Earle Gister, Influential Acting Teacher at Yale School of Drama, Dies at 77

By Robert Simonson
24 Jan 2012

Earle Gister
Earle Gister
Photo by Bruce Katzman

Earle Gister, who, as associate dean, chair of the Acting Department, and the first Lloyd Richards Professor of Acting during his two-decade tenure at the Yale School of Drama, was a highly influential figure in the acting world, died Jan. 22 in his sleep at his home in New Haven, his son Carey said. He was 77.

Mr. Gister was regarded by many as one of America's foremost acting teachers. He played key roles in actor training programs at North Carolina School of the Arts, The Juilliard School, Carnegie Mellon University, City College of New York, the British American Drama Academy and The Actors Center. He was also a co-founder of the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs, an advisor to the National Endowment for the Arts, and co-chair of the training panel of Theatre Communications Group.

But he made his greatest impact during his years at Yale. He joined the university in 1979, when Lloyd Richards was dean, and stayed for 20 years. He was named the first Lloyd Richards Adjunct Professor of Drama in 1994. For a total of 19 years Earle Gister was Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Chair of the MFA Acting Program at the Yale School of Drama. In 1999, he retired from the Yale School of Drama.

"Speaking as a former student and one-time assistant of Earle's," said James Bundy, dean of Yale School of Drama and artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre, "I can vividly recall his galvanic effect on so many actors, his insightful and soulful readings of the given circumstances of great plays, his deeply thoughtful notes and advice, and his love of ice cream. It is astonishing to think of the breadth of talent that Earle brought to Yale and nurtured here, and it is worth remembering that for years, when he was asked to name the greatest strength of the School of Drama, his inevitably generous reply was, 'the students.'"

Earle Gister with Rosemary Harris
photo by Bruce Katzman

Among the thousands of actors he has trained are Jane Atkinson, Rene Auberjonois, Rene Augesen, Dylan Baker, Angela Bassett, Julie Boyd, Kate Burton, Patricia Clarkson, Ted Danson, Mark H. Dold, Rick Dutton, Robert Foxworth, Malcolm Gets, Paul Giamatti, Jay Goede, Bruce Katzman, Susan Knight, Sanaa Lathan, Judith Light, Frances McDormand, Chris Noth, Michael Potts, Laila Robbins, Reg Rogers, Liev Schreiber, Richard Schiff, Michele Shay, Steven Skybell, Susan Riley Stevens, Jeff Talbott, John Turturro, Michael Tucker, Courtney Vance and many others.

A striking-looking, thin man — with thick hair, large features and a wide, often smiling, mouth — Mr. Gister, as a teacher, was particularly known for his insight into the work of Chekhov. At Yale, he directed all of Chekhov's plays as well as Michael Frayn's adaptation of Platonov entitled Wild Honey.



Of The Seagull, he once said, "This play takes a gentle look at what it means to be an artist, particularly an actor or a writer. That question has been on my mind all my life. Therefore, the play involves me on many levels and that kind of richness challenges my creativity to the deepest point."

On the "Friends of Earle Gister" Facebook page, one past student remembered Mr. Gister's instruction that "Chekhov's characters do not fill up their time in morbidity, they fill it up with affirmation. That's why we sympathize so much with them. Not a single character in Chekhov spends the play pursuing death. They are all pursuing life. You have to start with the premise 'I love life! I want to live it!' when you play Chekhov."

His teachings were captured in the book, "Acting: The Gister Method," written in collaboration with Joe Alberti. It will be released this year by Pearson Academic. In his classes, students recalled, Mr. Gister was also drawn (after Chekhov) to the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg.

Earle R. Gister was born March 30, 1934, in Racine, WI. He was married to Glynda Gister from 1959 until her death in December of 2010. He is survived by their three children, Carey, Brian and Andy, and two grandchildren, Reed and Zoe.