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Originally published Monday, May 6, 2013 at 4:55 PM

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Influential thinker Herbert Blau changed theater landscape

Herbert Blau, an influential Seattle theater director, scholar and UW professor, is dead at age 87.

Seattle Times theater critic

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Herbert Blau, a major force in the development of modern American drama, died at his home in Seattle on Friday, his 87th birthday. The cause was cancer.

Professor Blau was an influential theater director, author and scholar.

At the University of Washington, he held several posts: professor emeritus of English and comparative literature, adjunct professor in the School of Drama and the Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor Emeritus of the Humanities. He retired from teaching in 2012.

“Herb wore so many hats,” noted his former colleague Barry Witham, professor emeritus of drama at UW. “He was a theoretician, an author, a leader in postmodern critical theory. He was a real man of the theater, who worked in the theater. He was also a very direct, honest and charming person. Students loved him, and so did his colleagues.”

The author of a dozen books (including the influential polemic, “The Impossible Theater: A Manifesto,” and the recently published first volume of his autobiography, “As If”), the Brooklyn-born professor was a transformational figure who introduced new, sometimes controversial ideas and new energy into the American regional-theater landscape.

He made his first major impact on the U.S. theater scene in the 1950s, as co-founder of the daring troupe The San Francisco Actor’s Workshop.

With fellow San Francisco State College professor Jules Irving, Mr. Blau diverted from the standard commercial stage repertoire of the time and created a large ensemble of artists who produced a boundary-pushing array of sophisticated experimental plays by such European authors as Harold Pinter, Jean Genet and Bertolt Brecht, and applied offbeat approaches to classic works.

In a radical move for the time, they also famously staged Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” for inmates at the San Quentin maximum-security prison in 1957.

“Everything I love about theater, I first encountered at The Workshop: Passion, debate, generosity, daring, beauty, artistic honesty, mad humor, community, political engagement and, most importantly for me, the example of a true company of actors,” commented Daniel Sullivan (a member of the Workshop, and later artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre), on a historical website in honor of the now-defunct company.

Though touted by critics, the Workshop struggled financially and, in 1965, he and Irving left San Francisco to create a resident company at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, in New York’s Lincoln Center. His tenure at the Beaumont, which was dedicated to making “theater of loud involvement” with a political and experimental bent, was stormy and brief.

He moved on to become the first provost of the California Institute of the Arts, involved in designing an unorthodox cross-disciplinary educational model for the school. Later he taught at Oberlin College, where he formed the performance troupe KRAKEN, which counted among its members Sharon Ott, another future artistic director of the Seattle Rep.

Professor Blau, who earned a doctorate in English from Stanford University, also held teaching positions at the University of Maryland and at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, before coming in 2000 to UW, where he spent the remainder of his academic career. His wife, Kathleen Woodward, also a scholar and educator, is the director of the Simpson Center for the Humanities at UW.

According to Gary Handwerk, chairman of the UW English Department, Professor Blau was “an extraordinarily dedicated and passionate teacher ... and worked with an astonishing number of graduate students. He did an exceptional job of making each of them feel that their projects mattered.”

Among Blau’s many honors were a Guggenheim Fellowship, the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and an honorary doctorate from the California Institute of the Arts. His latest book, “Programming Theater History,” has just been released by Routledge Press.

Professor Blau is survived by two sons and a daughter from his marriage to Beatrice Manley; and a daughter from his marriage to Woodward, his second wife; and also by seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service will be announced later.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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