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Making an Impact: Playwright Brings Creative
Bent to New Role as Thurgood Marshall Provost

By Jan Jennings | June 16, 2006

Allan Havis
Allan Havis

The author of 13 published plays and a playwright who has had his plays produced at theaters across the United States and Europe, artist and educator Allan Havis will channel his creative juices in a new direction when he takes over as provost of Thurgood Marshall College Aug. 1.

“Shaping and maintaining a college can be a creative expression,” says Havis. Active leadership dealing with the Thurgood Marshall staff, faculty, and students and the community, as well as the department of theatre and dance, of which he has been a member since 1988, is a challenge Havis welcomes.

He likens his role as provost to that of a bus driver. “It may sound silly,” Havis says, “but if the bus driver is happy, it is likely that this good will and cheer will impact all those who step foot on his bus that day.”

Havis says he would like to extend the history and tradition of Thurgood Marshall College (TMC) with good energy and warmth. Havis succeeds music professor and pianist Cecil Lytle, who served in the position 17 years and has returned to full-time teaching as a member of the music department faculty. Linguistics professor Robert Kluender served as acting provost in 2005-2006 during the campus search for the new provost.

Though he will make no guess, at this point, as to his possible provost-ship longevity, Havis is brimming with ideas and ready to jump in – not in an “earthshaking way, but in an artistic, but practical way.”

Assuming all is well on the home front, Havis hopes to reach out to the community and beyond.
The home front, of course, is Thurgood Marshall College, its staff, students and the faculty associated with it. With a staff of 30, a budget of approximately $2 million, faculty members and some 3,000 plus students, Havis sees his role as that of a mayor or governor in charge of defining and managing a specific community. The provost also is one of the faces to represent UCSD, and specifically Thurgood Marshall, to the public. And as Thurgood Marshall provost, Havis also works with the Preuss School, Gompers Charter School, and Spelman College in Atlanta, like a sister college to Thurgood Marshall.

Havis wants to make connections. He wants to bring undergraduate students and graduate students together in specific projects. He sees students as resources and he wants the college and the department of theatre and dance to work with students on performances that could be presented across the border, at various venues in San Diego, even at Spelman College.
“I think it would be great to do artistic things for off-campus activities – but not tax the budget,” Havis says. Among his ideas are students pitching in at senior centers, Children’s Hospital, perhaps working in short-term “I-don’t-know-if-I-can-say-happenings” with the homeless, new immigrants and environmentalists. “Nothing earthshaking or long term,” says Havis, “but activities to involve our students with the community.”

For example, at Children’s Hospital, Havis see the possibility for students to learn about institutional care for children, about psychological support and support beyond what the families can give. “This could be a four-unit class with a paper, documentation, and an advisory faculty member,” Havis says.

At some “shabby senior centers,” Havis sees an opportunity where students could help to improve the design and convert spaces into more livable, agreeable habitats. “Young people need to see the aging process and respect it more. Students need to work with a sector of society not seen on campus. We are a gated community, a sequestered community. We need to reach out.”
Havis says he views this exposure of students to community and vice versa as natural happenings. “I look at it in a pragmatic way,” he says. “We cannot stop the aging process or change the budget at a senior center, but we can interact and we can let the community know that UCSD is more than just degrees.

“Thurgood Marshall has a philosophy of scholar and citizen. I am intoxicated by the fact that every few years a new group of Marshall students graduate. I hope I can help shape their philosophy – again, nothing earthshaking, but in some meaningful way.”
Havis says that it is the possibility of seeing his “little dreams” realized that is part of the appeal of his new post as provost. He is taking a “little detour” now from his more active playwriting days to “see what comes of it. If there is momentum and it grows, who knows where it might lead?” he muses.

Whatever the road ahead, Havis says he knows he must balance idealism with practicality, and adds “I will be very excited to see that first project off campus. I did things when I was in college that I’m asking our students to do.”

The Haunting of Jim Crow - Allan Havis
The Haunting of Jim Crow - Allan Havis

Havis did undergraduate studies at Pratt Institute and City College of New York. He holds a master’s degree from Hunter College and a master of fine arts degree from Yale University.
During the mid-1970s, Havis worked with students in public schools who had behavior problems. Their punishment sounds more like a reward. “These were students who had no access to cultural activities,” Havis says. “They were sent to the Guggenheim Museum three days a week. We took them to museums, Broadway plays, dances. The program was ‘Learning to Read Though the Arts.’ ”

Havis’s own interests, since a young boy, have revolved around the literary and visual arts, with a special interest also in math. At age 8, he was writing “book reports from my imagination and selling them for $1 each.” The buyers were other youths with less enlightened  imaginations.
While in high school he was interested in graphic design, visual arts and math. He decided to study architecture in college but quickly realized that his true leanings were the arts, theater, and writing.

And a funny thing happened on the way to getting his degree. While he was an undergraduate, Havis’s father was on an airplane seated next to Charlotte Zolotow of Harper & Row. As their conversation progressed, his father mentioned that his son was a writer. Zolotow gave him her card and said to have his son call her. Havis called and learned that she was looking for novels for boys 9 years old and up.

“On spec” Havis wrote Albert the Astronomer. “She said the first draft was too fantasized,” says Havis, who then put it aside. Not long after, his father died. Zolotow contacted him with sympathy and said that perhaps that was a good time to revise and complete that novel.

He did so and Albert the Astronomer (the Albert named after Einstein) was published by Harper & Row in 1978. It is particularly meaningful to Havis because, as he says, “I was able to paint a verbal portrait of my Dad in that book.” It is his only novel.
Today, Havis’s artistic concentration is playwriting. But in his “spare time” he also has dabbled in watercolors and detailed sketches. In his office is a watercolor sketch de did of Einstein and a few others of unspecific persons. He also has a detailed sketch of Russian dramatist and writer Chekhov with fantasy images – a tiny figure holding a candle, a tiny face that could be a portrait – included in Chekhov’s shoulder garment. What do they mean? “I don’t know,” he says. Pure fantasy.

As for playwriting, why that instead of some other form of writing?
“Writing plays is a quick way to compose a narrative intrigue as compared to a screenplay or a novel,” Havis explains. “The playwright leaves out a lot of information for the actors, director and designers to add.

“In addition, the composition of a play calls into question a dramatic event that merits a witness (an audience) and the conveyance of storytelling via dialogue.  I love to write dialogue and I write in the manner of improvisation. Other forms of writing usually asks for pre-planning and studied logic.”

Havis’s commissions include those from England’s Chichester Festival, Sundance, Ted Danson’s Anasazi, South Coast Repertory, San Diego Repertory, Mixed Blood Theatre, and Malashock Dance. His plays also have been produced at the Old Globe Theatre, Seattle’s ACT, Odyssey, Long Warf, American Repertory Theatre, Hartford Stage, Virginia Stage and the Philadelphia Theatre Company. His commissioned drama, Restless Spirits, is a centerpiece of the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 30th season celebration. His published plays include Morocco, Hospitality, and The Haunting of Jim Crow.

Havis says that while presiding over Thurgood Marshall as provost, he plans to write one play a year and he also will teach an MFA course in playwriting. “As time goes by I may teach more, but for now I will just teach the one playwriting course.”

Of great importance to Havis are creativity and the appreciation of human resources. He hopes to kindle an “alchemy” between Thurgood Marshall, the department of theatre and dance, and the community.

And, he sees himself as that happy bus driver. All aboard!

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