Miss Alvina Krause was very nice to me. Those who got from her the full force blast of her personality will know that this meant she didn’t think I had any talent as an actor. She was quite right. But I don’t think she would be surprised that what she taught turned out to be an excellent foundation for many other things. She was teaching HUMANITIES in the largest sense, the kind that was understood in her times as honoring human beings and pushing them to be as worthy as Elizabethans or Greeks, two of her ideals.
Why revisit an acting professor who has been dead for thirty years? Why bother to talk abut “the Method” which we all “know” now it was about mumbling? Why talk about a woman who passionately fought the star system, believing instead in repertory theatre companies, when now the star system has taken over everything? Though today film rules, she had little to say about it. Isn’t Alvina Krause simply out of date? My cohort of NU students is in their seventies. What do they care?
Ask David Downs at DavidGoingOn.blogspot.com about the people who worked with him as AK’s successor and some who actually worked with AK herself. You could ask him on Facebook.
Ask Jim Goode in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, should you be so lucky as to attend a production at the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble where the work goes on in repertory as she hoped it would.
Ask David Press, quietly retired professor, whose thesis -- written in collaboration with AK but repudiated by her halfway through -- had roughly the effect of stirring a stick in a wasp’s nest forty years ago. Few have read it since for fear being stung.
Well, I did read it, (Order from www.proquest.com) and it gave me a lot to think about in many different ways. These ways have developed out of work I’ve done based on my preparation for the Unitarian Universalist ministry at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Meadville/Lombard Theological School. Those who are surprised that there would be any connection should consider these things:
1. For the Greeks religion and drama overlapped so deeply that it was hard to tell them apart. They are the epitome of agonistic tragedy as well as trickster comedy.
2. For the Elizabethans consciousness of religious issues raised by the discovery of a New World, the defiance of the Pope, and the need to leave off the destruction of wars over religious dogma and affiliation badly needed to be addressed.
3. Northwestern University’s School of Communication was the School of Speech when I attended. When Annie May Swift Hall was built, funded in honor of his dead daughter by Gustavus Swift, the School of Speech had been called the School of Oratory. The school was actually organized and taught in 1878 by Robert McLean Cumnock, originally closely supported by Garrett Biblical Institute, which shares the campus with NU. In those days before radio. the importance and power of live speech from the pulpit and the podium were a vital heart of America. If AK had been influenced in slightly different ways, she might easily have been among the early female Universalist ministers.
4. AK’s life stretched over one of the most interesting and perilous centuries ever. Born into an American rural Edwardian world, she began her adult education just as WWI was declared and the long shuddering hardship of it eliminated the men of a generation. Then America roared into recklessness that plunged us back into the Great Depression, and again WWII and -- in the Fifties when I knew her -- a sober consideration of what civilization means anyway. Sputnik went up in 1957, just as I hit campus and sat down in B43 acting class.
5. Fifties culture was dominated by the Manhattan Mandarins who had formed from the European (often German and Jewish) immigrants. Highly intellectual, they knew psychoanalysis, experimental writing, abstract expressionism, and were hypnotic, nearly magic, for many people. Method acting, mostly derived from Stanislavski’s work in Russia, was part of this high-prestige, glamorous, and exotic way that Life magazine admired and touted across the country.
Alvina Krause, Midwestern rural American, had developed “methods” of her own, partly from oratory or rhetoric and partly from physical culture, both athletic and artistic, almost as Eastern as Tai Chi. Her results were stellar, worthy of Broadway. How she got them is worthy of inquiry that is not dominated by ideas about the Method. She was an American original in counterpoint to Manhattan ideas.
6. At present there is a great deal of attention being given to the idea of gender and the relationship between the two ends of a continuum that had previously been seen as binary. The interrelationship between physical (genetic and anatomical) determiners of gender and the identification of the person with his or her gender role, including the gender assignment of those he or she desires, have preoccupied us all. When I went to high school in Portland, OR. (not far from Seaside, where AK started her teaching career) -- 1953-57 -- the teachers, mostly women, had been born at the “turn of the century” which meant their opportunities to bond with men were much reduced. They chose professions (usually teaching or nursing) instead of becoming wives and mothers. Among those teachers I knew, several were in “Boston marriages.” That is, two women living together lifelong in a private way. We hardly thought about it. One was the head of the NEA for a year.
Because AK and Lucy McCammon were pair-bonded, it would be easy to interpret them in today’s political way as defying convention and being “queer” in a formal sense. I think this would be misleading. Certainly at the time we all knew (some of us lived in her house) and none of us cared. However, because the unique sexuality of individuals was quietly honored, many students found their feet. By the way, AK was fond of men.
7. By now (since the invention of the fMRI and other methods of study) there are bodies of neurotheory and counseling that address the constantly renewing question of human identity. The work I’m following accepts the idea that every person includes MANY personas and daemons -- not in the dramatic way of “The Three Faces of Eve” but in the daily way we answer the door to a salesman with one “face” and return to an argument at the breakfast table with another “face” and then go out to our jobs with a third “face.” I find it fascinating and enlightening to apply these theories to the work of AK with aspiring unformed actors. There’s a lot of explanatory power that is surprisingly -- well -- “spiritual.” Victor Turner’s anthropological idea of “liminal space” certainly informs theatre and Eugene Gendlin’s work with “focusing” is the most basic of acting skills.
For a person of my background (English teacher), the first idea is that this ought to become a book. Let’s be modern and -- for now, at least -- think Blog. And in the metaphorical way one says a boat is a sail, let’s call it “The Silver Comb” to honor that anchor on AK’s head. www.thesilvercomb.blogspot.com is in very early stages.
(This post is also posted at www.thesilvercomb.blogspot.com.)