The Guide on the Side

Liliana Naydan
May 01, 2004
8 pictures of man in theater

Charles Dumas directing students at the Playhouse theater.

Frustrated by failure, actor Charles Dumas abandoned the theater in the 1960s for Yale Law School and a career in law and politics. But in 1983, Dumas, now associate professor of Theater and African and African American studies at Penn State, returned to drama. "I kept thinking, 'I want to try this theater thing one more time,'" he says.

By 1995, he had finally found success as both an actor and a playwright. Three of his plays had been  produced, and he'd performed in Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Garden, several national television commercials, and the Broadway show Shadow Box. When he was offered a position at Penn State as a lecturer, Dumas made a decision many of his colleagues didn't understand: He left New York to become a teacher.

"I think the idea of teaching because you can't do anything else is intrinsically wrong," says Dumas, recalling his decision. "As my wife Jo says, 'A good teacher's not the sage on the stage but the guide on the side.' I wanted to teach so I could guide my students through their careers with the experiences I'd had as an actor."

After a year, the theater department offered him a tenure-track position, and Dumas decided to take it. "I was amazed at how many young people were majoring in theater," he recalls. "I fell in love with my students, with their enthusiasm, and I decided to stay."

Last year, while on a Fulbright scholarship at Stellenbosch University in South Africa studying traditional African theater, Dumas took along a group of 15 students to shoot Red Water, a TBS television movie about shark attacks. This year, 16 of his Penn State students were extras on Ed, the popular NBC romantic-comedy on which Dumas played a judge. "Pedagogy is doing what you're teaching, not just talking about it," says Dumas. "Do it and then make sure you get the kids to do it."

Charles Dumas, M.A., J.D., is associate professor of theater and African and African American studies, 105 Arts Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-9413;

Last Updated May 01, 2004