Arthur Wagner, indefatigable champion of the theater, passed away yesterday morning. He was 92. I asked Jefferson Mays, one of his most devoted and accomplished students — and Tony Award-winner for I Am My Own Wife — to remember him for all of us.
“When I came to UCSD in 1988, it was Arthur Wagner I came to see. His reputation was renowned and I’d admired the actors he had mentored. But Arthur wasn’t there, physically speaking.
Little did I know that he was teaching at the drama school of my future wife, Susan, in Sydney, Australia, thus confirming his stature and influence as global.
My class and I eagerly anticipated his return in our second year. We stood in nervous awe of, what was to us, no less a figure of patriarchal proportions – founder, not only of our school, the Department of Theatre at UCSD, but of three other graduate programs across the country, a great force behind the renaissance of the La Jolla Playhouse, an acclaimed scholar of acting and the theater, a man who seemed to us the very embodiment of the History of the American Theater.
But, on first entering his classroom, we immediately fell in love with him, as so many had done before us. With his warmth, humor, and keen critical eye, the music of the Bronx in his voice, and an extraordinary wardrobe of paisley shirts, he revealed himself as less patriarchal than Dad-like.
In a joyful atmosphere of investigation, we learned to analyze a text with almost rabbinical rigor. And to playfully inhabit it as well. Under his shrewd and sensitive guidance, I delighted for the first time in the works of Chekhov.
I came to realize that Arthur was that rarest of teachers: a fellow explorer, one that had no interest in breaking us down and building us into some preconceived image of what an actor should be. Instead, he generously acknowledged the incipient artist in each of us, and helped us to discover our own paths, interests, and tastes. Perhaps the greatest gift a teacher can give.
Throughout his career he has given the lie to that often erroneous adage: “Those who can’t do, teach.” He taught us by example, and it was always a joy and an education to see this wonderful actor at work. And his loving tutelage and support did not cease upon graduation.
Whenever possible, he came to see his former students in shows, keeping an eye on their work in progress. I always looked forward to Arthur and Molli’s shining faces in my dressing room doorway. And when they couldn’t attend, there hasn’t been a play when I haven’t imagined them in the audience.
Arthur’s love of the theater reached a Medicean scale. He has given us many fitting monuments: The Molli and Arthur Wagner Dance Studios, the Arthur Wagner Theatre. As well as monumental endowments in the form of a Chair for the Head of the Acting Program and a Graduate Acting Fellowship.
But it is Arthur himself who remains his own monument. For it is his spirit and love that are truly monumental, as they continue to extend, not only to the theater community here in San Diego – to the La Jolla Playhouse and UCSD – but throughout the country, and indeed the world, in the hearts of this patriarch’s adoring offspring, who continue to be inspired and encouraged and sustained by his example.
We shall miss him. Oh, how we’ll miss him! But he will ever be with us.”