Earle Gister, an influential Yale theater professor who pioneered a new method for training actors, passed away in his sleep Sunday at his New Haven home. He was 77.
A charismatic educator, Gister was among the most prominent leaders of conservatory acting training in the late 20th century. He helped coordinate previously disparate drama programs nationwide under the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs, which he co-founded in 1972, and pushed for acting students to be held to more rigorous standards.
“Earle had a very large educational impact on the country,” said J. Michael Miller, director of The Actors’ Center in New York and co-founder of the League, which disbanded in 1987. “If there was one man who made a significant difference in professional theater training, it was him.”
Over a more than 40-year career in the world of theater, Gister mentored some of today’s most celebrated actors, directed the entire canon of Anton Chekhov at the Yale Repertory Theatre and earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most respected theater professors. His reforms to theater education changed the prevalent attitude that “training actors was like training mechanics,” Miller said, and encouraged the development of hundreds of Master of Fine Arts programs in acting across the country.
Gister came to the Yale School of Drama in 1979 as associate dean of the school and chair of the Acting Department — positions he held until his retirement in 1999. Gister had previously taught at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he served as chairman of the drama department.
At Yale, Gister established a reputation as one of the preeminent faculty members at the School of Drama. He was also instrumental in managing the school during the 1980s as then-Dean Lloyd Richards focused on program expansion at the Yale Rep, Miller said.
Ron Van Lieu, current chair of the Acting Department, said the values Gister upheld remain at the heart of the program today. Lieu said when he began his teaching career at New York University, he looked to Gister as a role model.
“I knew then that if I ever wanted to be considered a really good acting teacher, I had to be capable of playing in the same league as Earle Gister at Yale,” Lieu said in a Wednesday email. “I actually met Earle only a few times, but I was always aware of what he stood for in the classroom: rigorous technique, generosity of spirit, deep respect for the writer, desire to serve, grace and humor.”
Evan Yionoulis ’82 DRA ’85, former chair of the acting program, said in a Tuesday email that students would remember Gister for his “wry sense of humor, his depth of love for the craft of acting and his unwavering commitment.”
Gister attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he met Robert Corrigan, the drama professor who would serve as his mentor, his son Carey Gister said. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history, Earle Gister traveled with Corrigan to Tulane University in New Orleans, La., and earned an MFA in drama.
Miller said Gister viewed his time at Yale as the “pinnacle” of his career, during which he worked with some of the nation’s most talented young actors and shared his passion for Chekhov’s works. Gister inspired students to pursue their dreams in a tough industry with low job prospects, his son said.
Stephanie Nash DRA ’88, a former student of Gister, said he was a professor who genuinely cared about his students and wanted to make sure they were both honing their skills and having a good time.
“He’s more than a teacher, he’s a mentor,” Nash said. “I remember one time I knew I had given a wonderful performance and he said to me after, ‘Are you having fun?… I can’t help you more technically, but I want you to be having more fun.’”
More than 350 of Gister’s former students had reminisced about him, expressed their grief and planned memorial services around the country, on a Facebook group as of Wednesday night.
Gister balanced his dedication to teaching with a commitment to his family, his son said. Carey Gister recalled how his father would constantly teach his three children about literature and the arts, and once spent hours coaching him for a high school acting audition.
“Growing up in my father’s house was like a world-class education in the humanities,” Carey Gister said.
Though laryngeal cancer forced Gister to have his vocal cords removed in late 1988, he continued to teach at Yale and spoke at the School of Drama’s commencement ceremony six months after undergoing surgery, his son said.
He is survived by a sister, a brother, three children and two grandchildren.