Over the past few days I’ve watched a set of DVD translations of videos made years ago in Yankton, SD, of Alvina Krause teaching acting. Fewer than a dozen students are present, mostly aspiring young men. They distract me -- they are "fullavit." I mean, they are posing for the camera, thinking about themselves, for they are good-looking, smart, etc. Presenting themselves as poetic, attentive, and strong -- worthy. So is AK. She was a remarkable woman and a crackerjack acting teacher, but now she is old and the path is worn. Still, her posture is erect, her voice oratorical. She is dramatic.
None of us really knew her personal lives. She gives us clues: the ring she has moved from the ring finger of her left hand and is now wearing on her index finger, same hand. We knew then and know now that she had a lifelong relationship with Lucy. Was this a wedding ring? Does moving it mean they are differing, out of sync? She tells us about the ring twice, at different sessions and says that if the students were portraying her, they would have to understand that ring.
The same is true of a twicetold story about a young man’s mother, icy and commanding, who comes to her to demand that AK “make her son an actor.” She compares this to Lady Macbeth trying to make her husband a king. She fails and the boy leaves. She is afraid of that mother. Who are those sons? I know nothing about any mothers who made demands, but I can think of many a son who tried to make a mother of AK. So what is she displacing here? She tells the story twice. The details vary, but she claims this is true.
At one point she repeats and repeats, “This means everything: that I am a MAN.” Of course, at the period it was conventional that “man” was supposed to subsume both genders. (We thought there were only two then.) And that they were the pinnacle of evolution. (Now we wonder what comes next.) She seems to be saying that we as humans should stand up valiantly with erect spines and not accept anything less from life than full value. But is there something more? She could have said “HUman.” It was a point in culture when Skinner was trying to reduce us all to stimulus/response, make lab rats of us. Is this what she meant? That being a man meant being more than being a mammal?
At one point she made a strong point about an actor having to include ALL humanity and twice talks about the great value of being “astonished” (her trademark mantra) by the sight of entirely different human beings. She twice uses the example of an Elizabethan seeing a Chinaman for the first time: pigtail, silk jacket, jade. No mention of yellow skin or slanted eyes, but an eloquent demand to understand that person’s world: what makes him what he is? “If you are going to be an actor, no human experience can be foreign to you!”
As was conventional at the time (my high school teachers were the same age as AK, maybe a half-dozen of them in “Boston marriages”), certain Great Ages were considered to be determiners of character and style, a kind of cultural ecology. (How they loved Edith Hamilton!) So the Greeks, of course, were all about the gods; the Elizabethans were all about the explosion of discovery, including books; and the modern plays considered (Pinter, Albee, Becket) were about the death of God and the ensuing emptiness and lack of meaning. That last didn’t appeal to her much. She talks about how the study of Chekhov opened the door to the culture of Russia -- a little risky given the times, but a way of sidestepping the Cold War to get to Stanislavsky with his humanistic version of stimulus and response.
In these lessons on video AK soon has the student actors striding around flaunting capes, gripping the floor with their feet, chests thrown up and open to receive life itself. There are real capes and rapiers and when the men fence, it’s clear they’ve had lessons. The girls have it tougher: she takes their hands, smacks them in the shoulder, pulls back their hair. The girls are A-students who have gotten good marks because of verbal skills and she wants them to drop those -- go to the sensory world under the talk. Use their own inner life because that’s where they will find the responses that explain what is happening inside them BETWEEN stimulus and response, that which “justifies” words and actions. When the brain is processing, the body stops momentarily. SLAP. STOP.
There’s an oddly Victorian quality implicit in AK, declare as she might that she stands with Hedda Gabler and Shaw. She may be rebellious and struggle against the current, but twice she tells about receiving a package in the mail. Eagerly she tears it open and finds that it is a newly published book of poetry by a former student. “He’s made it!” she cries. “He’s published!!” Well, she never did like the idea that God was dead. Even less would she like realizing that publishing also died, but she didn’t live to see that.
She was aware that at in her time there was a great cry that Broadway was dead and Times Square was only a cesspool of porno and drugs. And she was part of the push-back of repertory theatres like the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, who accepted the risks of defying the culture, and made a stand practically in her front yard where she gardened to keep her sanity. She probably had not read about the Great Vegetative Principle, which is that if you tear a living thing -- for instance, a god -- into pieces and scatter it, the bits will spring up in a whole new version of the original force. But if Joe Campbell had dropped by to explain, she would have grinned with glee. In a sense, she herself has been cut up into potato eyes (to use a midwestern metaphor since she was from rural Wisconsin) and planted all over the planet.
All the articles talk about AK’s genius for making stars by teaching them the Method, but that’s the usual media distortion and the usual institutional greed for marketing by boasting about alumni and begging them for money -- all the time refusing the testimony and recommendations of alumni. The bourgeois culture of curiosity, airs and graces (the silver comb), and the conviction that their world-view is true, was dying at the end of AK’s life, along with God. “Good riddance”, she ought to say. But she is aging, has just survived the attempted destruction of her work -- which had originally been evoked and sheltered by the same institution that now swept her away. She is a “man” and she stands like Antigone against the carnage of greed-based culture, commodified fun, enforced mediocrity.
The limitation of these videos, valuable as they are, is that they are not the live presence of a human being with all the richness that “real” can provide. AK’s methods (as many versions as there were students) worked very well for film, but the real heart pulsed on a stage. Until she slapped you into responding, you were not breathing. You had to STOP! THINK! WHAT IN TIME ARE YOU DOING?