Posted in Theatre

Through a Glass Darkly: “Girl at the Mirror” and Grover’s Corners

Girl at the Mirror. The Saturday Evening Post. 6 Mar. 1954 /

In Norman Rockwell’s painting Girl at the Mirror, the face that viewers see is the girl’s reflection—not her face itself, but the one she sees in the glass. What does she see in herself, and what do the paintings’ observers see, as we witness this private moment? Does her lace-trimmed petticoat evoke in her, or in us, thoughts of the wedding gown that she may wear one day? For Rockwell’s detractors—and for those who consider him a guilty pleasure—Girl at the Mirror and his other covers for The Saturday Evening Post present a sentimentalized depiction of American life, the same picket-fenced cliché that many who find fault with Our Town perceive as the prevailing image of the play. As theatre scholar Donald Margulies writes in his foreword to Our Town, many people who dislike it have “dismissed [it] as a corny relic of Americana and relegated Thornton Wilder to the kitsch bin along with Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra” (xi). Yet a close look at Our Town and Girl at the Mirror reveals portraits of American life that are far from idyllic.

As she gazes pensively in the mirror, the girl in Rockwell’s painting might be asking herself the same question that Emily Webb asks her mother: “[A]m I pretty?” (31). Though Mrs. Webb tries to reassure her daughter, Emily seeks an answer that her mother’s words fail to provide.

Both Emily and the Girl at the Mirror occupy that awkward space between childhood and adulthood—a notion that Rockwell emphasizes with the composition of his painting, placing the girl between her childhood toy, the doll that she has cast aside, and her new grown-up object of interest, movie star Jane Russell, who gazes up at her from the page of a magazine. Will I ever be beautiful and desirable, the way you are? the girl might be asking of Russell. Or, as Emily asks her mother: “Am I pretty enough . . . to get anybody . . . to get people interested in me? (32). Though Mrs. Webb answers Emily, she does not provide the answer that her daughter seeks. Telling Emily, instead, that she has “a nice pretty young face” (31) and that she’s “pretty enough for all purposes” (32), she avoids the subject of adult desire that underlies Emily’s questions.

Though the audience feels the frustration in Emily’s voice as she says, “Oh, Mama, you’re no help at all” (32), only later in the play do we feel the full weight of those words when Mrs. Webb confesses in the wedding scene that she has never talked to Emily about sex: “It’s cruel, I know, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything” (76). Mrs. Webb’s monologue turns the scene of her daughter’s wedding into a reminder of the vulnerability and pain that come as a consequence of a lack of sexual knowledge. That same darkness at the edge of a seemingly quaint picture appears in Girl at the Mirror. Consider the doll, just beyond the mirror and the viewer’s focus, innocently cast aside perhaps, but backed up to the edge of the mirror’s frame. To the adult eye, the doll’s posture is clearly one of sexual submissiveness.

Both Wilder’s and Rockwell’s visions are more complex than what their critics give them credit for—or more accurately deny them—rendering the trouble that lurks below the surfaces of our daily encounters. And while the sexual innocence of Emily Webb and Rockwell’s Girl at the Mirror may seem distant to us, the silence that endangers their innocence pervades our lives. Now as revelations of celebrities’ and politicians’ transgressions saturate our news streams, the silences of Wilder’s characters seem eerily prescient. Can anyone now hear Mrs. Webb say, “I couldn’t bring myself to say anything” (76), without thinking of our own culture of silence—and of  Roy Moore and Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein—and of all the predators in our own towns, places supposedly so far removed Grover’s Corners?

Meanwhile, back in Our Town, Mrs. Gibbs says of Simon Stimson’s alcoholism that “the only thing the rest of us can do is just not to notice it” (40). And Constable Warren says, “‘Twant much” (104), of a Polish immigrant nearly freezing to death, another way of saying that some lives do not matter as much as others, a prejudice that we know all too well as no mere relic of the past.  Those moments in Our Town not only belie the notion of Grover’s Corners as a saccharine portrait of America but also demonstrate that the play critiques the very parochialism that its detractors denounce as its stock-in-trade.

In his reassessment of Rockwell’s paintings, Richard Halpern observes that “[a] false belief in our own sophistication or knowingness is just another form of innocence” (par. 17). The same innocence may prevent us from seeing Our Town with real clarity, the way that Emily only truly sees her twelfth birthday when she revisits it after death. As she says to the Stage Manager, “I can’t look at everything hard enough” (105). Perhaps in our own innocence, neither can we.

