Knox Honors Whitlatch at Retirement

42 years teaching, acting and directing: "I always thought of myself as a craftsperson in the service of Dionysus"

June 04, 2008

Robert Whitlatch

"Before I came to Knox, I did post-graduate work and taught at large state universities," recalls Robert Whitlatch, retiring this year as Seeley Distinguished Professor of Theatre at Knox College. "Knox was about the size of Denison, the school I had graduated from, and I loved the whole environment of the liberal arts college."

In his 42 years at Knox, Whitlatch has directed dozens of theatrical productions, and acted in several.

In addition to courses in acting, directing and theatre history, Whitlatch taught for many years in Knox's interdisciplinary First-Year Preceptorial Program. "Preceptorial prompted a lot of cross-disciplinary conversations among faculty," Whitlatch says. "Psychology, biology, economics, anthropology -- we were finding commonalities in our points of view."

Whitlatch audited courses in several departments outside of theatre -- including philosophy, computer science and Greek. "And there are more I want to audit, like Jon Wagner's anthropology course in Human Origins," he says.

"Theatre has been a prominent art form in many societies," Whitlatch says, "maybe less so today in America than in some of the periods that I teach" -- European theatre from the medieval period through the 19th Century.

"People on the outside think we all working intuitively in theatre," he says. "Theatre communicates at an emotional level, but there are a lot of analytical and synthetic skills involved, and they're useful in other fields. A Knox graduate told me that his work in playwriting helped him in his job in sales. In theatre, you're broadening your own knowledge of what it feels like to be a human being."

In retirement, Whitlatch, who lives in Galesburg, says that he will be busy with reading and writing and watching theatre.

"I've re-read all of Proust, and a lot of Shakespeare," he says. "I'm working on a novel and I want to get back to that. I feel great about the future of theatre at Knox. Student interest has grown, and I see good things ahead. I'll be in town, so I'll continue to see their work."

A retirement reception was held May 30 on the stage of Harbach Theatre, where Whitlatch directed more than 70 plays in his four decades at Knox.

"I've had the privilege to witness Bob's interactions with a few of the many generations of students that he's worked with -- his insistence on intellectual rigor and artistic creativity and his loyalty to the people who make up this institution and the students who become part of us," said Lawrence B. Breitborde, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, at the reception.

Faculty Resolution Honoring Robert Whitlatch

"In the history of institutions, communities, nations, and continents, eras come and go. And so it is, with the retirement of Doc Bob, that surely the end of an era is close at hand.” In honoring the forty-two year career of Robert Calhoun Whitlatch, Robert M. and Katherine Seeley Distinguished Professor of Theatre, we also celebrate a sometimes tumultuous and sometimes incandescent generation of Knox College’s history and evolution.

Bob received his B.A. from Denison University in 1957 and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1958 and 1962 respectively. He joined the faculty of Knox College in the Department of Speech and Theatre in 1966 where he has remained for forty-two memorable years as a teacher, department chair, and director.

Bob began his teaching career as what was then known as a “generalist.” In the highly rarified and specialized groves of contemporary academe, a generalist today would have to be called a Renaissance Man. And so he is. With no MFA or DFA advanced degrees at the time to separate traditional and creative scholarship into the myriad specialized subsets required to study and make theatre happen, Bob learned to do it all. He developed new courses in and taught dramatic literature and theory; taught acting and directing; designed and built sets; designed and cued lighting; directed and produced plays (and occasionally acted in them). His Ph.D. dissertation had been in the history of the American Theatre, but his heart was back where it all began, in the City of Dionysia in fifth century Greece, where the first theatre festivals were celebrated, where the first extant plays in comedy and tragedy were staged, where Aristotle taught us dramatic structure and rhetorical grace, where the first actor stepped out of the chorus to speak a solo line, where society first examined and chronicled itself in a great public forum, and where the gods were invoked and honored through the work of the theatre.

Bob may have been trained in the drama departments of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but he was a man of vision, who saw that both professional and academic theatre were poised for major and sweeping changes. Soon after arriving at Knox, Bob hired his colleague of thirty-five years, Ivan Davidson, and the two of them rolled up their sleeves, abandoned their personal lives, and built a modern theatre department in which the scholarship of performance was regarded with a rigor and respect equal to that of traditional scholarship. Bob turned American Drama over to Ivan and demonstrated his breadth of learning and teaching prowess by developing and teaching courses in Classical and Medieval theatre, Renaissance and the French Neoclassical theatre, Restoration and 18th century theatre, 20th century Modernism, and literary criticism.

He taught Beginning and Advanced Acting and Directing -- and when he and Ivan further irked their respective wives by inventing Repertory Theatre Term, Bob leapt in feet first and taught Movement for the Actor. He also developed and taught the department's capstone Senior Seminar for all but one of the years that it has been offered. Through this course, he introduced the emerging academic field of semiotics and taught countless aspiring actors, designers, playwrights, directors, and teachers to read not only the stage, but also the world, and to see it seeingly. He taught them to read themselves as artists and to understand what it means to be an artist in society -- surely harking back to the City of Dionysia and the essential and the sacred of what it means to be human.

