Alvina Krause was not just an acting teacher. She was a life-changer. I’ve blogged about her a little bit. (The search strip won’t work very well because it picks up the little clip at the beginning about where I’m posting the notes from her class. www.krausenotes.blogspot.com You have to wade through those to get to the ones really about AK, as we called her.) Now I’m in touch with a few classmates, all of us saying, “Oh, someone ought to pull everything together and write a book!”
AK had an ambivalent relationship with Northwestern where she was a longtime professor, partly because corporations never like their “employees” to be so intense and charismatic because loyalty attaches to the individual instead of the organization. And partly because there has always been a deep split in theatre itself between spectacle and the exploration of human beings. AK was not into spectacle so much. NU was.
In terms of acting, the most simplistic description has been “from the outside appearance in” versus “from the heart of the actor out.” Should you put on the clothes and mannerisms of a dandy and thus find yourself taking on his personality, or should you look for the inner motor of dandyism and see what that makes you do? Obviously the two should ideally work together in various ways, but the fact is that they attract different personalities in both performers and audience. The “other” split -- between stage and screen -- is not so serious, though there are major differences.
AK is often described as a “method” acting coach, like Stanislavsky, Stella Adler and the Strasbergs because of using “sense memory” as a key. But this is not accurate. The main difference between Adler and Strasberg is that the latter emphasized near-psychoanalysis (which could easily plunge into narcissistic involution, not good for Marilyn Monroe) and the former was said to take into account the historical context, the political and environmental forces. AK was “Adlerian” in this distinction, but much more than that.
For one thing, she was devoted to discipline -- not in the sense of obeying rules and commands, but in the sense of having the ability to do whatever the actor is called upon to do. One NEVER shows up with lines unlearned. One ALWAYS shows up on time. One takes classes in dance, singing, swordsmanship, trapeze, or whatever else is necessary. She loved the physical, having started out as a PE teacher. She pounded into us that to become an actor is to pay a price and that to succeed we must know what that price is and pay it willingly.
One of AK’s former students feels that she was a little harsh. When a class exercise was really bad, she would call out from the darkness, “Cut. Flunk. Next.” We could all do imitations of that. But the truth is that the offense that made her harsh was generally either lack of discipline and preparation or -- this was the capital crime -- BORING. She totally blew up once when I was present, pacing up and down the auditorium aisle as she cried out, “I have wasted an entire evening of my life coming here to be BORED by this work!”
On another day, in class, she claimed that she had been so BORED by my journal that she threw it against her ceiling. And when I claimed I was NEVER bored, because there is always so much small interesting stuff, she snorted and walked off. Of course, part of my problem was taking in too much and not sorting it properly to find the really crucial and significant -- this is a common actor’s problem and one she wanted to crush. She was not really cruel. In fact, my boring journal became a friendly joke in some quarters.
She pointed out that “boring drama” is an oxymoron. Indeed, once one has really tasted the rare chateaubriand of truly great theatre, all the rice krispies of TV can hardly be tolerated. Why waste your precious life on stupid stuff? Why settle for titillation when you could have epiphany?
“The Method” is often mocked as letting actors be inarticulate, mumbling. AK came into acting through vocal interpretation. Clear articulation was basic and then, in addition, the “song” of the words as they carry the sense and form connections across dialogue; the “melody” of the language origin (Irish? Western? Black ghetto vs. black sharecropper? French Arcadia?) and how it relates to the culture and history of the place.
The main thing, I see as I keyboard my way through these notes, was to understand style techniques and what each demands, whether it is slapstick or Shakespeare, and to fit each character into the playwright’s assumptions and theme. She was against star systems but passionately in favor of repertory where actors grow to know each other well enough to play a team game. Last night I watched “Straw Dogs” (the early one -- I was startled to see two versions on imdb.com) and there was Peter Vaughn, just as the night before I saw him as Maester Aemon in “Game of Thrones.” His list of credits is as long as I am tall. He is not a “star.” He’s not even handsome. No one will name a perfume for him. He is an ACTOR. He needs no stars or thumbs up from fans.
AK’s notes are mostly scattered among students and actors who have hoarded them over the years. There is no central repository at NU, as I had assumed. They just used some things for fund-raising. Jim Goode (firstname.lastname@example.org), who is in touch with AK’s literary executor and family. says that the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble still has some records and artifacts and that most of the material is at the Library of Congress where it may be digitized later.
I started this for purely selfish reasons, trying to consolidate and revisit my notes before I send them off somewhere for archiving. In the process I’ve realized that the people I know are aging, retiring and even dying (Patricia Neal) without quite remembering the intention to do what I’m doing. Since I’ve already done this once for Bob Scriver, I’m aware that it takes stamina and cooperation -- but, more than that, someone has to say, “Let’s do it NOW!” and ride point, because that’s what enables and energizes everyone.
AK’s students might be likened to a sprawling repertory company. I’m discovering that some are “computer naive” but the Internet is ideal for this kind of work, a “stage” if you like. This should not be a monologue. I’m finding that people are nervous about it, worried about too much disclosure maybe, not wanting comparisons or evaluations. But I’m not one for “cut,flunk,next” no matter what the justification. So I’m running up the flag.