Works Cited

Halpern, Richard. “Manufacturing Innocence,” excerpt from Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, U. of Chicago P.,, Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

Margulies, Donald. Foreword. Our Town by Thornton Wilder. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003, xi-xx.

Rockwell, Norman. Girl at the Mirror. The Saturday Evening Post, 6 Mar. 1954. Norman Rockwell Museum, 2016,, Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003.

Posted in Theatre

The Not-So-Foreign Foreigner

When the thought of making small talk with the other guests at a fishing lodge overwhelms Charlie Baker, his friend Froggy LeSueur concocts a story to enable the shy, fretful Charlie to avoid conversation—and to do so without seeming rude. Froggy tells Betty Meeks, the owner of the lodge, that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t speak English. And to stave off questions about Charlie’s homeland, Froggy implies that he can’t disclose that information because Charlie is on a classified mission.

And so the farce of the not-so-foreign foreigner begins. While Charlie—a proofreader for a science fiction magazine—is in fact a true foreigner on American soil, no one in Tilghman County, Georgia would think of him as foreign if he spoke in his native tongue, as Froggy, his friend and fellow Englishman, does. The ruse of the language barrier becomes a boon not only to Charlie but also to Betty and her guests. As Charlie observes to Froggy:  “Because of me, you see? We—all of us, we’re becoming—we’re making one another complete, and alive, and—oh, I can’t explain” (2.1). As Froggy watches the guests grow more fascinated by his friend and his made-up, pseudo-Baltic language (gok, blit, etc.), Froggy remarks to Betty that he’s feeling “a bit dull,” to which Betty replies: “No, now Frog. You cain’t help it if you ain’t a foreigner.” But of course Froggy is a foreigner, as the audience knows, and Charlie is, too—but not in the sense that the other characters believe he is, and that dramatic irony becomes the play’s driving force.

Ultimately, The Foreigner is not about foreignness but rather about misunderstandings and misperceptions—in particular the ones that engender racism and xenophobia. Charlie and the friends he makes at Betty’s lodge prevail over the villains who have been in their midst throughout the play, one of whom has appeared to be their ally. That villain is fundamentally more frightening than the one whose hatefulness and penchant for violence has been clear from the start.

Seeing those villains on stage now, reminds theatregoers that Larry Shue’s comedy is not the period piece that it may appear to be. When one of the characters reads aloud a magazine story to show how out-of-date it is, she is reading the story of the naming of the infant Prince William, which was only a year in the past when Shue wrote The Foreigner. (William was born in 1982; Shue’s play premiered in 1983.) But though William now has two children of his own—and another on the way—the play’s villains are not old news. They are still here; we saw them descend on Charlottesville.

We will never know what Larry Shue might have written about our latter-day Owen Mussers and Reverend David Lees, the villains we recognize and the ones we don’t.

Only two years after he wrote The Foreigner, Shue died in a commuter plane crash. Since his death, The Foreigner has become a staple of community and professional theatres alike. Shue’s play has endured because of the appeal of its title character. But what’s vital for audiences watching it now and realizing its prescience is the potential power of its satire.

The Hickory Community Theatre’s production of The Foreigner returns for its third and final week tonight.

Work Cited

Shue, Larry. The Foreigner. Dramatists Play Service, 1983.

Posted in Reading, Theatre

Saint Wannabe’s Spiritual Journey

An epigraph stands out as a curious element in a play. For readers of the script, that quotation,which precedes the opening of the play and presents its prevailing theme, offers a signpost to guide them on their journey. However, for those who first encounter the play on the stage, the choices of the director and the actors must convey that idea, which the audience, unlike readers of the script, does not see in written form.

For the epigraph of her comedy Creature (2009), playwright Heidi Schreck turns to the words of thirteenth-century poet and mystic Hadeviijch of Brabant: “He who has seen her comings and goings knows that Love is the highest name of Hell.” The notion of just how devilish divine love can be runs rampant, or like hell fire, through the recent production of Creature at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Among the funniest depictions of the hellishness of divine love are the ones in which the central character, Margery (Liz Bokhoven), based on the real-life, fifteenth-century Christian mystic Margery Kempe, struggles with her religious calling after she believes she experiences a vision of Jesus in purple robes.

In Margery’s eyes, Christ’s choice of purple is not liturgical, but personal. As she says to him, “[o]h, you are wearing purple, my favorite color” (16). Though the lollardly, married, brewery-owning Margery seems an unlikely—if not downright heretical—candidate for Sainthood, and though her story yields many unanswered questions, the audience willingly follows her on her pilgrimage, drawn into the play by Schreck’s humorous depictions of the yearnings and conflicts of Margery and everyone in her orbit.

