In 1965, Robert Cohen, a young dramatist intent on gaining a tenured professorship, faced a choice between offers from UC Berkeley or the fledgling UC Irvine, sprouting amid cow pastures and orange groves.
He chose the latter. “It was close to the beach,” recalled Cohen.
Habitually looking forward rather than back, the UCI community did that for the Laguna Beach resident Sunday when he and Lorna, his wife of 43 years, were awarded the third Claire Trevor Commemorative Star, to be placed at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts.
The first star honored Donald McKayle, a choreographer who transcended racial barriers in modern dance during the 1950s and ‘60s. The second went to Joan and Don Beal, avid arts supporters and namesake of the Beal Center for Art and Technology.
The third star goes to the Cohens, who met in 1965 when Lorna was one of Robert’s drama students. They got together in 1971 when she returned to UCI to earn a teaching credential and he invited her to a bassoon concert. “We held hands that entire evening,” recalled Lorna.
Over 25-years as the drama department’s founding chairman, Cohen created its first graduate program. Many of its alumni and colleagues were present Sunday and performed songs and skits commemorating the professor emeritus’ illustrious career. “Robert Cohen was a humanist at heart who brought his experiences back to the classroom. Altogether, he directed 50 shows here,” said Eli Simon, an acting professor and artistic director of UCI’s New Swan Shakespeare Festival. “Robert taught me to stay curious, to explore choices,” he said.
James Calleri, who earned his master’s in fine art from UCI in 1990, now is a casting director and drama teacher at Columbia University. He served as master of ceremonies. “Robert was an imposing figure; he terrified most of his students and I was often physically sick before class, but all we wanted was to do the very best for him we possibly could,” he recalled.
Julie Aber initially majored in French, until lured into the theater by Cohen to serve as an assistant stage manager. She went on to graduate school at Yale. “Robert wrote letters for me and I got in,” she recalled. She also credits him for supporting her pursuit of a male-dominated career. “Robert’s enthusiasm for the art and the desire to pass that on, even outside the classroom, brought people to the theater. And then he accepted me as a colleague,” she recalled.