Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem

Lee-Huang Chen | Staff Photographer

Opening Sept. 29th in the Claire Trevor Theater, “Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem” is a modern spin on a revered and ancient story. Penned and brought to life by Professor Robert Cohen and the help of volunteer actors and stage crews, the play-within-a-play is about a college group of American actors who travel to Jerusalem to put on the medieval moral play.

The story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son to demonstrate his faith, is an important story in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In 1965, when UCI was still a fledgling campus with big hopes, the drama department consisted of exactly three faculty members. Forty-five years later, the department boasts 28 faculty members, a very talented graduate division, a strong group of undergraduates and a spot amongst the top 10 acting programs in the United States. Bren fellow and Claire Trevor Professor of Drama Robert Cohen has been there from the very start, lending his expertise to the department he helped found.

Fresh from a graduate program in directing at the Yale School of Drama, Cohen was certain of two things: he wanted to be a professor and he wanted to live in California. Having completed his undergraduate study at University of California, Berkeley, Washington, D.C.-born Cohen had fallen in love with the Golden State.

He wrote to two UC campuses inquiring for a position, one of which being his alma mater, the other a new charter campus in Irvine. Though he was offered both jobs, he knew that Irvine would give him the exciting freedom to make the department his own.

Cohen is now a prolific writer of acting theory, theatre scholarship and translations. After moving to Irvine before UCI’s inaugural year, Cohen found an astounding lack of summer theater companies with which to spend his time. A friend suggested that he write up his dissertation on playwright Jean Giraudoux for publishing to keep himself occupied. Since then, Cohen has written 10 other books, three original plays, scholarly essays and reviews.

After Cohen published “Acting Power” in 1984, UCI saw a surge in drama students.

“People wanted to work with me,” Cohen says with a shrug and a smile.

Cohen’s training may have been as a director but working with actors and seeing the conflict between two of his initial visiting acting professors (“They hated each other and didn’t mind saying it.”), Cohen figured he may as well put his experience to work. The Goal, Obstacles, Tactics and Expectations (GOTE) technique he developed is now one of the most widely taught and utilized methods in the American school of acting.

After watching 45 years of UCI’s growth and rank-climbing, Cohen is in a great place. When asked why he enjoyed the drama department, Cohen frankly answered, “It’s fun.”

The faculty has come a long way from the two bickering acting professors just as Orange County has come a long way from the times of a nonexistent theater scene. The UCI drama department is marked by an air of collaboration, artistic freedom and community support as it thrives in the fertile grounds between major theater cities like Los Angeles and San Diego.

During the mid-1980s, Cohen’s interest in medieval plays led to a three-year research project for performing medieval moral plays based on stories from the Old Testament, the life of Jesus Christ and the end of times. One of his favorites is the story of Abraham and Isaac.

When music Professor Emeritus Peter Odegard, who had served on faculty from 1966 until his retirement in 1994, passed away last year, campus group Men in Blaque performed at his memorial. Hearing them singing Gregorian chants and songs in Hebrew and Arabic, Cohen was struck with the idea to bring Abraham and Isaac back to the stage with their help.

The original play clocks out at a short 30 minutes but Cohen added a surrounding story about American students putting the play on for Jewish and Arabic audiences in the Holy Land itself.

He began writing in February of this year, banking on his experience with medieval plays, his cultural understanding of the Old Testament from both the Jewish and Christian perspectives and his knowledge of the socio-political climate of the Middle East. He and his wife even traveled to Jerusalem for research, where he says he learned things that made elements of his play even deeper.

To get the project off the ground and onto the stage, Cohen went to his second-year graduate acting students and asked for volunteers who would be willing to begin rehearsals in the weeks before school started. As the cast came together, Cohen wrote the characters specifically for his students. The entire production crew is also made up of volunteers.

Audiences attending the four-show run, which starts on Wednesday, will be treated to a set that has been made to look like the public performing area in Jerusalem – an ancient stone platform surrounded with modern signs of military occupation – right down to audience seating on the stage around the set.

“Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem” points to American wide-eyed naïveté of the spiritual, political and social climate in the place where three major religions intersect. They tell a story that has profound meanings for the people directly embroiled in the religious conflict, free from the atmosphere Israelis and Palestinians are witness to every day.

Robert Cohen has been instrumental in the success of the UCI drama department. With the collaborative and creative faculty he has helped to bring together, the department has a bright and unique future.