To quell accusations of heresy and avoid public burning at the stake, Margery seeks validation of her vision from the anchoress Juliana of Norwich (Milissia Koncelik), whose book Revelations of Divine Love echoes the play’s epigraph. In Juliana’s words, “[t]rue Sin is the terrible distance between ourselves and God. There is no harder Hell than this” (73). Yet for all of the burden and pain of her wisdom, Juliana—played with wry humor by Koncelik—does not brood. She can say hello to a thought and then let it go—and chatter on about her late cat, Mathilda, and her love of babies, even as she grants Margery her certificate of approval, telling her, “[i]t’s a respectable vision” (70). Whether the audience believes in Margery’s vision, Juliana apparently does.

Along with casting doubts about the nature of Margery’s vision, Creature raises many questions that remain unanswered, including the one that Margery starts to answer repeatedly throughout the play, when she begins the confession that she never finishes. What sin she committed as a ten-year-old remains a mystery. Complicating the uncertainties of Margery’s story is a question of accuracy: Scholar Lynn Staley asserts that the Margery in the pages of Schreck’s source material, the autobiography The Life of Margery Kempe, is herself a fictional persona, one constructed by Kempe to offer commentary on fifteenth-century English life.[i] To readers and audience members who ponder these unknowns at length, Juliana might say—as she does to Margery—“[y]ou’re so serious” (71). Like religious devotion itself, following Margery on her spiritual journey requires a leap of faith—one that can feel like Hell, as Creature shows. But Schreck’s play also reminds us of the vital role of humor in our lives. Rather than offering Hadeviijch of Brabant’s words alone as the play’s epigraph, Schreck might have paired them with this reflection of Anne Lamott’s: “Laughter is carbonated holiness” (66).

[i] For a discussion of Lynn Stale’s argument, see Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions. Penn State UP, 1994.

Works Cited

Creature. By Heidi Shrek. Dir. Liz Bokhoven. Perf. Liz Bokhoven, Chase Fowler, Benjamin Thomas-Reid, Callie Cope, Milissia Koncelik, Corey Smith. LR Playmakers, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC. 21 Sept. 2017.

Lamotte Ann. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Riverhead, 2005.

Shrek, Heidi. Creature. Samuel French, 2011.


Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

Another Way with Words

TGR’s “Boeing Boeing” (2017) / Ken Burns

A year ago, as a model for my students’ introductory assignment, I composed a post about my work as a writer. Now as I revisit that assignment, rather than turning again to my writing, I have chosen to write about acting.

Though I began performing in community theatre as a teenager in the 1980s, I was away from it—focusing on my teaching and writing—for more than twenty-five years. Becoming an acting student in my forties—enrolling in classes in Richmond, Virginia, in 2011 and 2012—rekindled my passion for the craft. I fell in love with acting all over again, and I found myself wondering how I’d ever left it. Since moving back to North Carolina in 2013, I have performed in plays at Foothills Performing Arts, Hickory Community Theatre, the Green Room Community Theatre, and most recently at the Hickory Playground’s second annual festival of new one-act plays.

HCT’s “Incorruptible” (2016) / Ken Burns
HCT’s “Superior Donuts” (2016) / Ken Burns

For me as a writer, acting is another way of working with words, a process of transporting them from the page to the stage and transforming the language into the utterances of a living, breathing character—someone who isn’t me but in whom I can “live truthfully,” as Sanford Meisner would say, “under the given imaginary circumstances.”

Posted in Teaching, Theatre

What I’ve Learned about Learning Lines, Part II (or Act II)

Three-and-a-half years after returning to acting, I remain fascinated by the process of learning lines.

Back in 2014, after I finished performing in Third—the play that marked my return to the stage—I began researching the subject of line-learning. The two pieces of writing that resulted from that research (an annotated bibliography and an essay) are ones that I wrote primarily as models for my students. But the research, itself, is work that I would’ve done anyway. Chalk it up to my enduring interest in the subject.

I’m not sure what I expected to find, other than some examinations of best practices. Reading the lectures of Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg momentarily gave me a seat in the classrooms of those great acting teachers, but it didn’t offer much about the practice of line-learning, itself. Similarly, reading a research article on acting and cognitive functioning led me into the lecture halls of its coauthors—one a professor of psychology, the other a professor of theatre—demonstrating that acting may enhance memory, but not revealing how anyone actually learns lines.

So how do we do it?

