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Stages of life at and out of the Colleges

by John Pixley

Usually, when I buy a ticket, I feel happy. I feel excited. I feel lucky and privileged that I get to see the performance. I might feel relieved that I managed to snag the ticket. I don’t usually feel sad, like I want to weep.

But it was different a few weeks ago when I went to Pomona College to buy a ticket for the year-end dance concert there. It was different, because when I was at the box office window, I saw Betty Bernhard. That is, I saw her name. It was on one of the production posters that line the back of the box office. “Directed by Betty Bernhard.” Actually, it was on a number of the posters, but seeing one was enough to make me feel like weeping.

I guess it really hit me then: There will be no more new production posters, at Pomona College or anywhere else, with her name on it.

It was hard enough when I went to see a production at Seaver Theater last month and saw a notice in the program honoring her. Not only was such a notice unusual, it said that she “is survived by” a daughter and two grandchildren and a sister. It didn’t make sense that Betty Bernhard had died. I had just seen a wonderful production of Sarah Ruhl’s sophisticated, Victorian-era sex comedy, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), directed by her a month earlier. A friend who I saw there had mentioned the possibility of working on a project with her.

Then, a week later, there was an obituary in the COURIER. It was there that I read that she succumbed to brain cancer, a month after being diagnosed with it. Was she still working on the play when she was sick, perhaps knowing she was dying? I wondered. 

I later learned that she had to stop working not long after rehearsals began but not before she had chosen the cast and set the scene, so to speak. This is but more evidence of “her strength and sense of purpose, her good will and generosity of spirit and her passionate love for the art form” that the program notice mentioned.  It certainly was evident in all her work directing plays at Pomona College, where she joined the theater department in 1984. She was clearly passionate about theater and helping Claremont Colleges students develop their skills, as she directed over 30 full-length plays and musicals, including a stunning, remarkably crisp Hamlet and some of which reflected her deep interest in Indian Sanskrit theater.

It was not only at Pomona College and in the theater where Betty Bernhard worked during these years. A year and a half ago, I wrote about seeing a documentary film that she made, Out! Loud!, about people in the gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender community in India performing a play. She also made other documentary films in India about sex workers doing theater work and women theater artists. 

As a Fullbright Scholar in India in 1993 and 2004, she directed three full-length plays there and, last month, she was named a Founding Mother of Asian Theater Scholarship by the Association of Asian Performance. Championing theater by, for and about women, minorities and other under-represented group was key in this life’s work.

The sudden loss of this work and the riches it brought is indeed sad. But, as those posters with her name on them also show, Betty Bernhard’s work and that still being done by her colleagues is at least as inspiring, leaving us with hope and things to look forward to.

That much was clear at a panel discussion held in Betty Bernhard’s memory at Seaver Theater on a recent Friday afternoon. The presentation was put on by Claremont in Entertainment and Media, a group of graduates from the Claremont Colleges who are working in the entertainment field.

Who knew there was this alumni group made up of actors, producers, writers, studio executives, agents, casting directors and other professionals? I didn’t, and I was pretty excited to find out about it.

The panel alone was exciting enough. I didn’t find out about it until that afternoon, and what drew me—clearly, the big draw—was Richard Chamberlain, “the king of the miniseries,” who I learned long ago was a graduate of Pomona College. Others on the panel included Matt Baer, a Pitzer College graduate who produced last year’s Unbroken and the recently released Maggie, and Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, a Scripps College graduate who is now board president of the Levitt Pavilions. (This organization puts on free summer concerts, including in Pasadena and Los Angeles, as well as three a year at Scripps College.)

Perhaps the most intriguing member on the panel was Gregory Rae, a computer science major at Harvey Mudd College, who ended up being a two-time Tony Award-winning producer whose credits include The Normal Heart and Clybourne Park, as well being a gay activist. As I said, who knew?

It was fun hearing how these people were influenced by their days in Claremont. For example, Mr. Chamberlain said he always loved movies but was shy and awkward until encouraged to get on the stage at Pomona and then, before he knew it, was not only working as an actor but was famous, starring in Dr. Kildare not long after graduating. Mr. Rae shared that being a RA in the dorm was not unlike putting together a Broadway show.  

Even more remarkable is that I didn’t know about this panel discussion until earlier that afternoon when I attended another presentation at Seaver Theater. This one featured Mary Schmich, a Pomona College graduate who wrote the Brenda Starr comic strip for 25 years and is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, famous for her “Wear Sunscreen” column. As she mentioned in answering questions, she doesn’t know and isn’t too concerned about how the column ended up being attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and she wrote it in an afternoon before deadline when she couldn’t think of what to write about.

I wished I had known that earlier in the day in Seaver Theater, James Turrell, the world-renowned artist who does fascinating work with light and is a Pomona College graduate, was in conversation with Ed Krupp, a fellow alum who is the charismatic director of the Griffith Observatory.

This is all quite a bounty, quite a legacy, among many such as the Colleges close out another year and also say goodbye to a gifted teacher, artist and mentor. 

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