John Freed finds humor, meaning in history; turns it into theater
Dr. John Freed, associate professor of humanities and liberal studies, finds it amusing that he’s immersed himself so personally in the very activity for which he describes himself as one of Brandman University’s chief boosters – being creative.
But then Freed finds a lot of things amusing including the foibles of historic figures, the twists and turns his own career has taken and the unexpected but extreme pleasure of hearing himself introduced as “the playwright” by a theater director he admires.
Freed has been teaching college students about drama, particularly Shakespeare, for over 30 years. He’s also been a film and theatre critic. But it’s only in the last few years that he’s launched himself into writing plays, including “Figaro’s Follies” (a 2013 rewrite of the original Beaumarchais’ play on which the more famous opera “Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart is based) performed as staged readings last summer in San Francisco.
“Creativity is a very important student learning outcome for our revised liberal arts core,” said Freed in a phone interview from his Bay area office. He teaches blended classes at the Walnut Creek, Fairfield and Travis Air Force Base campuses and online and divides his time between the Bay Area and Portland, Oregon, where his wife, Stacy Alexander, a mixed-media artist lives.
“This is an offshoot that links directly back to our mission of recovering the arts part of a School of Arts and Sciences,” he added.
“Dr. Freed has played an integral leadership role in the development and evolution of the School of Arts and Sciences,” according to Dean Jeremy Korr. “He’s developed a variety of innovative courses in online and blended formats and participated in the recent revision and expansion of the B.A. in Liberal Studies program for prospective teacher with our School of Education.”
Serious topics with a touch of humor
Just as his academic interests range over a wide field, Freed’s plays defy narrow descriptions. They take on serious topics – the conflicts among classes, genders, ethnicities – but he does it by moving away from haranguing audiences and toward the comic.
“While Figaro (in both the opera and the plays) is a comic figure, he’s also challenging the hierarchy and class structure of his time. Nobody can read the original 18th century play. It’s five hours long. There are three-page long speeches that blast the aristocracy, but the play itself may well have been the catalyst for the French and other European revolutions that followed. My goal was to deliver Beaumarchais to a 21st century audience – to make the play fun and profound at the same time.”
Freed genuinely appreciated the comment forwarded to him by the literary director at Brown University: “On a personal note, I want to tell you how much I enjoyed reading “Figaro’s Follies.” I thought it was a fabulous adaptation, and that it both honored and enhanced its source material. Its cleverness and vitality made it a joy to read.”
His other completed plays are “Love Me, Fuseli: A Play about Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Circle of Friends” (2012) and “The Merchants of Pittsburgh: A Comedy” (2014). Thanks to that trio of works, he was invited to join the Dramatists Guild of America in November.
Freed prefers to think of himself as coming from the David Ives tradition drawing from both history and existing writings or plays to create his own works. In “The Merchants of Pittsburgh,” he drew on his own experiences with a Pittsburgh theater company and Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” to create a world where a Jewish theater board member takes over a production to create a more Shylock-friendly play.
“You can see why somebody who has taught “Merchant of Venice” for so long can imagine a Jewish oriented version and have things believably come out that way,” said Freed. “At one critical moment near the end of the play, Shakespeare, in Portia’s voice offers Shylock that option to demonstrate the true value of the ‘quality of mercy.’”
Venturing into new worlds of theater
With his fourth work, “All Hallows at Hearst Castle,” which is currently in progress, Freed is venturing into several new worlds that are also fact-based. It’s a musical. He has a collaborator, the composer Jeff Dunn. And it’s based on redeeming the reputations of William Randolph Hearst and his life-long companion, Marion Davies, from the savagery of Orson Welles’ fictionalized version of them in “Citizen Kane.”
“What he [Welles] did was horrible and just not true. They were incredibly hospitable people and very progressive in many ways,” he said and then adds, “I’m a huge San Simeon fan. In many ambivalent ways, it’s the ultimate icon of American exceptionalism.”
There’s Charlie Chaplin developing a scene for “The Great Dictator” with a giant beach ball borrowed from the San Simeon pool and all the other comings and goings of the insulated world created by Hearst. “Welcome to this dear little, queer little world,” said Freed, echoing Davies’ greeting to her guests. Expect it to also include Clark Gable, Bette Davis – even Dagwood Bumstead – secret love, music, dancing, political intrigue, swordplay and self-discovery.
“Things happen in history that you can’t make up. Nobody would believe it,” said Freed who wants to enlighten as well as entertain audiences.
Enlightenment is also what he wants for his students, calling teaching a lifetime activity. “No one retires from what they love to do. I feel the same way about writing as I do about teaching. In my life and career, these two activities are converging very nicely,” he said.
He makes sure his students “experience” theater as well as “read” it, working with San Franciso Bay Area theater companies to provide discounted tickets (see box for details). He brings in Michael Butler, the artistic director of CenterRep Theater in Walnut Creek, to teach a master class to his students to help them understand the background and the effort that goes into an actual live theatre performance that they had just witnessed.
From academics to housing and back again
Freed began his university teaching career at Penn State University, but left after 10 years, having grown “exhausted by the banality of 18 and 19 year olds.” He renovated Victorian houses in Pittsburgh and was a low-income housing community developer for Neighborhood Housing Services.
Then his life did a 360, returning him to higher education. He was hired as the dean of continuing education and that first semester assigned himself to teach adult learners in the evening at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
“That totally revolutionized what I knew,” he said. He begins his courses now by going around the room (digitally speaking, if it’s an online class rather than a blended one) and asking his students what they’re experts in. And they all have “phenomenal” answers. Then he tells his students, usually in their mid-30s or older, “You were all 18 or 19 and college-worthy back then, but what would you have said you were an expert in at that age?” Usually they say “nothing much,” although a few will candidly admit that they thought they knew everything at that age.
“Now the challenge is to learn from and teach that classroom of experts and be creative enough with my own materials and assignments to tap into it.” He also appreciates the School of Arts and Sciences’ multidisciplinary approach to curriculum development that encourages him to go from “The Iliad” to Google in a single, culture and media studies course rather than just “being marooned on the island of the 16th and 17th century literature.” That’s the fate he describes had he stayed at Penn State.
“All of these opportunities are why I love to work with my students and brilliant colleagues here at Brandman.”
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