I was too nervous—and too busy trying to remember my lines—to ask myself that question when I was in rehearsal and performance back in 2014. Only afterward could I begin the research that led to the essay that opened with these words:

How do actors learn their lines? It’s not the same act of memorizing that we perform as students when we commit to memory the steps of photosynthesis for a biology midterm. Actors learn lines to repeat them over and over in performance after performance, and yet must do so as if they have never spoken them before, to create ‘the illusion of the first time’ (Stanislavsky qtd. in Strasberg 35). Earlier this semester, I managed to learn lines for a play and repeat them in six performances, but I still don’t know how I did it. In fact, it was only after the play closed that I could bring myself to count the words. I was curious to know how many I’d memorized, but if I had counted them before I’d learned them, the process of memorizing would have been too daunting. And counting them during the run of the play could have undermined my performance; dwelling on how many words I was keeping in my head might have made me more prone to forget.

So how did I learn those 1,567 words and remember them?

Fast forward to late April 2017, when I found myself cast in a role that required me to learn more than twice that number of words—yes, more than twice. After I picked up my script from the theatre, I began my ritual of cutting and pasting, literally cutting and pasting photocopies of my lines onto three-by-five note cards.

When I began cutting and pasting lines for my twentieth card, panic set in. The most lines I’d ever learned had fit onto twenty-two note cards. I was on card twenty, and I wasn’t even halfway through. How many cards would I have, and how would I ever learn all of these lines?

When I cut and pasted the last lines, I was on card fifty-two. If only I had a year, I thought. One card per week seemed manageable.

Somehow I did manage to learn all of those lines in matter of weeks—not months, or anything close to a year—though I’d feared that all those words (which I still haven’t counted) would far exceed what my brain could store and retrieve.

An earlier draft of these reflections included a list of guidelines I’ve developed. As I revised, I omitted them to avoid prescribing my own idiosyncratic process. Suffice to say, the ritual of cutting and pasting lines, as time consuming as it is, is worth the effort for me. As I cut and paste the words onto note cards, I sense that I am beginning to internalize not only the character’s speech patterns but also the structure of the play.

Though my research and ruminations haven’t taught me how I learn lines, I have developed a keener sense of what draws me back to the process again and again. As with writing, it’s the words. And as I wrestle now with these words on the page, I find myself hoping to be fretting over another stack of note cards soon.

Work Cited

Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Little, Brown, 1987.

Posted in Theatre

Looking Back at Nancy on the Third Anniversary of “Third”

Laurie Jameson (Jill Roberts) and Nancy Gordon (Jane Lucas) / Ashley Potter Photography

In Nancy Gordon’s first scene in Third, she sits on a park bench outside the college bookstore and tells her friend and colleague Laurie Jameson how a boy she dated her freshman year taught her that Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” scans exactly to “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Nancy begins to sing the lines and Laurie joins in. Singing heartily, so caught up in the fun of it, Laurie doesn’t notice at first that Nancy has stopped singing. She can’t repeat the line “And miles to go before I sleep,” because she doesn’t know whether she has miles to go. Soon she will undergo a bone marrow transplant.

The early drafts of Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, didn’t include Nancy. Three years ago as I prepared to play her, I learned  that when Wasserstein added her as a friend for Laurie, she was adding an autobiographical character, a cancer survivor who would live on after Wasserstein died,  just three months after Third opened in New York in October 2005.

7/8 gone for "Third"
7/8 gone for “Third”

Whenever the prospect of playing Nancy frightened me–which it did, often–I reminded myself of Wasserstein’s courage and how creating Nancy sustained her as her health declined. What an honor and a privilege it was to tread the boards in Nancy’s shoes.

As I reflect on Foothills Performing Arts’ production of Third, on the third anniversary of its opening, I remain grateful for director Mark Shell’s artistic vision and faith in me, and for the stellar cast and crew: Jill Roberts, Justin Thomas, Carla Robinson, David Kerley, Dustin Greene, Amber Ellis Biecker, Tony Hendrix, Heather Lee Hendrix, Aleesha Hendrix, Jared Smith, and Josh Wolfe.


Posted in Teaching, Theatre

Niagara Falls Again: A Postscript

Thank-you card by Mallory Taylor
Thank-you card by Mallory Taylor
Thank-you card by Kiyah Davender
Thank-you card by Kiyah Davender

When Stephanie Lindsay, who played Karla in the recent LR Playmakers’ production of Wonder of the World, first visited class on February 6, the students had not begun drafting their analyses of the play and opening night was more than a week away. Today when Lindsay returned for a follow-up visit, the students had submitted their revisions of their papers and many had also seen one of the performances of the show. After all of the students projected their analyses-turned-blog posts on the big screen and spoke briefly about the focus of their writing, Lindsay led them in a discussion that traced the journey of the play from page  to stage.

