobiographical instinct.
For the book, it helped that I have over 60 years of journals. I kept journals until just about the time I came to the UW. They don’t go all the way back to childhood, but they cover a lot of years.

Your description of growing up in Brooklyn, the son of a plumber, was very colorful. Readers might be surprised to learn that you never attended a single theater production growing up.

That’s true. I knew nothing about theater, except for a miserable experience dressed as a fairy in a grade school play.

Why did you choose to major in chemical engineering in college?

If you grow up in a Jewish family, they want you to be a doctor or a lawyer. As my grandmother said, because I was a good student at school, “Herbele, he could even be a rabbi.” I guess choosing engineering was some kind of a rebellion. I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer.

Herb Blau during an Actor's Workshop rehearsal, 1955
This 1955 photo captures a break during an Actor's Workshop
rehearsal, to celebrate Herb Blau's 29th birthday with ice cream
for cast and crew. Herb, at center, and Jules Irving, behind him,
both hold cones. Photographer unknown. From the collections
of Dick Blau and Priscilla Pointer.

If engineering was a rebellion, I can’t imagine what your parents thought about you studying theater.

Oh yes. When my parents learned I was going into the theater, it was something incomprehensible since they never went to the theater.

How did the switch from engineering to theater come about?

When I was at NYU, I was a very good engineering student and fully intended to go on with that. But I was also writing sports for the school newspaper and eventually became editor of the paper. The guy who was editor before me was going to Yale Drama School. He showed me his play and I thought, “Gee, I can do that.”
So I wrote two plays, one in verse and one a more realistic play like his. I showed them to him and he said, “These are pretty good. Why don’t you send them to Yale and Stanford?” I figured, what the hell. It seemed off the wall, but I sent them with applications. I figured if I got in I’d do it for a year and then go to MIT for engineering. Sure enough, both schools offered me fellowships.

Were you concerned about your lack of theater experience?

Very concerned. I still hadn’t attended a single play. I knew nothing.

How did you prepare?

I was good at engineering, so my senior year I just got through that easily and spent my time going to see every play I could see. I asked people, “What should I read?” They’d tell me to read Shakespeare, Chekov, read this, read that.  It was a crazy time.

production photo from Mother Courage
The Actor's Workshop performed Bertolt Brecht's
Mother Courage, the first production of the play
in the U.S. Photo by Phiz Mozesson.

But within five years, you were starting a theater company of your own with your friend Jules Irving, while teaching literature at San Francisco State.

We began as a studio.  There were about ten of us, meeting in a fairly small space. It was just meant to be a workshop where actors could work and develop their craft. And then we began to do productions for an invited audience.  The first production, we only did it once. We wouldn’t do it again. Nobody knew about it except the people we invited. After the play, I did a short talk about it for the audience.

The second production, we did it twice. I asked for contributions during the post-performance talk. We asked audience members to leave us some names so we could create a mailing list.

At first we just picked plays that fit the cast. We had X number of people and we wanted plays that fit the cast well—although they couldn’t be just any plays. They had to have some substance.  But very early on I got very restive about “What the hell are we doing this for?” and “If we do this play, shouldn’t it have some relationship to the previous play?” I always wanted it to mean something.  By that time, I’d done my dissertation on T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. How can you do that and then just be satisfied with this emptiness that you get in most plays that you see?

Even your earliest productions left some audience members scratching their heads.

Just before the third production, I wrote a letter to the audience explaining that the evolution of our theater was going to be an experiment and that they needed to be patient with whatever we did. Both the program notes I wrote and that letter were unlike what you see in theaters now. You’d never get a letter like that from a theater today.

It must have been difficult to pursue that experimentation while keeping the theater afloat financially.

There was always the issue of money. We were always bankrupt. Jules handled the business side of things. He and I were totally different, but we were very dependent on each other. He protected me and I protected him.  People would say, “All Jules does is worry about money.” I would say, “Get lost. If you had to do what he did.…”
Jules would say we need to do something from Broadway to make some money. I’d say fine, we can do Williams, Miller, and O’Neill. And I didn’t even like them too much. Every time things got really bad, he’d want to revive The Crucible. [laughs] I could take one look at him and say, “Oh no, we’re not going to revive that f***ing play again, are we?”  He could be hilariously funny. He’d get down on his knees and he’d beg me. We needed the money, you know? I’d say, “Alright, alright.”

