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.)

Friday, September 28, 2012


Here in my hand is a little booklet entitled “A Report from Dean Dennis from the School of Speech.”  It is the equivalent of a blog, meaning that it is the collected letters that Ralph Dennis wrote, mimeographed, and sent to a list of friends while he traveled around the world on sabbatical.  As it happened, the time period coincides with the period of my gestation (B. October, 1939) which is totally irrelevant compared to the other coincidence:  the beginning of WWII, which cut short the trip.  This is what made the “posts” significant enough to be underwritten by Washington Flexner, a Chicago patron of the NU community.  I’m grateful, because it allows insight into Ralph Dennis, who had much more to do with Alvina Krause as teacher of acting than did Stanislavsky.  It was Dean Dennis who hired and supported AK through many challenges.

one can see a photo of Dean Dennis as well as  flyer for his talents as a Chatauqua speaker, both edifying and electrifying.  His specialty was travel and culture, his mode was Mid-Western practical idealism of a Harry Truman sort.  Not that he wasn’t capable of whimsy.  Consider the following:

McCarthy was a well-known entertainer, whose Chicago-based radio show, The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show, aired on NBC from 1937-1956. In August 1938, during an appearance on the show, School of Speech dean Ralph Dennis awarded McCarthy an honorary “Master of Innuendo and Snappy Comebacks” degree. What’s so strange about that, you ask? Well, McCarthy is a dummy. No, I’m not insulting his intelligence–McCarthy was actually a ventriloquist’s doll.  McCarthy’s creator, Edgar Bergen, discovered at a young age that he had a talent for throwing his voice. So while attending high school in Chicago he created a dummy, named Charlie McCarthy and modeled after a local newsie, and began performing as a ventriloquist. In the 1920s, Bergen came to Northwestern originally to study medicine, but soon decided to transfer to the School of Speech and eventually dropped out to pursue his career in entertainment.   (From

Looking back from 2012, it may be the founding of the National High School Summer Institute that impresses us more.   Sentimental, idealistic, romantic, and calling its participants “cherubs,” the whole thing might strike us as almost unbearably twee if so many good consequences hadn’t come from it when the cherubs grew up.

This “blog” of a tour was in the beginning meant to be a visit to the glories of the world, a sharp inquiry into European colonialism, a sympathetic investigation of the world of the -- well, the “Third World” before it was called that.  Lots of shipboard conversations with ex-pats after the sun had sunk below the yardarm -- and all that.  But by the end Dean Dennis has learned a lot about hell and devilish oppressors.  As he says, “The British world is a wonderful one -- for the British.”  By that time he has gotten into trouble for calling a half-caste “brother” and has run out of money because of changes in banking rules due to the war.  He would have been jailed except for intervention by one of those Brits.  His patience wore thin.  

But his reaction was not to “oppose slings and arrows.”  Rather, he became a defender of isolationism, an appreciator of Evanston, Illlnois, as a center of civilization and intelligence.  He’s more progressive than liberal.  His eyes are opened.  He says,  “I do not believe that we are so holy, so righteous, that it is our duty to arm to the teeth and preach sermons abroad. . . I do not believe that our democracy is challenged by the war in Europe.  I believe that our democracy is challenged by its own internal weaknesses.  I believe that it is our job to make democracy work here and to let the other nations of the world govern themselves as they see fit.  I do not believe that God wants the United States to be the moral policeman of the world.”  

Alvina Krause was not inclined to be a revolutionary or a radical, though she could accept innovative theatre on its own terms.  Like the Chatauqua society of her times (like Harold Bloom, a bit of a throwback), she appreciated the good old Greeks and Elizabethans and the well-known standards, the well-trodden boards of Ibsen and Chekhov.  I can’t remember her talking about attending Broadway plays or even Chicago touring companies.  (Maybe she did and I didn’t know about it.)  I have no idea what she would have made of the theatre companies (like BTE, now) who use circus skills, multi-media, and group-written scripts.  I never heard about her traveling anyplace, though she would refer to Oregon now and then, where she taught as a young woman.  I think that as a very young woman she may have done a few Chatauquas herself.

