Tuesday, January 07, 2014

from EDWARDIAN to AQUARIAN: Alvina Krause

Starting to accumulate information about someone on a blog (or in this case two blogs) is not the same thing as writing a book about them.  It’s easy to say,  “write a book” which people envision as one waving a magic wand so “poof” it appears on a shelf somewhere.  One needs to justify writing a biography.  In fact, a thorough search of places and documents means an investment of considerable money and travel.

These are scans of scans rather than transferred code, so they are a little vague which AK was NOT!  
They come from Tom Foral and remind us of AK's favorite teaching story which was about an actress who could summon the sense memory of a rose so vividly that the audience could tell what color the rose was.  The photos were taken at the Bloomsburg home of AK and Lucy McCammon.

Alvina Krause (January 28, 1893 – December 31, 1981) was an acting professor at Northwestern University who taught her own version of the famous “Method,” which used sense memories from the lives of the actors to evoke realistic acting.  That’s not all there is to acting,  First one has to learn lines, follow blocking, make sure to cheat towards the audience, project to the back wall of the auditorium, “land” lines and all manner of other technical things that need to become unconscious, intuitive and second nature.  Beyond that, an eerie and sometimes frightening magic seizes the actor and audience in a trance of belief.

Krause was considered a “star maker” and that’s the way Northwestern University presents her, with a long list of her “stars.”  She herself repeatedly emphasized that to come to her expecting to be made a star was folly.  She told a story about a mother who brought her son, demanding that Krause make him famous.  The silly woman was turned away.  But there were plenty of sons (and daughters) who came on their own, begging to be split open, to get at the heart of their passion or talent or whatever it was inside them that drove them towards this specific art form, a near-sacred vocation.  

Google can lead one in and out of many flammable and burnt buildings.  I’ve read what dead men wrote, secrets and old black mail, and -- if you know how to read between lines written in invisible ink or decipher codes from past eras -- a lot of nonsense and laughable convictions.  For former students none of that has the compelling power of Krause’s handwriting in one of the blue exam books where she scribbled her directing notes.  One glimpse and we’re back in some moment, skewered like an insect on a pin, when insight struck us between the eyes.  Oh!  THAT was it!

A handwriting sample and clip from Foral.  
She liked a small format as is this page which was evidently from a journal or diary notebook.

I’ve been posting all this on two blogs -- actually there are three if you count a fragment that I abandoned early.  They are www.krausenotes.blogspot.com  for those handwritten bits.  www.thesilvercomb.blogspot.com for writing about Krause, much of it mine, I confess, but also notes and articles from others.  The fragment is at http://theplayhouseateaglesmere.blogspot.com  David Downs, a student and working partner of Krause, has also posted on a blog at www.DavidGoingOn.blogspot.com.   David Press’ thesis about Krause’s work is available at the usual Ph.D. thesis source, University Microfilms in Ann Arbor, MI, and Krause’s own Master’s thesis is available through the Northwestern Archives.  I put notes from them on "The Silver Comb" blog.  She did not receive a Ph.D.

People have wondered why Krause was abruptly and forcibly retired from the School of Speech and why no one has ever explained her work in the way that other famous Method teachers have been analyzed.  What is it that made her so effective and meaningful for so many people -- quite apart from any “star system” (an idea that made her snort) and even apart from the theatre, since many of us didn't become actors or directors.  Underlying the politics of the School of Speech and the actions of the university are the dynamics of a great sea-change in the nature of theatre and another deep shift in the assumptions of the larger culture.  The theatre went from realism to surrealism (possibly because of film or possibly because of a world gone absurd) and the culture went from prissy to libertine.

Krause’s lifespan nearly coincided with the 20th century.  She began her career as a stalwart orator, Chautauqua-style, declaiming great literature for her rural Midwest small town.  Her first teaching job was in Seaside, OR, where she was the gym teacher.  Then began a slow progression up through a small college, then Garrett seminary, and to Northwestern University, by that time under the protection of Dean Dennis, a great favorite on the Chatauqua circuit.  She was technically a teacher of “interpretation” until almost the end of her teaching career, though by then she was staging plays year-round.

