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In Honor of Professor Emeritus of Theater Lee Devin

Lee Devin sitting in back of Pearson Hall

Lee Devin in Pearson Hall, 1985

Acting Co-Presidents Tomoko Sakomura and Rob Goldberg shared the following message with the campus community on March 26, 2024:

Dear Friends, 

With deep sadness, we write to share the news that Professor Emeritus of Theater Lee Devin died peacefully in Wallingford, Pa., on Tuesday, March 19. He was 85.

Lee, who served on the faculty for 32 years, is remembered as an accomplished playwright and librettist who taught the College’s first courses in theater for academic credit.

Lee is survived by Abigail Adams, his wife and partner of 38 years and who taught for 10 years in the College’s Theater program, son Sean (Sandra), daughter Siobhan, and two grandchildren, Emma and Rory. A celebration of Lee’s life is planned for Monday, June 24, at 3 p.m. at People’s Light and Theater Company in Malvern, Pa., where he and Adams met and where he was affiliated for many years. In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes contributions to People’s Light.

We invite you to read more below about Lee and his contributions to our community. 

Tomoko Sakomura
Acting Co-President
Provost and Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Art History

Rob Goldberg
Acting Co-President
Vice President for Finance and Administration


In Honor of Professor Emeritus of Theater Lee Devin

Professor Emeritus of Theater Lee Devin died Tuesday, March 19, at age 85. With his passing, the College has lost an award-win­ning playwright, actor, and librettist who led the effort to establish theater in Swarthmore’s curriculum.

“Lee had a compelling vision for the Theater program at Swarthmore: to set aside the splashy big production then common at many colleges, and instead to invest energy in intensive practice to enhance the students’ skills,” says Professor Emerita of English Literature Nathalie Anderson. “This approach continues to ground our work in Theater at the College.”

Born Phillip Lee Devin Jr. in Glendale, Calif., Devin started going by his middle name in Los Gatos High School, where he was active in theater. He earned a B.A. with honors in theater from San Jose State College, then an M.A. and Ph.D. in theater from Indiana University in 1967. Devin taught at Indiana, the University of Virginia, and Vassar College, and won writing awards such as from the California Olympiad of the Arts, before joining Swarthmore’s faculty as an associate professor of English literature in 1970.

Devin came to Swarthmore soon after the College accepted the cre­ative arts in its curriculum. Prior to his arrival, no curricular attention was given to art of any kind except the study of art history. The program, known simply as The Theater, existed within English Literature for 20 years.

Devin started with a 0.5 credit course, Ensemble I, which ran from Sunday to Thursday from 7 to 10 p.m. Instead of emphasizing performance, the course concentrated on acting skills, using scripts, improvisation, physical carriage, and manners. The department was impressed and, gradually, so was the rest of the campus. 

“Although the undertaking was eventually successful — Theater has become an essential part of Swarthmore’s humanities curriculum — it was never easy,” says Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus of English Literature Philip Weinstein. “Lee had to persuade the College community that, while the Theater would continue to provide familiar pleasures, it was a locus for disciplinary learning.”

Devin’s courses grew to include Play Analysis, Modern Drama, Play Directing, Play Writing, Techniques of Acting, American Dramaturgy, and Pre-Shakespearean Dramaturgy, among others. He also stayed active professionally as a playwright, librettist, translator, and dramaturg, in addition to acting. 

“Lee wrote for the pioneering NPR radio program Earplay in the 1970s, which successfully sought to revive the lost art of radio drama,” says Professor Emeritus of Theater Allen Kuharski, who remembers listening to the program as a teenager. “He was in good company as a contributing playwright to Earplay, which also broadcast original new works by David Mamet, Arthur Kopit, and Edward Albee.”

When Theater gained major status in 1987, Devin celebrated by commissioning his former student Jonathan Franzen ’81, H’05 to produce the first American translation of the German play Spring’s Awakening. Directed by Adams, students in Theater Ensemble II presented it on campus the following spring. 

Devin also used support from the William H. Cooper Foundation to sponsor residencies and performances on campus by cutting-edge experimental theater companies such as Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater and André Gregory’s Manhattan Project — moves which Kuharski says “proved both visionary and entrepreneurial.”

Devin served on the campus committee that worked with architects to develop plans for the Lang Performing Arts Center, which opened in 1991. “Lee voiced support in particular for the innovative tension-wire grids for lighting that define both the Main Stage and the Frear Ensemble Theater and the construction of the building’s attractive design studio,” Kuharski says. 

Devin later said he saw the building as “a completion” of his assignment to make theater an integral part of the Swarthmore curriculum.

“Success in this enterprise required a number of talents that do not always come together,” Weinstein says. “Most of all — and for this there is no formula — he had to inspire young men and women coming to the College to believe that Theater would provide not an alternative to their education but an invaluable contribution to it.”

Beyond campus, Devin had a decades-long association with People’s Light and Theater Company. He was the company’s first acting teacher and in 1989 was named dramaturg — someone who studies the form and structure of plays and then helps the actors and the public understand more about what the author intended. At the time, he described the concept as a “fairly recent idea in American theater.” 

Devin developed a strong working relationship between the College and People’s Light. Professional actors performed for classes and served as scene partners, while students visited the company’s rehearsals and volunteered and pursued internships there.

“Shakespeare courses in particular were enriched by visits from actors who would present scenes in class so as to enact the students’ various interpretations of the plot and the implications of the dramatic language,” Anderson says. “Lee made the collaboration possible, and at times was able to participate in this pedagogic exercise himself.”

Over the years, Devin’s work was supported by prizes and grants from the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts for playscripts, librettos, and translations that have been published or performed in the U.S., Australia, Eastern Europe, and Canada. As an Equity actor, his roles ranged from Malvolio in Twelfth Night to Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire. He also served as a visiting consultant or artist-in-residence at Columbia University, the Folger Shakespeare Library, Ball State University, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, University of California–San Diego, Bucknell University, and the Minnesota Opera.

Devin retired from Swarthmore in December 2002. Kuharski organized a daylong symposium, “The Invisible Art: Dramaturgy in American Theater,” for the following spring in his honor. Leading professional dramaturgs and translators from theaters around the country, such as the Guthrie Theater and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, gathered to discuss three main topics: the dramaturg in rehearsal, the dramaturg and the script, and translation for performance.

“Lee’s retirement coincided with the approval of Theater as an independent department,” Kuharski says, “a move which he heartily supported.”

After Swarthmore, Devin collaborated with a former student Robert Austin ’84, then a professor at Harvard Business School, to co-write Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artists Work (2003). Their exploration of using theater techniques to do creative work in business won an award in 2005 from the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, an organization with which he had a long relationship. Together they also wrote The Soul of Design: Harnessing the Power of Plot to Create Extraordinary Products (2012).

Over time, Devin realized that his students appreciated that acting skills — like the ability to focus, make improvisational choices, and live with the results — are valuable life skills. “I began to see,” Devin said, “that teaching theater as a liberal arts major is almost [perfectly] suited to fulfill the goals of a college.” 

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