Nellie McCaslin, a pioneer in children’s and educational theatre whose influence spanned more than 50 years, died on February 28 of complications following heart surgery. A long-time New York City resident, McCaslin was associate dean of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study for 13 years and had been an adjunct faculty member at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education since 1972.
McCaslin’s numerous publications, which include Theatre for Children in the United States: A History, Children and Drama, Theatre for Young Audiences, and Creative Drama in the Classroom and Beyond, now in its eighth edition, have widely influenced educational theatre in the United States. Moreover, her writings, drama workshops, and lectures have contributed to European, Asian, and Middle Eastern understanding of American educational practices. McCaslin’s keynote addresses in Canada, Norway, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Israel, Hong Kong, and Taiwan reminded audiences what helps children to learn through encouragement of imagination and creativity through the arts.
The New York Times chronicled the transformation of children’s theatre during McCaslin’s lifetime in a February 23, 2003 story. “(M)ore and more, children’s theater is extending its reach, moving beyond saccharine entertainments and lessons and into the heady realm of art,” The Times’ Sylvaine Gold wrote. “When Nellie McCaslin was writing her history, Theater for Children in the United States, in the late 1960’s, the field was dominated by teachers and social workers, and most of the theater people working in it were, she wrote, either beginners or merely competent.’ The shows tended to be traditional, realistic renditions of beloved tales — Peter Rabbit played by an actor in a fuzzy costume.”
“There are fewer children’s theaters than there were 40 years ago,” McCaslin told the paper. “(B)ut they’re much stronger and presenting much better material.”
Born August 20, 1914, McCaslin obtained a bachelor’s degree from Western Reserve University, now Case Western Reserve University, in 1936 and a master’s degree in 1937. She received a Ph.D. in 1957 from NYU’s School of Education. McCaslin was elected to the American College of Fellows in 1977 and received both the Great Teachers Award from NYU and an honorary Doctor of Humanities, from Ferrum College (Va.) in 1986. She was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Alliance of Theatre Educators in 1996 and the Medallion Award from the Children’s Theatre Foundation in 2001.
She also had teaching appointments at the National College of Education in Evanston, Ill., Mills College of Education in New York City, and Teachers College, Columbia University. McCaslin served as Associate Director for NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study from 1973 to 1976, director of undergraduate studies from 1976 to 1984, and acting dean from 1984 to 1985.
A memorial service will be held April 24 at First Presbyterian Church, Fifth Ave. and 12th St., in New York City.
McCaslin is survived by a niece, Alexandra Plotkin.