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UC Irvine's 50 years features decades of drama

Sunday marks UC Irvine's 50th year of existence. It's also the 50th year that drama teacher Robert Cohen has been working there. 

Cohen is the founding chair of the university's vaunted drama department, and he shared memories of his five decades at UC Irvine with KPCC. He remembers when things were very different all those years ago -- for instance, the drama department at the time didn't even have its own theater. For Cohen, that didn't matter.

"I was an East Coast person who was in love with California," he told KPCC. Cohen actually applied for a pair of West Coast positions: One was at UC Berkeley, where he'd been an undergraduate, and the other was UC Irvine, which Cohen admitted he "knew nothing about," aside from Clayton Garrison being set to become the drama department chairman.

Cohen got offers for both, and on paper, Berkeley had a decisive advantage. According to Cohen, it was the top campus in the country, while UC Irvine wasn't even in existence. 

"So, I took Irvine," he said with a laugh. "The reason I did it was because I didn't want to work at a place where all the professors were my former professors while I was a student ... and I'd just be the whipping boy, probably. I really wanted to be at Irvine because I knew that I would be one of the only faculty members, and I could call my own shots."

That meant building a program from the ground up, one that Cohen envisioned since he stepped on campus. Today, he said that vision continues to be realized.

"We have one of the best drama programs in the country right now, and right from the start we had, for a department with very little background and very few faculty members, we were already doing wonderful things. I couldn't be happier," he said. 

The drama work at UC Irvine also had an effect on other communities, as Cohen's department also enjoyed fruitful relationships with the famed South Coast Repertory as well as the Mark Taper Forum. All of them helped to leave a lasting artistic footprint in Southern California, he said.

"When we started here, there was no professional theatre in all of Southern California with the exception of The Old Globe theater in San Diego," he said. "We were the theatre company in Orange County along with South Coast Rep, which was an amateur theatre at the time and their actors weren't even paid. Orange County is a county of very intelligent people, and we really had trouble filling our houses."

UC Irvine's very first production was 'The Night of the Iguana," a play from Tennessee Williams. As Cohen remembers, it was the first collegiate rendition of that play, and he had to cast actors from outside of the department to make the production go. At that time, in 1965, tickets went for $3.50 ($1.50 for students). By next year's production, however, UC Irvine was able to produce the play from a stable of its own drama students. The building process for the drama department was beginning -- not bad for a school that didn't exist earlier.

"Even at the time, I thought 'Well, I'll do it for two to three years and then I'll go to a really famous school," Cohen said. "But after five weeks, I knew this was the place for me."