On the classroom stage, he’s the star
By Kristin Aoun
June 8, 2008 9:04 p.m.
There is always that one popular guy in school who knows everyone, rebelliously joking his way through classes and entertaining those around him. For the UCLA theater department that guy is not a student, but Professor Gary Gardner.
“I never intended to like teaching,” said Gardner. “It was God’s way of getting even with me for being a thorn in my teachers’ sides.”
Gardner received his master of fine arts in playwriting from UCLA in 1968, and since returning to UCLA 35 years ago he has touched the lives of thousands of Bruins with his gregarious nature and compassion while teaching and directing in the School of Theater, Film and Television.
“I run into people all the time, of all ages, who have either been in classes of or gone to school with Gary Gardner. He will never be out of my life,” said Marley McClean, a third-year theater student, who met Gardner when she was considering attending UCLA. McClean was immediately taken by his friendliness and honesty.
“I try to know everybody’s name in the class so that I can pick on them when they fall asleep,” said Gardner.
However, Gardner’s knowledge of his students is much deeper than their names. He makes an effort to get to know his students on a more personal level. He cannot sit outside of Macgowan Hall for more than five minutes without running into current or former students who happily say hello as he inquires about their lives.
Lindsey Turteltaub, a graduating third-year theater student, is one such student. Turteltaub has known Gardner since her first week at UCLA, after “hunting him down” on the advice of multiple UCLA alumni who said that the first thing to do at UCLA was meet Professor Gardner.
“He is one of the truly genuine professors who cares about his students here,” Turteltaub said. “It is amazing when you can talk to him about students from 25 years ago.”
Past alumni Gardner has mentored, taught, or both include director Tim Robbins, Sterling Sulieman (“All My Children”), Tim Allen, Susan Egan (Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast”), Christopher Gorham (“Ugly Betty”), Nancy Cartwright (“The Simpsons”), Jack Black and many more.
Unlike most professors, Gardner does not hesitate to tell his students stories of the stupid mistakes he made when he was younger. This way they can learn from his mistakes, such as stubbornly thinking after he graduated that he was going to set the world on fire when ultimately, he would rather set a classroom of students afire with a passion to learn.
“He literally entertains you when he teaches,” said McClean, referring to Theater 110: “The History of American Musical,” which she said Gardner taught in a stream-of-consciousness style. Without a set of PowerPoint slides or notes, he spoke from memory so that students would learn without realizing that they were learning.
For many students who have taken this class, their most memorable moment was when Gardner did a striptease, taking off his tie and belt, to the song “Let Me Entertain You” from the musical “Gypsy.”
Turteltaub calls this moment, “the glory that is Gary Gardner stripteasing.” While the students were thoroughly entertained, they also learned the difference between vaudeville and burlesque, striptease and lap dance, in order to better understand the musical.
“I want people to take theater very seriously, but you have to have fun doing it,” said Gardner.
This willingness to entertain his students is part of what makes many of Gardner’s former students return to UCLA and visit him. With graduation just days away, a new group of Gardner’s former students will be setting off on their respective futures.
Gardner tries to prepare his students for life as an artist.
“We hope that they are practical dreamers when they graduate,” Gardner said. “Someone who knows that the dream does not always come true but won’t let anything stand in their way of getting it.”
“I will cry this year at graduation because I get a little sad when I see these babies leave their nest,” he added.
Still, even after 35 years at UCLA, Gardner plans on touching many more Bruin lives for years to come.
“I thoroughly intend to drop dead in the middle of the lecture,” said Gardner. “I would love to see how the class reacts. “˜Is he doing performance art?’ or “˜If he’s dead for more than 15 minutes, can we leave?'”