I don’t know why she and Lucy settled in Bloomsburg, though it is clearer why Eagles Mere seemed a good summer repertory location.  It was just decayed enough to make room for a lodge full of actors and a barn full of plays.  Enough summer people still came to form an audience, though much of it was year-round local.  She was proud when they saw the relevance of the Great Dramas to their lives, but there was a little bit of patronizing in that.  

I could find no biography of Dean Ralph Dennis on Google in spite of his MAJOR contribution to the Northwestern University School of Speech.   He has no entry in Wikipedia. The time between the World Wars goes unremarked, except for the Depression which has suddenly become interesting again.  Someone with access to the NU archives should get to work.  In the meantime, I am glad to have acquired this booklet in 1960 -- I have no idea how or where -- because it is such a window, sometimes in ways Dean Dennis could not have anticipated, though he’s remarkably non-sexist and bravely willing to visit shantytowns.  

As he goes, he reads conscientiously and chats up the locals, but is very glad to get home where they can brew a proper cup of coffee and keep the rooms warm, let alone the plumbing functional.  Somehow, I have a feeling that his “cherubs” were precursors of the Peace Corps.  But a woman in those days was not likely to take off on a tramp steamer with a backpack.  I don’t know whether AK would have done it if she could have.

Monday, September 24, 2012


My grandmother, Beulah Swan Finney Strachan (1871 to 1953), could reel off poems one after another, dozens in an evening.  She came from the great era when children were required to memorize.  No doubt it was partly a shortage of books, a lack of radio or television, and many long snowbound Michigan evenings.  But also it was the era of oratory, elocution, and artistic self-expression by the “cultured.”  

I inherited some of her books from the pre-WWI era, novels for adults by Gene Stratton-Porter and for children by L.M. Montgomery, famous for “Anne of Green Gables.”  Both kinds of books had plots that honored the person who could speak “literature” of a high class nature, as illustrated in the Canadian television versions that had Anne going to White Sands to hear the famous actress recite heart-rending poems and even to deliver her own passionate and dramatic memorizations.  Gene Stratton-Porter, in her novel “Laddie” portrayed another ugly duckling of a child who entertained herself by “preaching” in the pasture alongside her pet rooster, whom she nudged with her elbow to provite a crow in lieu of an amen.

This is the context in which Alvina Krause started out, winning a contest for oration in her Wisconsin high school even if she WERE freckled, tow-headed, short and countrified!  (Her description of herself.)  It was the bit of culture that took her out into the world with a two year normal school degree entitling her to teach high school English and dramatics.  Oh, and physical education.  (She coached the Seaside, OR, high school basketball team to a state championship.)

The following is from a fascinating essay in “The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies."  It’s written by Paul Edwards.

Having begun my academic career in the now-vanished category of “interpretation teacher,” I suppose that I suffered “the misfortune of teaching literature,” as Jonathan Brody Kramnick (1998) terms it, “. . . in a moment when its founding rationale has been called into radical doubt” (p. 244). English elocution came into existence alongside “the appearance of the category of ‘literature’ in the later eighteenth century” (Guillory, 1993, p. 213). The age that gave us the English-language “classic” gave us as well a use-value for literature, a form of “cultural capital” (Guillory, 1993): the rise of “literature” helped to shape the public sphere and its protocols of communication. So did the performance of literature, which for two centuries (under various names) capitalized on the trained performing body as a communication medium. From its beginnings, elocution’s market-driven goals were divided and sometimes self-contradictory. Did elocution belong in universities or in trade schools? One of its audiences sought enrichment from belles lettres through embodied performance, while another (sometimes overlapping) audience sought training in the persuasive delivery of any text, as a tool for activism or professional advancement.  The manuals on elocutionary delivery that became popular in Georgian England contained training drills on shaping meaningful sounds and exhibiting through gesture the signs of deep feeling. “Passion for Dummies”: I find it hard to read these books and not compare them to present-day computer manuals, designed to help us with everything from simply turning on the “machine” to making us appear expressive for the widest possible audience.

