Saturday, October 14, 2017


The unintended consequence of acting training is the consciousness of personification: that is, if you can find something in your “self” that can portray a tree or a panda — which are the kinds of exercises you might be asked to do — you can also see that abstract forces and real political goals are also personified all around us.  If it’s a “thing,” it can be represented as a person, like the Statue of Liberty. 

Many college sophomores pride themselves on realizing that “God” is not a person with a long white beard sitting on a throne.  But maybe they don’t realize that both Trump and Obama are also personifications, fronts for corporations, mafias, race relations, and greed — as well as all the qualities that resist.  Hilary Clinton is not Mother Courage.  The impotence of the new Hollywood is personified by a repulsive old man who may have to take Viagra in order to jerk off in front of a starlet.

The best acting training preserves a determined and idealistic core in actors that is supported by local repertory companies rather than Broadway productions owned by corporations and treating theatre seats like political fund-raising dinners, a thousand dollars a pop.

AK (Alvina Krause) used to say that both the reward and punishment of teaching is that one never knows how the student will turn out.  But there is not just one consequence when a student actor becomes a fully aware human being.  And that idealistic core of an actor is not necessarily done by taking on a role.  There are peripherals.  They have nothing to do with fucking unless it's in the script.

B43 people were required to attend a daily session with a red-headed and relentless coach named “Larry” who surely had a leprechaun somewhere in his genealogy.  He was there to teach us survival in the “real” world of Broadway theatre.  “What’s your price?” he asked.  "What will make you give up and quit?"   We had to read the theatre pages of the New York Times, even find how many times Hirschfield worked his daughter’s name (“Nina”) into his cartoon.  

In those days the Arts Section was our Internet.  (It was the real secret of how Bob Scriver went from being a local cowboy artist into a respected member of the National Sculpture Society.)  These sessions were meant to be a means of survival, to address character, make us more effective in backstage life.  We were becoming persons who could inhabit any person and maybe inanimate objects.  It was a step towards Lakoff, et al, identifying metaphor as the key to human thought and meaning.

It also empowered gays, feminists, renegades and anyone else who could “perform” in the broadest sense.  We would invent little vignettes to act out on the elevated railway — maybe someone who pretended to be blind and picked a fight with his escort.  The Sixties and Seventies were just around the corner.

Eaglesmere Summer Repertory was the most intense example of creating a cooperative of actors, who were as much infrastructure as actors.  (We did the lighting, the sets, the handbills, the programs, etc.)  We were like the small groups of independent actors who traveled in gypsy wagons in the Middle Ages, the ones in Bergman’s “Seventh Seal,” who had an ultimate message about good and evil.  We didn’t do “group” as much as autopsies of falling short, but back at NU there WAS a class that was "group," a kind of Gestalt therapy.  It was listed in the catalog as D-something, when it was listed.  Invitation only.  I wasn't in it and it took me a while to find someone who would admit that it existed.  When actors get real, there are real consequences.  I know of two "nervous breakdowns."

What spun off from all this exploration was repertory companies and academically supported programs across the continent.  The most directly connected remains Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, now celebrating its fortieth season  “In 1980, BTE purchased the Columbia movie theatre in downtown Bloomsburg and reopened it in 1983 as the Alvina Krause Theatre, named in honor of the legendary acting teacher who was the Ensemble’s founding inspiration.”  This is not trivial ego-driven theatre, but serious inquiry into what it means to be human.

When I began to round up my AK-related materials to send to the NU archives, I also googled everyone relevant whose name I could find who was prominent in theatre from Shakespearean companies to experimental pop-ups to academic eminences grise.  They weren’t all men.  They weren’t even all favored by AK, who was capable of holding grudges and freezing people out.  

In fact, my high school dramatics teacher, Melba Day Sparks, took classes from AK and found her a hard and judgmental person.  Of course, Melba’s inability to confront risk and leave family meant that she stayed at the high school Thespian level — not that that was a bad thing and I’m grateful.  She created little families for adolescents.  In a way, that was also a contribution by AK.  In a way, my life — from ministry to dog-catching — was due to AK.  It would be hard to think up a better way to learn about people than through their cohabiting animals.

At NU we sort of split out between Broadway and Hollywood.  The summer I was at Eaglemere was esp. difficult because the plays had been planned around Paula Ragusa, who was just transforming into Paula Prentiss without much warning, and went off to shoot “Where the Boys Are” that summer.  Luckily, the network of AK-trained actors was wide and the plays were quickly recast, which is the point of repertory.  

Many of the Broadway people had come to NU from professional theatre families.  The Hollywood people sometimes drew on actors through New York connections like Woody Allen.  Other students were specifically interested in film — TV was too new to be a factor.  Truffaut, Bergman, and others who ended up in the Criterion Collection of classics were just coming into view.  AK had nothing to contribute in terms of movie acting.  Yet “Method” acting — which was her core message — was ideal for film, at least the kind that depends on the most subtle shifts of the actor’s face and body, direct reflection of the mind and heart inside.

There are blogs about AK.  I created two:  “” which is material about AK, and “ “ a compilation of all her writing that I had saved.  There is more material out there, a formal bio waiting to be written.  David Press’ doctoral thesis and AK’s own master’s thesis for instance.  My cohort, which was late in her career, is almost too old to take on projects — some are dead — but others are old enough to tell the truth without destroying their careers.

This kind of education, which doesn’t depend upon assumptions but rather on the inhabitation of personas in order to understand what they symbolize -- for instance, pretending to be God or his Son -- can have a strong political dimension and it’s time to energize that.  Trump as a weak parasitical man — the tool of giant corporations, some of them actually nations — could be a post-colonial Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” unhampered by the taboos of Ibsen’s time.  There are new taboos to break.  But after all, my cohort of actors is about the same age as today’s Congress.  What we need is young playwrights.  Below is an excellent plot starter.

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