Along with her insightful remarks regarding the actors’ and the director’s roles in bringing the characters to life, Lindsay reflected on the vital opportunity that live theatre offers us in the digital age: the experience of sharing stories together face to face in real time in an increasingly fragmented culture.

thank-you-card-4As Lindsay spoke, my thoughts turned to the readings that I selected for the course, ones that we can see performed on stage or that we can see addressed by the visiting writers who wrote them. In a course titled Critical Thinking and Writing, virtually any texts could serve as our subjects of inquiry. But studying plays produced at Lenoir-Rhyne and books written by the university’s visiting writers creates opportunities for face-to-face, real-time experiences that the study of other texts doesn’t allow.

Thank you, Stephanie Lindsay, for bringing Karla to life, both on the stage and in the classroom, and thank you for your observations on live theatre and stage craft. And thanks also to Kiyah and Mallory for producing cards to express our gratitude.


Posted in Theatre

Signs in Niagara Land: The Quest for Meaning in “Wonder of the World”

David Lindsay-Abaire’s farce Wonder of the World chronicles Cass Harris’ search for meaning as she embarks on a new life in Niagara after discovering that her husband of seven years, Kip, has harbored a secret sexual perversion. Once she reaches her destination, she finds that life away from Kip is no honeymoon either but a series of encounters with an assortment of eccentrics grappling with their own losses.

For Cass, the loss is one of innocence. No longer innocent of the knowledge of her husband’s bizarre fetish, she ww-script-notesstruggles to come to terms with it. Though Cass chooses to start a new life, she continues to see the world through the lens of the ninth-grade teaching job that she leaves behind (along with Kip), equating her mistake of marriage to a mathematical miscalculation. As she explains to Kip: “Look, I agreed to marry you based on what I knew to be true. Kip equals X. X will make me happy. Everything added up. Seven years later I find out that you’re not X at all, you’re Z. And if you’re Z, then I did the math wrong” (1.1). Ever the math teacher, Cass perceives the world as a series of signs with determinate meaning, a tendency that seems to compound the difficulty of her quest. On the bus to Niagara, where Cass adopts fellow traveler Lois Coleman as her sidekick, Cass continues to think in terms of numbers, measuring her old life as “463 road signs behind me” (1.2). Though she eventually loses track of the signs, she remains focused on her numbered to-do list, which includes becoming a contestant on The Newlywed Game, a show that turns couples’ compatibility into a numbers game.

Unlike Cass, her husband, Kip, does not seek meaning in numbers. When Karla and Glen (partners in marriage as well as private investigation), confide to Lois that Kip has hired them to track down Cass, Glen notes that Kip “[s]tarted to put two and two together” (1.7). For Kip, “started” is the operative term. He is not a numbers man. The proof that he offers of their undying love—including the ring they found, “the sign,” as Kip a calls it (2.1) —is insubstantial evidence in the eyes of Cass. Their sign systems aren’t the same; they speak different languages. For Kip, numbers games are “crass and divisive” (1.2).

When couples counselor Janie, clad in a clown suit, leads Cass and her cohort of misfits through a Newlywed-style ww-draft-1therapy session, Cass says that “[i]t’s not just a game! Things have meaning. Or at least they should” (2.3). Her emphasis on “should” indicates that she has embraced the concept that meaning may be indeterminate. But neither she nor the other characters can leave numbers behind, not altogether. After Captain Mike, Kip’s rival for Cass’ affection, accidentally shoots himself, rather than reflecting on his death, the characters attempt to quantify fears as they quibble over which is number one: being alone, public speaking, or needles (2.3).

Only Karla seems to yield to the idea that answers may elude us. As she observes to Lois: “I don’t even think about my marriage anymore. Why this, why that? I have no idea how it works, and that’s fine by me. It’s like Stonehenge, an unknowable mystery that the world has come to accept” (2.4).

ww-draft-2The final scene on the river leaves the audience, along with Cass and Lois, in a holding pattern. What happens remains unclear. The ambiguity comes at a risk; it may try the patience of audience members who find the play’s farcical humor too ridiculous or contrived, or as New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley wrote “forced rather than organic.” For others, though, the grotesqueness of Cass’ Niagara Land may serve as an apt metaphor for our own absurd political terrain with its crass and divisive stream of fake news and alternative facts. Perhaps asking “[w]hen does the clarity come?” (2.4) and persisting in our quest for it will sustain us, like Cass and Lois, as we find ourselves over a barrel.

