December 30, 2015

Tim Vasen, theater director, educator and ‘generous mentor,’ dies at 51

Directed Princeton University’s Program in Theater since 2012

Tim Vasen, theater director, educator, and Director of the Program in Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, died December 28 following an accident in Brooklyn, New York. He was 51.

“Some of us have lost a very dear friend, one of the finest human beings we have known,” noted Michael Cadden, Chair of the Lewis Center. “All of us have lost one of the world’s finest teachers of theater – an intellectually voracious, physically vital, and imaginatively daring practitioner of the art form he cherished above all others.”

Vasen had directed plays and taught classes at Princeton since 1993; in 2012, he became director of the Program in Theater.

Raised in Culver City, California, Vasen earned a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies at Yale University, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1987. He received a Master of Fine Arts in Directing from the Yale School of Drama in 1993. In the spring of 1993, Cadden, at the time the incoming director of the Program in Theater and Dance at Princeton, hired Vasen to direct the program’s Fall Show – Molière’s The Misanthrope. “I was impressed from the first by Tim’s passionate commitment to working with the students as artistic collaborators on the kind of work that demanded their full investment,” observed Cadden. “Tim always insisted theater was first and foremost about people in a room together, figuring something out. Initially, the artists; eventually to be joined by an audience.”

After a few years of part-time work at Princeton, Vasen pursued the itinerant life of a young theater director, with work at Playwrights Horizons in New York City, Philadelphia Theatre Company, South Coast Repertory in Orange County, California, Chautauqua Theater in upstate New York, and the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis. From 1997 to 2003, Vasen served as resident director at Center Stage, a professional regional theater company in Baltimore, directing new work and classics, as well as commissioning and developing new plays by Lynn Nottage, Danny Hoch, and Warren Leight; producing the Off Center solo performer series; and overseeing a Pew Residency for deaf theater artist Willy Conley.

Vasen returned to Princeton in 2003, when he began to see what educational theater had to offer that could not be easily found in the professional world. Vasen’s university credits include many classical plays — Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Brecht, Chekhov, Ibsen, Synge, Beckett, and Williams – as well as new works by emerging student playwrights at Princeton, Yale School of Drama, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. A number of his former Princeton students asked him to direct their post-graduate work including Three Plays by Rebecca Foresman, a 2010 alumna, at Dixon Place in New York City in 2013 and Wanderland by Veronica Siverd, also a member of the Class of 2010, at Little Times Square Theater and Festival Tour in 2012.

“Tim did a marvelous job directing the Program in Theater, reaching out to colleagues across the University to explore artistic-scholarly collaborations,” said Cadden. “Tim always argued that university arts programs are in a particularly good position to benefit from the intellectual and artistic resources of their surrounding community.”

His courses were often cross-listed with other departments, including Slavic Languages and Literatures, Music, and Hellenic Studies. For example, in collaboration with Cadden and the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, he created the recurring course “Re: Staging The Greeks” which has been a conduit between Princeton students and Greek theater artists since 2008. In summer 2012, he and Cadden led a similar Global Seminar to Greece in conjunction with the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies enabling students to visit and perform plays from the ancient Greek canon on the very stages used by their theatrical predecessors.

Vasen became a recognized authority among theater scholars and practitioners in directing world premieres of unproduced Soviet-era projects, often in collaboration with fellow artists and scholars including Princeton’s Caryl Emerson, Simon Morrison, Rebecca Lazier and Michael Pratt. These productions included an unfinished 1930s collaboration between Prokofiev and Meyerhold on Pushkin’s Boris Godunov in 2007 and an unfinished 1930s collaboration between Prokofiev and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in 2012. At the prompting of Princeton University Orchestra conductor Pratt, Vasen also directed Der Bourgeois Bigwig in 2013, a new translation and adaptation by James Magruder of the Molière comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as adapted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in collaboration with Richard Strauss.

“The shock and loss of Tim Vasen is hard to process,” said Emerson, a professor emerita in the Departments of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature and frequent collaborator with Vasen. “Ten years ago, Tim agreed to direct Princeton undergraduates in Pushkin’s Boris Godunov — which began a series of Russia-centered collaborations with Theater and Music that put our tiny Slavic department on the map of Princeton’s performing arts landscape.  Tim eventually co-taught four courses in Russian literature and drama with us, helping the traditional library-bound academic to ‘teach and learn with the whole body.’  His enthusiasm for Russian culture, from little-known prose writers like Krzhizhanovsky up through this year’s Fall Show, Bulgakov’s Zoyka’s Apartment, was an inspiration.  To a literature that is, as a rule, deep, mournful, or manic, Tim consistently brought high spirits, common sense, and the most ingenious embodiment.”

