When Judy Navas began teaching at Sonoma State University it was still called Sonoma State College. There were “scraggly roosters” that would peck away under the sign, and a relaxed environment that allowed for more creativity, although it may have lacked a necessary structure. Navas said that she landed the job due to a “weird fluke”. It was the 1970s and jobs were hard to come by due to the recession. She was hired on the spot after the mime teacher was reportedly fired for getting into a “physical tussle” with a student, in which he actually kicked the student in the buttocks. “Isn’t that bizarre?”, said Navas.
That was Navas’ last change of jobs. After 40 years at Sonoma State, Navas will be retiring from her position as a professor in the Theatre Arts and Dance department. She had her retirement party Thursday at Person Theatre, where colleagues, friends, family and students gathered to celebrate. Navas’ colleagues painted a picture of a brilliant, quirky woman with a flair for the unusual. “I think Judy’s real love is the theatre of the absurd,” said Anthony Bish, professor in the School of Performing Arts and colleague of Navas’ for over 23 years.
Bish spoke about a play Navas put on called Bad Penny, which was performed on the pond at Sonoma State in 2012. She built docks and boats for the actors to perform on. “Judy loves to push the limits of space and technology,” Bish said. Navas recalled a memorable incident during the production. “At one point someone fell into the pond off of the boat, and we had a lifeguard there because we had no idea how deep it was,” she said. “It turned out she stood right up; it was waist deep.”
Navas grew up in Marin, where she joined a teen acting company while in high school. “I wanted to be a comedian, but at that time there weren’t a lot of female comedians as role models,” she said. However, she stumbled into theater early in life. “I knew what I wanted to do by the age of 12,” she said.
Her mother, a tap dancer who performed in Chicago hotels in the 1940s, was supportive of her passions, while her father was not. She recalled a time when her father was shamed into acceptance by the theatre company’s director when he drove 20 minutes to pick her up for rehearsal. “He said ‘well, if your dad won’t let you use the car, I’ll come and get you.’ He came to the house and embarrassed the devil out of my father, because here’s this very prominent man coming to bring me to rehearsal,” Navas recounted.
In her adult life, Navas has had a wide variety of rich experiences. Navas attended school at the College of Marin, University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University. She has one son, Damon Navas-Howard, who was involved in her plays as a child. Throughout her career she has traveled the world, including Myanmar, India, South America, London and the Netherlands. She has worked with prominent people such as Tennessee Williams and Eric Erickson.
She said her time at Berkeley in the 1960s greatly influenced who she became. “I got to Berkeley at the spring of People’s Park. Of course that was extremely exciting and very involving,” she said. “The values that we fought for at that time were of equality, fair play for everyone, and the sharing of resources. It’s always been part of my work and I’ve chosen a lot of plays based on that experience, because that’s what informed my generation… In fact, I was there when Kent State happened, and of course that day it was tumultuous on campus. There were certain times when we weren’t even on campus; we were at professor’s houses, and that was another thing that helped me in terms of how I teach. I always try to make my classes intimate, and have that feeling that we’re at home together.”
Navas has had a great impact on the people around her. Norman Howard, her good friend and former husband, has known Navas since 1982. He remembered a time she when she scrapped a play’s script three days before the show was to start. “I took that to heart in my own life, and my own career [as a public defender],” he said. “It’s something you have to do sometimes; you have to just completely toss the script and start over.”
Natalie Myers, a senior at Sonoma State, loved working with Navas. “It’s always a fun balance of laughter, hard work, and trying new things,” said Myers. Students are the reason Navas has been at Sonoma State for so many years. “I love not only teaching, but watching people at that point in their lives begin to blossom and develop. I’ve always been interested in the whole student person, not just in theatre, but in helping them through theatre to discover their potential.”
Scott Horstein, the department chair of Theatre Arts and Dance at Sonoma State, said that Navas taught him how to be a better educator. “She’s taught me the importance of chaos and the importance of being vulnerable, specifically in the classroom as a teacher. This means not taking on too much status, and remembering that you’re just as flawed as your students and that they’re just as beautiful as you are, if not more so,” said Horstein.
In her retirement Navas plans to relax first, then focus on her hobbies. “I want to feel what it’s like to cook a dinner, to just live.” She’s also in a musical group in Healdsburg. “One of my goals is to just get better at what I’m doing with that,” Navas said.
At her retirement party, Bish toasted Navas with Martinelli’s sparkling cider, because according to him, Navas is not a fan of wine. “Judy has always been motivated to challenge herself, her students, her collaborators, and the establishment--she did attend college in the ‘60s,” Bish said, as the group responded with laughter. “Just lately she has learned to play ukulele. Judy’s time here at Sonoma State is closing a big step in her career and life, but nobody who knows Judy believes that this is an end. It’s just another step in her evolving life.”