Works Cited

Brantley, Ben. “Setting Forth, the Wind in Her Sails.” Review of Wonder of the World, by David Lindsay- Abaire, The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2001,, Accessed 18 Jan.  2017.

Lindsay-Abaire, David. Wonder of the World. Dramatists Play Service, 2003.

Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

Learning Lines: An Annotated Bibliography

When I began work on the paper that I’m writing as a model for my students’ Unit III essay, I didn’t plan to compile an annotated bibliography of potential sources. I did, however, write one bibliographic entry as part of the preliminary work that I shared with them. When we looked at the sample entry in class, I told them that I wrote it because all of its elements would appear in some form in my paper. In other words, I told them, if you know you will need to write a works cited entry for your source, why not go ahead and write it? If you know you will need to summarize your source, why not go ahead and write a summary? And so on.

Still, I wrote the one bibliographic entry, thinking I would move on to more general note-taking afterward. But I found myself returning to the process of summarizing each source. I realized that what I recommended to my students as a useful but optional step was essential to my own process, at least in the case of this paper.

A couple of the summaries are the welcome result of a problem I encountered with two of the books, namely no index. Without an index, I couldn’t simply turn to the pages where the authors, both acting teachers, specifically address the subject of learning lines. Instead I was forced to engage in a form of concentrated skimming, reading portions of every paragraph for mentions of line-learning or memorization. My careful study of those two books—and of a third that did include an index—enabled me to produce general summaries as well as notes specific to my subject: learning lines.

The bibliography that follows brings together the insights of four of the most influential acting teachers of the twentieth century, in books by Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and Lee Strasberg; and in a documentary film on the life and career of Sanford Meisner. It also includes an academic article chronicling research on line-learning and cognitive function.

Adler, Stella. The Art of Acting. Ed. Howard Kissel. New York: Applause, 2000. Print.

The Art of Acting (2000)
The Art of Acting (2000)

From audiotapes and notes on Stella Adler’s lectures, Howard Kissel produced The Art of Acting, a book whose twenty-two chapters, or classes, emphasize a technique informed by the work of Adler’s father, stage actor Jacob P. Adler; Harold Clurman, a co-founder of the Group Theatre (and one of Adler’s husbands); and Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian actor and director who developed the Stanislavski method, or “method acting.” Rather than instructing her students to memorize their lines, Adler taught them to build a relationship with the words. In her first lecture to her students (“First Steps on Stage”), she tells them to read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and select one idea from it to paraphrase and perform on stage (25). Later, when she returns to that exercise in her fourteenth lecture (“Understanding the Text’), she refers to the process as something “we must do with every text” (162). According to Adler:

Paraphrasing allows the ideas to become part of you. By putting the text into your own words you build a relationship. It becomes part of your heart as well as your head, which is essential before you can communicate the words to an audience. If the ideas are clear to you, they will be clear to them. (162)

Founder of the Stella Adler Studios in New York City and Los Angeles, Adler—considered one of the most influential teachers of acting—taught both Marlon Brando and Robert Deniro. Her writing on the craft includes The Technique of Acting (1988) and Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov (2001).

Hagen, Uta. A Challenge for the Actor. New York: Scribner’s, 1991. Print.

A Challenge for the Actor (1991)
A Challenge for the Actor (1991)

In A Challenge for the Actor, Uta Hagen expands on the ideas she presented in Respect for Acting (1973), addressing both the goals of the actor and the particulars of technique. When Hagen discusses learning lines, she refers to it as a “by-product of the work” (117). Instead of coaching her students to focus on memorization, she instructs them to make every element of the play real to them, “every person, thing, event, and landscape, even the weather” (117). Hagen asserts that creating those particulars will the lead the actor to the lines:

As you make your particularizations, much of what you have to say will become inevitable, and, when followed up in rehearsals by the discovery of your verbal intents and expectations, the words will be further validated until ‘learning the lines’ has become a by-product of the work, replacing the outmoded method of mechanical memorization. (117)

Uta Hagen originated the role of Martha in the Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and later became of the most distinguished acting teachers of the twentieth century. At the Herbert Berghof Studio, she taught, among others, Al Pacino, Jason Robards, and Jack Lemon. Her books on acting include Respect for Acting (1973) and A Challenge for the Actor (1991).

Noice, Helga, and Tony Noice. “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.1 (2006):14-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

In “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning,” Helga and Tony Noice address the process of learning lines—specifically memorizing large amounts of dialogue in a short period of time—and how actors reproduce those lines verbatim with spontaneity. Applying that process to other activities, including learning techniques for undergraduates and memory improvement in older adults, they conclude that the essence of acting—what the Noices term active experiencing or AE—may enhance memory.

