Professor emeritus Robert Potter died of prostate cancer on July 11 at his home in Santa Barbara. He was 76 years old.
Prior to his retirement from the UCSB faculty in 2002, Potter had spent 36 years at the university working for multiple campus departments and directing the school’s playwright program. A celebrated playwright, poet and teacher, Potter leaves behind a rich legacy in theater, literature and political activism.
According to his wife Ellen Anderson, Assistant Public Events Manager for the Theater and Dance Dept., Potter joined the UCSB faculty as an English professor in 1966 and began teaching for the Theater and Dance Dept. six years later.
Although theater was one of his greatest passions, Anderson said her husband was a gifted mentor in both fields.
“He began in the English Dept. and was a recipient of the Plous Award, which is a really big deal,” Anderson said. “He was a young professor and they decided to transfer his bum over to theater and I think he was much better suited for it.”
Born in New York and raised in Brentwood, Calif., Potter is the son of Hollywood director H.C. Potter. After studying English literature at Pomona College, he completed graduate work at Claremont College and attended the University of Bristol in 1963 as a Fulbright Scholar.
In addition to leading research in the field of medieval theater, Anderson said Potter single-handedly founded UCSB’s playwriting program.
“He was really proud of that program,” Anderson said. “I think the most important thing is that he made sure that new plays were written and produced every single year that he was there. Even students who had never written plays before had the opportunity of becoming playwrights in one year of coursework.”
Potter remained active in local theater after retirement by chairing the Santa Barbara Performing Arts League and producing multiple plays at Center Stage Theater.
Over his life Potter penned 30-plus original plays and staged adaptations including “Where Is Sicily?” in 1969, “La Celestina” in 1990 and “The Last Days of Empire” in 2008. His family and close friends plan to release a collection of his favorite pieces, titled Six Plays.
Aside from his devotion to theater, Potter’s colleagues said they were equally inspired by his dedication to social justice. After watching student-led anti-Vietnam War protests at UCSB, Potter and economist Jim Sullivan co-authored a report titled “The Campus by the Sea Where the Bank Burned Down” that described the riots in Isla Vista for the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest.
Former colleague Dr. Catherine Cole, a professor of theater, dance and performance studies at UC Berkeley, said Potter contributed greatly to his community.
“His spheres of influence were multiple: university, the Santa Barbara art community, the Democratic Party and many different anti-war efforts,” Cole said. “I am especially grateful to Bob Potter for nurturing the next generation of artists. He left an extraordinary legacy through the many lives he influenced.”
Potter is survived by his wife, his five children: Daniel, Maria and Bryn Potter, Lucilla Hoshor and Jane Thornquist, his step-daughter Crosby Buhl and his brother Earl Potter.
A public memorial will be held in Robert Potter’s honor on August 10 at 6 p.m. in the grove at Santa Barbara’s Elings Park. The family encourages donations to be made to the Bob Potter Memorial Fund at UCSB or the American Civil Liberties Union.