No one seems to object to the transcriptions and posting of AK’s comments which are at I’m putting comments and analysis on a separate blog, this one, so that people who don’t want to read such things don’t have to. This blog is set to accept anonymous comments, but I read them all and won’t tolerate flame wars. None have started.

Some of the most interesting and useful feedback on this material is coming in emails, some shared and others not shared, which I don’t want to post with names attached unless I have permission. I’m just going ahead to name the people AK named in her notes -- it’s been half a century since then, after all. Indeed, some of the email comments are arriving from people in that time period as well and those of us who know each other can probably guess who said what.

In good “discussion” mode, I’ll try to separate the issues from the people.

1. It is most moving that after fifty years the memory of personal relationships with AK have the status of love affairs, magical relationships that have inspired people for decades. They do NOT want that interfered with. Who would?

2. Likewise, there were a few people deeply wounded by past misunderstanding and schism and they, too, still hurt. To some this might be a reason to shut down, but to me it’s a reason to continue.

3. One opinion is that AK’s teaching methods are obsolete now. Students will no longer tolerate the confrontive and sometimes invasive tactics she used then. Indeed, some people wouldn’t accept them then, but they quietly went elsewhere. Is it a loss or a gain to give up the auteur model of teaching? Stanislavki was, after all, a Russian like the famously dictatorial ballet masters.

4. Is it true that academic theatre is nothing like professional theatre? You can still be tough on professional actors? (If Equity allows it.)

5. Some feel that theatre is totally different now. Whatever was important then is NOT important now. Or, to the contrary, theatre, esp. repertory theatre, is entering a renaissance that is vital and thriving across the country with new companies still being founded.

6. AK’s life trajectory is not really understandable without considering the time periods, the place, the administrators, sexism, and so on. No different from understanding a character in a play. (I confess -- this is my opinion.) All this happened before the Derrida Deconstruction craze, but we understand that, don’t we?

Mary Strachan Scriver

(Prairie Mary_

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Earlier I proposed that the origin of agonistic thought (the agon being struggle in conflict) in the European/Western world where so much is framed as two forces in opposed dyads is Greek theatre which was mixed with early religion.  I gather the relationship between early theatre and religion been called into question lately, but I’m going to leave it.  

My idea is that when people began to reorganize into cities and kingdoms after millennia of hunting and gathering, it was tough to reconcile two kinds of prerequisites for survival:  one is the survival of the individual and the other is the survival of the group, which are meshed.   The individual, and his extended family, were the original group, so compromises were easier to make for each other’s sake and each was conscious of protecting the others. 

Individual rights and the good of the whole are intertwined, but when the whole is a large group and rule-governed, the relationship is often taut with irreconcilables:  let’s take Antigone for example:  her determination to bury her brother as required by religious law versus Creon’s wish to leave him unburied in order to discourage future rebellion.  The heroic individual or sub-group stands against the authority figure and the status quo, not idly but on behalf of someone wronged.  

The love story between Antigone and Haemon exposes the depth and importance of individual human love, as in families.  If it were not for that, there would be no agony.  Just robots keeping order.  All individuality and humanness gone.  The chorus is the town, trying to understand it all.  There are still -- today, in 2012 -- people who want to go back to hunting and gathering. Some of us are doing the equivalent electronically or by living along the darker alleys of the cities, the more empty stretches of the rural.

Robert Benedetti was the producer on two “agonistic” movies and acted in one of them.  He’s been a busy man:   These are just his acting credits.  Actually, at NU he was more a part of the Interpretation Department.  These two movies are excellent examples of modern theatre as vital and passionate as Antigone.  They are “Miss Evers’ Boys” (1997) and “A Lesson Before Dying” (1999)  Both stories take on the injustice against African-Americans in the Southern US and each uses a love story to make us see the terrible pain of real people who are not recognized as being just like any human being, deserving survival.

“Miss Evers’ Boys” is about the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which black rural men were deliberately left untreated for syphilis on grounds that they were being studied to see whether the disease might affect them differently than whites.   They did not know this was happening to them.  Miss Evers’ was the nurse who knew this was being done, but somehow rationalized it for the sake of comforting the men to the extent possible.  They were her family.  The “other” love story is about a man who found out about penicillin, was cured, but could not persuade Miss Evers to come away with him.   Fast forward to AIDS.

In “A Lesson Before Dying” an African American boy is accidentally involved in a fatal shooting, but guilty of nothing more than being there.  The only survivor, he is sentenced to death.  In an effort to save him, his lawyer stoops lower than any insanity defense, arguing that he’s no more conscious or responsible than a hog.  Horrified, the condemned man’s female elders determine to make the black schoolteacher at least persuade the boy to grow up in time to be executed as a dignified man -- not a hog.   The small community stands against the whole American South.  There is another little riff on stigma because this black man, who has managed to get educated, is very dark-skinned and so are his elders, but he falls in love with a light-skinned woman, who normally would scorn dark African-Americans.  Talk to Native Americans about this one.  

Compelling as these movies are, I’m interested here in the acting.  This is the classic category of acting that requires learning a script and enacting it in a way that preserves its sense and its artistic form.  Of course, movie acting is different from stage acting with live actors, but some of the territory overlaps.  The specific actors in these two movies have remarkable skill and I daresay that they didn’t have to reach very far into their personal histories to find motivations for the characters they play.  The issues and experiences are port of their lives.  But the opportunities to develop acting skill at this level have been recent.  It is a European performance mode. When I did my student teaching at Evanston Township High School in 1961, we had some exceptional black student actors and told them they had no possibility of life in the theatre.  They refused our advice, becaues theatre is a potent human means of conveying the agonistic struggle of the lesser against the unjust greater, powered by love.

Many people who consider theatre and acting value the emotion -- the feelings -- more than the meaning.  They ignore the means for pulling an audience into the experience.  Lately print -- as in a script or even in religion where the script is the Book of Common Prayer, a Mass Missal, or just an Order of Service -- has been scorned as confining.  “Method” and improvs became more important and this works well with a filmed medium where much of the depicting and rhythm is added by the film editor.  The disciplines of focus, memorization, and hitting one’s mark can all be ignored when scenes are filmed in intervals as short as a minute and repeated a dozen times so the best version can be used -- sometimes the result of chance as much as art.  (But then, art has always accommodated chance when it had to.)  

In a human art form as basic as theatre, even when it is slammed and exploded by technology, there are some aspects always present if it is to be powerful.  One is the ability to focus in Eugene Gendlin’s sense.  You could call it the laser principle.  Another is empathy for all living creatures and awareness of creation itself as perceived by honed senses and recorded in strong memories.  There are others.  But what AK and Bennedetti and others know is that there’s a Sacredness to it -- or it isn’t theatre.  Not that it isn’t fine to do other things, but this is the deepest.

(For AK’s specific advice about “Teaching Greek Tragedy” see on September 13 and 14.  Even for non-actors, there’s a lot to think about.)

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