‘Everything was performance’: Drama scholar, UC Berkeley theater professor Mel Gordon dies at 71

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Mel Gordon, a drama scholar and retired UC Berkeley professor of theater, dance and performance studies, or TDPS, died March 22 at the age of 71.

An unconventional scholar, Gordon’s research interests ranged from widely read topics such as the Stanislavski acting technique to fringe histories of avant-garde theater, according to Sheila Gordon, Mel Gordon’s former spouse and close friend.

“In his research, he tended toward unpursued dark corners — areas of theater people neglected or hadn’t noticed,” said Mark Griffith, a campus professor of classics as well as a colleague of Mel Gordon’s in TDPS. “Mel thought it shouldn’t just be drudgery, pedantics and so on.”

Mel Gordon began teaching in 1975 as an assistant professor, and later associate professor, of the drama department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he remained until 1989. He also taught acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute from 1978 to 1980 and the Michael Chekhov Acting Studio from 1983 to 1988.

Arriving at the campus TDPS department in 1990, Mel Gordon went on to spend the next 25 years of his career at UC Berkeley. He taught courses on theater history, acting and playwriting, including a popular course on the history of bad acting, until his retirement in 2015.

“Everything was performance to him,” said Maer Ben-Yisrael, Mel Gordon’s nephew. “Lecturing was definitely a performance to him, and that’s why he did it. And he did it to inform, but he also did it to entertain. He wasn’t a pure academic.”

Mel Gordon developed his UC Berkeley course on bad acting after perceiving a scarcity of good theater in the Bay Area, according to Ben-Yisrael.

“There would be people standing up in the back to hear him lecture on this,” Ben-Yisrael added.

Mel Gordon’s legacy reached further abroad as well, with his written publications, lectures and theater productions appearing internationally.

Mel Gordon authored more than a dozen books on topics including American, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish experimental theater and popular culture. His best known works include “The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror,” the internationally published text “The Stanislavsky Technique: Russia” and “Voluptuous Panic: the Erotic World of Weimar Berlin.”

Mel Gordon’s writing was shaped by his firsthand experience in acting and directing. As a researcher, he “preferred direct personal connections to things he was studying, as opposed to abstract theorizations,” Griffith said. As a director, Mel Gordon led theater productions in Berkeley, as well as New York City, Paris, Frankfurt, Zurich and Houston.

More recent works by Mel Gordon were directed at popular audiences and nontraditional artists, performers and directors. According to Ben-Yisrael, Mel Gordon had been working on a book on 1920s flapper culture and American fascist love cults at the time of his passing.

“His brain was just full of facts and information — it was just incredible. But it wasn’t ever boring, it was just really fascinating,” Sheila Gordon said. “He would tell you stories about certain artists or directors or performers throughout history, and he’d have some little unknown story about that person.”

Mel Gordon died from complications related to renal failure, according to Sheila Gordon.

Contact Michele Meltzer at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @michele_meltzer.