Theater Expert Robert Cohen’s 4 Tips for Getting Onstage

Photo Source: Laurencine Lot

Robert Cohen is a university professor, theater director, playwright, and drama critic who has written 20 books on the art of theater and acting.

When did your love for theater begin?
I started going to the theater when I was 6 or 7. My parents had to drag me to “Oklahoma!,” but the moment I saw it, I thought, Wow, and from then on, it was duck soup. I just went all the time, any time they would take me—I loved going. For a long time, it never occurred to me to be working in it.

Why did you want to write an autobiography?
I began writing this for my children, but I realized how odd it was, the way I came into theater. I was going to be a law student. It wasn’t until I got into the hospital situation [written about in his book “Falling Into Theatre...And Finding Myself”] that I thought, What would I like to do? And I thought, I’ll be a professor, but of what? Of theater, of course! While I had been going to the theater, I had never taken a single class in drama.

How do you approach your career?
You don’t know what the future holds, and so you try everything. For example, in my play about Machiavelli, I decided to do a little bit of one of his plays within the play. I included about 20 lines from the play “Clizia” that he wrote, which I translated. I enjoyed translating it so much that I decided to translate the whole play. And it’s being published next month…. You have to look for things to do and read things that might interest you

What’s your view on “lucky breaks”?
You have to take advantage of your lucky breaks. One example is my meeting with Jerzy Grotowski. He was in New York, and a guy who I didn’t even know that well called and said, “Jerzy Grotowski wants to come out to California.” Well, I could have said, “Oh, that’s fine. We’ll see if we can get him here.” No, I flew to New York on my own expense and said, “I want to meet him. I’d love to have him, and I’m going to do everything I can to set up a whole schedule of lectures he can give around the state.” Jerzy and I ended up being pals for three years and running a great program, and I’ve been invited all kinds of places to talk about him and his work. And yet, I could have just passed off on it, or taken the easy road. I am a person who took advantage of every break I got. If there’s a lesson to be learned from me, it’s to be a go-getter.

What was your earliest lucky break?
My high school teacher says, “Well, we’ve got five more minutes left in class. I just heard about this playwright named Samuel Beckett. I haven’t read any of his things, but he seems like an interesting guy. Literature is changing these days.” That same afternoon, I got on the streetcar and I went downtown. I bought a copy of “Waiting for Godot,” and I read it on the way back. I mean, everybody else was in the class. Nobody else went down to do that.

What were your first steps to get into theater?
I just started hanging out at the theaters in San Francisco, and I would offer to work in the props room, and volunteer at the Actor’s Workshop, which was run by Herbert Blau at that time. I did plays at community theaters; sometimes I was paid. I did a couple of plays at Berkeley and I just dived into directing. When I got to Yale I said, “Everyone here is a drama major, and they’ve done everything. I just have to work harder than everybody.” And I think I did.

Inspired by this post? Check out more of our Inside Job columns!