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Remembering Julian Olf
Monday, February 11, 2019
Monday, February 11, 2019
Professor Emeritus Julian Olf passed away in early January. Julian came to the Department of Theater in 1983 and retired in the spring of 2009. In between, he gifted students, faculty and staff with his wealth of expertise as a dramaturg, his creativity as a playwright and screenwriter, and his vision as a director. He was an exacting teacher and collaborator who challenged everyone working on a production with him to bring their best to the work, and he inspired and mentored many students to their own successes in theater and film. Our condolences go out to his family and friends, most especially to his wife Patricia and children Kimi, Tory, and Matt.
Although my time in the Department of Theater only overlapped Julian's time for a year and a half, he impressed me with his passion for his work and for our department, his rigorous and inspiring teaching, and the great kindnesses he showed to my son Niko, who was two years old then.
We asked some of Julian's colleagues and former students to write a few words in memory; please read what they had to say below.
We also invite people to revisit the inspiring issue of the Stages alumni magazine that was published upon his retirement:
We are thankful for all that Julian gave to his colleagues, students, friends, and family as well as to the audience members who experienced his work.
— Gina Kaufmann, Theater Chair
Forever in Medias Res
My most vivid memories of Julian are from classes - his tall frame dwarfing his chair as he reclined, arms crossed, peering out from above his signature mustache. He seemed a bit intimidating when I began his text analysis class my first semester at UMass Amherst, but as I got to know him I quickly learned nothing was further from the truth.
Julian's methods for breaking down a play were complex and his teaching was thorough and nuanced. His zeal never flagged, and he brought as much thoughtfulness and dedication to his interactions with students as he did to the subject matter itself. He paid assiduous attention to our work — his assessments of our progress were always insightful, and his criticism always constructive, in the truest sense of that word. His feedback both praised what was done well and suggested improvements - without tearing students down.
He took extraordinary delight in his students' success —I can recall his sharply raucous laughter at particularly pithy or well-crafted in-class observations — and his support continued after his students graduated, and long after his own tenure at UMass ended.
I reconnected with Julian in Sarasota, where I was then working at Asolo Rep and he and Patricia had retired. Our first post-UMass meeting was completely random — I was pumping gas at a convenience store when I heard his voice at the next pump over. We chatted briefly — it was unexpected, but lovely. We met a few times after that — I introduced him to my favorite barbecue restaurant, and got him tickets to a few productions at the Asolo. Julian's passion for the theatre and thirst for knowledge were as keen in his retirement as they were during his time at UMass. I'm so glad our paths continued to cross in Florida.
I regret I never got to tell Julian that his teaching was a factor in my getting hired at Asolo Rep. During my interview, the Producing Artistic Director singled out one of my writing samples for praise — a piece originally drafted for Julian's critical writing class. That it garnered such notice was a marker of Julian's profound impact on my writing style. He constantly pushed me to refine my work to what was most essential. It's a skill I'm still honing (I've crafted this piece with a copy of his writing maxims, the "Sayings of Olf," near at hand, so he's still giving me a boost).
I'm not sure exactly when I last saw Julian. I know it was at the Asolo, roughly a year before I left my position there — he was coming from a matinee, deep in animated discussion with his companions. I spotted him across the crowded lobby, waved, and we spoke for a few moments before going our separate ways.
I'm glad I didn't know it would be the last time I'd see him. Because now, in my mind's eye, he's forever in medias res, talking about a play as he steps outside into the sun.
I think he'd like that.
— Lauryn E. Sasso '06G
Dramaturg & Casting Associate, Asolo Repertory Theatre - 2006-2017
Marketing Sales Associate, The Gamm Theatre - 2018-present
Julian was a creatively brave professor! He always had some cockamamie idea brewing, but he also had the intellectual guts to execute it. He introduced me to many new ideas, and I thank him for his early influence on my artistic choices and pursuits. He will be missed and remembered - most fondly for his cowboy boots.
— Teri Parker Lewis, '99
A Challenge to Dig Deeper
I am heart-broken and struggle to find words to honor and thank Julian Olf for his immense heart, guidance, intellectual and emotional support during my time in the MFA Directing program at UMASS/Amherst (1999-2001). During those two years of intense study and struggle, Julian was instrumental in helping me define and develop my artistic voice, providing a critical counter-position where I could bounce-off ideas, questions and explorations. Equally, Julian challenged me to dig deeper and specify my thoughts, intentions and choices.
