Articles about Karen Black are accumulating on the Internet and probably will keep doing so for a long time. She definitely had an impact on the culture, both the “low” and the “high.” And I’m sure she was pretty vivid in the lives of those around her as well. I think of the Flaubert quote I keep at the top of my computer: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Among the small cohort that has gotten back in touch via email since the years 1957 to 1961, the reaction to Karen has been helpful in understanding the role and contribution of the legendary Alvina Krause -- not because Karen was a protegée who achieved the stardom some were seeking, but because AK wanted nothing to do with her! Was even mean to her! So why? (That’s what AK would ask, if she were being fair.)
Really effective teachers are like heart surgeons: intimate, incendiary, and relentless. For some they are life-saving kindlers -- for others, they start conflagrations of identity that may need professional help to recover. I can think of two -- maybe three -- who landed in hospitals, “decompensated” in the jargon of our times. The kind of teacher who does incredible things is creating an instrument for acting -- not a star. What makes such a teacher so dangerous is not so much their methods or intentions, but the hopes that the students bring: “Oh, set me on fire, Miss Krause! Make me burn with a fine clean flame!” In other words, they handed their talent over to someone else instead of exploring it themselves. She knew this. She tried to tell them this. Sometimes she went too far. It is a kind of work that can be painful.
But she could not resist taking on a few of the riskier ones. Karen was not one of “chosen”, but Paula Ragusa/Prentiss was. Somehow, mostly because she had a prince of a partner (Dick Benjamin), Paula survived. Her sister did not, but I didn’t know Ann.
Karen also had a strong partner then: Robert Benedetti (Bene to friends) http://robertbenedetti.com/Biography.htm , a formidable polymath whom AK tried to tempt into her more ambitious productions (“Oedipus,” “Lear”) with no success. Both Karen and Bene withdrew from the AK camp. They thought for themselves, found their own way with spectacular results. Unconventional.
So that’s one circle of this complex. There might be other people in it. I won’t name names for the other circles. There were individuals (writers, observers) who belonged to no group. Given that most of us were not yet 21 and given the slow awakening in the larger culture, it was not too surprising that there were groups based on sexuality, including homosexuality. Perhaps it is more surprising that the gay men shared with “sisters,” who mostly just hadn’t decided. (I was saving myself for Montana cowboys.) Those gays didn’t really know what it meant yet.
Another group was a professional set of people whose families were Broadway actors but who for some reason didn’t choose the Stella Adler/Lee Strasberg classes, so they came looking for AK, who was considered an equally good Method acting teacher. This group wasn’t looking at Hollywood. They stayed on Broadway and in the touring companies and summer repertories that spin off from Broadway. Still acting today.
Those with an academic perspective split into two groups: those who were Ph.D. analytical people who could get into trouble if they challenged AK. Of course, challenge is at the heart of a Ph.D. candidate -- questioning is the name of the game. But AK never got a doctorate and never absorbed the ethic. To her it was defiance. Others, who aligned themselves with her more loyally, were sometimes drawn into a kind of family relationship, as though they were the sorts of sons who would become vicars in the estate’s parish.
People who were invited to Eagles Mere, AK’s repertory company in a tiny Pennsylvania resort town on a pristine lake, were another group, overlapping the previous. Working under the influence of that intoxicating drug No-Sleep, we did what we considered to be amazing work while AK used every trick she had and rejoiced when they were effective. Certainly we learned our limits, which usually turned out to be a lot farther out there than we might have guessed -- even for me, who was only a costumer.
Like everything else in the great cultural sea-change that roared through the world in the Sixties and Seventies, theatre transformed, veering into absurdism, dada, spectacle, and shock-performing in the actual laps of the audience, maybe sans costumes. At the same time on television the series were creating the image of a strange Stepford happy-families way of life that has since boomeranged into vampires and zombies. All the while the actual world was far more like “Five Easy Pieces” and “Easy Rider.” If we were lucky.
The “Method” was created in Edwardian times for an Edwardian kind of theatre: prosceniums, realism, mimesis of gentry -- very “Downton Abbey” with an echo of Shakespeare and Greek theatre, which were all the rage in the Fifties when I went to high school. Well, they don’t wear out, do they? I loved the movie “Being Julia,” which hit all the stops in the kind of work AK understood: an elocution base, a comedy skill, and a thread of darkness. No need to get either nude or screwed. At least not onstage. But if Karen Black were persuaded it was necessary, she would. With style. So would Paula -- if she were in the mood. Both women were a helluva lot more intelligent than they seemed.
This little cohort remembers a lot of indelible moments, mostly hilarious. I would have loved to have seen Karen play a scene with Paula. Both women turned out to be effective in front of a camera. Method acting is really powerful when handled skillfully in close-up acting where the flicker of an eyelash expresses a major realization. AK never addressed film acting, but her Method was effective anyway because it had a sound base.
I think it was important to AK to keep theatre at a genteel cultural level, the sort of respect one once gave to a well-traveled Chautauqua speaker like Dean Dennis who recruited her and supported her career. She was afraid of side shows, burlesque, carnie downscale stuff, because she needed the respectability -- the assumption of Christianity -- in the first place (she was, after all, from a small Midwestern town) to distinguish this acting from the kind that was a euphemism for prostitution. At the same time, her roots were in progressivism, aspiration to the highest level, idealism. In the Fifties film was in love with Bergman, Russian realism, and French Cinema Veritée -- all of them still hanging onto the aftermath of war. Some of the students loved it dearly, but though she never said so, AK was not one to appreciate the gutter. Or even nihilism. Oh, maybe Chekhov. She wanted to be serious and despised Helen Hayes for her sentimentality. And girly curls.
Extraordinary people are generally more many-sided than monolithic, but no one can be all things to all others and much of life is a matter of finding one’s niche. There’s really no NEED to see Karen Black as a protegée of AK or anyone else. But those of us who knew both of them at NU have not forgotten either of them, one way or another. They both knew how to seduce. Far more than just sexually.