News & Features
Gabrielle Cody: A Life Full of Drama
Professor at Vassar fosters love of theater.
Reprinted with permission and courtesy of the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal. All rights reserved.
With soft blue eyes and a warm smile, one immediately feels at ease in Gabrielle Cody’s presence. A professor of drama at Vassar College, Cody is dedicated to the study of drama and theater while experiencing plenty of drama in her own life, too.
“I was born in New York City in the late ’50s,” the New Paltz resident said. “When I was 11 months, my father died of a heart attack. He was only 44 years old.”
Before his passing, Cody’s father headed Radio Free Europe.
“It was a government-sponsored organization that broadcast international news to Iron Curtain countries, and was probably connected to the CIA,” Cody said.
After her father’s passing, friends helped Cody’s mother find work in Europe, where she had lived for a decade before marrying.
“They gave her three choices—Paris, Rome or London, and she chose Paris,” Cody said. “France has better social services than we do here, so she was able to work full-time for UNESCO. It was a terrific job, but it required her to travel a lot. I had a lot of interesting French nannies.”
Three years later, Cody’s mother married an American diplomat 25 years her senior who worked as the Counselor of Embassy for Cultural Affairs in Paris. He formally adopted Cody and exposed her to many interesting people and ideas.
“My father originally lived in Paris during the 1920s and worked as a foreign correspondent at the time,” Cody said. “He formed important friendships with a number of artists, including Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, Thornton Wilder and Man Ray. A lot of progressive, creative Americans were fleeing the U.S. because it was so puritanical. My father hung out with them because they were all part of the same community and moment.”
Cody says modernist artist Man Ray was particularly influential in her life. “Man Ray—who by then was in his 80s—taught me that the Beatles were the Mozarts of our time and that art was not something you did, but something you lived. He made the beautiful silver jewelry he wore and made the furniture in his home and studio. In many respects, it was an extremely glamorous childhood—not because of wealth, but by being imbedded in that cultural moment, which was also about the 1968 revolution. It completely shaped my life.”
Passionate about politics and art, Cody decided to go to college in the country of her birth and attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
“It was a difficult adjustment, because the atmosphere was so different than the schools in France,” she said. “I thought it was going to be much more politically alive.”
Although she felt out of place, Cody eventually found like-minded students and studied political science.
“I tended to gravitate towards the radical feminists,” she said. “I read Kate Millett’s book, ‘Sexual Politics,’ and was really moved by it. We were all so passionate about the possibilities of feminism; it felt like a revelatory time.”
While studying, Cody’s interest in drama began to grow, and she went on to receive her master’s in fine arts in directing from the University of Minnesota.
“The fundamental power of theater is that it allows an opening between people,” she said. “It gives expression to our own souls and psyches, and can lead to profound experiences of self-discovery.”
After getting her master’s and teaching at Macalester College for a few years, Cody went on to receive her doctorate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism from Yale University.
“I love contemporary performance, and I love the immediacy of seeing something and being able to think and write about it,” she said. “I love bringing the reader more intimately into the act of performance.”
Cody says she was very fortunate to interview at Vassar during her last year at Yale. In her teaching, she concentrates on dramatic literature, theory, criticism, directing and performance studies.
“I started at Vassar as soon as I received my doctorate,” she said. “It was wonderful because I could teach drama as well as direct plays, which enables the practice and theory to illuminate each other.”
A recent Vassar graduate, Nicole Wood was directed by Cody in a production of “Miss Julie” by the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg.
“It was one of the most influential productions I’ve ever been a part of,” said Wood, who is now an aspiring actress in New York City. “Gaby is a very compassionate and intuitive professor and artist.”
Wood also emphasizes Cody’s warmth.
“She’s one of the most sensitive, insightful and motherly presences on the campus,” Wood said. “Her door is always open. She’s always there to talk to you about anything — large or small. She’s a true gem. I absolutely adore her, and I wish I could have taken all of her classes.”
While enjoying her career at Vassar, Cody met her life partner, author Hilary Sio, at a colleague’s book party in 1997.
“Hilary ran Three Lives bookstore for many years,” Cody said. “I loved her sensibilities about life — her love of travel, food, literature and even her little dog, Bart.”
The two would eventually buy a house in New Paltz and, in 2005, they adopted a daughter from Guatemala. They named her Willa after Willa Cather, the American author.
“The first thing Willa did when I held her was to stick her finger in my nose, and we knew immediately that she was a powerful and deliciously devilish being,” Cody laughed. “We were deeply excited about adopting a child from such an extraordinary culture and felt unbelievably lucky. I think having a child makes you revisit your own childhood and your own emotional attachments in much deeper ways.”
Along with the responsibilities of motherhood and a busy teaching schedule, Cody participates in a special theater program in Greece each summer.
“The program began eight years ago by a Greek Vassar alumna, Ianthe Demos, who runs a theater company in New York,” she said.
The apprentice program consists of about 15 students from colleges around the country who travel to a 12th-century village in the north of Greece. They perform throughout the villages and study with professional actors.
Although the works performed may be contemporary, they are most often based on various Greek myths.
“I love Greek theater and Greek myths,” Cody said. “And living and working in that environment is a profound experience. It’s this incredible confrontation with the divine roots of theater in a landscape that forces you to question your relationship to the world. We work outside with the elements and deal with unpredictable circumstances, like stray dogs or goats, or unrelenting heat.”
A student of Cody’s in the ’90s, Demos is thrilled to have Cody involved in their program.
“Our theater company was starting to think about an apprentice program for students and how to expand their dramatic experience,” Demos said. “We invited Gaby, and she has become integral to how the program has evolved.”
Demos emphasizes Cody’s ability to look at works from a variety of angles.
“Gaby’s very wonderful in constantly pointing out different ways of looking at something and encouraging students to think differently and to take risks,” she said. “One of her greatest gifts is that she encourages you to put the theoretical into practice.”
Cody plans to continue her work in Greece for years to come.
“Our society today can be very disillusioning, and I don’t think that North America as a culture really values the potential of live theater, or the difficulty of life for working artists,” she said. “It is such a gift for American students to work in the culture in which theater originated, and in a country in which theater is still a deeply emotional and crucial experience. Theater is a necessity, not a luxury. It is in part through theater that Greece inaugurated the concept of democracy. One senses that they are still very proud of that legacy, perhaps even more now, given all the challenges they face as a nation.”
Overall, Cody feels lucky to have worked with such gifted and vibrant students throughout the years.
“Working with Vassar students now for almost 20 years is such a privilege and also gives me great hope, because so many of them look at theater not just as a potential career, but also as a way to reflect about contemporary history and to embrace the theater as a vehicle for social change,” she said. “Students realize that theater is a place where subversive ideas can be generated and debated, where politics and philosophy can be discussed in the flesh, not as concepts, but actions. I feel very blessed to be in their presence every day.”
Lauren Yanks writes about healthy living for a number of publications and teaches English at SUNY New Paltz. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Darryl Bautista, Poughkeepsie Journal.
Posted Wednesday, January 30, 2013