The Actor's Workshop's space in San Francisco.
The Actor's Workshop's Elgin Street Theater in San Francisco.
"This was our second theater," says Blau, "where we
moved after the first year or so at the Divisadero St. loft."
Appropriately,The Crucible is advertised on the building's
exterior. Photographer unknown. From the collections of
Dick Blau and Priscilla Pointer.

How many times did you do The Crucible?

Oh, god knows. Every time we needed money. We used to tour it—and it was not a good production. But it was right in the middle of the McCarthy era, so it was a big hit.

You considered leaving the theater world several times during that period. Why were you so conflicted about theater?

At first I was totally enamored. I went to see plays on Broadway. I would see everything I could see. But after a while it began to be boring.  I began to realize that more interesting things were happening in the other arts, not in the theater.

It wasn’t until we began to do more continental dramas—plays from Beckett, Genet, Pinter, Dürrenmatt…all those people—that it began to be more interesting. And then we began to work with artists and musicians and do more unusual kinds of productions.

Beckett’s Waiting for Godot seemed to be a real turning point for The Actor’s Workshop.

Yeah, that was quite a turning point. Everybody resisted it, actors in the company refused to be in it, but somehow it touched a nerve of that particular period.

Was it a world premiere?

No. It had been produced in Paris. And it had been produced in Miami, where it was a total failure. And Burt Lahr was in it in New York. We had to wait to get the rights to it. It was not very successful in either place in the U.S.  Burt Lahr got an audience of some kind, but it wasn’t until the workshop that it became… it was a quite good production and it became a sort of sensation in San Francisco. It’s still legendary because we then took it to San Quentin [State Prison]. To this day, I’m invited all over the world because it began what now constitutes prison drama. There was no such thing as prison drama, and now it’s everywhere.

How did that connection with San Quentin come about?

By that time, The Actor’s Workshop had an advisory board. One of the board members, a judge, told us the warden would like us to take something to the prison. We first proposed a play of mine, but it had women in it. At that time, you couldn’t take women into the prison. We happened to have done Waiting for Godot, so we proposed doing that.

Check presentation to support European trip to perform Waiting for Godot
Representatives from San Quentin Prison (center, without suits)
present a check to The Actor's Workshop's Alan Mandell,
Herbert Blau, and Jules Irving (from left). "The Workshop had been
invited to perform at the Brussels World's Fair," explains Blau,
"but the State Department didn't provide all the funds, so we had
to raise some. And because we'd done Waiting for Godot at
the prison and it had considerable effect there, the inmates
somehow made a contribution." Photographer unknown.
From the collections of Dick Blau and Priscilla Pointer.

It seems a bit of a stretch for a prison audience.

There was an argument between me and the prison psychiatrist who thought it would be too fraught for the inmates—something they couldn’t quite take. We argued in front of the warden. The warden tapped me on the chest and said, “He seems like a nice guy. Let him do it.”

It was performed at the end of a mess hall where they built a stage. About 1,400 inmates watched the production. They recognized something of waiting. It meant something to them, that experience of doing nothing. The San Quentin newspaper the next morning was full of this production.

Now when people perform Waiting for Godot, everyone thinks it’s funny. Everybody plays it for laughs. I can’t stand most of the productions I see. But it was different then.  People didn’t quite know what to think about it. I liked that.  I often say to my students, “When I know what I think, I couldn’t care less. It’s when I don’t know what I think, when I’m utterly baffled, that I really like it because that’s when I have to keep thinking. It keeps the mind going.”

You practice what you preach about keeping the mind going. At age 85, you still teach and publish.

I do keep busy. The same month my autobiography came out, another book of mine, Reality Principles: From the Absurd to the Virtual, was published as well.  Now I’m working on an art book—a compilation of program notes from Actor’s Workshop productions—at the request of my publisher. And I’m still teaching. This fall quarter will be my 62nd year of teaching, not counting graduate school. And until recently I was supervising more dissertations than anybody in the humanities at the UW. 

With all the projects on your plate, do you have any idea when the second volume of your autobiography will come out?

Well, I have to finish the program note book first, and probably some other essays. And Kathy insists we ought to take a vacation now and then. So, maybe for my 90th birthday.

Return to Table of Contents, September 2011 issue