Gerald Freedman, Artistic Director, Great Lakes Theater Festival


When Gerald Freedman received his Cleveland Arts Prize Special Citation in 1990, he was less than halfway into his 12-year run as Great Lakes Theatre Festival's artistic director. By then, he had already set a new standard for classical theater in northeastern Ohio.

Freedman came to Cleveland with an astonishing portfolio: his first New York production, in 1957, was as assistant director on West Side Story. A decade later, he brought into the world a courageous little rock musical known as Hair! After directing plays for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, he served as the organization's artistic director for four years and later held similar posts at the Acting Company and the American Shakespeare Festival. He had written for the stage and performed as a singer. He had directed for film and television. He had mounted 30 operas around the country.

That résumé notwithstanding, Freedman accepted the offer to come lead a regional theater in Cleveland. Prior to 1985, his work had never been collected in one place. At Great Lakes, he could watch the same space transformed with each productionand measure his growth as an artist. That this opportunity was available an hour away from his childhood home in Lorain, Ohio, was a bonus.

Freedman used his extraordinary theater connections to bring world-class theater to northeastern Ohio. Visiting artists were happy to take significant pay cuts for the chance to work with this "actor's director." Freedman knew how to move out of the actors' way, to give them room to create their characters. Hal Holbrook, Elizabeth Franz, Olympia Dukakis, Piper Laurie and Robert Foxworthy all performed here under his direction.

Freedman productions were by definition, challenging. They were also fully realized, thanks to the renowned design teams he assembled. Freedman's own list of GLTF highlights included The Seagull, King Lear, Death of a Salesman, Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, The Bakkhai and his own haunting adaptation of The Dybbuk.

His productions were always characterized by their integrity. He never claimed to achieve perfection, but promised that his work "would always be a live thing, and always working toward some important level of communication."

During Freedman's tenure, GLTF brought in nationally known experts for symposia on Brecht and Weil, Horton Foote, Adrienne Kennedy and Arthur Miller. His most remarkable coup was convincing Broadway legend, George Abbott, to celebrate his 100th birthday at Great Lakes, a party that included revivals of two Abbott musicals. Abbott directed one of them, Broadway!, 61 years after its original production!

Freedman left Cleveland in 1998. Since 1991, he had been living part-time in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he concurrently served as dean of the North Carolina School of the Arts. The GLTF board wanted a full-time Cleveland director.

Today his primary residence is in Winston-Salem, where he teaches classical theater to some of America's most promising students. This man who claims Jerome Robbins, Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, Lee Strassberg, Harold Clurman and George Abbott as mentors is now himself the Gray Eminence. And North Carolina has given him a pulpit.

Freedman remains a sought-after director, speaker and panelist. In 2000, he was the first American director ever invited to direct at London's Globe Theater.

Borrowing his work ethic from George Abbott, Gerald Freedman has no plans to retire until sometime after his 100th birthday.

—Faye Sholiton

Cleveland Arts Prize
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