Celebrating Shirley Kaplan

Theatre faculty, 1975–2016 * Director, Theatre Outreach * Shirley Kaplan Faculty Scholar in Theatre

“We <em>are</em> a deeper education. If you are open to the element of surprise in learning, this education really works.”

Allen Lang MFA ’95, then a newly hired coordinator of the Sarah Lawrence Theatre Outreach Program founded by Shirley Kaplan, was overwhelmed. He had just returned from CS 211 in the Bronx, where he was tasked with developing a collaborative production with the students there.

“It was really important to me, and we were supposed to put on this big show, and I came back with this huge stack of papers with poems and drawings and images and skits we had created. So I went to Shirley and said, ‘I don’t know what to do with it all,’” Lang recounts. “And she said, ‘Here, give me the stapler.’ And she put the papers on the table and stapled them all together and said, ‘That’s the show, that’s the order, now go make it work.’”

It was the kind of brilliant sprezzatura that Kaplan, who retired in May, was known and revered for during her 42 years at Sarah Lawrence.

But there was serious intent in what sometimes appeared to be impromptu methods. Kaplan’s guileful wisdom often provided the impetus for performances to flourish in unexpected ways, the soul of great theatre, and for students to mine themselves for capacities they were unaware of, the essence of great teaching.

“Shirley would say: ‘Do it wrong, make a mistake. Make a bigger mistake and I’ll clean it up,’” says Lang, now the director of Theatre Outreach. “She showed us that failure can be our greatest teacher.”

“Shirley taught me … that the soul of the College was sensitivity and hope and tolerance,” reflected friend and fellow teacher Joseph Forte (art history) upon Kaplan’s retirement from Sarah Lawrence.

Kaplan’s career began not in the collaborative crucible of theatre but in that most solitary of artistic pursuits, painting. She studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris during the 1950s, at the time of a great American ferment of artists and writers in the City of Light. Her paintings, which have been exhibited widely, are vigorously brushed figurative works featuring a sophisticated palette that ranges from stained glass hues to the acid discord of German Expressionism.

Kaplan returned to New York City and co-founded the OBIE Award-winning Paper Bag Players. She was the founder and director of Painters’ Theatre, and she wrote and directed plays for La Mama, Ubu Repertory, and many other venues in the United States and abroad, often while teaching and directing the theatre program at Sarah Lawrence.

Theatre artist and writer Lucinda Ziesing ’73 was a founding member of Painters’ Theatre, where Kaplan was both mentor and collaborator, and the two women have remained close ever since. “Shirley taught me to believe in myself,” Ziesing says, “and she knocked down all the fences that I had constructed—and that had been constructed for me—about who I was and what I could do.”

An accounting of Kaplan’s performances, the productions she wrote and directed, and the awards and accolades she garnered is beyond the scope of a single tribute. But if Kaplan’s sendoff celebration—where she was serenaded by a joyful phalanx of former students and lauded by colleagues—is any indication, her legacy as a mentor and her work in the community will echo as resoundingly as her artistic achievements.

“Shirley was the heart and soul of theatre at Sarah Lawrence, and she will continue to be,” says Christine Farrell, current director of the program. “I’m developing an app so I can know where she is at all times.”