From Historian to Teacher to Playwright

Despite winning this year’s ATHE Excellence in Playwriting Award for his play “Shylock’s Beard,” Theatre Arts and English Professor Cary Mazer never actually considered himself a playwright.

Mazer is a theater historian who has dedicated the last four decades to writing and teaching about 19th century theater, Shakespeare in contemporary performance, acting theory, and pedagogy.

“And yet there I was at age 59 trying my hand at playwriting. I must be the world’s oldest new playwright,” he says, laughing.

Mazer attributes this unexpected achievement to the dynamic interdisciplinary learning environment in Penn’s Theatre Arts program.

[Students] come in thinking they want to be actors and end up becoming dramaturgs, they come in thinking they want to be directors and end up being scholars. They may become doctors or lawyers. Weirdly and uncannily, I think that’s also been true of me.

Cary Mazer, theatre arts and English professor

“Because theater pulls together so many arts and artisans, and because we expose our students to all of them, we’re equipping them to grow in their own way and grow at their own pace. They come in thinking they want to be actors and end up becoming dramaturgs, they come in thinking they want to be directors and end up being scholars. They may become doctors or lawyers,” he says. “Weirdly and uncannily, I think that’s also been true of me.”

Mazer describes himself as “a product of the very philosophy that we employ in our teaching, empowering students to discover their artists’ souls and their talents in their own time.” He jokes, “This particular endeavor just took a lot longer for me.

“I now am blossoming in a creative area I could not have anticipated. This has to do with the mission of the Theatre Arts program and it has to do with my colleagues.”

Hired to chair the newly created Theatre Arts program in 1980, Mazer says he spent his 24 years in that role assembling a faculty who would advance the mission of the program: to marry the academic study of theater as informed by practice to the practice of theater as informed by academic study. Because most of the program’s core faculty are both practitioners and scholars, they bring their experience as actors and directors into the classroom.

The mission that Mazer and his colleagues avidly advanced for the last 37 years proved to be fertile ground for his playwriting; synchronous events in his professional and personal life catalyzed that ripening aptitude into an award-winning play.

From Historian to Teacher to Playwright

Several years ago, Mazer found himself as the sole Jewish member of a theater production of “The Merchant of Venice,” a play that contains strong and unfavorable cultural stereotypes of Jews.

“I realized that my role as a dramaturg—where you’re an advisor but not in control, you’re in the community but not of the community—was amplified by my role as token Jew, and it mirrored the position of Shylock in the Christian society of the play. And as it happened, there were circumstances in my personal life at the time that also mirrored ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” he says. “I realized this was too delicious a premise to pass up.”

Mazer describes the premise for “Shylock’s Beard” as: “A person who hates the character of Shylock and who is serving as a token Jew in a production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ finds that the events of his life are making him resemble the character whom he loathes more and more, until it’s too close for comfort. It becomes to some extent a play about how one turns one’s life into art.”

If the play examines the relationship between a theater professor’s life and his art, it owes its very existence to the life-long relationships forged between Mazer and his students.

“My creative blossoming also has to do with being in the classroom and working with students, who teach me every day,” says Mazer. “And it has to do with what my former students have taught me.”

He has kept in touch with many of the students he has taught and mentored over his 37 years at Penn, and says that one of the first things he does now when he finishes a script is contact some of them to ask if they’d like to read it or workshop it. They invariably do.

“I’m blessed to have this network of former students. I am amazed at their generosity.”

  • Text by Christina Cook
  • Photos by Rebecca Elias Abboud