This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Life’s flukes spell success for Knopf

Odd happenings take new chair of theatre and dance to "a lot of good places"

Published: March 24, 2005

Reporter Contributor

Scene I: A Burger King somewhere in Muskegon, Mich. Enter a man carrying a brown paper bag containing a priceless scrapbook once owned by silent movie actor Buster Keaton.

This bizarre little bit of stage direction actually occurred in the life of Robert Knopf, professor and new chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance—a man who can tell you firsthand that life's flukes can lead to wildly successful projects.


Robert Knopf and students Erin Doyl (center) and Marilyn Sloan examine a scenic model of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Knopf says coming to UB from Connecticut College was an unexpected, but delightful turn in his life.

The incident in a Burger King, for example, led to Knopf's ground-breaking 1999 book, "The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton" (Princeton University Press), which sold out in its first press run of 3,000 hard- and soft-cover copies after eight months.

"What drew me to Buster Keaton was totally a fluke, and I believe in flukes because they take you to a lot of good places," says Knopf, with a delighted gleam of discovery in his eyes that frequently punctuates his rapid-fire conversation.

Knopf had begun researching Keaton for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1993. He wasn't particularly interested in the actor, best known at the time for his silent film "The General," which Knopf didn't like. But then Knopf came across a video shop that stocked Keaton's "The Cameraman," and he was hooked immediately.

It fascinated Knopf that Keaton had spent 16 years in vaudeville—from the time he was only 2 years old—and yet no one had written about the fact that Keaton had done both theater and film. Knopf uttered this thought in class one day, and his professor remarked, "That's a book."

Then-emerging CD ROM technology allowed him to track down Keaton's third wife, Eleanor, who was still living in North Hollywood, Calif. He wrote to her, and she replied with a letter that led him to a man in Muskegon. There, Knopf viewed in a Burger King, and later was allowed to photocopy, a 168-page scrapbook of press clippings that revealed surprising new information about how Keaton's vaudeville and screen persona meshed and evolved.

Following his book on Keaton were Knopf's "Theatre of the Avant-Garde" (Yale University Press, 2001), "Theater and Film: A Comparative Anthology" (Yale University Press, 2004) and "The Director as Collaborator (Allyn & Bacon, 2005).

Knopf has wide experience on the New York theater scene. He's directed at Town Hall, Circle-in-the-Square (Downtown), the Cherry Lane Studio, Theater North Collaborative and Circle Rep Lab. He has even written and directed for National Public Radio, in part because he likes to force his imagination in new directions. As a "highly visual director," Knopf said he wanted to see what it would be like to work entirely with sound and texture and no visuals. The result was an NPR docudrama called "Hidden Dragon." The next year, he says he did a project without sound for the same reason.

A few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center disaster in New York City, Knopf got a call from a director friend who wanted help organizing a presentation of short theater pieces that would raise money for the families of 9/11 victims. Actors like Alec Baldwin and Cynthia Nixon started signing up, and eventually a star-studded cast and group of directors teamed to create the "Brave New World Marathon," a three-day, four-performance, off-Broadway production on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy that brought in $150,000 per performance. As artistic associate, Knopf assisted with planning for the mammoth event and directed two of the 50 plays presented—OyamO's "TerrorEyes" and Laurence Klavan's "The New Rules."

Knopf grew up in Yonkers, dreaming as early as fifth grade of making his own movies. He did a little acting in junior high school and eventually ended up enrolling at Oberlin College, where he took some acting courses and eventually realized that he liked acting more than sticking pieces of film together.

In fact, Knopf discovered he had an out-and-out flair for directing. He suddenly found himself staging a Harold Pinter play in dormitory lounges all over campus and drawing audiences that grew to as many as 150 people per night.

"I realized you don't need a theater to create theater," Knopf says. "And you don't need a great deal of money. You need imagination." To this day, he incorporates this philosophy into his teaching. His students are told they must complete their final project anywhere except in a theater. That, he says, leads to some very interesting staging locales.

After acquiring an M.F.A. in directing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991 and a Ph.D. in dramaturgy from the University of Michigan in 1996, Knopf went on to become a visiting assistant professor of theater at Purdue University. He returned to the University of Michigan as assistant professor of theater in 1998 and served as associate chair from 1999-2000, redesigning the M.F.A./Ph.D. program sequence and designing doctoral concentrations in directing, dramaturgy and play writing. He also recruited incoming classes and doubled the application pool in these programs.

Coming to UB from Connecticut College to chair the Department of Theatre and Dance, was, he notes, an unexpected, but delightful turn in his life, and Knopf says he looks forward to taking the department to a whole new level of excellence in its graduate division, training scholar/practitioners of the future who will be unmatched in terms of breadth and interdiscipline.

"I saw that this faculty could do it, and I wanted to come here," Knopf says. "It was very important to me who was here on the faculty." His work at Michigan and his knowledge of what's currently available nationally in graduate studies will help position UB to accomplish these goals, he says.

The Buffalo theater scene surprised and delighted Knopf with its diversity and high quality. And the people of Buffalo have surprised him, too. "This is one of the most livable, friendly places I've ever been," Knopf says. "People are shockingly friendly. It's a hidden gem, and I love it here."

So does his wife, Elizabeth Pascal, UB visiting assistant professor of political science, who specializes in comparative politics. The Knopfs have two children, Ally, 7, and Lara, 5, and reside in East Amherst.