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Pope Freeman spent decades of his life directing, acting, and teaching the art of theater.

Pope Freeman 1935-2019

The Santa Barbara theater community lost one of its giants when Pope Freeman passed away on October 31 due to the devastating effects of Parkinson’s disease. Pope, with his wife, Jan, by his side, had battled the disease for two decades. Like most things in their lives, they fought as a team. When Pope died peacefully at home, he was surrounded by his dearest ones: his wife, his stepdaughter, and his two children and granddaughter who had come from their homes in Europe to be with him. His oldest daughter, Meg, told me that Pope “always brought people together.”

I met Pope in 1972. I was a 24-year-old English teacher, and I had just been given the assignment to teach Theater Arts at La Colina Junior High, but I had never been in an acting class or performed in a play. I had a lot to learn, and I had to learn it fast. 

Then came one of the luckiest nights of my life.

I decided to audition for the Alhecama Players production of The Man of La Mancha. It was one of the luckiest nights of my life because the play was directed by Pope Freeman.

I was new to the theater scene, but I had heard about Pope. He had only been directing in Santa Barbara for a year or so, but he had already made a huge impact on the community. His shows were terrific. He set high standards and treated everyone with kindness and respect. He made community theater something to be proud of, something that felt more professional than amateur. His casts were like a big family, and his plays could hold their own against any professional group in the state. I had found my mentor.

I was cast in the chorus of Man of La Mancha, and it gave me the opportunity to watch Pope work. When the show closed, I worked with him again and again. I shadowed him at rehearsals and peppered him with questions. I saw how diligently he prepared, how smoothly he ran his rehearsals, how he got the most out of people with a gentle nudge or an insightful suggestion. He was an artist and a craftsman, a therapist and a train conductor. He was a master at the complicated process of mounting a big show.

Pope gave dozens of people like me their start. He had a knack for spotting talent in people. The musical director for Man of La Mancha a was a 20-year-old kid named David Potter. The future Broadway star Howard McGillin was in that cast, too. He started working with Pope as a teenager. James O’Neil, who cofounded Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre; Rich Hoag, who became vice president of Landmark Entertainment; actors Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, David Meunier, Noah Harpster, and Necar Zadegan are just a few of the people whom he nurtured as young talents who went on to major careers.

In the mid ’70s, the Alhecama Players merged with the SBCC Theatre Arts Department, and Pope began a 26-year run as a teacher and director. I was lucky enough to join him there for about 15 of those years. Along with a remarkable faculty and staff, Pope helped turn Santa Barbara City College into a destination college for actor training and the SBCC Theatre Group into a powerhouse. He directed one great show after another, including a legendary production of the two-part masterpiece The Kentucky Cycle. When he retired in 2003, he was honored with the Santa Barbara Independent’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award for Theatre.

Pope was equally proud of developing an actor training program at SBCC that did more than just train actors. He recognized that actor training provided students with life skills that were invaluable in the real world: self-discipline and self-awareness, the ability to work in a team, the skills to present one’s self in a public space, and the courage to walk in someone else’s shoes. He was an inspiring teacher with a legion of students who grew in ways they could not have imagined before meeting him.

His final performance was as an actor, playing Atticus Finch in the SBCC Theatre Group production of To Kill a Mockingbird. By then, the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease were beginning to manifest themselves, and it was a real challenge for Pope to undertake such a demanding role. But he did so with style and charm and a complete mastery of his craft. It was an almost mystical production, with a cast of 50 that included numerous well-known Santa Barbara actors willing to take even a small role to be on stage with Pope one last time. Every night when Pope finally came out to take his bow, the audience erupted. It gave me goosebumps every night.

The night that I met Pope Freeman back in 1972 changed my life forever. Like so many others who crossed his path, I learned more from him than I could ever have imagined. He was a teacher, a colleague, and a friend, and I am lucky to call him my mentor. 

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