Fordham Announces Replacement Theatre Chair


Akalaitis’ hiring also coincides with the announcement of the new Fordham Theatre “A Season At The Mountaintop.” (CONNOR MANNION/THE OBSERVER)


On Aug. 11, Fordham University named JoAnne Akalaitis, founder of the experimental theatre company ‘Mabou Mines’, as the new 2015-16 Denzel Washington Endowed Theatre Chair. This followed within one month after the previous recipient, television and film actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, withdrew for “urgent health issues” in August, according to a Fordham News press release.

Akalaitis is very excited to come to Lincoln Center for the opportunity it provides for interacting with undergraduates. “It’s just an incredible honor to teach in the heart of New York, and I love that I have the opportunity to work with undergraduates.”

She singled out Fordham’s theatre faculty for “their work as working professionals, not just in academics … Fordham has a great number of amazing teachers,” she said.

Matthew Maguire, director of the Fordham theatre program and head of the performance track, is very excited for Akalaitis to be the new chair. He said in a statement, “JoAnne Akalaitis is a giant in the American Theatre. She studied with the most influential artists in Europe and the U.S., including Jerzy Grotowski and Joe Chaikin … From her deep roots as someone with a radical perspective, she broadened her vision to encompass the plays of Beckett, Genet, Pinter, Euripides, and Shakespeare.”

Her “radical perspective” was shown in her former role at ‘Mabou Mines’, an experimental theatre company based in the East Village, founded by Akalaitis and her former husband — avant garde composer Philip Glass. She left the theatre company following her appointment to the position of artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1990.

According to Maguire, “When the legendary Joe Papp decided to retire from the New York Shakespeare Festival, which he founded, he appointed Akalaitis to succeed him.  He said that, “JoAnne has the most original mind in the theater today,” he [Papp] said. “As a leader, she is independent. She doesn’t recognize boundaries and you can’t pigeonhole her. She has great drive. And she is very astute about how the theater is run,” Maguire continued, quoting Joe Papp directly.

She also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978, a grant for persons “who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts,” according to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Akalaitis is familiar to academia, as she previously served as a co-chair of Juilliard’s directing program until 2012.

Now at Fordham, Akalaitis will serve in the chair established by Oscar winning alumnus Denzel Washington, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ‘77. Washington established the chair with his donation of $2 million earmarked toward the Fordham Theatre Department. Additionally, he established an endowed scholarship with a gift of $250,000, with the intent it be given to a minority undergraduate theatre major, preferrably one that also graduated from Washington’s high school district of Mount Vernon, New York, a city located in upstate Westchester county.

Other theatre professors are excited for her arrival, including Daniel Alexander Jones, associate professor of theatre and program director of the playwriting track. He said, “The powerful, evergreen gift of the Denzel Washington Endowed Chair is proven by the list of artists who have occupied it. Phylicia Rashad, Joe Morton, Christine Jones, Kenny Leon, and now, JoAnne Akalaitis.”

As Jones pointed out, last year’s endowed theatre chair was Kenny Leon, Tony award winning director of the 2014 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” also starring Washington in a leading role. Leon is now directing a live televised version of “The Wiz” to be aired on NBC on Dec. 3, with a future Broadway adaptation in the works.

Maguire continued, he said “we are thrilled that she is doing us the honor of joining us for a semester as the fifth Denzel Washington Chair. She will teach Creating a Character for our advanced acting students.”

While Akalaitis is only teaching this class according to Maguire, she is open to other possibilities in her time at Fordham. “I don’t want to be trapped or put in a box, so there has been discussions about other opportunities.”

According to Maguire, “the search was not difficult, it was immediate.”

Maguire’s lack of hesitance in the appointment comes from a great admiration for Akalaitis. “JoAnne’s work with Mabou Mines was the first work I saw in the theatre when I arrived in New York, and it transformed the way I saw the possibilities of the theatre,” he said.

Akalaitis feels a mutual respect, echoing Maguire’s praise with her own. “I know Matthew [Maguire] and I admire him deeply along with the other faculty … Fordham is blessed to have so many great artists in their community,” she said.