R.I.P. Neil “Sandy” Havens

May 5, 2022

There are a handful of people who change your life profoundly. I don’t know where my life would have taken me if I hadn’t met Sandy Havens when I was a freshman at Rice University in 1972. Sandy ran the Rice Players, an ambitious and highly respected theater company in Houston, especially remarkable because Rice has no theater department and all the theater activity is extracurricular.

Sandy was such a good director, steeped in the classics yet conversant in the latest developments in avant-garde theater, that the major newspapers in Houston routinely reviewed his student productions. Shortly after I arrived on campus as an 18-year-old Air Force brat majoring in classics (Greek and Latin), I auditioned for the Rice Players’ production of Charles Marowitz’s radical Shakespeare adaptation A Macbeth and got to play Duncan under Sandy’s adventurous direction.

That’s when I caught the theater bug. Sandy saw something in me and cast me in 7 of the 8 shows the Rice Players did in my first two years at Rice, which ran the gamut from Shaw’s Heartbreak House to A Man for All Seasons, from the musical Zorba! to Jeff Wanshel’s nutty absurdist comedy The Disintegration of James Cherry. By that point, I was so smitten with theater that, with Sandy’s blessing and coaching, I auditioned for several professional theater training programs and transferred to Boston University.

Ultimately I wasn’t a very good actor but I parlayed the passion for theater that Sandy instilled in me into a career as a theater critic, journalist, and scholar.

In addition, Sandy was extremely kind and supportive of me in the process of coming out at a time and place when that was not easy.

I got to hang out a little with Sandy in Boston when he lived there while his wife Helen finished divinity school; she would go on to become one of the first women ordained as an Episcopal priest. We communicated at intervals over the years, but I think the last time I saw Sandy was when I had a very warm visit with him and Helen in Houston in 1990. I’m just one of hundreds of people who benefited from Sandy’s brilliance as teacher, mentor, artist, and friend and who are mourning his death yesterday at the age of 88.

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