Gerald Freedman, an acclaimed director of Broadway, Shakespeare in the Park, and regional theatre who spent the final third of his six-decade career as dean of the School of Drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, died on March 17. He was 92.
One thing that’s made me a lifelong lover of theatre is the way that it connects us and creates community. These days, as we all strive to find ways to maintain that community—to hold out, to hold on, to hold each other up—I am all the more cognizant of theatre’s power to do so. Few people have ever spent more hours fostering community than Gerald Freedman. His 62 years in the business amounted to more than a career; moment by moment, they were his chosen way of forging family. In March of this year, as theatres, acting schools, and rehearsal halls shut down across the United States, Gerald died peacefully from progressive kidney failure at the age of 92. For a time, due to the current pandemic, we theatre folk have lost the centers in which we build kinship, and we have forever lost a great leader of our congregation.
Gerald Freedman grew up in Lorain, Ohio. He had the good fortune to be the son of parents who supported and encouraged his many creative talents. As a child, he performed puppet shows for local schools in a portable theatre his father built for him, and, though he was a good Jewish boy, he once played Santa Claus in a Christmas play. Young Gerald’s main focus wasn’t theatre; it was painting. That all changed when he was cast as a butler in a play at Northwestern University by his director and teacher, Alvina Krause, who turned him on to theatre for life.
Upon moving to New York City as a young man, Gerald made ends meet singing at services in churches and temples. Soon he was making a living as a director on both coasts: in Hollywood, under contract for Columbia Pictures, and on Broadway, assisting Jerome Robbins, serving as assistant director for the original productions of Bells Are Ringing, West Side Story, and Gypsy.
One day in New York, Gerald saw a Shakespeare production he thought he could have done a better job directing, and he wrote the producer to tell him so. That producer’s name was Joseph Papp. Papp liked Freedman’s moxie, and liked his prodigious talent even more. Gerald went on to become artistic director of Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival (now known as the Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park), and direct many classic and new works for Papp, including the world premiere of the musical Hair as the inaugural production of the Public Theater.
Over the years, Gerald directed 15 Broadway productions in addition to musicals, plays, and operas in New York, across the country, and around the world. Gerald was lured back to his home state of Ohio by Great Lakes Theater in 1985, where he served as artistic director until 1997. Highlights from his years there include his adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which has been presented annually for 31 years and counting, Olympia Dukakis as Mother Courage, Ruby Dee in the world premiere of Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders, and Hal Holbrook in the roles of Willy Loman, Uncle Vanya, and King Lear.
Throughout his directing career, Gerald spent time teaching at Northwestern, Yale, and Juilliard, where he trained young actors like Kevin Kline, Mandy Patinkin, Christine Baranski, and Patti LuPone. As he grew older, he felt the call to focus more fully on nurturing new generations of artists. As he once reflected, “I’ve got everything I want. I want to give more.”
In 1991 Gerald became dean of the School of Drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA). Under his leadership, the program grew to become one of the most highly regarded conservatories in the United States. Among the many successful actors he trained there over 21 years are Anna Camp, Dane DeHaan, Brett Gelman, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Jake Lacy, Jenn Lyon, Billy Magnussen, Jonathan Majors, and Missi Pyle, as well as casting director Tiffany Little Canfield and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch.
I first met Gerald in the drama studios of UNCSA in 2002 as a high school senior on the wait list for the university’s college program. During my campus visit, I was asked to do my audition monologues again—this time for Gerald himself—and to please try to stop acting so much. When I finished, Gerald said, “Come sit down and talk to me. Why are you so passionate about the theatre? What’s in it for you?” What followed was a conversation that would change my life. I was accepted into the program the following day.
In my first years at UNCSA, Gerald was my dean, intimidating and mysterious. In my third year, he became my teacher, then my mentor, and then my friend. Finally, years after I graduated, he became my collaborator on The School of Doing, a book about his life and lessons, which was published in 2017 after four and a half years of work.
Gerald’s impact on me is immeasurable. To this day, he is the person whose wisdom I hear most often in my head, and hold closest in my heart. Gerald taught me truths about theatre that I believe apply every bit as much to life itself. Here are a select few:
- The goal is not the answer. The goal is to keep asking questions that lead to ongoing discovery.
- Most of the time, people aren’t really listening. Learning to really listen is hard. When you are really listening, you are fully alive in the moment, and you draw people in.
- Whoever you are, your personal view of the world is inevitably narrow. When you work to remove your subjective opinions from the objective facts, you unlock limitless creative potential.
- Comedy is all about surprise!
- You are never finished. You are always in process.
- You are not defined by what you think or what you say. You are defined by what you do.
- Keep digging to find out what you want. What you really want. And then: Do it!
In 2011 Gerald suffered a series of strokes that ultimately necessitated his transition to dean emeritus. The strokes left him hindered by aphasia, but never robbed his communication of its potency. One day soon after his strokes, a speech therapist working with Gerald asked him to name some things one might find in a theatre. After a pause, the first answer he gave was, “The word.”
All around the world, as people are mourning and celebrating Gerald Freedman, they are also thinking of Robert Beseda. Robert and Gerald’s lives were intertwined for over 50 years. They first met at Juilliard, where Gerald was Robert’s teacher. Robert went on to serve as Gerald’s assistant in New York, then as his agent, and later as his assistant dean at UNCSA for 21 years. Finally, Robert served as Gerald’s chief caregiver for nine years, ensuring that Gerald had every comfort possible at every moment. These comforts included medical care, haircuts, weekly trips to the movies, visits with loved ones and devoted students, card games, fine dining, singing, and engaging in their vaudevillian/Beckett-esque comedy routines, which endured until the final days. In all my life, I have never witnessed a more epic display of loving devotion. Robert has never cared to acknowledge this in words, but it was evident in everything he did.
Robert and Gerald formed their bond through the theatre. As Gerald said, “We come together in the theatre, and we create a family. Whether we like it or not, we become a family.” Gerald’s family can be counted in the thousands. Even after his death, that family is still expanding; Gerald’s love and lessons live on in the students who apply his work, the collaborators who continue his traditions, and the teachers who carry his torch. Theatre has the power to connect us and create community. However the future unfolds, those sacred bonds will endure, as will the family of Freedman.
Isaac Klein is a director and writer of plays and musicals and author of The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman.