Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

STAGE PRESENCE: "Theater has informed my life," says Barbara Herzberg. "Theater is the only art other than music which requires participation. It's more than just reading, more than just a text. It doesn't come alive unless you participate in it and see it performed. There is nothing like it." Ms. Herzberg, teacher and actress, is eager to share her love of theater with students and audiences.

Princeton Resident Barbara Herzberg Shares Love of Theater and Teaching

Imagine a world without theater. No heightened anticipation before the curtain rises. No stunning connection between actors and audiences when they share a moment in time, never to be repeated in exactly the same way again. No spontaneous burst of applause to underscore a supreme reading of a line, a unique interpretation, a perfect presentation.

All the high tech advantages of our super-charged electronic world still cannot compete with that singular rapport of actor and audience together in an auditorium.

"There is nothing like live theater," declares Barbara Herzberg. "Nothing compares. For me, theater illustrates history. It was through theater that I began to understand history. It shows what people were thinking about, what was important to them at any given time. The Greeks wrote plays about religion and myths. Theater is part of religion. Then, move on through the ages. Take the Restoration. You see people interested in behavior. You learn how people behaved, what they wore, what their houses looked like.

"Theater is the best way to learn about psychology by taking on a role," continues Ms. Herzberg. "Ibsen deals with the repression of women, and Shakespeare is in a class by himself in the insight he gives to the way people behave. Shakespeare is bottomless."

Road Shows

Ms. Herzberg is expansive and enthusiastic about her love of the theater. As an actress and a teacher of drama and literature, she has been engaged in theater for her adult life.

Her interest began when she was a girl, she recalls. "I was interested in theater, but it wasn't too interested in me. I was hard to cast because of being short, but in high school, I did get a part in Joan of Lorraine. Also, I didn't get to see many plays because Cincinnati was not a theater town, although some road shows came."


Born in Cincinnati, Barbara was the only child of Estelle and Leon Joseph. The family lived in Cincinnati except for three years in northern Michigan when Barbara was a young girl.

"I went to a very nice high school, Walnut Hills, in Cincinnati," she remembers, "and I liked English but was terrible in math."

A good student, math notwithstanding, Barbara participated in the new Advanced Placement program, which included taking college level courses while in high school.

"That was challenging and wonderful for me," she says. "People at that school were smart, and there were marvelous teachers. Ed Sauer was a professor at Harvard, and he came and taught English. I later modeled my own teaching after him. He didn't treat us like kids, and he knew so much. The discussions were great."

Strange Noises

Even as a little girl, Barbara was caught up in the drama of performances, including listening to the opera. "From the time I was really little, before I could read, I'd sit in front of the radio and listen to the Metropolitan Opera. My mother would open the opera book to the page of the opera being broadcast, and I'd look at it. I did that every Saturday."

Her interest in opera continued as she got older, and she ushered for the Cincinnati Summer Opera. "I loved this. The Opera performed at a park in the zoo, and outside by a lake were exotic birds and seals and sea lions. The singers had to compete with some very strange noises, very strange harmonics!"

In high school, Barbara wrote for the school yearbook and newspaper, and also belonged to a sorority, and wrote for that as well. She enjoyed friendships with her sorority sisters, but was also determined to change some aspects of sorority life. Looking back, she notes, "I was very proud that I changed the traditional 'Hell Week' into 'Help Week', which made a lot more sense."

Barbara especially admired her father, and enjoyed accompanying him to shows performed at his men's club. "He was in the investment business, but he loved to write," she recalls. "He was a very good writer and a great wit. They had shows similar to those at the Gridiron of the National Press Club in Washington.

"I admired my father very much, especially his sense of humor and world view, and I tried to emulate him. I think I have."

After graduating from high school in 1956, Barbara headed for Oberlin College, where she majored in English and minored in speech. There was no theater major at the time, but she did belong to the drama club, and had acting opportunities.

Male Clown

"Stan McLaughlin was director of the drama club, and he would cast me. The apogee was Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker and the Queen in The Cave Dwellers. I also appeared in Shakespeare, including Much Ado and Measure For Measure, and I got to play a male clown in He Who Gets Slapped. In addition, I did a lot of work backstage."

During the summer while still in college, Barbara also had two seasons of summer stock experience in Michigan, and the company performed a new play each week.

"There is nothing to compare with one-week stock," says Ms. Herzberg. "You try very hard to learn the cues at the beginning and end of speeches. You'd have a rehearsal on Tuesday afternoon, and Tuesday evening you'd open. Later, everyone had to help strike the set, and you could be there through the night."


And you always had to be prepared for the unexpected. She recalls one night when she played the starring role in The Diary of Anne Frank. "At the end, I am speaking, and then abruptly interrupted by the sound effects of the arrival of the Nazis. The audio of the German voices somehow didn't get played, and I was left to improvise."

The experience of summer stock was invaluable in so many ways, she adds. "When I was not in a play, I tried to sit in on rehearsals to learn everything I could. That was very good preparation for Playhouse in the Park later. I also took notes for the director, and learned to write in the dark!"

By the time of graduation from Oberlin, however, Barbara was not certain about pursuing a career in the theater. "I knew I loved to act, and loved having an audience, and I wanted to know if I should try it, so I asked Stan McLauglin. He said, 'I would never tell anyone I liked to go into the theater.' I knew I was difficult to cast. I was small and not an ingenue."

Stage Presence

Mr. McLaughlin did add, however, that of the two most impressive performances he had seen at Oberlin, one was hers. He also pointed out that her small stature notwithstanding, "When Barbara steps on stage, she grows three feet!"

So, it turned out that theater was indeed to be very much a part of her future. Whatever her size, Barbara's stage presence was potent. She could compel the audience. Says Jewel Seehaus-Fisher, artistic director of Teacher's Theater of New Jersey: "She is remarkably talented, with enormous stage presence. When she walks on stage, the level of energy and interest soars. And she is also very, very funny. I think the world of her."

After graduation, Barbara was approached by friends from Oberlin who wanted to start a theater in Cincinnati. "They asked me to join them, and I said 'You're crazy! Cincinnati's not a theater town.' But I decided to try it, and we started the theater in a caretaker's home in a beautiful park near the art museum, and called it Playhouse in the Park. They got together some investments, and it was an Equity company. My job was with props, and I did some small parts. My best role was the lion in Androcles and the Lion.


"Another time, when we did Our Town, the actress playing Mrs. Webb was in an accident, and I had to go on. I didn't know the lines, and used a book. It was a nightmare, but we got through it.

"It was a lot of hard work, exhausting, but also a lot of fun. On opening night, we were still gluing burlap on the walls. But we were received well, and got audiences. I am willing to say that I saw that theater as the beginning of the renaissance of Cincinnati. Playhouse in the Park was one of the most exciting things I ever did. It continues to this day, and is a fine regional theater."

After one season, however, Barbara decided to move on. By now, she was interested in graduate school, and she wanted to try her luck in the east. Her parents may have been reluctant to see her go, but they supported her decision.

Summer Program

"My father, especially, was very supportive of my theater work," says Barbara. "He liked to watch me on stage, and the biggest compliment was when he said, 'I completely forgot you were my daughter.'

"I went to Tufts University in Medford, near Boston, and I especially liked the Arena Theater there. I liked the summer program and that you could get credits for acting."

While she was working toward her master's degree in theater, Barbara was involved with another theaterical endeavor, the Image Theater. "In a brownstone behind Copley Square, there was a tiny little place, like a coffeehouse theater. You had to make an entrance from outside and come through the audience. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience, and I made a lot of great friends."

Also while at Tufts, Barbara got her first taste of teaching. "I had a fellowship and taught voice and diction. I had never studied it, and the course had a 2-hour lab, but I found I began to like it." She later taught English at a junior college in Boston.

During this time, she also had the memorable experience of appearing in a Gay Nineties melodrama at the Red Garter Theater in Boston.

"A friend wanted a bunch of us to get together and do this," she explains. "It was basically at a bar in the basement of the Charles Theater. I was in charge of exposition — I had to do speeches. The audience was encouraged to hiss and boo, and was served beer and wine. By the second show, they were pretty well-oiled and took to throwing things. I had a gown with quite a bit of decolletage, and a lot of peanuts were hurled my way. Once, I even got a black eye!

First Company

"Word got out to my students, who were too young to come to the Red Garter, and they were wondering 'What was Miss Joseph doing in that place?'"

Also, while she was at Tufts, the new Loeb Theater at Harvard opened in 1964 in -conjunction with the quadrennial of Shakespeare's birth. "They did a Shakespeare season," she reports, "and I was in the first company to open that theater. It was state-of-the-art, really special. The stage could be a thrust, a proscenium, or an arena. Dan Seltzer, who later came to Princeton, was running the company, and I was acting."

That summer was notable for a personal reason as well. Barbara's future husband, Norman Herzberg, was at M.I.T. studying for a Ph.D. in math, and the two met though friends.

