Theater master Rick Mokler takes final bow after 20 years

Robin Wilkowski Karnes and Robin Wilkowski Karnes

Clad in blue jeans, a long sleeve black shirt and brown shoes, Rick Mokler cuts an easy-going, approachable, animated Professor. Piercing blue eyes peer out of silver wire-rimmed glasses, looking out from under a mop of shaggy brown hair on a scruffy face.

“My experience [at City College] has been phenomenal,” he said. “I’ve never felt like I’ve worked under people, but that I’ve worked with them.”

For a professor and a director that is well-known on campus, Mokler is unassuming to the point of being completely humble, even self-effacing. In fact, he refers to his career at City College as “flukish,” adding, “I’ve never even had a directing class.”

Nevertheless, the award-winning director is retiring from his post as production chair and professor in the acting department after 20 years of teaching.

He has helped give rise to many working actors, such as Anthony Edwards and Eric Stoltz, after learning much from the legendary Pope Freeman. He will stay on with the SBCC Theatre Group as a director, but Spring 2010 is his last semester teaching.

Mokler said he started teaching in 1970 not out of love for young people or even love for acting, but as a means of staying out of the draft. After he graduated from college, he was able to get a deferment from the service by going to graduate school.

He was then hired at age 22 by the Santa Barbara School District, as an English teacher at La Colina Junior High School.

As part of the class, he staged a reading of “The Crucible.” Students, teachers and parents responded with fervor to the performance, and when there was an opening in the drama department the following year, Mokler was chosen for the job.

Since he knew nothing about acting or directing, Mokler auditioned for “The Man of La Mancha,” a show Pope Freeman was directing at the Lobero Theatre.

Over the years, the relationship with former Professor Pope Freeman developed into one of a close personal friendship. It is the main reason Mokler ended up teaching here at City College and eventually heading the department after Pope’s retirement in 2003.

“Mostly I’d really watch what Pope did,” he said, even copying Freeman’s rehearsal schedules and using them as blueprints for productions at La Colina. “It turned out I had a knack for it.”

Gaining notoriety as a young hot-shot director at the age of 30, Mokler started teaching at San Marcos High School in 1975 when a job in the drama department opened up there.

He improved the program so much that students, such as Edwards and Stoltz, began coming there specifically to study acting under him.

After San Marcos, he went to Hollywood and completed a director’s program at Universal Studios and worked at CBS television. But he realized that Hollywood didn’t suit him.

“I decided I didn’t want to live in Los Angeles,” he said, and so he returned to school to get his teaching credentials.

After directing hundreds of shows at City College, Mokler is spending his final semester teaching an Intermediate Acting Class and a Directing Class. He is also directing a student workshop play.

With all the renovations going on at the Garvin Theatre, he teaches in portables on West Campus, and plays are performed in the Interim Theatre .

Some of his favorite shows were “Buddy Holly” and “Enchanted April.” Michael Frynn, from the online publication Showmag.com, said about “Buddy Holly,”

“Director Rick Mokler has assembled a design and performance team that effectively transports the audience back to the Fifties.”

This is just one example of how audiences and critics have enjoyed Mokler’s shows.

Mokler’s retirement as a professor at City College will mark a major change in the acting department.

Tom Garey, the academic chair, said, “The department is going to be moving in to a new stage,” but called it “a transition, not just a change in course.”

With the time freed up after he stops teaching, Mokler has plans for business-related projects, and he will still be busy at the school taking part in the future of the building of the Garvin and directing for the Theatre Group.

“I’m not going to put on my pajamas and watch television,” he said with a laugh.

– Robin Wilkowski Karnes is a Journalism 271 student