AK’s facility for speaking took her forward, but it was not enough -- far too mechanistic and limited -- so she added the physical body, taking up the equivalent of elocution:  eurythmics.

Edwards again:  Elocutionary training attained its greatest respectability in American colleges and universities with the founding in 1914 of the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking—known since 1997 as the National Communication Association (NCA).  [Northwestern’s School of Speech is now its School of Communications.] Most of the association’s members, at the time of its first convention in 1915, were school teachers whose platform oratory embraced both public speaking and literary recitation.  Yet as “academically oriented” performers (Rarig & Greaves, 1954, p. 499) they were eager to distance themselves from the “rubbish” of popular platform entertainment with which the label “elocution” had come to be associated during the late-nineteenth century.

Not surprisingly, the two schools divided very much along the same lines as denominations, since schools and churches at the time were much entwined, using the same space for the same communities.  One was looking for dignity and scholarship (the aspiring middle class) and the other was looking for the passion that would move audiences (the vulgar folk).  Compare to the “learned” versus “enthusiastic” categories of preachers.

With the rise of performance studies associations from contrasting traditions, scholars like Richard Schechner (2002) have begun to speak of a two-brand model of performance studies pedagogy in American universities: with literature, as exemplified by the academic department at Northwestern University, and without, as exemplified by the NYU department. 

So the Interpretation Department of the School of Speech kept its attention on literature rather than theatre, though Alvina Krause had been crowded over to teaching acting.  (Her Dean informed her on Friday that she would begin teaching an acting course on Monday.)  Rather heroically, she gathered up every kind of humanistic thought she knew (heavy on the Greeks and the Elizabethans -- as were my high school teachers, the same age as AK) -- and set about teaching acting.  As time went on, she became psychologically separated from Interpretation and began to demand the same from her students.  (I’m guessing.  I don’t know for sure.)

The larger society, with its emotional connection to New York and Manhattan, was fascinated by the Method, which fit with their interest in the mysteries of psychoanalysis and the movement of acting to film.  By the post-Fifties people were more interested in movie stars than literature, except by the creation of writing stars.  Brilliance, success, admiration and honor was attributed to unbridled self-expression and soon we were plunged into the Age of Aquarius.  Then along came post-modern thought and overturned the boat so that we all had to swim for it.  Literature was the least of it -- survival was the goal.  What is print or live theatre in the face of television and film?  We were about to find out:  social revolution, that’s what !!  Naked people, sex, plotlessness, outrageous ideas, gaudy extravaganzas.  Possibly in reaction to that, along came the musicals -- at first appeals for social justice (“South Pacific,”  “Oklahoma”) and then pure spectacle and then (off-broadway) social criticism again.

Where does all this leave us?  What do we call this?   Performance Studies, that’s what.  And at NU Performance Studies have swallowed Interpretation but not Theatre.  Theatre is now the musical “industry.”  But also, Performance Studies have now taken on social issues.

This is probably not accurate and not even academic, but it seems to me rather explanatory.  Even familiar.  Like my grandmother, who so loved to attend a really good live show, the kind with skits and then a play.  And she was only in Portland, OR, not New York at all.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


D.W. Winnicott might be the best expert at talking about the “space” that forms between two people intent on each other while engaged in a common subject or pursuit.  It becomes a living entity in itself.  He talks about the exchange between the mother and her child as they play.  The rest of the world disappears as the focus encloses these two, creating something larger than either of them, or both of them, something emergent, something synergistic, something “more.”

We say we “connect” with someone who offers absorbing conversation or maybe flirtatious body language.  It’s as though filaments weave us together in that moment, something emergent.  Hard to describe.  You had to be there.

