Ralph Alan Cohen (A.M.’69, Ph.D.’73 English) came to graduate school at Duke focused on modern American and English literature, but one professor swayed him to look much farther back in time.
“At Duke, I encountered George Walton Williams in his class on William Shakespeare,” Cohen told Duke Magazine in 2002. “He was one of those teachers who seem to embody his subject. It turned my perspective around.
“His extraordinary example and his utter belief in the critical importance of every word [of Shakespeare] are what I first remember when I think of Duke.”
Guided by Williams, who became his Ph.D. adviser, Cohen embraced Shakespeare as a passion and a career. He is founding executive director and now director of mission at the American Shakespeare Center, which focuses on the performance and study of Shakespeare’s works using their original staging conditions. The center is home to the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre.
Cohen is also professor emeritus at James Madison University and currently the Gonder Professor of Shakespeare and Performance at Mary Baldwin College, where he founded the graduate program in Shakespeare and Performance. His efforts as a teacher, director, scholar, and promoter of the works of the Bard earned him the 2014 Sam Wanamaker Award, the most prestigious honor from Shakespeare’s Globe.
In recognition of his accomplishments, The Graduate School has named Cohen the 2016 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award. The honor is given annually to a graduate of a Duke Ph.D. program who has rendered distinguished service to his or her field of endeavor, to Duke, and to society in general. (Video: Conversation between Cohen and Dean Paula D. McClain)
Cohen will be recognized during the school’s Ph.D. hooding ceremony on May 14, where he will address this year’s doctoral graduates.
From Pre-med to the Bard
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, Cohen went to a high school whose mascot was, fittingly, the Poets. Literary pursuits, however, were not in his career plans when he began his undergraduate study at Dartmouth. He initially set his sights on a pre-med track, but two excellent English teachers inspired him to try a different path, one that led him to the Duke English Ph.D. program after he graduated from Dartmouth in 1967.
While Williams helped Cohen find his direction at Duke, Cohen said it was the support of his wife Judy that got him through graduate school, including typing his dissertation.
“Once, when I was explaining to my supervisor a formatting decision Judy had made, Professor Williams asked, ‘Just how much of this dissertation is owing to the sainted Mrs. Cohen?’ ” he said.
After receiving his doctorate, Cohen joined the faculty at James Madison University in 1973. He established the university’s study-abroad program and earned JMU’s awards for both teacher of the year and scholar of the year. He delivered the university’s 1985 commencement address, and in 1987, he received the Outstanding Faculty Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Cohen has twice edited special teaching issues of the Shakespeare Quarterly. He has also published articles on teaching the Bard and Shakespeare, Jonson, and Elizabethan staging. His belief in the importance of how Shakespeare is taught led to his directing four National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes for college teachers. For his work in pedagogy, the Folger Shakespeare Library awarded him its Shakespeare Steward Award for “the innovative teaching of Shakespeare in America’s classrooms.” In addition, his book—ShakesFear and How to Cure It: A Handbook for Teaching Shakespeare—received the 2007 Association of Educational Publishers Award for Best Professional Development Book. He is currently expanding the book for Arden Shakespeare Press.
Building Shakespeare’s American Home
The most visible piece of Cohen’s contributions to the study of Shakespeare can be found in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, where the Blackfriars Playhouse stands as an embodiment of his commitment to performing Shakespeare’s works in their original conditions.
The seeds for the theatre were sown in the 1980s, during which Cohen expanded his activities to directing. He has directed 35 productions of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, including the first modern production of Thomas Middleton’s Your Five Gallants.
In 1988, Cohen and one of his JMU students, Jim Warren, cofounded the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, a traveling theatre company. The troupe produced briskly paced performances using staging conditions that were as close as possible to what was used in Shakespeare’s time, such as minimal sets, simple costumes, and, most importantly, universal lighting that makes the audience visible to the actors and an interactive part of the experience.
The troupe’s first show was Richard III, performed at a Presbyterian church. That kicked off a tour of rural high schools. Two years later, the company wowed a group of scholars at the Shakespeare Association of America with Julius Caesar. More buzz followed, and the troupe soon saw a jump in demand for its services. By the end of the 1990s, it had performed in 47 states, Washington, D.C., and five foreign countries.
As the company’s success grew, Cohen was approached about building a permanent home for the troupe in Staunton. That led to the Blackfriars Playhouse, whose construction was overseen by Cohen. The all-timber theatre opened in 2001, providing a historically accurate backdrop to the company’s Elizabethan staging techniques. Literary journalist Ron Rosenbaum called it “Ralph Alan Cohen’s field of dreams.” David Skinner, editor of Humanities magazine, wrote that watching a play there was “exciting, and even unsettling.”
In 2008, the company changed its name to the American Shakespeare Center. The center puts on 364 performances a year, drawing about 65,000 attendees annually. It is a partner in Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare-focused graduate program and holds institutes and seminars on teaching Shakespeare in universities and high schools.
“Something happened 400 years ago in this one little place,” Cohen said of Shakespeare’s original indoor theatre. “There was some sort of lightning in a bottle.… If you want to study that lightning, what better thing to do than build the bottle? That’s what we did; we built the bottle.”