This is an archived article.

May 29, 2008

After an honorary degree, Herbert Blau reviews a busy career

When Herbert Blau received an honorary degree recently, the occasion was particularly poignant. He was returning to the California Institute of the Arts, where he was the founding provost and dean of the theater program 40 years ago.


Blau, who is currently the Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor in the Humanities at the UW, remembers those days well. He had been co-founder of the famed Actors Workshop in San Francisco, and had gone to New York in 1965 to run the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center with his co-director Jules Irving, only to leave in controversy three years later.


“I was hanging around New York trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life,” Blau said.


Enter Robert Corrigan, dean of New York University’s School of the Arts. “He and I were out one night having dinner in the village and we went back to his place,” Blau recalled. “He turned to me and said, ‘How would you like to work for the Disneys?’ He had just been appointed president of Cal Arts [as California Institute of the Arts is commonly known] and he wanted me to head the School of Theater.”


Blau immediately wanted to know who else would be involved. The school was being financed largely through a bequest from Walt Disney’s will, and he was concerned about the influence of the conservative family.


“Corrigan said, ‘Why don’t you pick the people you want? You can be the provost too,’” Blau said.


So he did pick them — people the current Cal Arts Web page calls “some of the most innovative and unorthodox voices in the arts.” The founding faculty included people such as artists Allan Kaprow and Nam June Paik; choreographer Bella Lewitzky; composers Mel Powell and Morton Subotnick; designers Peter and Sheila DeBretteville; film director Alexander MacKendrick; and animation artist Jules Engel.


1968 was a heady time to be involved in the arts, especially at Cal Arts, but it almost didn’t happen for Blau. The day he arrived to be interviewed by the board of directors, Corrigan stopped by his hotel room. The board, he reported, had received a letter from a prominent businessman who knew Blau from his days in San Francisco. He had written, “Be careful of this man [Blau]. He’s controversial.”


Blau was ready to give up and go back to New York, but Corrigan said, “Give me an hour.” He went off to talk to the chairman of the board, and returned to say, “It’s going to be all right.”


The chairman of the board was H.R. Haldeman, later chief of staff for President Richard Nixon.


“We got on famously,” Blau said of Haldeman. “When he was chosen to run Nixon’s campaign, he called and jokingly asked me if I wanted him to resign from the board. I said, ‘Bob, be my guest. You know I’m not going to vote for him, but if he gets elected I want a lot of money from Washington.’”


Blau and Corrigan guided Cal Arts through its tumultuous first three years. Blau, according to the Web page, took the lead in designing “a radical educational program that favored independent artistic work over rigid curricula, collegial relationships among a diverse community of artists over hierarchies of teacher and student, and continuous interaction and cross-pollination among the different branches of the arts over the self-containment of each discipline.”


“It was like a cauldron; it summed up everything that went on in the 60s,” Blau said of Cal Arts during that time. “It was more imaginative than anywhere.”


For example, two art school faculty members, Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago, co-founded a Feminist Art Program at Cal Arts. “They came to me and wanted money for a project called Womanhouse,” Blau said. “So I gave it to them.”


For Womanhouse, Shapiro and Chicago rented an old Hollywood mansion and altered its interior through decor and set-pieces to “search out and reveal the female experience.”


While guiding the overall vision of the school, Blau was simultaneously moving forward with his own work. He founded a theater company called KRAKEN, drawing many of its members from the Cal Arts theater school. The company did innovative work, such as a production called The Seeds of Atreus, based on The Oresteia. In it, one actor’s nervous system was painted on his body, and as the play progressed, he perspired so much that the outline became like an abstract painting.


Blau’s work with KRAKEN continued until 1981, but alas, he left Cal Arts long before that. People at the school were always testing the conservative Disneys, he explained, and as provost, he was in the middle. Just as at Lincoln Center, he left in controversy. He has continued to teach and write since then, but when KRAKEN disbanded he gave up directing.


Now 82, Blau doesn’t need to teach, but clearly is too full of energy to give it up. “It still amazes me that they pay me fairly well to teach any books I want to talk about,” he said. He’s also supervising a dozen dissertations and sits on many other doctoral committees.


And he writes. He’s completing another book of essays and is working on his autobiography — which is nearing 500 pages though he’s still describing his 30s. Not surprisingly, the publisher wants to go ahead with a first volume of the work.


As for Cal Arts, Blau said it was spectacular going back to participate in the graduation and receive his honorary degree. “I’m very proud of the work I did there with students,” he said. “I’d been in the theater for 20 years by the time I went there, and I was able to start from ground zero and do something new. Many of those students have gone on to fine careers. And Cal Arts is still one of the two or three best art schools in the country.”


And indeed, at the graduation ceremony, what the institution asked him to talk about was the “original vision.”