When the theatre succeeds, the actors and the audience weave that space between them.  When I used to preach the magic space didn’t always form, but when it did, the feeling was transcendent, the sharing was intense, the time was memorable.   Speech coaches will say,  a sermon is something created in the sanctuary BETWEEN the congregation and the preacher.  It is not words on the page but something living.  It is different from reading and having the ideas come alive between your eyes and the page.  It won’t:  it will be all in your head.  I’m a manuscript preacher -- if I handed you my text, it wouldn’t be the same.  When I was circuit-riding, I preached each sermon four times: it formed something totally different every time.

This seems to be close to what Victor Turner means when he talks about “liminal space.”  It is one of the secrets of the “creativity” everyone obsesses about so much, but it cannot be achieved by “trying.”  It’s about attunement, participation, engagement, exchange.

When David Press tried to interview Alvina Krause about her teaching methods, she often found it hard to explain why she had done what she did.  “It just HAD to be,” she would say.  Of course, everyone makes decisions and takes actions that are based on thinking down below the water level that marks consciousness, but there was something more than that.  I often saw it when I sat in the back of the auditorium, tne one now named for Alvina Krause -- though Annie May Swift Hall is now occupied by the Performance Studies department.  It was partly eye-contact and body tension, but more than that, it was the empathy between the actors on the stage and AK just off the apron.  She was feeling them.  

“Feeling” is often put down.  When I found Suzanne Langer’s “Feeling and Form” and went head-over-heels for it, I was quickly discouraged by my advisors.  (I snuck around and read the rest of her books anyway and now she is respected!  So there!)  She is a good guide to Krause‘s thought.  In a university environment, one is supposed to be rational and NOT touchie-feelie.  Fine, but not when ACTING, when so much of the thinking is IN the body.  Like love-making, though I hesitate to say so because in this culture so many things are defined by sex that it has lost most of its meaning.

In 1957-61 the terms of “liminal” or “emergent” or “whole body thinking” or “mirror cells” just didn’t exist yet.  AK didn’t have the terms for what she was doing.  But she wasn’t about to give up the idea that she was definitely doing SOMETHING and the inability to explain made her fierce and stubborn.  Neither did David Press -- writing his thesis in 1970 -- have terms, except through the theories of Stanislavsky and the Method.  But no one likes to be defined by the work of someone else.  AK resisted. 

Let’s go back to babies.  It’s clear from videos that very young babies gaze into their mother’s eyes and try to imitate their expressions.  At the very least, the warmth of the maternal gaze makes them kick their feet and blow bubbles.  A baby who is not moving, who is not looking, is in big trouble.  But an adult human, not obviously in danger, may freeze while thinking -- all energy going into the thinking, but not necessarily the brain.  Maybe the gut.  Maybe a clenched muscle group.  Maybe that stare is covering for a kaleidoscope of remembered sights.  The paused moment can contain a flashing multitude of thoughts.  Then comes the decision and the inevitable action.

Part of expanding consciousness so that one can participate in shared exchange is making it safe.  Can any taped or footnoted interview ever be safe?  In the classroom the teacher has much more safety than the student, but also needs more internal space because of layers of consciousness: awareness of the student’s history, considerations of style.  The student needs to be in the “now.”  This is very hard to convey but once you’ve hit it a few times you know the surge of energy, the vividness, a kind of light that comes.  Then you can feel for it again next time.  So AK would push until they got it through trial and error.  Then she would recognize and mark it for the student.

So much of acting is about the management of one’s consciousness.  As I understand it (and I have not studied Stanislavsky so I’m coming off of counseling and general life), this is what the Method amounts to.  If one can transparently produce the authentic conscious feeling the character has, maybe by remembering one’s own, then the audience can see it and feel it as well.  What makes the technique so difficult is that it is the water in which we fish swim.  It’s always there, but usually beneath consciousness.

Both the neuroscientists (the real ones like Antonio Damasio, not the pop writers) and the Internal Family Counseling experts say that a person is a active process that can handle several personas or parts or layers at once:  you as actor, you as character, you as student, you as guy-who-heeds-to-remember-to-pay-a-bill.  Onstage some of those must be put on hold, self-protective as they may be, so there is more room internally for the actor and the character.  The teacher or director merely stands in for the audience.  An actor freely and confidently moving through the feelings of the character will cause the audience to do their part in creating the actual play in the space between the proscenium and the back wall of the theatre. 