As Director of the Program in Theater, Vasen also helped to bring renowned theater artists to the University as faculty including Tony Award-winning directors John Doyle and John Rando, designers Jane Cox and Ricardo Hernandez, and scholars such as Brian Herrera (recent winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism) and guest artists such as the contemporary dance and theater ensemble Witness Relocation. He also reviewed arts supplements from hundreds of high school students applying for admission to Princeton, often reaching out to promising young prospective students to acquaint them the University’s academic programs in the arts.

Darryl Waskow, the Lewis Center’s producer in theater and dance notes, “Tim’s strength was in how he got the best work out of the students, faculty, guests, and staff. He brought many international guest artists to campus and grew the program in many ways. But while the expansion of our programming was a success, those who worked most closely with Tim saw that he did his best work one-on-one with the students. What I’ll always remember about Tim was his work on small-scale, student projects, where he shined in guiding students in developing their work.”

"Eyes Up High in the Redwood Tree” (April 2015): Director Tim Vasen and Stage Manager Cat Andre ’17 consult before a dress rehearsal. Photo by Warren S. Rieutort-Louis.

“Eyes Up High in the Redwood Tree” (April 2015): Director Tim Vasen and Stage Manager Cat Andre ’17 consult before a dress rehearsal. Photo by Warren S. Rieutort-Louis.

“I knew Tim Vasen for ten years,” notes Lileana Blain-Cruz, a freelance director and member of Princeton’s Class of 2006. “He was my thesis adviser at Princeton on my production of Shange’s for colored girls…and continued to be an incredible mentor and advisor to me at the Yale School of Drama, particularly on my thesis production, Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. Tim was a force of energy, ideas, imagination and love for the human spirit, and he inspired that same joie de vivre in his students – in me. I am indebted to him for his insights, for encouraging me in those dark hours of creative angst, for talking about the Greeks, Thornton Wilder, and Gertrude Stein, for giving me an opportunity to direct and teach Much Ado About Nothing at Princeton as the Fall Show in 2013, and for encouraging us to be fearless and joyful in the journey of making art.”

Vasen often stayed in contact with former students and was instrumental in starting the Princeton Arts Alumni group with Pilar Castro Kiltz, Princeton Class of 2010. “Through to this day, I navigate my work as a director, choreographer, and playwright, with inspiration and lessons from Tim as my guide,” said Castro Kiltz. “Without Tim, the Princeton Arts Alumni would not exist; Tim’s dedication to developing and supporting us as artists endured well after we graduated. His spirit of exploration, curiosity and enthusiasm will continue to resonate and multiply as those of us who were lucky to count him as teacher, mentor, and friend go forward ever influenced by him.”

“Tim was everything you could want in a teacher, a mentor and a colleague,” noted Robert Sandberg, a lecturer in English and theater at Princeton and one of Vasen’s colleagues. “He was warm, open, caring, straightforward, passionate, and whip smart. There was no one more direct and honest; you always knew where you stood with Tim. He wanted the very best for the students. He urged them to challenge themselves, to dream big, and he supported them as they journeyed on their artistic paths. He was the best audience anyone could wish for: his energy, enthusiasm and that wonderful laugh filled up the whole house, affirming the act of theater and embracing the vitality of life.”

“Tim was a great friend and colleague, a truly gifted director, a phenomenal teacher, and generous mentor,” adds Florent Masse, a senior lecturer in the Department of French and Italian. “He will be terribly missed by everyone he inspired, mentored and coached. I’ll always cherish the opportunities I had to collaborate with Tim, learning from his work and vision for the development of the arts on campus, and to travel to France on two occasions with him and the students. As recently as last summer, we were celebrating an exciting day of theater at the Avignon Festival around a delicious meal Tim had graciously prepared for us in his apartment. It was a memorable night of dynamic and passionate exchanges on theater traditions, cultures and the arts. We will all miss Tim very much.”

Vasen also had an ongoing relationship with the Yale School of Drama, his alma mater, as an adviser to M.F.A. directing students on their thesis projects and M.F.A. Acting students on the third-year public presentations for “the profession.” “Once he committed full-time to Princeton,” notes Cadden, “Tim’s principal professional credit beyond Princeton was his work with final year actors and directors at the Yale School of Drama, where he prepared the actors for the scene work they would perform as an ensemble for agents and casting directors in New York and Los Angeles. He also advised directors on their choice of a final thesis project and the ways in which they might tackle it. Needless to say, his position at Yale spoke to the faith the country’s premier theatrical training ground had in the quality of his work with his student charges.”

Vasen is survived by his wife, Leslie Brauman; his children, Sam and Rosie; his mother, Sally Vasen Alter of Los Angeles, California; his father, Richard Vasen of Houston, Texas; and his brother, Dan Vasen of Corbett, Oregon.

A Facebook community has been created to share recollections and tributes …

Donations to a special fund that has been set up to assist the Vasen family with moving forward as they transition to their life without Tim can me made at YouCaring

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