A Farewell to Gweneth West
From the earliest days of her life and career, Gweneth West knew what she wanted to be. Yes, she fell in love with theatre and wanted to spend her life exploring the creativity and passion that drove her as a costume designer, where her contributions went far beyond fabric and thread. But what West really wanted to be was transformative, and she did it for all of a remarkable 50-year career that recently ended with her retirement from the UVA Drama Department last Spring. Gweneth’s contributions will be felt throughout the Drama Department, from the hundreds of shows she designed to the countless colleagues and students she inspired, and the foundational work she did in building and maintaining the department’s graduate program. Gweneth was a highly respected leader in the UVA Faculty Senate, playing a pivotal, and yes, transformative role throughout the difficult days, weeks, and months that included former President Teresa Sullivan’s departure and ultimate return.
Yet maybe her greatest successes as a transformative force came through her advising efforts with many students whose life and career paths may never bring them even close to the footlights. “I love that I was in the very first cohort of COLA advisors,” West said of the program designed to help transition first-year students into the University and to provide them with skills and strategies as they chart their path at UVA and beyond. “I have loved that opportunity and loved dealing with the resistance I received, the students who said, ‘I am not going to consider the courses you have told me about because I have already decided, or my parents have decided what I am going to do.’ This is my greatest joy in 50 years of teaching, watching light bulbs go on and watching and supporting the students as they are struggling with how to move forward and how to take their failures as not failures at all, but as a fabulous bit of information.”
She fondly remembers every success story, most of which began with her uttering the often-fateful words, “This is what I observe about you.” There was the young man who came back from a summer internship, positively buzzing about his experience offering computer support to his boss and is now enjoying a successful and fulfilling career as an IT specialist. There was the young woman who took West’s “History of Dress” class and ended up using her hours poring through the department’s collection to spark a career in research that has landed her at the Smithsonian. Students and colleagues alike will tell you another thing about Gweneth: she doesn’t do anything halfway. She talked and proved her way into a job at the University of Texas, one of the premiere directing programs in the country, where the legendary directing professor Francis R. Hodge would tell her, after seeing a show she directed, “How are you doing this? We trained you to put the bolts in the airplane, and you are designing airplanes.” One of her favorite airplanes she designed was DRAMA 210, a deep dive into creative pathways that was built around, but transcended the concept of theatre design, and combined visual art, music, sociology, and more to help students understand where their true passions lay.
Last Spring, she had nearly wrapped another semester of the class when she suffered a heart attack. In typical fashion, she put her students first, and explained to Department Chair Richard Will that she could spend the weekend in the hospital, get out to run the final exam, and head back for her prescribed procedure. He listened patiently before telling her he had already arranged for her to have a replacement instructor. It is no surprise that Gweneth is planning on attacking retirement with the same intentional energy she did her academic career. “I had a conversation with a friend who helped me realize that this is the first time you truly get to contemplate what you want to be.”