This quote is from Winnicott’s “teddy bear” book: ”Playing and Reality.”  (Technically, it’s object-relations theory.)  “Psychotherapy [acting] takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient [actor] and that of the therapist [audience].  

Psychotherapy [acting] has to do with two people playing together.  The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist [teacher or director] is directed toward bringing the patient [actor] from a state of not being able to play [act] into a state of being able to play [act].”

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Universities are corporations and corporations only thrive if they are growing.  One way a university grows is simply to expand the campus, so even in 1957 the blocks around Northwestern were being quietly bought up.  The U of Illinois Circle Campus was also expanding on the south side where they were buying and razing old apartments and ethnic neighborhoods.  It was a big scandal, but part of the post WWII Fifties growth movement, esp. among educational institutions fattened by the GI Bill.  Stu Hagmann’s movie, “Kali Nihta, Socrates,” tried to capture Greektown before it was erased.

The houses NU bought and were simply holding became rehearsal spaces for the arts and other deserving but undemanding entities.  There was no intention to rent to families who would demand to stay and have to be evicted.  Some of the houses down toward the lake were quite fabulous, three or four stories with tower corners and backstairs for the servants.  They were often used for teas, receptions, sorority events.  I would sneak off to the empty rooms upstairs, even into the attics, looking for ghosts.  Could feel them and smell them.  Never saw them.

Alvina Krause’s house was in blocks of modest homes built around the time AK was born or maybe a little earlier.  Her two-story house had a carriage house behind, with a little apartment upstairs.  When it was exceptionally rainy, the place smelled like mousy hay.  Otherwise it was a cozy and VERY decorated little place with front room, bedroom, bath and kitchen so tiny only one person could be in it at a time.  Certain Greek (ethnic, not frats) students were in and out that there were always squeezed lemons in the fridge.  They lived off campus and used the place as a kind of lounge.  We didn’t really identify with the campus.  (I lived in the quad dorms, of course.  It was required for girls.)  When I was there, the renters were Stu Hagmann and Tom Foral -- Maybe Laird Williamson.  it was an extraordinarily chaste place.  I don’t even remember anyone getting drunk.  Maybe someone smoked cigarettes.  Maybe when things got wicked I wasn’t invited.

AK lived downstairs in her house.  I was only in the front room, which was a parlor with fireplace, quite “English” feeling.  I was there to deliver the cast gift for “Caesar and Cleopatra,” which I had been deputized to buy.  The charge was to find a bust of Cleo, which I did because it was easy.  But what I did NOT understand was quality.  I simply bought the biggest one I could find for the money we had.  AK was very gracious and accepted it as though it were diamond-studded.  I sat for a moment in her comfortable chairs and she may have offered tea.

The entrance went into a hall with an upstairs that was a kind of balcony.  The rooms up there were rented to student actors.  Dick Benjamin and Paula Prentiss lived there -- I don’t know who else.  Maybe someone will add a comment.  I was told once that AK sleep-walked and that the students living there came out of their rooms one night, hearing noises, and found her tight-rope-walking on the balcony railing in her nightgown.  That may be apocryphal, but I wouldn’t count on it.  No doubt some day someone will claim they saw her sleep-walking across Lake Michigan.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Why after all these years (AK was dismissed from NU in 1963 and died in 1981) do we still care?  What is there to say?  What relevance can there be now?  I see several quite vital issues, some of them pressing and some of them so deep that I might be imagining them.  After all, I was not part of the inner AK circle.  She did not confide in me.  But there are far larger social issues here.

