Lee Devin (1938-2024)

Lee Devin’s brilliant, rigorous writings on dramaturgy, his career as the first resident Dramaturg at People’s Light, his legacy as the creator of Swarthmore’s theatre program, and his decades-long leadership in Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas make him a foundational figure in the field of dramaturgy in North America. In 2005, he received LMDA’s Elliott Hayes Award for outstanding achievement in the field. The honor recognized Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artists Work (2003)–one of two breakthrough books Lee authored with Rob Austin, Artful Making explores ways in which a deep knowledge of theatre making, the rehearsal process, and dramaturgy might inform a wide range of productive activities from software development to the aesthetics of design.

Lee co-planned the LMDA Conference at the University of Puget Sound in 1998 and for decades played a central role in the ongoing work of what was then called the University Caucus. He edited its Sourcebook and for many years served as a convener/moderator of Hot Topics–a beloved annual fixture of LMDA conferences. Lee’s fierce advocacy for the discipline of dramaturgy matched an equally determined commitment to dramaturgs, whether newcomers or veterans. He was as happy to meet and have coffee with a first-time conference attendee as a colleague he’d known for decades.

Anne Cattaneo–longtime Lincoln Center Dramaturg and author of The Art of Dramaturgy–knew Lee “as a stalwart of the Philadelphia-area new play scene, and as a teacher. His contributions there made Philadelphia one of the brightest spots in the American new play landscape.”

Mark Bly–forty-year veteran American Dramaturg, teacher of dramaturgy, and editor of The Production Notebooks (Volumes I and II)–remembers “the impact Lee had not only as a dramaturg of consequence at Peoples Light, as a teacher, an author, an elder, and a gentle, mentoring guru to the young, but most of all for the spark he gave LMDA in the early 1990’s when it was faltering. Lee fiercely championed LMDA and its mission at a gathering in Philadelphia that led not only to new funding, but triggered local professors, students, and artists to be drawn into our dramaturgical circle in unprecedented ways. It was only the beginning and it continues today.”

Brian Quirt–Artistic Director at Nightswimming and, like Cattaneo and Bly, a Lessing Award recipient–says of Lee, he “was one of those rare people whose mentorship was powerful but invisible, whose friendship was potent and always present, whose artful-making seemed to acknowledge no barriers nor boundaries, and whose smile remained radiant for all the years I knew him, at every LMDA event and conference he contributed to so wisely, through every insightful comment and speech he offered. As a Canadian Dramaturg joining the LMDA community in the US, Lee exemplified the welcoming and invaluable organization he helped shape over so many important years.”

For much more on Lee’s remarkable life and career, please see below “Remembering Lee Devin” (March 27, 2024) by David Bradley of People’s Light, including reflections on Lee’s life work from past LMDA President and Board Chair Liz Engelman.

Geoff Proehl, In Memoriam: Lee Devin, 1938-2024

With great sadness, People’s Light shares that Lee Devin, long-time company member, the Theatre’s first resident dramaturg, a renowned national leader in the field of dramaturgy, founder of The Theatre at Swarthmore College, teacher, author, beloved husband, father, grandfather, and friend, died on March 19, 2024, after a very long illness. He was 85.

“Lee was a giant of our Theatre, of the theatre,” said People’s Light Producing Artistic Director Zak Berkman. “All of us at People’s Light walk in Lee’s footprints whether we know it or not. He shaped the way our company envisions itself, the way we work, and the way we play. He embodied and articulated the values and energy of purpose that are our foundation.”

Lee was instrumental in nurturing the growth of People’s Light in its early days, as the first acting teacher for the newly formed company, beginning shortly after the Theatre’s founding. He continued to teach classes at People’s Light into the 1990’s. He acted in numerous productions over 20-plus years, including Twelfth NightMuch Ado About NothingA Lesson from Aloes, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Lee instituted the position of dramaturg at People’s Light and for many years was our Senior Dramaturg, becoming a valued mentor for the next generation of People’s Light dramaturgs. Countless People’s Light company and staff members, from playwrights to grant-writers, benefitted from the counsel of Lee, himself an elegant writer. He was a fierce advocate for a writer’s individual voice and a wise, incisive editor.

