Gerald Freedman, 92, stage director and Dean Emeritus of the School of Drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, passed away peacefully from natural causes at his home in Winston Salem on March 17, 2020. Freedman first came to UNCSA when he was recruited by Chancellor Alex Ewing, and served as Dean from 1991 to 2012, directing 34 on-campus productions, as well as the all-school musicals Brigadoon and West Side Story at The Stevens Center. He suffered a series of strokes in February 2011 shortly before he was to begin rehearsals for the all-school production of Oklahoma! In 1992 he established the BFA Directing Program. Under Freedman’s guidance, the School of Drama became one of the highest ranked undergraduate and high school acting conservatories in the nation. Freedman was born in Lorain, Ohio on June 25, 1927, to Dr. Barnie and Fannie Sepsenwol Freedman, both immigrants from Czarist Russia. As a child he spent Saturday mornings in art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and later studied on a painting scholarship at the Cleveland Institute of Art. His earliest stage training came as a member of the Curtain Players at the Cleveland Play House. He played the piano and was a tenor soloist with the Lorain High School and Agudath B’nai Israel Synagogue choirs. After graduating from Lorain High School he earned his BS and MA (summa cum laude) from Northwestern University under the tutelage of legendary drama teacher Alvina Krause. He later studied acting and directing in NYC with Harold Clurman, Bobby Lewis and Lee Strasberg; classical voice with Emmy Joseph; Japanese classical arts at the Oomoto School of Traditional Japanese Arts, Kameoka, Japan; and Shakespeare text with Ronald Watkins OBE in London. He began his professional career in New York City initially as a scenic designer/painter, night club singer, pianist, and cantor. In 1952 a Hollywood talent scout saw his production of As You Like It at Equity Library Theatre in NYC, and offered him a contract with Columbia Pictures, where he was dialogue director on numerous films, including Queen Bee with Joan Crawford; Bad For Each Other with Charlton Heston and Mildred Dunnock (Dunnock later introduced Freedman to Elia Kazan at The Actors Studio, where he was invited to participate in the Playwrights/Directors Unit); Edward Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny with Humphrey Bogart, produced by Stanley Kramer; and George Cukor’s It Should Happen To You with Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday. Freedman and Holliday became close friends, and at her urging he returned to New York in 1956 to assist director/choreographer Jerome Robbins on the original Broadway production of Bells Are Ringing. He then assisted Robbins on two groundbreaking productions, directing book scenes for the original Broadway productions of West Side Story in 1957, and Gypsy starring Ethel Merman in 1959. He directed the New York City Center revival of West Side Story in 1964, and co-directed the 1980 Broadway revival with Robbins. Freedman also collaborated with Robbins on his ultimately uncompleted autobiographical The Poppa Piece. Freedman’s early television directorial career began in the 1950’s with NBC’s Oldsmobile Music Theatre; Robert Montgomery Presents; CBS’s The DuPont Show of the Month; episodes of Rin Tin Tin and Blondie; later the musical I’m Getting Married with Ann Bancroft and Dick Shawn for ABC; and the critically acclaimed PBS Antigone with Genevieve Bujold, Fritz Weaver, and Stacy Keach. Freedman also directed the pilot for the PBS series The Adams Chronicles. In 1960, Freedman directed his first production in Central Park for The New York Shakespeare Festival: The Taming of the Shrew, winning him an Obie Award. Robert Brustein wrote in The New Republic: “The production’s boisterous, irreverent, indigenous approach to a familiar classic instantly delivered us from years of enslavement to British models.” Thus began Freedman’s long association with Joseph Papp, Bernard Gersten and The New York Shakespeare Festival, where Freedman developed a distinctly American approach to Shakespeare, often in collaboration with designers Ming Cho Lee (sets), Theoni Aldredge (costumes), Martin Aronstein (lighting) and John Morris (composer/musical director). Freedman directed the world premiere of the rock musical Hair as the inaugural production of The Public Theater in 1967, and served as Artistic Director from 1967 to 1971. Among his productions for The Public / New York Shakespeare Festival were Electra with Lee Grant and Olympia Dukakis; Peer Gynt with Stacy Keach, Judy Collins, Estelle Parsons and Olympia Dukakis; Hamlet with Stacy Keach, James Earl Jones, Colleen Dewhurst and Sam Waterston; and Much Ado About Nothing with Kevin Kline and Blythe Danner. During Papp’s regime at Lincoln Center, Freedman directed Julie Harris and Charles Durning in The Au Pair Man, and Ruth Gordon and Lynn Redgrave in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. He directed 26 productions for Papp between 1960 and 1989.
Freedman’s fifteen Broadway directorial credits include Dietz and Schwartz’s The Gay Life with Barbara Cook; Bock and Harnick’s Man in the Moon with Bil and Cora Baird’s Marionettes; A Time for Singing, his musical adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley co-written with composer John Morris; King Lear at Lincoln Center with Lee J. Cobb; The Incomparable Max with Richard Kiley; Arthur Miller’s The Creation of the World and Other Business with Zoe Caldwell and George Grizzard; Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman’s The Robber Bridegroom (first with The Acting Company featuring Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline, and a year later with Barry Bostwick in the title role); Jerry Herman’s The Grand Tour with Joel Grey; and The School for Scandal with Tony Randall for the National Actors Theatre. Off Broadway productions include the first revival of On the Town with Harold Lang and Pat Carroll; Molly Kazan’s Rosemary and The Alligators with Jo Van Fleet, Piper Laurie and William Daniels; Arthur Kopit’s The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis and Sing to Me Through Open Windows; the politically explosive Macbird!; Elinor Jones’ Colette with Zoe Caldwell and Mildred Dunnock, produced by Cheryl Crawford, songs by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt; King Lear with Hal Holbrook, and The Crucible, both for the Roundabout Theatre. Freedman directed at regional theaters across the country, including The San Diego Old Globe, The Mark Taper Forum, Hartford Stage, Yale Rep, Shakespeare Theatre of DC, Westport Country Playhouse, and Williamstown Theatre Festival, where he notably directed former student Mandy Patinkin in An Enemy of the People. He was Co-Artistic Director of The Acting Company with John Houseman from 1974 to 1977, and Artistic Director of Stratford, Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Theatre from 1978 to 1979. Internationally, Freedman directed in London’s West End, Paris, Tel Aviv, Adelaide (Australia), Istanbul, and was the first American to direct at London’s Shakespeare’s Globe in 2000 (Richard Brome’s The Antipodes c. 1638). He directed 29 of Shakespeare’s plays in over 50 productions between 1952 and 2011.
