Betty Bernhard

Professor, filmmaker, world traveler

Longtime Claremont resident Betty Bernhard, who taught in the theatre department at Pomona College since 1984, died March 20 in 2015 of brain cancer. She was 74.

Born in Minnesota and raised in Michigan, Ms. Bernhard received her Bachelor’s from Western Michigan University. From there, she joined the USO in Greenland, performing for the troops and getting her first taste of a travel bug that was to set the path for the rest of her life. She went on to live in England and Switzerland for many years teaching English and diction while she enjoyed acting in local theatre.

While working on her PhD at the University of Oregon, Ms. Bernhard created the very first university co-op daycare in the US, which her daughter attended. Her first position as a theatre professor was at Reed College in Portland, where she directed numerous plays and musicals as well as opera for the Eugene Opera Company. Her home was always full of artists and scientists—her late husband was a molecular biology professor and pianist—from around the world, and is still a living memento to her many decades abroad.

Ms. Bernhard, her husband and daughter lived in Israel and Europe off and on. Her favorite country was India—she and her family initially traveled to India to visit theatre friends in 1989 and returned almost annually thereafter.

She received three Fulbright Awards to teach acting and direct plays, and also completed three internationally-renowned documentaries relating to gender and politics of theatre in India: Out! Loud! a film about an LGBT community in Pune, India; In Search of Dignity: Sex Workers Theatre Against Social Injustice in India; and The Bhavai Folk Theatre of Gujarat, India. Out! Loud! received great press in The Times of India to celebrate International Women’s Day. She described her film as “a documentary that draws parallels between ancient and sacred Indian stories, such as the Puranas and the Mahabharata, wherein representations of homosexuality, bisexuality, lesbianism, transgender and transsexual activity are clearly described.”

Ms. Bernhard directed more than 30 full-length plays and musicals while at Pomona College, her most recent production, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), played with great success in March. Just this month, Ms. Bernhard was named a Founding Mother of Asian Theatre Scholarship by the Association of Asian Performance and will be posthumously awarded at their conference in Montreal.

Betty was a radical theatre artist, always pushing the boundaries of gender and race in her casting, always selecting challenging and exciting work and directed groundbreaking premieres of many upcoming artists. She was a strong woman, artist, teacher and mother who was not afraid of life and who’s motto was always “Why not?” As her family shared, Ms. Bernhard experienced enough in her lifetime to fill a thousand bucket lists.

She was diagnosed with brain cancer only one month prior to her death. She was blessed to have died peacefully in her home holding hands with her family. Ms. Bernhard is survived by her daughter Maria Bernhard, grandsons Rain Himebauch and Beckett Bernhard and her sister Deborah Russell.

A memorial service for Ms. Bernhard is planned for Saturday, May 9 at 3 p.m. at Pomona College Seaver Theatre, 300 E. Bonita Ave., Claremont.

A research grant for theater students will be set up in the near future, please contact the Pomona College Theatre Department to donate.  

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