Colleges grew out of the practice of becoming a scholar by finding a learned person one could admire and “shadowing” that person, as one might do to learn a trade.  The learned person generally had a library and a cluster of students would accumulate around man (always a man) and library.  The pressing subjects in the beginning were theology, medicine, and the law -- all “professions,” analytical, print-based.  That is, in the split between Apollonian vs. Dionysian or mind vs. body or art vs. science that plagues us still, the college was professional, Apollonian, brain and science.  

Universities began to group colleges of several sorts and to elevate the classic professions to graduate schools.  And yet the colleges of all sorts began to form their own graduate schools.  Today, there are “post” graduate schools.  The ladder never goes high enough.   At the highest levels once again a student would go to an individual with resources. 

I became familiar with this issue at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, part of a cluster of seminaries (now dispersing) around the University of Chicago.  In my class were six students while the faculty numbered four, if you counted the librarian.  We had a fine library.  Constantly we confronted the problem of whether we were studying analytic “theology” (the study of the Theos in the Christian context) or whether we were learning to minister as whole and authentic persons, which is surely an art form.  Within that art form, there is another split between Apollonian and Dionysian -- were we the dignified robe-wearing pulpit-occupiers or were we Pentecostal snake-handlers?

Actors have something like the same problem.  Theatre -- which is a root of both Christianity and colleges -- is on the one hand professional and academic (the study of anything renders it academic) and on the other hand cannot be measured very well by stipulated standards.   Acting either succeeds or it doesn’t.  ‘Why” might be in the script, the actor, the director, or the phase of the moon.

Nevertheless, if an institution purports to teach theatre arts, there has to be some way to establish what is worthy of paying tuition for.  The ultimate criterion -- at least for those who actually go into the theatre "industry" as opposed to academics -- must be financial and critical success.  If students must be evaluated with grades (not always helpful) then the institutional program must be measured according to the number of actors who succeed, disallowing the ambiguity of success.  (Is a star a success?  Or is the character actor who makes a living by doing small parts equally successful?)  Some NU Department of Theatre profs at present frankly advise acting students to go to a good conservatory.

Alvina Krause, in her wholistic and humanistic way, offered actors training for the “profession” (is acting a profession?), but also her classes were an inspiring and enriching experience for people like myself, who took the training in quite a different direction.  I’m not sure this can be said of the famous Manhattan “Method” actors.  Because of this broader usefulness, she is deserving of reflection in ways that Strasberg, Adler, et al, are not.

In her own vocational trajectory, AK grew up intermingled with the invention and development of the Theatre Program at Northwestern -- from the Comstock School of Oratory to Voice and Interpretation to the Studio Theatre, to University Theatre to Workshop Theatre.  Today I spent an hour calling the NU campus by telephone and discovered that not only has the School of Speech become the School of Communication but also the Theatre Department has split between  “Theatre” and “Performance Studies.”  I’m sympathetic to both.

I didn’t make much progress beyond that, since classes don’t start for a week, but it’s a fascinating thing to explore.    It sounds very much as though it’s responding to the split I’m talking about here  -- the split between acting theatre (like ministry) and the academic study of performance (theology).  The website hosts a short video of all faculty introducing themselves and explaining what they are doing.

People forward me articles from the Chronicles of Higher Education.  Plainly the university, as an institutional form, is being challenged on a lot of fronts.  They have crossed the line between being an instrument of inquiry and development into maintaining themselves for the sake of their own existence.  Beyond that, they are challenged on the basis of their relationship with corporations through research and endowments for building.  They begin to look like a herd of sacred cows.

Anyway, what people tend to mean by “professional” these days is “can I get a job?”   The advantages of a humanities education and a Ph.D. in some “nice’ field are becoming a little obscure.  

The big preoccupation with Alvina Krause’s work until now has been the division between Method acting and Technique acting.  Looking at the NU website, I see that no one talks about Method now.  In fact, few even talk about acting in the near-religious way we did.   We were psychoanalytic in our willingness to investigate ourselves and then use that, even though it was often painful and sometimes too disclosive. We used to play “What’s Your Price?” and spend a lot of time talking about sacrifices.  The choice was between Broadway and Hollywood -- or maybe some academic repertory company.  Some of us went to the Guthrie in Minneapolis or the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and considered ourselves blessed.   

