Celebrating Five Decades of Dunn’s Dramatic Vision
For nearly 50 years, College of Marin students have studied with acclaimed Drama Professor James Dunn, whose passion for theater and teaching culminates each spring in a celebration of Shakespeare and an extraordinary student theater production.
“I have loved teaching theater,” said Dunn, who turns 80 in February. Dunn founded the College of Marin Drama Department in 1964 and taught full time for 30 years. He served as chair of the department until 1994, directing more than 250 plays. He continues to teach Shakespeare and direct spring productions. “I’ve always tried to instill a love of the subject in my students. I love the idea of turning people on to another world that they didn’t even think about when coming to school in their wildest dreams, to give students a sense of who they are. I’ve loved every moment about being a teacher.”
Under Dunn’s tutelage, the drama program grew from an extracurricular campus activity to a professional grooming ground for successful actors, many of whom have earned critical acclaim in theater conservatories across the country including The Juilliard School, Carnegie Mellon, and Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre. Well-known names such as David Dukes, Robin Williams, Kathleen Quinlan, Joel Blum, and Leslie Hendrix are just a few of the many former College of Marin drama students who have gone on to build successful careers.
“I haven’t been in the business just to teach professional actors,” Dunn said. “My idea is to expand students’ learning abilities and creative abilities, to do things they didn’t think they could do before. That’s what I’m excited about.”
Students have benefited from Dunn’s long-term relationship with the Mountain Play, where he served as artistic director for almost 30 years. “Jim was a wonderful bridge between the artistic development of the Mountain Play and College of Marin,” said Sara Pearson, executive director and producer at Mountain Play Association. “As the chair of the College’s theater department, he trained and worked with up and coming artists, many of whom went on to become part of the mainstay of the Mountain Play’s talent pool.”
There too, Dunn’s vision catapulted the once languishing company into a first class community resource.
“His vision gave the Mountain Play its character,” Pearson said. “We all credit Jim for giving the Mountain Play its naturally spectacular finesse.”
Dunn literally grew up on the College of Marin campus. His stepfather taught in the Engineering Department. Dunn attended San Rafael High School where he “worked on cars and chased girls,” but did not focus so much on grades. He signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps when he was 17 and served two years in the Korean War. Upon returning home, he enrolled at College of Marin, eventually transferring to San Jose State where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in drama. He was teaching at a high school when he heard the College was starting a drama department and he signed on to develop the curriculum for one of the first programs of its kind in the state.
“It was an exciting time,” Dunn recalled. “The College was growing like crazy.”
Early on, the San Francisco Foundation helped fund a study of ancient Greek theater, which culminated in a production of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia.
A year later, Dunn’s Wild West production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew was invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, earning the Best Production award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and giving a command performance before Princess Margaret and her family.
“I’ve done every kind of play there is,” Dunn said. “I’m still teaching Shakespeare. I love to take a 400-year-old playwright and show them how it is still relevant and speaks to us today.”
Professional honors include six Bay Area Critics Circle Awards for Directing, the Los Angeles Dramalogue Award for Directing, the San Francisco Dramalogue Award for Directing, and a City of Mill Valley Arts Commission (2002) Milley Award. Dunn was nominated for the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges Hayward Award for Excellence in Teaching and received an award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts in Marin County from the Marin County Cultural Society. He recently received a Life Achievement Directing Award from the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle (2011).
For students considering College of Marin, Dunn is an enthusiastic cheerleader. In addition to his stepfather, his children have all attended College of Marin.
“The community college system is one of the finest systems ever developed in education,” Dunn said. “I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if I didn’t go to College of Marin. It was a place that made my life work. There’s no better place. It allows people who don’t have the funds or even the grades to go to school. I love to watch a commencement and see an 80-year-old great grandmother getting an AA degree with her whole family cheering or a student who came to the U.S. from Vietnam giving the commencement address in English. This is what we do here at College of Marin. We provide a place where people can work to achieve their dreams.”