A memory: at the end of the Fall of 1999, the faculty asked me to propose a production for Spring 2000. I proposed Macbeth. The faculty rejected this proposal and asked for a second proposal. Thinking I could outwit them and force them to accept my original proposal, I submitted Heiner Mueller’s Hamletmachine, supposing that the text was so completely outside of the aesthetics and goals of the department, that the faculty would then accept my proposal for Macbeth. My strategy back-fired, and I was informed that I would be directing Mueller’s 10-page “tome” made famous by Robert Wilson’s production that premiered at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts when I was there in the undergraduate BFA acting program. Now I was nervous. I felt completely unprepared to take on this text. I was terrified.
I rushed to Julian’s office. I sat there, caddy-corner to his desk. He reclined behind his desk, surrounded by shelves brimming with books, scripts, papers and more. I felt claustrophobic and insufficient in this dense, intellectual “cave.” Neurotically rambling at Julian about my terror of not being able to fully understand all of the references and density of Mueller’s script, Julian casually leaned back in his chair and said “don’t worry – you do not have to know all of it. Just focus on what interests you.” I gasped.
A few weeks later, Julian attended a rehearsal. I was so incredibly nervous. I still felt like I had no idea what the play was about, but I had embraced Julian’s advice, and empowered the cast to explore the text and create images and moments based on their responses to the concepts and ideas of the text. During that particular rehearsal, actors had divided up into small groups of 2-6 people, each developing moments/events based on a line, word or sentence from the text that interested them/resonated for them. I observed and provided feedback on what they were developing. Julian sat there quietly for a long time. Then leaned over to me and said “I have never seen anything like this before, but this is Action Theatre” and then he left. I wasn’t sure if he “approved” or thought I was completely out of my mind….
A few days later at a production meeting, as I struggled to answer specific questions about the development and vision of the production, Julian came to my rescue: “She’s creating Action Theatre. It’s exciting!”
There are so many, many more moments and memories of Julia seared into my heart. I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity to know him and be mentored by him, and I miss his tall presence, his mustache, his intellectual wit and his booming, deep voice.
— Tanya Kane-Parry '01G
Director of the MFA in Television, Film and Theatre
Department of Theatre and Dance
California State University, Los Angeles
I am still in shock and disbelief! At my interview with Julian all those years ago, something clicked and I was so happy when he called to offer me the job at UMass Theater. It was to be my new home away from hom. Such sad, sad, news.
— Denise Wagner, retired secretary for the Department of Theater
What He Taught Us
I am deeply saddened by the news of Julian Olf’s death. He still seemed so young and vital, a person who really enjoyed his life and other people. Sincere condolences to his family, and especially to the great loves of his life: Patricia, Linda, and his daughter Kimiko.
Julian was a gifted teacher and academic leader who had an enormous impact on our Department and its students. He was the last “permanent” chair before we turned to a less unitary and more collegial style of rotating leadership shared among existing faculty. We all had to learn that we “contain multitudes,” or should at least be willing to try. Julian helped facilitate that change which has made the Department more diverse in outlook, production, and curriculum. Many have contributed to those important developments, but Julian led the way, often through difficult times.
Julian told me two stories from his past that influenced the man, teacher, and artist he became. The first was a boyhood experience with his Jewish grandmother who treated a painful sty by suddenly splashing his urine back into his eye to cure it. The lesson was simple and shocking—to survive, you had to rely on your own resources first and foremost; always be who you are, openly and without shame.
Another lesson came from a grandfather — whether real or fictional was never clear to me — who was a diamond cutter. He would study a given stone for hours and sometimes days to size up just the right angle at which to strike its surface to reveal its inner brilliance. That meticulous approach of careful study and decisive aim became hallmarks of Julian’s teaching as dramaturg, and as the director of brilliant but difficult plays, like Peter Handke’s Ride Across Lake Constance or Ionesco’s The Chairs. Both productions were unforgettable and challenging because Julian had the patience and skill to reveal their beauty.
At our last meeting, Julian asked me to forgive the things he couldn’t do. I’d rather remember what he did do and what he taught us.
— Richard Trousdell, Professor Emeritus