by Bonnie Mager, OLLI member
Open the Chronicle’s Datebook section and you will very likely find an article by Robert Hurwitt, the paper’s theater critic. He’s been writing for the paper for the past nine years, and had years of writing for the East Bay Express, the Berkeley Barb, and the Examiner before joining the Chronicle’s staff. His articles and criticisms are deftly and eloquently written, giving an accessible vocabulary to the experience of theater. Last week his piece on ACT’s current play, “Rich and Famous”, provided this reporter with some thoughtful insights before seeing that play.
Born in New York City during World War II, he grew up in his early years above a jazz club in Greenwich Village. Later as a New York suburban kid he was fascinated by the theater and would often take advantage of cheap tickets to take a date to the latest play. His plan to have a career in science was forever derailed when he started acting in high school and then at NYU. He proudly related that he was able to support himself his last two years of college with acting jobs.
Deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, he spent the fateful summer of 1968 in Louisiana. Berkeley was right in the middle of the Free Speech Movement and Viet Nam protests when he arrived for graduate school. He became very involved in the foment including the Viet Nam Day committee. For his efforts he was prohibited from teaching at Berkeley after getting his master’s in English Literature (a ban which was later rescinded by the University). While his teaching career was on hold here he spent time in Bologna teaching and then went on to London to write theater reviews and start a street theater.
Upon his return from Europe, Robert joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe for a short while. After a long stint working for the Oxford University Press, he found he needed a job closer to home. He was involved in the Epic West theater company in Berkeley before his career as a theater reviewer started in earnest in the late 1970’s. His abiding love of theater and skills at writing have found a fertile home in the Bay Area which he describes as rich with diversity and creative energy for new plays and theatrical experiences.
He’d gotten wind of a proposed OLLI course on the SF Mime Troupe and published a brief article about it in the Chronicle. Susan Hoffman, OLLI @ Berkeley’s director, contacted him to thank him for the advance notice, and then pitched the idea of teaching a course for OLLI about theater. The proposed course description includes a discussion of the process of looking at theater from the critic’s point of view, of how one becomes engaged in the art form.
His belief is that a critic’s job is not just to give a “thumbs up or down”, but to give a broader context for the play, to educate the audience in order to enhance their experience of that play. He proposes to bring into class various artists who actively work in local theater including set designers, actors, and directors. He knows that his OLLI students will be people who have had a wide variety of experiences with theater and other media, and he looks forward to learning from them as well as teaching.