Friday, September 21, 2012


Why after all these years (AK was dismissed from NU in 1963 and died in 1981) do we still care?  What is there to say?  What relevance can there be now?  I see several quite vital issues, some of them pressing and some of them so deep that I might be imagining them.  After all, I was not part of the inner AK circle.  She did not confide in me.  But there are far larger social issues here.

Colleges grew out of the practice of becoming a scholar by finding a learned person one could admire and “shadowing” that person, as one might do to learn a trade.  The learned person generally had a library and a cluster of students would accumulate around man (always a man) and library.  The pressing subjects in the beginning were theology, medicine, and the law -- all “professions,” analytical, print-based.  That is, in the split between Apollonian vs. Dionysian or mind vs. body or art vs. science that plagues us still, the college was professional, Apollonian, brain and science.  

Universities began to group colleges of several sorts and to elevate the classic professions to graduate schools.  And yet the colleges of all sorts began to form their own graduate schools.  Today, there are “post” graduate schools.  The ladder never goes high enough.   At the highest levels once again a student would go to an individual with resources. 

I became familiar with this issue at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, part of a cluster of seminaries (now dispersing) around the University of Chicago.  In my class were six students while the faculty numbered four, if you counted the librarian.  We had a fine library.  Constantly we confronted the problem of whether we were studying analytic “theology” (the study of the Theos in the Christian context) or whether we were learning to minister as whole and authentic persons, which is surely an art form.  Within that art form, there is another split between Apollonian and Dionysian -- were we the dignified robe-wearing pulpit-occupiers or were we Pentecostal snake-handlers?

Actors have something like the same problem.  Theatre -- which is a root of both Christianity and colleges -- is on the one hand professional and academic (the study of anything renders it academic) and on the other hand cannot be measured very well by stipulated standards.   Acting either succeeds or it doesn’t.  ‘Why” might be in the script, the actor, the director, or the phase of the moon.

Nevertheless, if an institution purports to teach theatre arts, there has to be some way to establish what is worthy of paying tuition for.  The ultimate criterion -- at least for those who actually go into the theatre "industry" as opposed to academics -- must be financial and critical success.  If students must be evaluated with grades (not always helpful) then the institutional program must be measured according to the number of actors who succeed, disallowing the ambiguity of success.  (Is a star a success?  Or is the character actor who makes a living by doing small parts equally successful?)  Some NU Department of Theatre profs at present frankly advise acting students to go to a good conservatory.

Alvina Krause, in her wholistic and humanistic way, offered actors training for the “profession” (is acting a profession?), but also her classes were an inspiring and enriching experience for people like myself, who took the training in quite a different direction.  I’m not sure this can be said of the famous Manhattan “Method” actors.  Because of this broader usefulness, she is deserving of reflection in ways that Strasberg, Adler, et al, are not.

In her own vocational trajectory, AK grew up intermingled with the invention and development of the Theatre Program at Northwestern -- from the Comstock School of Oratory to Voice and Interpretation to the Studio Theatre, to University Theatre to Workshop Theatre.  Today I spent an hour calling the NU campus by telephone and discovered that not only has the School of Speech become the School of Communication but also the Theatre Department has split between  “Theatre” and “Performance Studies.”  I’m sympathetic to both.

I didn’t make much progress beyond that, since classes don’t start for a week, but it’s a fascinating thing to explore.    It sounds very much as though it’s responding to the split I’m talking about here  -- the split between acting theatre (like ministry) and the academic study of performance (theology).  The website hosts a short video of all faculty introducing themselves and explaining what they are doing.

People forward me articles from the Chronicles of Higher Education.  Plainly the university, as an institutional form, is being challenged on a lot of fronts.  They have crossed the line between being an instrument of inquiry and development into maintaining themselves for the sake of their own existence.  Beyond that, they are challenged on the basis of their relationship with corporations through research and endowments for building.  They begin to look like a herd of sacred cows.

Anyway, what people tend to mean by “professional” these days is “can I get a job?”   The advantages of a humanities education and a Ph.D. in some “nice’ field are becoming a little obscure.  

The big preoccupation with Alvina Krause’s work until now has been the division between Method acting and Technique acting.  Looking at the NU website, I see that no one talks about Method now.  In fact, few even talk about acting in the near-religious way we did.   We were psychoanalytic in our willingness to investigate ourselves and then use that, even though it was often painful and sometimes too disclosive. We used to play “What’s Your Price?” and spend a lot of time talking about sacrifices.  The choice was between Broadway and Hollywood -- or maybe some academic repertory company.  Some of us went to the Guthrie in Minneapolis or the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and considered ourselves blessed.   

Krause herself had strong ideas and didn’t tolerate much resistance because she KNEW it worked.  Of course, at Eagles Mere she was in complete control of even the housing.  But why would you go there unless you wanted to?  No pay, no class credit.  She resisted the idea of being a Method teacher, but in addition saw her whole life as being a struggle against people trying to capture, resist and suppress her.  For the most part that was probably true, but there was a little streak of self-fulfilling prophesy in there.  

This story might sum her up the problem.   On a hot summer day she and Dean McBurney (who was not always helpful) were both paddling at the shore of Lake Michigan in their bathing togs.  Dean McBurney. seeing her shoulders, exclaimed,  “Why, Alvina!  You have freckles!”

“Oh, didn’t you know?” she returned.  “Those are flecks of rust from my iron will.”  Dean McBurney knew quite a bit about her iron will, but probably never registered that freckles -- and being short -- haunted Krause all her life.

(This post was also posted at which is about AK..)

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