Obituary: Lawrence Carra / Drama professor at Carnegie Mellon

Died March 30, 2006

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For someone who first studied to be a doctor, Lawrence Carra led a life of surprising drama. His dramatic influence would eventually spread across the American theatrical and television landscapes as he trained actors, directors and producers, then watched them become superstars in Hollywood and on Broadway.

Mr. Carra, the longtime professor and former head of Carnegie Mellon University's drama department, died Thursday. He was 97.

As much as he influenced a generation of actors and directors, having honed the skills of Ted Danson, Judith Light and Steven Bochco, Mr. Carra was just as influential in his adopted hometown, Pittsburgh. He ran the city's Civic Light Opera in the early 1960s, produced local music festivals, directed plays here, and was ahead of his time when it came to "reality" competitions -- in 1961, he challenged Pittsburgh writers to come up with an original play, which he'd direct.

Those whom he did not teach directly still may have felt Mr. Carra's guidance -- he wrote two plays, and helped author two textbooks on drama directing, used by thousands of students nationwide over the years.

With his death, "quite a bit of Carnegie Mellon history has passed on," said Anthony McKay, a drama professor at the school who studied under Mr. Carra in the 1960s. Mr. Carra was the last surviving member of Carnegie Mellon's legendary stable of post-war, pre-VHS theater profs, which included voice coach Edith Skinner, producer Henry Boettcher and lighting engineer Bill Nelson.

Mr. Carra -- pronounced cuh-RAH -- was born in Salina, Italy, and was "quintessentially Italian," enjoying red wine with dinner each night and sharing stories about his run-ins with Benito Mussolini's bodyguards while sneaking through the Palazzo Venezia, said Mr. McKay. But Mr. Carra's Boston heritage, not his Italian roots, was most noticeable to his students. He and his parents, Domenico and Angela, moved to Boston when Mr. Carra was 3, and his childhood home produced a lifelong accent.

"His favorite expression was, 'You have to sparkle'," said Mr. McKay. Drop the "R" -- spah-kle -- and you're saying it the Boston way.

Mr. Carra studied biology at nearby Harvard through 1931 and attended medical school in Rome. But all along, he preferred theater, and while at Harvard he directed plays for the university's drama club. Later, he enrolled in Yale University's drama school. Never an actor, he was instead drawn behind the curtain.

He married Marguerite, who'd be his wife for more than five decades, in 1935, and in the following years the couple moved to Chicago, then to Texas, before eventually landing at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Tech in 1947. He stayed for 30 years, with breaks for big directing gigs and a job at ABC. Twice -- first at the beginning of his Carnegie Mellon career and again at the end -- he headed the school's drama department.

In the summers, Mr. Carra directed, and had a hand in resurrecting the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, becoming the festival's artistic director in 1966. He directed each of Shakespeare's 37 plays, a source of pride.

Over his career, he's directed the likes of Betty White, Sidney Poitier and George Segal. His directing proteges include William Ball, who founded San Fransisco's American Conservatory Theatre; Mel Shapiro, who produced on Broadway; and John Tebelak, who wrote the popular musical "Godspell" while under Mr. Carra's tutelage at CMU.

He left CMU in 1977, renting an apartment in Hollywood for a time but still keeping a home in the Pittsburgh area. In Hollywood, he consulted for TV producer Norman Lear, and lectured at UCLA and USC.

Mr. Carra's wife died in 1991. He is survived by three sons -- Lawrence, who lives in Clairton; Vincent, of San Anselmo, Calif.; and Richard, of Evanston, Ill. -- 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The burial service, at Homewood Cemetery, will be private. Contributions can be made to the Lawrence and Marguerite Memorial Scholarship Award fund, in care of Sharon King, Gift Administration, 6 PPG Place, Suite 111, Pittsburgh 15222.


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.


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