Lee was a recipient of the Elliot Hayes Award for Outstanding Dramaturgy in the Americas from Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) and was described by LMDA’s past President and Board Chair Liz Engelman as a “foundational father” of the organization and “monumental” in his impact on the field. “Lee was a unique combination of a seer and a builder,” said Engelman. “He was thought and action. He made the intangible tangible. He was art and craft. He saw the path ahead and built the engine to get us all there.”

His long-time close friend and dramaturgical collaborator Geoff Proehl, former Professor of Dramaturgy and Theatre History at University of Puget Sound, praised Lee’s “fierce and totally generous determination to support, encourage, and mentor students, colleagues, and friends.” He said Devin “provided me not only with the definition of dramaturgy I always use whenever anyone asks (‘What are the parts to this thing? How do they go together?’), but an approach to life I carry with me every moment of every day: ‘Life is short, life is difficult, be of good cheer.’”

Lee was a passionate educator for much of his career (embodying Mark Twain’s “I never let schooling interfere with my education” spirit, he disliked school as a boy, but was always two grades ahead). Born in Glendale, California in 1938, he received an AB from San Jose State College in 1958 and a Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1967, then taught at the University of Virginia and Vassar College before Swarthmore College hired him in 1970 to start a theatre program. Under Lee’s visionary leadership, that program became its own department, The Theatre at Swarthmore College, and Lee developed an innovative curriculum that honored process, ensemble collaboration, and trust. He retired as Director of the Theatre in 2000 and from teaching in 2003.

Barbara Sieck Taylor, Swarthmore ’75 (the first graduating class Lee taught at Swarthmore), hailed the impact of Lee’s teaching, both in her college years and throughout her life. “Lee arrived at Swarthmore in 1970 on a mission: to re-imagine how the study of theater fit in a liberal arts education,” she noted. “He was eager to shift performance from extracurricular fun to a subject for rigorous intellectual work, and to my knowledge no one else in higher education was thinking like that.

“Lee taught skills that have served us well, both inside and outside of theaters. The pitch of trust we co-created has endured to this day and resulted in relationships I treasure, not least my relationship with Lee. I am so grateful to him – both for what he taught, and for how lovingly we were taught.”

Upon retiring from teaching, Lee launched a second career as an author, collaborating with his former Swarthmore student Rob Austin, who taught at the Harvard Business School and Copenhagen Business School and is now Professor of Digital Innovation at the Ivey Business School in Ontario, Canada. Their work together includes the books Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artists Work which was published in 2003 (and earned Lee the Hayes Award from LMDA) and The Soul of Design published in 2012. During this time, Lee was also a consultant in Innovation Practice for the Cutter Consortium, an information technology research company in Massachusetts.

“Conversations with Lee always sent my neurons firing in a thousand directions,” Austin said. “His deep understanding of how people ought to work when they needed to be super attuned to the current situation and also fully and freshly responsive (‘in present time,’ as he would put it), which he conveyed using his incredibly rich supply of stories and examples, led to explosive insights, whether you were manager, a management researcher, or (I suspect), an actor.

“And then, at the end of each long, exhausting, enthralling day, we would retire to enjoy a glass of gin on ice with a bit too much ‘vegetation’ (too many olives), and he’d turn his powers of discernment to a wider set of our experiences. I first encountered him as my teacher at Swarthmore, and he always was that—my greatest, most favourite teacher. In those end-of-day sessions, he taught me things I’ve needed to know about life.”

Lee adored his family. He is survived by his wife Abigail Adams, People’s Light Executive Artistic Director Emerita, whom he met in the Theatre’s early days. They were together for 38 years and collaborated on numerous projects. He has two children: Siobhan Kathleen Devin, who lives in Inverness, CA, and Sean Michael Devin, who lives in Littleton, CO with his wife Sandra Jane Kay Earlam Devin. Lee’s two grandchildren, Emma Grace Devin and Rory Christopher Devin, are both pursuing PhD’s at Princeton University. He was inordinately proud of them all.

Lee loved Aristotle and fly fishing in equal measure. He was a devotee of crime novels, good beer, dogs, cats, and birds. He had a devilish wink, a bit of a cowboy spirit, and a warm, welcoming vitality.

In his days at the University of Virginia, Lee played the leading role of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. In that play, More speaks of how man was made by God to “serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” This was Lee, whose mind, wit, and passionate (and compassionate) service to so many will forever be with People’s Light and all whom he touched.

A celebration of Lee’s life is being planned for June 2024 at People’s Light.

David Bradley, People’s Light Company Artist, Remembering Lee Devin

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