Remembering Dr. Coleman A. Jennings (1933-2020)

On October 28, 2020, we lost a friend, a colleague, and a giant in the field of Theater for Young Audiences.

Coleman A. Jennings was a fierce advocate for theatre education, creative drama, and theatre for youth. As a professor, author, director, playwright, administrator, producer, and stage manager, Dr. Jennings (often referred to as Dr. J and DJ by students) galvanized our field, founding one of the first MFA programs in the US with a focus on Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities (DTYC). He earned his BFA and MFA from the University of Texas at Austin and his doctorate from New York University; he mentored countless students who are leaders in our field today. Perhaps you are one of them.

Coleman joined the faculty at The University of Texas at Austin in 1963. Early on in his career, Coleman successfully campaigned for theatre arts education to be required in all Texas elementary schools. During his 53 year tenure at UT Austin, Coleman served as Chair of the department of Theatre and Dance for 12 years, led the MFA (DTYC) and BFA programs (Theatre Education) to national prominence, and directed over 20 UT productions and TYA Tours. His life’s work centered around play, story, and youth; his passion was teaching anyone interested in working with children and the arts.

Coleman’s leadership and vision extended well beyond UT Austin. He published Six Plays for Children by Aurand Harris: Biography and Play Analyses in 1977, followed by eight edited anthologies of plays for young audiences; these seminal publications continue to be used around the world. With his wife Lola H. Jennings, Coleman co-authored Braille: The Early Life of Louis Braille and a book on drama in the elementary classroom. He also published plays such as The Honorable Urashima Taro and contributed numerous other publications and critical letters to the field.

“Through my years in this profession, I have learned that even more satisfying than creating the stories myself, is teaching others to do it.”

—  Coleman A. Jennings

Coleman was a collector of anything related to theatre for youth. He archived, documented, organized, and published as a way of lifting up a set of practices, productions, and relationships that make up this field we call theatre for young audiences. Steven Dietz shared that Dr. Jennings “was the internet before there was an internet.” Truly, Coleman Jennings was a field builder, focused on a connected and supported vision of what theatre for youth could and should be in the US. He served as president of the Children’s Theatre Association of America and earned numerous awards for theatre and education achievements, including his prized Orlin Corey Medallion.

An impressive collection and history of our field, The Coleman A. Jennings Papers are now located in the Briscoe Center for American History located at UT Austin.  The collection is a treasure trove of production photos, play scripts, correspondence, teaching materials, and prompt books. Coleman’s son and past students, Rod Caspers, J. Richard Smith, and Judith Matetzschk-Campbell have also published an archive project (in process) to continue the legacy of Coleman A. Jennings’ life and work.

Beyond his many accolades, Coleman A. Jennings is remembered for playing his tambourine loudly in the halls of Winship at UT, showing up to 5:30 AM tour calls with warm cookies for the cast, and sending endless plays, articles, and handwritten notes to faculty, staff, students, and alums. Coleman sought every opportunity to create stories with and for young people; he paid attention to each of us and amplified the individual gifts of everyone around him.

Coleman’s impact on students and our field will be felt for many lifetimes to come.