Anyone who has ever seen the rambling, cascading stacks of books and articles and papers and files in his office or shared a conversation with Bob about teaching will know that each time he teaches a course -- regardless of how many, many times he has taught it before -- he dives in anew, researching new perspectives and scholarship, and seeking new ways to make the topics accessible to the students who will continue the legacy and bring the works to life. His teaching has, indeed, been as “an exemplar of the liberal arts,” as colleague Lane Sunderland has noted, and Bob has been commended by his colleagues for his teaching by being awarded the Phillip Green Wright/Lombard College Prize for Distinguished Teaching in 1987 and again in 1996.

Teaching at Knox is rarely a nine to five kind of job, as all know well, but teaching in theatre never is. For about half of those forty-two years, and after conducting a full day of teaching, advising, administering the department, and committee service, Bob would return to the department at night to either direct rehearsals or build the production in rehearsal. And as if this schedule were not grueling enough, Bob and Ivan went on to inaugurate the uniquely Knox educational experience called Repertory Theatre Term: a ten week repertory theatre experience in which approximately thirty-two students and the faculty produce two full length productions in the same time that they would ordinarily produce only one, undertake conservatory classes and a critical seminar, and generally meet themselves coming and going. Though rather like Brigadoon, it happens only once every three years, it is an enormous and magical undertaking that meant that both Bob and Ivan would each direct two productions in a Rep Term year, assuring that they would be on campus just about every day and every night of the academic year.

Bob's forty-two year career suggests that he directed approximately seventy productions on the Harbach stage. It would be impossible to calculate the number of student directed studio plays that he advised and faithfully attended. Both of these theatres are the academic laboratories where students wrestle with the challenges first posed in the classroom. Teaching in this setting is demanding and sometimes confrontational -- as much as one researches and prepares for rehearsal, directing very often is improvisational, as art is by nature chaotic and unpredictable. Bob excelled in this milieu, always ready to respond to problem solving with inspiration, wit, and profound respect for the text. He led students through the full gamut of theatre -- from the existential subtleties of Samuel Beckett's Endgame and Sam Shepard's Lie of the Mind to the finesse of broad farce in Michael Frayn's Noises Off and Euripides' Lysistrata. In every instance making art was to Bob an act of teaching at its most fundamental level.

Despite the overwhelming hours of overload demanded by the growing theatre department -- sometimes teaching as many as nine courses a year -- Bob still found time to serve the institution beyond the walls of the Ford Center for Fine Arts. His committee service is legendary and spans repeat stints on Lectures and Concerts, the Curriculum Committee, the Faculty Personnel Committee, the Library Committee, the Board of Publications, the Executive Committee, the Fringe Benefits Task Force, the Curriculum Task Force, and the Teacher Education Committee, to name a few. No one seems to be quite sure when he started as Faculty Marshal at commencement, but rumor has it that he shepherded faculty and graduates to the platform for at least seventeen years.

Bob's own devotion to a life of the mind is reflected in his boundless intellectual curiosity and enduring commitment to liberal learning. This dedication to leading a considered life lead him to serve in the vanguard that envisioned a common learning experience for first year students, a year long course that was to become First Year Preceptorial. He was on the first and many subsequent planning groups throughout their many incarnations (and downsizings), has directed the enterprise, and remained a devoted teacher of FP throughout. Deeply and enthusiastically involved in all of the planning and choice of course themes, he also frequently led discussions or made presentations, and often suggested pedagogical approaches to the readings. He was fervently committed to the faculty's efforts to make FP a gateway course to collegiate learning through the Knox ethos of freedom to flourish, which to Bob included an unswerving dedication to thoughtful critical engagement and excellence in writing.

Many of the Knox alumni who continue to return to campus at homecoming or send Bob emails just to check in, recall that their first experiences with Bob were when he was their FP section teacher. Many of those students were then lured from FP into theatre classes by this rigorous (and occasionally ribald) teacher who, in the words of alumna Jacqueline Dehne, "made me discover that I could push myself to the extraordinary." Henry Brooks Adams must have had Bob in mind when he wrote, "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

Robert Whitlatch -- this Renaissance Man, this generalist -- has defined what it means to teach in the liberal arts. Poet Robin Metz, Bob's colleague closest to him at the head of the commencement line, provided the opening to this encomium as well as this closing tribute, "For Knox College, Doc Bob -- with his elegant expressiveness, his gentle yet inspiring teaching, his vision of the central role of theatre in the drama of the world -- has been both touchstone and lodestone. For many of us, as both colleague and friend, he has been a polestar -- resolute; unwavering."

Neil Blackadder
Speakers at the retirement reception included theatre faculty Neil Blackadder, above; Dean of the College Lawrence Breitborde, below.
Lawrence Breitborde
Kelly Lynn Hogan - Elizabeth Carlin Metz
Theatre faculty Kelly Lynn Hogan and Elizabeth Carlin Metz read letters from Knox alumni at the reception, above; below, students Nick Perry, Mikah Berky, Meghan Reardon and Eden Newmark stage a condensed version of "the one play that Bob Whitlatch never got to direct at Knox, 'Electra,' set as a Western comedy."
Grapes of Wrath
Robert Whitlatch, seated, performs as Granpa Joad in Grapes of Wrath

Margo Shively

Other speakers at the reception included costume shop supervisor Margo Shively, above, and former dance faculty Becky Nichols, below.

Becky Nichols

Robert Whitlatch, Ann Taylor, Roger Taylor

Robert Whitlatch with Anne and Roger Taylor, above, and professor Robin Metz, below.

Robin Metz, Robert Whitlatch