"Norman liked the theater, but he couldn't afford to pay, so when he came he sat up in the light booth," remembers Ms. Herzberg. "He came on a motorcycle, and I knew he was there when he left his helmet on my dressing table."


Previously, Barbara had gone home for a summer to act in the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, and she returned again to care for her mother who had a stroke. While there, she taught speech and English at a branch of the University of Kentucky. When her mother recovered, Barbara returned to Boston and taught English composition at Northeastern University.

"This also gave me an opportunity to teach Shakespeare at night," she adds. "There were 81 guys in my class, who were majoring in engineering. That taught me so much about how to teach Shakespeare."

Community Players

Barbara had received a Master's in theater, and she and Norman were married in 1967. The following year they left New England for Princeton, where Dr. Herzberg had a job with the Center for Communications Research.

The first thing I did when we moved to Princeton was to try out for the Community Players," says Ms. Herzberg. "I became a board member, and was with them for many years. It was a way for me to meet people.

"I also worked for one season at McCarter. Arthur Lithgow was artistic director, and George Hearn had leading roles in the ensemble. We did Twelfth Night, and I loved being in The Beggar's Opera with George. Arthur Lithgow was very good at his job, but it could be crazy. We did student matinees, with shortened versions, so you had to learn two scripts."

Ms. Herzberg also appeared in productions at Theatre Intime. "There were no girls at Princeton then, so they needed women. Then, Dan Seltzer came to Princeton and taught English at the University. He staged Henry IV, Part I, so he could play Falstaff, and he asked me to play Mistress Quickly. Of course, I said yes. He would teach the play at the University, and then turn it into a production performed at Intime."

By this time, Ms. Herzberg had an ongoing love affair both with acting and teaching. She taught high school theater and English at Rutgers Prep in New Brunswick, a co-ed prep school, K-12, which had been founded in 1766.

"I loved teaching high school," she says. "At first, I had stage fright, but then I discovered I had an aptitude for it. I was able to teach a semester of Shakespeare each year, as well as the history of drama, including comic theater, from Aristophanes and Plautus to Neil Simon."

Great Connection

Not satisfied with one master's degree, in the 1980s, Ms. Herzberg traveled to England in search of another. "I found that Wroxton College had a great connection with the Shakespeare Institute. It was near Stratford, and you studied whatever was being played at Stratford that season. I went for three summers and also had a sabbatical. I got a master's in Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I love England. I had great teachers, and it was really a dream-come-true."

Returning to Rutgers Prep, now she added directing to her repertoire of theater skills. "After a while, I got to like directing" she admits. "We worked in a tiny little theater, with no stage, and we had to use the space in many different ways. In my directing, I tried never to repeat the same configuration of the space in one year.


"We did two plays a year, as well as a student-run 'Spotlight'. We did Shakespeare, Moliere, Brecht, and a Feydeau farce, which was very, very funny. My plays were hard work, and there was a lot of enthusiasm from the kids. They very much appreciated that they were not doing junk, and it was very satisfying for me."

Her colleague and friend at Rutgers Prep, Susan Gooen attests to the impact Ms. Herzberg had on the students. "I was also lucky enough to be the mother of two kids Barbara taught. I know how much my children appreciated her class and how much they took away from it. Both felt she was able to make literature come alive, in particular, when she was teaching drama.

"I remember one day passing her classroom and there seemed to be a commotion. I peeked in, and they were doing a scene from Macbeth. They needed thunder and lightning, so she pulled me in, and I was put in charge of lights and sound effects!

"There was so much enjoyment and appreciation in Barbara's classes. The students not only knew what they were reading but appreciated it. In addition to teaching, she ran the drama department, and it was always an exciting event when it was Barbara Herzberg production."

Infectious Wit

Adds Akin Salawu, who was Ms. Herzberg's student at Rutgers Prep: "Although we were high school students, when we entered rehearsal, Barbara treated us as if we were seasoned professionals and gleefully dared us to rise to the challenge. Even held up against professors from Stanford and Columbia, Barbara is undeniably the most significant teacher I've ever had, primarily because the woman can spot potential in a dull tortoise. Artistically speaking, she knows just how to nudge and probe until she gets the rise she's after.

"Barbara Herzberg is an original. There will never be another creature quite like her. Those of us who were fortunate enough to learn from her get to carry her infectious wit, delightful charm, and labyrinth of a mind with us forever and a day."

A new opportunity came along in 1991, while Ms. Herzberg was still teaching at Rutgers Prep. "The Dodge Foundation was starting a program using theater teachers across the state," she explains. "It was a wonderful program with 50 teachers involved. We had weekends in New Brunswick looking at plays at George Street, and we had a week-long program at Princeton in which all the teachers had to write a one-act, two-character play.

