Yale Drama School renamed following Geffen’s $150m gift

Photo: A scene from Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, directed by Carl Cofield, Yale Repertory Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2019.

30 June 2021 | Yale News

Present and future students at Yale University’s drama school will no longer pay tuition, thanks to a landmark $150 million gift from entertainment executive and philanthropist David Geffen, the university announced today.

The donation — the largest on record in the history of American theater — makes the school the only institution of its kind to eliminate tuition for all degree and certificate students, removing financial barriers to access.

In recognition of the gift, Yale School of Drama is now the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University.

David Geffen
David Geffen. Photo by Bruce Weber.

“David Geffen’s visionary generosity ensures that artists of extraordinary potential from all socioeconomic backgrounds will be able to cultivate their talent at Yale,” said Yale President Peter Salovey, who announced the news with James Bundy, the School’s dean. “It is exciting to think about what will be made possible by increasing access to the premier theater education at the David Geffen School of Drama. Our students help drive creativity and innovation across all fields — during their time at Yale and after they graduate. So, David’s transformative gift will have a ripple effect in our community and around the world. Dean Bundy and I are grateful for the trust David places in Yale through this exceptional commitment, and we hope students from every quarter will see that theater education at Yale is a possibility for them.”

Graduate education in theater at Yale dates to 1925. The Geffen School is the only graduate-level professional conservatory in the English-speaking world to offer training in every theatrical discipline: acting, design, directing, dramaturgy and dramatic criticism, playwriting, stage management, technical design and production, and theater management. It enrolls about 200 students across 10 distinct degree and certificate programs.

The School’s graduates include actors Meryl Streep ’75 M.F.A., Frances McDormand ’82 M.F.A., Angela Bassett ’80, ’83 M.F.A., Paul Giamatti ’89, ’94 M.F.A., and Lupita Nyong’o ’12 M.F.A.; playwrights David Henry Hwang ’83, Lynn Nottage ’89 M.F.A., and Tarell Alvin McCraney ’07 M.F.A.; and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Rocco Landesman ’76 D.F.A, among many other luminaries of the arts.

David Geffen is among the most enterprising and influential figures in American entertainment and a philanthropist whose vigorous support advances health, education, arts and culture, and civil liberties, among other causes. For nearly six decades, he has identified and nurtured performers and creative projects that have defined American culture through music, film, and theater. The founder of Asylum Records, Geffen Records, and Geffen Pictures, he also co-founded the film studio DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. In 2010, Geffen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2011 the Grammy Salute to Industry Icons honored him with the President’s Merit Award in recognition of his significant contributions to the music industry.

“It’s an honor to partner with Yale University to create the first tuition-free drama school of its kind in the nation,” said Geffen, who taught a course at Yale in the late 1970s. “Yale is well known for having one of the most respected drama programs in the country. So, when they approached me with this opportunity, I knew Yale was the right place to begin to change the way we think about funding arts education. Yale already provides some of the best professional training available to actors, writers, directors, designers, and theater managers from diverse backgrounds. Removing the tuition barrier will allow an even greater diversity of talented people to develop and hone their skills in front of, on, and behind Yale’s stages. I hope this gift will inspire others to support similar efforts to increase accessibility and affordability for arts education at colleges and universities across the country.”

The Geffen School of Drama will eliminate tuition for all degree and certificate students, starting with those enrolled for the fall semester that begins in August, and including returning students. (The School did not admit a new class for fall 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but added a fully subsidized fourth year for all enrolled students.)

“David Geffen’s gift will be transformative for us at the School and for the American theater at large,” said James Bundy ’95 M.F.A., the School’s Elizabeth Parker Ware Dean and its leader since 2002. “Full tuition support of our training will help us attract talent from the broadest possible spectrum of potential applicants, and it sends a clear message that Yale is a place where a stimulating mix of gifted students can devote their energies first and foremost to artistry. This will lead to a fuller representation of our society in every aspect of professional practice.

“It is a special joy that this new era dawns as stages at Yale and across the world prepare to resume live, in-person productions after a long pause during the pandemic: more than ever we need the healing and revelatory power of the performing arts and their special ability to transmit and celebrate the human spirit.”

Like the School itself, Yale Repertory Theatre, the professional theater in residence at Yale University, suspended live performances during the pandemic. Both will again welcome in-person audiences in the months ahead. The Rep’s new season will include three productions, beginning in January 2022 with a new production of “Today is My Birthday,” a critically acclaimed comedy about loneliness in the age of connectivity, written by playwright Susan Soon He Stanton ’10 M.F.A. and directed by Mina Morita.

Geffen’s gift to the university continues a relationship begun more than four decades ago. In the 1978-79 academic year, during a break from the entertainment industry, he led a semester-long seminar at Yale called “The Music Industry and Arts Management.” An overview course, it addressed topics such as organization, recording, publishing, production, distribution, finance, and publicity.

After returning to business, Geffen built rosters of superstar recording artists, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Elton John, Peter Gabriel, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Hole; produced the films “Beetlejuice,” “Interview with the Vampire,” and “Risky Business,” to name a few; and helped bring to Broadway the Tony Award-winning musicals “Cats,” “M. Butterfly,” and “Dreamgirls.”

Geffen also became a leading philanthropist. He has provided major support for the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, for example, as well as for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center, AIDS Project Los Angeles, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the Geffen Playhouse, and the arts education programs of Spelman and Morehouse Colleges.

His gift to Yale transforms financial aid at the Geffen School of Drama in perpetuity.

President Salovey said Yale is also committed to pursuing additional fundraising for projects that will further strengthen the School, including significant investments in facilities.

“I am incredibly excited for what’s to come,” Salovey said. “We would also like to be able to build a new home for the School, including a state-of-the-art facility for theater education and production. I am committed to making sure the students David Geffen will help us attract and support have the facilities they need for the full expression of their creativity.”

Playwriting Chair Tarell Alvin McCraney with playwriting students.
Playwriting Chair Tarell Alvin McCraney with playwriting students. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2019.

As Yale prepares for that work, the David Geffen School of Drama will be training the dramatists of the future.

“For nearly 100 years, Yale has helped develop some of the finest theater makers and cultural leaders in the world,” Provost Scott Strobel said. “Before people like Meryl Streep, Paul Newman, and Lupita Nyong’o became household names, they trained on our campus and honed their craft as part of our supportive, impassioned community. This historic commitment ensures that the drama school’s next act will expand on that tradition.

“A defining feature of great art is its ability to engage, entertain, and educate wide audiences. The Geffen School of Drama has a similar mission — to teach us about our world and so to better it. This gift will further that mission and the School’s commitment to equitable access so that our future drama students and scholars continue to exemplify and raise standards of global professional practice.”


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