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_

Thursday, October 4, 2012


This happens pretty often.  I find some little topic that ought to be easily dispatched, and instead it becomes a devouring beast that I’m spending hours on every day.  This time it was my old acting notes, which became an Alvina Krause project, which becomes a history of the Northwestern University School of Speech -- now Communication Arts -- which becomes a history of thought around the world.  Not just how this particular version of the study of communication came to be, but a whole philosophical can of worms about what a human being is.  This is particularly acute in a time when the neurobrain theorists are saying that the edge (not so much cutting as tentacled) of evolution is our ability to communicate ideas and get in sync with each other.

So here’s this little ugly duckling of a farm girl who wins a competition for speaking, probably memorized text she may not have written.   (Oratory, elocution, declamation, interpretation -- the name of written and spoken aloud words keeps changing.)  Born in 1893, she is Edwardian.  A two-year normal school education gets her a teaching certificate.  After a few years of seasoning she earned her BS (1916) at what was then the Comnock School of Oratory, later the NU School of Speech, to which she returned for a Masters’ degree (’33).  Dean Ralph Dennis hired her in 1930 and arbitrarily pushed her out of “interpretation” into “acting.”  John Van Meter, who somehow knew her then, said she was “a shy, over-formal woman.”  Gradually she gained confidence and built a world around her method of teaching acting, which is not necessarily the same as the Stanislavsky Method.  Things went on until she began to actively resist “interpretation” which renewed problems when she rejected interp students in acting classes.

The School of Speech -- now School of Communication -- had its own trajectory, beginning in 1878 as the Department of Elocution which later pulled in from Garrett Seminary (which shares the NU campus) the Comstock School of Oratory, becoming the School of Speech in 1921.  When I attended (‘57-’61), there were six departments including Speech Education, Interpretation, Theatre, Audiology, Speech Therapy, and Public speaking.  Obviously it has been technology and the larger culture that prompted adding radio/television/film.   “Performance Studies” separated from theatre on philosophical premises, pulling thought from anthropology and post-mod theory.  This is the list of  current NU “Programs of Study”  someone posted on Wikipedia:
  • Audiology
  • Communication Sciences & Disorders
  • Communication Studies
  • Dance
  • Media, Technology and Society
  • Technology and Social Behaviour
  • Performance Studies
  • Public Culture & Rhetoric
  • Radio/Television/Film
  • Speech, Language, Learning
  • Theatre
  • Writing for the Screen and Stage
Many, if not most, places where one would study acting would group it with “performance” rather than “communication.”  A conservatory.  What was the original impetus for adding the work of the speech therapist or the audiologist, both of which are nearly medical?  If it weren’t for the research aspect, they could be called therapeutic.  NU has an active opera component but it is grouped with music.  The Wikipedia entry for “Communication Studies” says “Part of what makes communication a popular major is its great reputation for being flexible.”  The entry lists fourteen professional associations, but omits the only one I ever joined:  Zeta Phi Eta, women’s sorority for speech professionals.  I lost my pin and regret it, because it was an elegant little thing: a cameo surrounded by “pearls.”  Established in 1893 -- the year AK was born -- the group is still active.  

The Victorian/Edwardian era in the US was clearly a time of blossoming public speech, especially for women.  The first female ministers were making their careers: they preached with their hats on.  And they had wonderful hats.  You see how a bit of simple research can lead all over the map?  But there is no Department of Millinery in the Communication Arts.  Probably enough material for an excellent BBC-type series with an onstage/backstage twist.

On the backstage side is the career of one my other beloved teachers:  Theodore Fuchs, a theatrical lighting designer, engineer and consultant as well as professor of theatre who taught us lighting through the use of ingenious devices he invented in the attic of Annie May Swift.  Just the mention of his name brings back the smell of hot lights, the crinkle of gels, the thrum and thump of the big knife-switch dimmers in the light cage.  I’m told that these days the lighting tech sits in the front row of the theatre with an iPad II and manages the whole thing with fingertips.

Fuchs wrote a book on how to improvise stage lighting out in the boonies and in Browning I did make some of those things: lightbulbs wired in series so you could screw and unscrew them to control the amount of power in the line, big rheostats the size of pizzas you made from winding copper wire and then pouring on plaster.  I think I still have that book.

Fuchs’ personality was as strong as Krause’s, so it was fortunate that they got along.  His idea of “Complimentary Cross Lighting” is the same as used by Charlie Russell in his paintings: that is, warm-colored light from one direction and cool-colored light from the other direction. which creates well-modeled shapes and interesting but subtle contrasts.  

The student directing lab and studio programs were always at risk for being a little too experimental or controversial for the taste of a conservative Midwestern school.  One early version had been cancelled entirely.  According to David Press, who was a “cherub” and therefore around the School of Speech as early as 1952, Fuchs was the head of the Department of Theatre through much of AK’s career and set up the Workshop Theatre (the second version), putting AK in charge of it.  But the blowup that finally ensued took down Fuchs.  Quoting Press:  “Some of the reviews of the campus productions were evidently brutal and Fuchs, as chair, withdrew the privilege of allowing the campus press to attend dress rehearsals and ceased providing free tickets for the performances.  Resentments evidently escalated.

“As I remember the story, the department was producing “The House of Bernarda Alba.”  The Spanish Consulate was invited along with other dignitaries.  There was a reception in the lobby area lounge before the show.  A photographer from the student press showed up to take pictures and maybe snapped some.  Fuchs asked him to leave.  The photographer requested to be allowed to take pictures during the performance.  Fuchs said no.

“The photographer went outside the building, went around to the basement steps, entered and even went up the spiral metal staircase to backstage.  Evidently at a crucial moment, he poked his flash camera through the wings and shot a flash picture.  Imagine Fuchs’ reaction, he being a lighting man.  He rushed from his seat, out the auditorium door, and managed to catch the photographer outside the building.  There was a tussle for the press camera and the photographic plate.  Evidently the camera ended broken on the ground.

“The incident made the national press.  Fuchs was replaced by Mitchell.”  The papers of both Fuchs and Mitchell are at Northwestern.  Given a choice between the two, I’d write a bio of Fuchs.  Lee Mitchell did not like trouble.

In the fall of 1957 there was a second production of “The House of Bernarda Alba” that starred Paula Ragusa (later Prentiss).  The story I know about that production was also dramatic.  At one point Paula’s character was supposed to come onstage from a roll in the hay.  To get the proper Method emotion, she grabbed the nearest stagehand and smooched him before her entrance.  The next night a whole little cluster of hopeful stagehands gathered offstage, just in case.  But some things don’t get repeated.  Sometimes they get swallowed up in larger issues and diversions.

No comments:

Post a Comment