"That was so exciting. Everyone was so involved. Everyone had such energy and excitement, and they took that energy and experience back to school. We did remarkable things. And they provided us opportunities to have workshops with top theatre people, such as Ann Bogart and Anna Strasberg."

After the program ended five years later, Ms. Herzberg and others wanted to continue the project. "We didn't want to let it go, and formed the Teachers Theater of New Jersey. Now we have 35 members from all over the state, and we do the same type of things, including writing plays, with three productions a year. We do stage readings of the original plays at the Playwrights Theater in Madison, and we have also recently expanded to Atlantic City. The focus of the work is to give playwrights a hearing."

After nearly 30 years, Ms. Herzberg retired from Rutgers Prep in 2000, and was briefly at loose ends. Never one to hesitate, however, she soon launched into two new projects.

Off the Page

"At first, I didn't know what to do. Then, through the exercise program at the Senior Center, I heard about CWW — Community Without Walls, whose mission is to help people age in place. We joined that, and it has been wonderful. I've met a lot of people, and I was asked to form a play-reading group. We meet once a month, and have 16 members.

Then, in 2001, Ms. Herzberg began a new teaching career when she become part of Evergreen Forum, sponsored by the Princeton Senior Resource Center. She was on the steering committee, and taught one of the first courses in the program, "Plays Off the Page."

"The idea was to have a group for life-long learning, which would be peer-taught, and meet in the day," she explains. "It was also to be interactive, with student participation, not just listening to lectures. It has really struck a chord. We have grown from four classes to 14, and it has been wonderful for me. After I retired, I discovered I really missed teaching. This is an opportunity to work with very bright people, and people of my own generation, so we share a vocabulary.

"In my class, "Plays Off the Page," there is a lot of speaking and discussion, and people can discover their inner 'ham.' They are such good sports and really participate. They are interested enough to try to do a scene several different ways, and they have discovered how things were done through the ages and in different theaters in the past.


"I do Shakespeare every spring, and we have also done Irish, Russian, and ancient Greek plays, as well as Strinberg and Ibsen. Evergreen has shown that there was a need in town for people to discuss things and be able to participate. It seems to have fulfilled a real desire on the part of people to continue life-long learning."

Ms. Herzberg's class is one of the most popular, and there is not always room for all those wishing to participate, says Edith Jeffrey, chair of Evergreen Forum. "I came to Evergreen because of Barbara's course, and it was so gripping that I couldn't think about anything else for that two hours. It was totally absorbing. Her knowledge, background, and passion for theater are unique.

"Participation in class makes such a difference in how you learn and how engaged you are. We learned what a play is and how it comes to life. I had very much enjoyed theater before, but now I know about different things that go into a production to make it work; how actors move with relation to one another and what people who aren't speaking should be doing.

"We are so fortunate to have Barbara do this, and the community is fortunate that Evergreen Forum can offer it."

Engaged Spectator

Not only does Ms. Herzberg enjoy acting and teaching theater, she is also an engaged spectator, and she has her favorites. "I was enough of a fan of Laurence Olivier that when I was teaching, my students used to tease me about it," she reports. "Now, I admire Michael Gambon and Simon Russell Beale. I think Beale is the premier actor of his generation.

"In fact, when I was in Stratford, he was just starting out, and was playing a small part in The Winter's Tale. When he was on stage, I couldn't take my eyes off him. He was 26 — this little pudgy kid — and I did something I had never done before. I waited at the stage door for him to come out, and asked if I could buy him a drink. We went to the Dirty Duck pub, and I told him I thought he was wonderful."

Reflecting on her own career, Ms. Herzberg is proudest of helping to start the Playhouse in Cincinnati and teaching at Rutgers Prep. "When I retired from Rutgers, I asked for a Memory Book, and I got 100 pages of comments and letters from the kids and colleagues. I am proud of the work we did there, especially with the kids who had never known Shakespeare and what they accomplished."

They, after all, are the future actors and audiences for the theater, and availability of live theater to young people is so important, believes Ms. Herzberg. She worries that high ticket prices can put it out of reach.

"I feel very strongly that if someone doesn't do something to make it possible for young people to go, I worry whether it will continue. We took our Rutgers kids to see Othello in New York and Death of a Salesman, and they were enthralled. Kids should have these opportunities."

Ms. Herzberg has done her part to make it happen. Theater surely is her passion. Sharing its unique capacity to communicate ideas has been not only her great pleasure, but a grand adventure, and truly a labor of love.

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