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A Show of Gratitude

An award-winning Chicago critic and arts journalist endows a scholarship for Drama and Dance majors

During his first semester at Tufts, Jonathan Abarbanel, A68, auditioned for the American premiere of a contemporary Belgian play and won a key part. “I was amazed that a major role would be handed to a freshman!” he says. “I was aware that I had found a unique and freeing educational environment.”

He would go on to make the most of Tufts’ opportunities. Actor, sound engineer, stage manager, light board operator, and roving theater critic—he immersed himself in the world of drama. “Learning by doing,” he says. “That’s how Tufts shaped me into the person that I am.”

Endowing a Scholarship

Today an award-winning Chicago critic and arts journalist, he is showing his gratitude by endowing a scholarship for juniors and seniors majoring in the Department of Drama and Dance. His gift of $127,000, when matched by the Financial Aid Initiative, will total more than $250,000. He was able to make this extraordinary gift by naming Tufts University the beneficiary and owner of a life insurance policy.

Endowing a scholarship “is something I wanted to do for maybe 25 or 30 years,” Abarbanel says. “My Tufts experience had been vital enough, memorable enough, and exciting enough that I knew I just had to give back.”

Abarbanel grew up in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where his father ran a woodworking business. Showing promise on the stage, he was selected for a prestigious summer drama program for high school students at Northwestern University. Two teachers there put Tufts on his radar. He knew he’d made the right choice soon after arriving on campus.

Drama at Tufts

As arts editor of the Tufts weekly (now the Tufts Observer), he reveled in the thriving Boston theater scene. A $4.40 ticket bought a first balcony seat to pre-Broadway shows. He recalls Angela Lansbury in Mame, Art Carney and Walter Matthau in the original Odd Couple, the legendary John Geilgud in Chekhov’s Ivanov.

Being immersed in extraordinary theater as part of the inaugural Tufts-in-London program also broadened his perspective. “We were seeing shows up to four nights a week,” he says. “That put all of us way ahead of other young American theater makers.”

Through his Tufts years, not one semester went by without his involvement in a drama production. In Beckett’s Endgame, he played a character who lives in a trash can. “Since we were in the Arena Theater, I had to be in the can with the lid closed before the house was opened for the audience,” he recalls. “It was a very uncomfortable two hours!”

He also earned both a first place and second place in the Greenwood Prize Scholarship for Oral Interpretation and an honorable mention for the Goddard Rhetorical Prize.

A Rewarding Career

The Tufts experience would prove a foundation for his career. After graduating magna cum laude with a double major in history and drama, Abarbanel returned to Chicago to pursue acting and writing. As a copywriter, he coined the slogan, "America spells cheese K-R-A-F-T."

But he has earned most recognition for his theater criticism. His award-winning articles about theater and opera have appeared in American Theatre, Back Stage, Show Music, and Variety, among other publications. Theater critic for the weekly Windy City Times newspaper, he also is one half of “The Dueling Critics” heard weekly on a Chicago public radio station and podcast. He is immediate past chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and teaches two courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago: Introduction to Theatre and a new Survey of American Musical Theatre, which he developed. His own plays, libretti, lyrics, and revue sketches have been performed in Chicago at the Center for New Music, Court Theatre, Bailiwick Repertory, Theatre BAM!, and The Second City.

The theater culture at Tufts, he says, was a springboard into this rewarding career. “It’s one of the experiences,” he says, “that opened the doors to my life.”

Over the years, Abarbanel’s abiding affection for Tufts prompted him to make Annual Fund gifts. When he was ready to make a larger gift to financial aid, he was thrilled to learn it would be matched by the Financial Aid Initiative.

Funding Students’ Dreams

“It’s fantastic that what I thought would be a significant gift will have an even larger impact,” he says. “I was privileged to be able to attend Tufts—Tufts was one of the great gifts I got from my parents—but I appreciate how difficult it can be for parents to do that today.”

He hopes that his support will help students follow their dreams and emerge from Tufts “with an exciting and broad view of the live performing arts. They relate to so many aspects of being a human.”

“My only other advice: follow your gifts—never stop learning,” he says. “Tufts taught me about the value of a liberal inquiry into the world. That spirit of openness I have carried with me my whole life.”