Last Sunday, the 7th of January, Dr. Cynthia Haldenby Tyson, who was president of Mary Baldwin University from 1985 to 2003, died at the age of 86. She was a remarkable person whose time here in Staunton left us and all lovers of Shakespeare and theatre a rich legacy.
The list is long of people whose influence made possible the building of the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse. Likewise, the list of the people whose backing and work helped to create the MFA program in Shakespeare and Performance at Mary Baldwin University is a long one. But the one person whose backing made both these dreams into a reality and who most understood how the two institutions would bolster and enhance one another was Cynthia.
She threw the full weight of Mary Baldwin behind the American Shakespeare Center’s campaign to build the Blackfriars Playhouse, and under her leadership the faculty and staff raised $100,000 in donations. She also persuaded her own major donors, Gordon and Mary Beth Smyth, to guarantee the loan that made possible the completion of that project. We named our rehearsal and workshop space in honor of her work, a wholly appropriate decision since that is the place where the work on every show begins.
When I brought her the outrageous idea that Mary Baldwin, then a women’s college in a small city in western Virginia, should create a co-educational MFA program in Shakespeare and Performance, she convinced the faculty that such a program could work and arranged for me to join the Mary Baldwin faculty as a full professor from James Madison University.
She had a generous and mischievous sense of humor. She and then Dean Jim Lott presided over the rarest of academic happenings—a monthly faculty meeting with so much wit and goodwill that all of us looked forward to it. In 2013, the American Shakespeare Center presented her our Robin Goodfellow Award; she stood by me as I began to read my carefully composed speech in her honor, and I wasn’t a sentence into before it she grabbed my arm and said, “Nice, Ralph, but let’s talk about you.” Everyone laughed, and I tried to start over, but she grabbed my arm again and interrupted: “Isn’t this a wonderful theatre?” she asked the guests. Again, huge laughter, as she basically and endearingly stole the show every time I started to say something. I never was able to finish that speech, but because of her it was the most memorable I ever made.
She changed my life for the better, and if you live in, work in, study in, or just visit Staunton, she changed yours too.
Once, in a session at the annual Shakespeare Association of America, I heard a scholar (who did not know I was at the session) say offhandedly that “if you look hard for good Shakespeare, you can find in almost every city, not just in London, Stratford, and Staunton.”
The ASC likes to call Staunton “Shakespeare’s American Home.” No one helped more in making that so than Cynthia Haldenby Tyson.
– Ralph Alan Cohen, ASC Co-Founder and Senior Advisor
Ever since the Blackfriars Playhouse has been in existence, the name Tyson has been synonymous with creativity, innovation, and support. Backstage, you can hear actors and directors and stage managers say ‘let’s meet in Tyson’ – which means, ‘let’s meet in the Tyson Rehearsal room,’ where we incubate the plays that you see on stage. Cynthia Tyson’s investment in and support of the ASC has been crucial to our development, and our deeply valued relationship with Mary Baldwin University has grown and continues to deepen because of her extraordinary work.
– Vanessa Morosco, ASC Executive Director