Thursday, December 13, 2012
SOME MYSTERIES ABOUT ALVINA KRAUSE
In 1962 Alvina Krause, Professor of Acting at the Northwestern University School of Speech, returned from Christmas vacation to discover that the four-drawer file cabinet that contained her lifetime accumulation of teaching notes had been emptied. The door to the office had been locked, was still locked, and showed no signs of tampering. Twice in the following years things were mailed back anonymously: a set of photos of eyes came back postmarked locally and some other papers -- none of them written by her -- returned from Hollywood a year or so later. Why would anyone want to steal teaching notes? That was the first mystery.
In 1963 Krause was retired against her will, though she had been assured that an exception would be made to allow her to go on teaching as long as she wished. Campus expansion also meant that her house would be torn down. This sudden break with what had originally been a protective university invested in the humanities was the second mystery.
Though she was acclaimed as a “legendary” teacher of the “Method” acting technique, she never wrote a book or promoted herself as anything but an academic professor, except at Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, where she ran a summer repertory company that allowed students to try their wings. No less a luminary that John Gielgud remarked that she was the “best kept secret in American theatre” and even aspiring students with connections in Manhattan by-passed the famous Strasberg school to attend Northwestern. After her retirement she did a bit of gypsy teaching around the country and then settled in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, where the Bloomsberg Theatre Ensemble formed and thrived, even after Krause’s death in 1981. And yet no one wrote a book about her nor did she write one herself. This is the third mystery.
My cohort, the Class of 1961, included some of the most outstanding of AK’s students, who are not particularly well-known to the general public because they are stage actors rather than film stars. AK’s teaching was focused specifically on script-based, proscenium-framed, realistic theatre which requires a set of set of skills rather different than those for film. My class, born during WWII, is now on the cusp of retirement. We are almost too old to recover what Alvina Krause taught us.
If you look at the list of famous “stars” who claim Strasberg’s Method as the source of their success, you’ll see that it has two sources. First, his location in Manhattan was not relevant to Broadway stage theatre, but to the intellectual achievement brought to this country by the wave of Europeans displaced by war and after the war celebrated by the media as the pinnacle of culture. The second source of Strasberg’s success was his focus on personal emotion. Passion and the unique interior lives of individuals became of great interest to Americans in the Fifties, partly because the desperate war required masking, conformity, hierarchy, secrecy, suppression of emotion in order to win. And yet everyone knew trauma, if only in newsreels. Peacetime security and dawning prosperity allowed an explosion of freedom in all the American arts, including film. In Europe more time was needed to process damage and the stage was much more political, experimental.
Krause turned 21 in 1914 at the beginning of WWI, an idealistic era with a focus on the heritage of England, as epitomized by the Elizabethans, and with a bow to the early Greek theatre seen as the near-religious source of Western culture. My high school teachers, Krause's cohort, lived dedicated and unmarried lives, because the men they would have married had been killed in battle. The energy they would have devoted to family went instead to teaching other people’s children. Krause was no radical intellectual theorist nor did she appreciate madness. Her style was Mid-Western American, focused on classic English repertory ensemble acting, which was no doubt why she was praised by John Gielgud rather than Marilyn Monroe or Marlon Brando who were Strasberg successes. BTE is a community-based theatre group. It is meant for the greater good of local people rather than a nursery for movie stars.
Sources of material that illuminate Krause’s life and thought have remained. There’s no need to wait for some publishing company to take an interest. I’ve already posted her 1933 Master’s Thesis at www.krausenotes.blogspot.com. It’s about creative imagination, only 35 pages, quite academic and irrefutable. The “instrument” she designed to detect talent is outdated and not useful enough to post. I doubt that anyone in the oral interpretation class she tested is still living.
At the end of each Eagles Mere season Krause wrote up evaluations of each of the dozen productions. These were mimeographed and given to the actors of that season. One copy was supposed to be “filed” by being pitched into a box in the office of the theatre company. When David Press, a graduate student, had the idea of writing his Ph.D. thesis on the teaching methods of AK, they went to the box but discovered only partial copies, loose pages -- not the chronological account of seasons. No one knows whether these materials were also stolen or just never accumulated as supposed. Another mystery.
Press set out to use interviews but ran into difficulties. First, the withdrawal of appreciation by NU encouraged the aging professor to be defensive about what she did and why, and, second, her methods had always been based on clinical observation and interaction with specific actors. Often she was by-passing critical or theoretical consciousness, merely acting through her own personhood to evoke the personhood of the actor. “I just do what I do because I MUST!” she declared. Nevertheless, Press produced his 1972 thesis and it is valuable.
Because the Eagles Mere actors kept their copies of season evaluations, some survive and they have been added to www.krausenotes.blogspot.com. More will probably show up. They are personal and specific to particular plays, but acting techniques do show up in spite of that: projecting the voice, movement onstage, and so on.
The most personal of sources about AK are her letters, especially those being posted by David Downs, her protegée and successor at NU. www.DavidGoingOn.blogspot.com. Here we read the real human being, so idealistic in the beginning and challenged in the end. Bitter, angry, and all that, but never vanquished and always recouping everything, beginning again. My most recent discovery is an article by William H. Wegner and there are six half-hour films made at Yankton College and the University of South Dakota, introduced by Charlton Heston.
In “my” cohort Robert Benedetti differed with AK, ended up transferring to the Oral Interpretation Department just as AK moved more squarely into the Theatre Department, and has pursued a career that encompasses the academic, the commercial, the traditional and the avant garde. Moving parallel to AK's devoted students, he has insights.
And then there is me, who used what I learned from AK in strange ways: as an English teacher and sculptor’s wife among the Blackfeet; as an animal control officer in the under-culture of Portland, OR.; as a minister and writer in a small Montana town. In 1980 I stopped through Bloomsberg to pay my respects to AK, Lucy and their little dog. Grinning, Krause socked me in the arm, HARD. You always felt any confrontation with her, and even when it was painful, it was meaningful. You didn’t forget it. You weren’t supposed to.