The materials on the blogs I shepherd are mostly from the last few years at Northwestern as they transitioned through Eaglesmere, PA to the Alvina Krause Theatre in Bloomsburg, PA, which is another source of information about Krause and her work. (http://www.bte.org) Over the years people tried to question her about her theories and methods, but she was evasive.  There were several interrelated reasons for this.  One was that she really didn’t have conscious theories and repeatedly protested that she just KNEW, she FELT it.  Questions felt like challenges.  In an academic setting she justified her presence in a university instead of a conservatory by emphasizing the crucial importance of history and culture, how it affected a character, how it had shaped the playwright.  Her conviction was that actors could never learn too much.

The Eagles Mere Playhouse in late days.
Photo from Foral.  He is with his mom and sister.

Some students were exploring religion, as is natural at this stage in life, and grappling with some very muscular serpents.  Questions about the core aspects of life were too much for some and there were accusations that her methods were too rough, damaging and belittling.  She was certainly no mollycoddler but the students came begging to be broken open.  It was risky in the way that true creation and art must be to have real value.  Not a pretty pursuit, an entertainment, but a gut-wrenching transformative experience.

Of course sex was part of it.  In those days girls at NU had to sign in and out after dark with a ten o'clock curfew, and the housemother came at midnight to make surprise bed-checks.  If a girl married or became pregnant, no matter the sequence, she had to leave.  A man caught in a homosexual act meant jail, a felony.  Krause was in what is sometimes called a “Boston marriage,” two women in household partnership, a matter of intimacy and trust.  Lucy did not come to campus, but in the summer and on long breaks the two women were together, often traveling.  No one quite believed in lesbian relationships anyway.  But at the other extreme some Method directors and actors at that time felt they had to break barriers and taboos on stage.  One was cautious about being associated with them.

School of Speech professors, who included high school dramatics coaches, speech pathologists, hearing experts, designers of stage lighting, costumers, and other stage technicians, were very assorted in style.  The debate and public speaking people traveled, competed, were half-politicians -- they were the randy ones with opportunities.  Interpretation?  I wouldn’t know.  An undercurrent of lust is always in the hard wiring of a university -- let alone in the euphoric or tortured atmosphere of theatre companies -- no doubt there was worry that it could burst into a conflagration that would consume alumni donations.

Today the School of Speech is gone, replaced by the five divisions of Communication Arts:  Communication Sciences and DisordersCommunication StudiesRadio, Television and Film; Performance Studies, Theatre (includes Dance)  Debate and interpretation have disappeared, along with the teaching of high school dramatics which was my actual major.

The division called “Rhetoric and Public Culture” would hardly stutter if presented with problems of sexuality, gender, and all that ticklish stuff.  So why leave that hidden social aspect of the Fifties/Sixties School of Speech unstudied?  What’s still in the closet anyway?

Former students.  Some “out”, some “bi,” some hidden, protecting reputations that control their employment, some just feeling like the Krause years were so intense and so personal that they don’t want them talked about.  And there are, bless ‘em, still people who had no consciousness of any of this.  We’re old now, our partners may be sick or dead, and life is tough enough without questioning what happened in one’s youth.  Some write their own books and include Krause as part of their story.

Former student Joy Zinoman, founder and director of The Studio Theatre, has already spoken of  Krause as a "fierce lesbian" and has been a living example of Krause's other and mostly unremarked major contribution, which is her belief in local repertory theatre like both EaglesMere and Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.

Maybe there’s no place or justification for a book about Alvina Krause.  Maybe it ought to be a play instead.  David Downs took a run at it.  Anyone else?  Or should we just let Alvina Krause fade into the past?  (I do not know who wrote the Wikipedia entry.)

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