The driving force behind several of the country's most vibrant regional theaters had not seen a play until he was in college. In his spare time during his senior year at New York University, Herbert Blau scribbled a couple of plays and, at the urging of a friend, sent them to Stanford. He later applied to the drama program, where he was offered a fellowship that changed his life.
Blau, MA '49, PhD '54, died May 3 (his 87th birthday) in Seattle of a sarcomatoid carcinoma of the chest.
Best known for introducing American theatergoers to European avant-garde playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Genet and Harold Pinter, Blau founded the San Francisco Actor's Workshop with Jules Irving in 1952. They produced Beckett's Waiting for Godot in San Francisco and staged a production of the play for inmates at San Quentin Prison in 1957. The performance was the subject of the 2010 documentary The Impossible Itself.
In 1964, Blau published The Impossible Theater: A Manifesto, denouncing the general "failure and fatuousness of the American theater." The book, which called for less conventionality in theater, generated considerable attention. Blau and Irving were invited to join the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York as co-directors. Blau left after two years and in 1971 formed Kraken, an experimental theater company that mounted several avant-garde productions before he dissolved it in 1976.
Blau served as the first provost of the California Institute of the Arts and dean of its theater school; he also taught at a number of schools, including San Francisco State and most recently at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Alan Mandell, an actor and producer who worked with Blau at the Actor's Theater and was in the San Quentin production of Waiting for Godot, called him a mentor and dear friend. "He expanded my vocabulary, forcing me to constantly look up words. When I asked him about this, he replied, 'I never use the same word twice if I can find another word that conveys the same meaning.' I always had a dictionary close at hand."
Blau is survived by his former wife, Beatrice Manley; their children, Dick, Tara and Jonathan; his wife of 33 years, Kathleen Woodward; their daughter, Jessamyn; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Julie Muller Mitchell, '79, is a writer in San Francisco.