During his tenure as Artistic Director of Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater (1985-1997), Freedman directed 28 productions, including Olympia Dukakis as Mother Courage; Hal Holbrook as Uncle Vanya, King Lear, and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman opposite Elizabeth Franz as Linda; and the world premiere of Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders with Ruby Dee. He invited the indefatigable director “Mr.” George Abbott to Cleveland to direct his 1926 play Broadway when he was 100 years old, one of the great honors of Freedman’s career. His Great Lakes Theater production of Love’s Labour’s Lost transferred to The Public Theater as part of Papp’s Shakespeare Marathon.
A noted opera director, his world premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci for The Washington Opera was part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts in 1971. Freedman directed many productions for the New York City and San Francisco Operas, working with impresarios Kurt Herbert Adler, Julius Rudel, and Beverly Sills. At San Francisco Opera he notably directed the world premiere of Andrew Imbrie’s Angle of Repose based on Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer winning novel, conducted by former UNCSA Chancellor John Mauceri; Kata’ Kabanova’ with Anja Silja, conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi; and his innovative staging of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion received national acclaim. For NYC Opera, he directed Beverly Sills as Adele in Die Fledermaus, popular productions of Broadway musicals including Brigadoon and South Pacific, as well as other classical operas. For the Juilliard American Opera Center, he directed the original version of Richard Strauss’s Ariandne auf Naxos incorporating Moliere’s play Le Bourgesois Gentilhomme, and Janacek’s Jenufa with sets designed by internationally influential scenographer Josef Svoboda. He directed life-long friend Jean Stapleton in Lee Hoiby’s one-act operas The Italian Lesson and Bon Appetit for The Baltimore Opera, the later based on an episode of Julia Child’s The French Chef. In 2005 he directed former student Patti LuPone in Marc Blitzstein’s Regina at The Kennedy Center. Some will remember Freedman sang the role of Sir Joseph Porter in UNCSA’s 1992 School of Music production of H.M.S. Pinafore at The Stevens Center, conducted by Norman Johnson. Prior to coming to UNCSA Freedman taught at Yale University, The Juilliard School, and guest directed at SUNY Purchase and Northwestern University, as well as lecturing and teaching across the nation. He served on the board and was voted a Lifetime Member of the Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers, served on the board of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, and was inducted into the College of Fellows of American Theatre. He was a recipient of Northwestern University’s President’s Medallion, the Cleveland Arts Prize for Distinguished Service to the Arts, and the North Carolina Award in the Fine Arts (the most prestigious civilian honor given to “someone whose contribution to NC is truly enduring and significant”). In 2009 Freedman was honored with a UNCSA gala featuring Olympia Dukakis, Mandy Patinkin, and alumna Missi Pyle, proceeds establishing the Gerald Freedman Endowed Professorship. The Proscenium Thrust Theatre at UNCSA’s Alex Ewing Performance Place was renamed The Gerald Freedman Theatre in 2012 at a celebration with tributes from alumni Dane DeHaan, Anna Wood, and Preston Lane. Alumnus Isaac Klein’s book The School of Doing: Lessons from theater master Gerald Freedman, about his process as a director and philosophy of actor training, was published in Nov. 2017. Gerald Freedman is preceded in death by his parents as well as his brother, Dr. Robert Freedman. He is survived by cousin “sister” Lois Spector, husband Bill and son Bobby, Natalie Bernard, Shlom Sepsenwol and many other beloved cousins, sister-in-law Lois Freedman, nephew David Freedman (Gwyneth Anne), nieces Lisa Keating (Phil Odenweller) and Carol Fine (Rick), and four grandnieces: Jessica and Becca Keating, and Jennifer and Sarah Fine. Eternal gratitude to his devoted caregiving staff “Team Freedman”: Lee Jones, Deejay Jones, Wanda Tilley, Amy Tremper, and Lynn Tilley. It would be impossible to adequately thank all the wonderful friends who were so generous and helpful during the last years of his life, but special recognition must be given to Betsy Whaling, Claire Christopher, Mary Jane and Jack Degnan, Lynn Eisenberg, Anne Curlett, Catherine Jones, Greg Walter, Mollie Murray and Bob Francesconi, Cigdem Onat, Isaac Klein, “artistic daughter” Ashley Gates Jansen, and best friend and former Assistant Dean Robert Beseda. The Boyer and Cool Funeral Home in Lorain, Ohio has been entrusted with arrangements and burial is at Salem Jewish Cemetery, Sheffield Township, Ohio. Arrangements in Ohio have not been completed. There are no immediate plans for a service in Winston-Salem. Memorial donations may be made in his honor to the UNCSA Foundation for The Gerald Freedman Excellence Endowed Fund, by mail at 1533 S. Main Street, Winston-Salem, NC 27127, or online at uncsa.edu/freedman.
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