Entertainment & Arts

Herbert Blau, theater director and former CalArts provost, dies at 87

Herbert Blau
Herbert Blau, the influential theater director and scholar, died on Friday at 87 at his home in Seattle. His career included a period as provost at the California Institute of Arts during the school’s early years.
(Steven A. Gunther)

Herbert Blau, a renowned and influential theater director who helped to shape the California Institute of the Arts during its early years, has died at 87. He died at his home in Seattle on Friday following a battle with cancer, according to reports.

As a stage director, Blau worked with companies around the country. He favored experimental drama and was instrumental in introducing the plays of Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht to a wider American audience. 

Blau was most closely associated with San Francisco’s the Actor’s Workshop, which he founded with Jules Irving in 1952. The company’s production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in 1957 was critically acclaimed.

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The company famously produced the play for inmates at San Quentin prison the same year.

Blau’s 1964 book “The Impossible Theater: A Manifesto” was widely read by theater artists, and he later became a co-head of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York.

Blau worked at CalArts during a formative period in the school’s existence. He served as provost from 1970 to 1971 when the school first opened its doors to students. He also served as dean of the theater and dance school from 1970 to 1972. In 2008, he received an honorary doctorate degree from the school.

CalArts said on its website that Blau took the lead in designing “a radical educational model” that favored independent artistic work over traditional curricula and less rigid relationships between faculty and students.


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The school also credited Blau and its then-President Robert W. Corrigan for hiring a prestigious and unconventional roster of instructors that included artists John Baldessari, Nam June Paik and Alan Kaprow; musician Ravi Shankar; and animation artist Jules Engel.

Blau went on to other theater companies and academic posts. He most recently served as a professor at the University of Washington.

Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Blau grew up in a blue-collar family with little cultural interest. He recounted his upbringing in his recently published autobiography, “As If.” His other books include “Reality Principles,” a compilation of essays on drama; “The Audience,” a historical survey of theater; and “The Eye of Prey: Subversions of the Postmodern,” a theoretical inquiry into the performing arts.

He is survived by his wife, Kathleen, and by four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, according to reports.


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