Remembering Nancy Swortzell

Today, we were learned the sad news that Dr. Nancy Swortzell, co founder of the NYU Program in Educational Theatre, had passed away. Though few of us at CODE knew Nancy personally, Dr. Philip Tayler, current Director of the NYU Educational Theatre Program, has shared some background on her inspirational work as a drama educator to share with us.

Nancy and her husband Lowell established the NYU Program in Educational Theatre in 1966, and thousands of students have been the beneficiary of a comprehensive program which privileges art as well as education. Their extraordinary domestic partnership led to a dynamic and innovative curriculum, the first educational theatre program of its kind in the world. Nancy was a gifted director (indeed she was the first woman to be granted a DFA in directing from Yale), and introduced numerous studies in acting styles and play production.

For many she will be remembered as being instrumental in importing grounding breaking ideas in drama pedagogy and theatre in education to American audiences. She pioneered the London youth theatre/drama in education program in the early 1970s and consistently taught on this program until 2003 forging new partnerships with cultural houses, arts agencies, and educational organizations like the Unicorn Theatre, Bretton Hall, Greenwich Young People's Theatre in the UK, and the Grafitti Theatre in Cork, Ireland to name a few. She brought many world leaders to the NYU campus and the US for the first time, even housing most of them in the gorgeous Swortzell brownstone in Washington Square, a house she lived in for over 30 years and which was sold after Lowell died. Many ideas were hatched at "76" including the International Drama in Education Research Institute (IDIERI) which Nancy, Wayne Fairhead and I launched at Griffith University, Australia, in 1995, and which meets for the seventh time next July in Limerick.  

Nancy had strong expectations for those who studied and worked with her, and her red pen would often write, "Where's the drama?" as she critiqued resource guides and arts resources. Nancy loved the theatre and it was this sense of a grounded aesthetic which she often promoted in her teaching. While some programs privilege content, the Swortzells emphasized studies in theatreform which should power the work. They were absolutely delighted when the Provincetown Playhouse was offered to our students in 1996 as a performance venue. Lowell was a scholar in American drama, and Nancy was very committed to supporting new voices and visions, which was part of the Provincetown players' original brief.

For those of fortunate to have known Nancy and Lowell one can't help but feel that we were in the presence of a power house couple who helped create and consolidate the field of educational theatre. Such inspirational people as the Swortzells do not come around every day, so we are left with a profound sense of loss that an era has come to an end. But their work lives on through the program, the students, the faculty and the alumni, and through the Swortzells’ great and prescient generosity to their Scholarship Fund and other gifts. 

Courtesy of Dr. Philip Taylor, via Wayne Fairhead

August 1st, 2011