Helga Noice, a Professor of Psychology at Elmhurst College, researches acting and memory. Her current study of memory training in older adults receives funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Tony Noice, an adjunct member of the theater faculty at Elmhurst College, co-authored with his wife, Helga Noice, The Nature of Expertise in Professional Acting: A Cognitive View (1997).

Sanford Meisner (left) teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 1957 /
Sanford Meisner (left) teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 1957 /

Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret. Dir. Nick Doob. Perf. Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward. YouTube, 18 Nov. 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

An episode from the fifth season of PBS’s American Masters Series, Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret (1990) documents the life and career of actor and teacher Sanford Meisner, founding member of the Group Theatre and master teacher of acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he developed the Meisner technique, based on Constantin Stanislavski’s method system. In his interview, director Sydney Pollack—one of many students of Meisner’s featured in the film—discusses how Meisner downplayed the role of dialogue:

What Sandy did is begin to examine the fact that dialogue is the last thing that happens, at any time, between two people. It’s all supported by behavior and attitudes. You say something. You mean a certain thing to me when I see you because of whatever relationship we may have. You say something. I hear it. Depending on the state I’m in when I came into the room, it means something to me. It produces a reaction in me emotionally, and the last thing that happens is that I respond with dialogue.

Hailed as one of the American theatre’s most influential teachers (along with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg), Sanford Meisner joined the faculty of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1935 and later served as the Director of its Acting Department. His students at the Neighborhood school include actors Robert Duvall, Tony Randall, and Joanne Woodward, as well as director Sydney Pollack and playwright David Mamet.

Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Print.

A Dream of Passion (1987)
A Dream of Passion (1987)

A Dream of Passion chronicles Lee Strasberg’s training with Richard Boleslavsky, a student of Constantin Stanislavsky’s, and details Strasberg’s application of Stanislavski’s system to his work in both the Group Theatre (which Strasberg co-founded) and in the Actor’s Studio (for which he served as Artistic Director). Strasberg observes that the actor’s central problem lies in the fact that he knows what his character does not and cannot know: “Regardless of the skills with which the actor may pretend not to know what will occur next on stage, his normal scenic activity is actuated by his memory—by his carefully prepared and memorized words and motions” (107). The challenge for the actor then, Strasberg notes, is to recreate that experience believably not once but over and over for every performance, and “yet include what Stanislavski called ‘the illusion of the first time’” (35).

To help his students understand the meaning of scenes—rather than simply memorizing their words—Strasberg required them to read short stories. He chose short stories over scenes from plays because the conversations are often more realistic than the dialogue of plays, which, as Strasberg remarks, include “elements that characters would never say but convey necessary information to the audience” (161). Strasberg also found short stories useful teaching tools because “the short-story material forces the actor to really find out what he is talking about, not just what he is saying, and to find out how that relates to what the scene is all about” (161).

Considered the father of method acting in the United States—a system that revolutionized acting on the stage and screen—Lee Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre (with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford), served as Artistic Director for the Actors Studio, and founded the Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute in New York City and Hollywood. His students include actors James Dean, Robert DeNiro, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and director Elia Kazan.

Posted in Film, Reading, Teaching, Theatre, Writing

Source Conversations as One-Acts, continued (and Sherman Alexie, continued)

My last blog post, Friday, March 21, featured a sample paper draft that I composed as a model for my students. The draft included lines for a script selected from an academic essay on Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and its film adaptation Smoke Signals.

As a model for their collaborative revisions, I revised my script to include lines from an interview with Alexie and lines spoken by his characters Victor Arnold and Thomas Builds-the Fire. And to tie the parts together, I added myself as a moderator. Similarly—but collaboratively, in groups of four and five—my students will fashion their individual drafts into one-act plays, placing their sources in conversation.

The setting for my sample revision, which follows, is the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho, where Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, Gordon E. Slethaug, and I sit atop the KREZ weather van.

From “This is What it Means . . .” to Smoke Signals, or Sherman Alexie’s Road Trip from Page to Screen: A One-Act Source Play

Character Guide

Sherman Alexie: A poet and fiction writer who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Northeastern Washington State. His books include the short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which he adapted for the screen. Smoke Signals, the film adaptation, received both the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. More recently, his semi-autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (2007) received the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire: One of the characters in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Smoke Signals

Victor Joseph: The central character in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Smoke Signals.

Jane Lucas: An Adjunct Assistant Professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, who along with her students is studying Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” (from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) and Smoke Signals in conjunction with Alexie’s appearance as part of the University’s Visiting Writers Series.

Gordon E. Slethaug: An American-Canadian Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark and author of Teaching Abroad: International Education and the Cross-cultural Classroom (2007), Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction (2000), and The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction (1993). He also co-authored Understanding John Barth (1990) with Stan Fogel.

Lester Fallsapart (Leonard George) delivers the KREZ weather report in "Smoke Signals"/Movie still from
Lester Fallsapart (Leonard George) delivers the KREZ weather report in “Smoke Signals” /

At the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, Jane Lucas, and Gordon E. Slethaug sit atop the KREZ weather van, which has been stationed at the crossroads since it broke down there in 1972. Oddly, tribal meteorologist Lester Fallsapart is nowhere in sight. Jane Lucas picks up his red- and white-striped umbrella and looks it over a moment before she speaks.

Jane Lucas: First, I’d like to thank Randy Peone, the voice of Coeur d’Alene’s KREZ, for letting me meet with you atop the weather van. I was hoping Lester Fallsaparts would be here—isn’t he always here, like the weather?—and Sherman Alexie should be here, too. Alexie’s running late, it seems, but we should get started. As someone who’s studying “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and Smoke Signals, I’m interested in the differences between the two. Gordon, you’ve written of the “different perception” (131) of the film.

Gordon E. Slethaug: Yes, it “presents a different perception from the short story collection [. . .] the short fiction gives a comprehensive representation of the entire Spokane reservation community and includes a typically Alexie critical and cynical view of the systemic problems of unemployment, poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, violence, drugs, alcoholism, and premature death in a culture removed from its traditional moorings” (131).

JL: Aren’t many of those problems that you mentioned apparent in the film as well?

GS: Yes, but “the film presents a warm-hearted, compassionate view of Victor and Thomas through the medium of the road narrative and engages the audience on the level of humor and sentiment even while it gently critiques white society and racist treatments of Native Americans” (131).

JL: It’s an engaging road-trip story, alright, but I’m not so sure about what you call the gentle critique. Some of the characters’ exchanges on screen are less gentle than their counterparts on the page. For example, Victor, there’s what you say on the bus to Cathy, the gymnast, who was an alternate for the 1980 US Olympic Team.

Victor Joseph: Yeah, I was just thinking about that. In the short story, our conversation with Cathy ends with that line of yours, Thomas. What is it you say?

Thomas Builds-the-Fire: (Opening his eyes) “Sounds like you all got a lot in common with Indians” (67).

VJ: Yeah, but in the movie, I keep talking. I say, “you said you were an alternate for the team, right?” And she answers, “yeah.” And I say, “well, if you were an alternate you’d only compete if someone on the team was hurt or something, right? And she answers, “yeah.” And I ask, “was anybody hurt?” And she says, “no.” And I say, “Then you weren’t really on the team, were you? I mean, it didn’t matter if there was a boycott or not. You were staying home anyways. You got nothing to complain about, so why don’t you just be quiet?”

JL: That isn’t what I’d call gentle.

(Sherman Alexie climbs the ladder attached to the back of the van.)

Sherman Alexie: Sorry I’m late—flight delay from Seattle. So it goes.

JL: Sherman, you said in an interview that you “didn’t have any problems with mutating [your] own book” (qtd. in West and West).

SA: (Nodding in agreement) “Right from the get-go, I said, ‘OK, Sherman you’re going to do composite characters, compress time, take bits and pieces from stories you need for this screenplay, and you’re not going to care.’ The narrative integrity of any one story was never the point, it was all about taking situations from the twenty-two short stories—it actually ended up being adapted from four short stories—taking the best you can find in this book to make it a screenplay” (qtd. in West and West).

JL: So the changes you made were your answer to the question, how can this story work best on the screen?

SA: Yes, “I’ve always separated them [books and movies] as two very distinct art forms” (qtd. in West and West).

JL: I wish we had more time, Sherman, but I know you’re heading to Albuquerque for a reading at the University of New Mexico, and I need to get back to Lenoir-Rhyne. I’ll leave a tape of our conversation for Randy Peone. Whether it airs on KREZ or not, I have a feeling that our words here today will become one of those stories told by you-know-who.

TB: Sometimes it’s a good day to die, and sometimes it’s a good day to write a one-act play.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 1993. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1994. 59-75. Print.

Slethaug, Gordon E. “Hurricanes and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Literature and Film Quarterly 31.2 (2003): 130-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach and Evan Adams. Miramax, 1998. DVD.

West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23.4 (1998). Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.