Krause herself had strong ideas and didn’t tolerate much resistance because she KNEW it worked.  Of course, at Eagles Mere she was in complete control of even the housing.  But why would you go there unless you wanted to?  No pay, no class credit.  She resisted the idea of being a Method teacher, but in addition saw her whole life as being a struggle against people trying to capture, resist and suppress her.  For the most part that was probably true, but there was a little streak of self-fulfilling prophesy in there.  

This story might sum her up the problem.   On a hot summer day she and Dean McBurney (who was not always helpful) were both paddling at the shore of Lake Michigan in their bathing togs.  Dean McBurney. seeing her shoulders, exclaimed,  “Why, Alvina!  You have freckles!”

“Oh, didn’t you know?” she returned.  “Those are flecks of rust from my iron will.”  Dean McBurney knew quite a bit about her iron will, but probably never registered that freckles -- and being short -- haunted Krause all her life.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Ever since way back when Pavlov was studying stimulus/response and Skinner was torturing rats (my psych prof showed movies of it and gave us hell for laughing at the rats with hot-foot), we’ve known that information from the senses went somewhere in the brain, something happened to them, and then the nerves sent messages to the muscles or to each other about what to do. (“Jump, you little rat!  Jump!”)  But no one could figure out what it was happening there in the skull  -- it was a black box.  Now we know how to look into that box -- it has become a glass skull.

But all along, people who taught acting DID know what happened in there.  The message came in from eyes, ears, skin or whereever; there was a moment when everything stopped.  (Alvina Krause called it -- SLAP!  -- Tim calls it “stop the world.”)  A moment of realization, of evaluating, of decision.  Then the response.  It can be observed; it can be felt.  But until recently it could not be seen among the neurons in action.

It was rhizomatous:  a little complex of neurons sorted the sights, another sorted the sounds, and so on.  Then they forwarded the sorted information to a place where it was weighed and possibly compared to things stored in the memory banks according to past sights, sounds, kinesthetic sensations, until it became a “gestalt.”  This all happened in a flash, esp. if the amygdala marked it DANGER!  And the brain said JUMP.  By that time the jump had happened.  

Or maybe it took a while, like overnight while the memory-sorting neuron complexes (from the front of the hippocampus to the back of the hippocampus) put this here and that there and like with like and threw out the trivia or nonsensical -- wait now, maybe that wasn’t nonsense after all.  And the person dreamt, watching the traffic passing, hailing a cab.  In the morning it was at the curb with the door standing open.

What’s interesting is that the most recent development -- the cutting edge of evolution -- is that not only can we see the other person stop/SLAP but we can tell from the response -- or maybe just the pause -- what it was that the rhizome neuron complexes were working on, realizing, deciding.  And beyond that, (this is the secret of acting) -- that when we see someone working their way through this sequence, it is to us as though we had done it, too.  “Vicarious,” they call it.  You watch someone dance and your muscles, ever so faintly, imitate what you see.

Even more interesting -- and sometimes perilous -- is that we all have several aspects of ourselves inside and those rhizomatous neural complexes can put these part-puppets to good use, setting up conversations among them.  You know the cartoon:  an angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other.  There can be a whole school of little critters swarming around, some tougher and more intense than others.

Partly they are a matter of stored experience (memory) and partly they are organized by feeling.  Feel maternal?  Is that you, mom?  Feel powerful?  007 at your service.  Walter Mitty might drop by with a few adventures.  When Freud wanted you to repose on his couch and free-associate, he was hoping that your puppet show would activate and let him watch long enough to pick up clues about the puppeteer.

Jung had an idea you would draw on plot lines from the great classics.  The contemporary Internal Family Therapy shrinks figured conversation would probably sound like the supper table.  When my brother with the head trauma was looking for a cover story, he told us television plots, often courtroom tales.  We so often see life as being on trial -- I suppose, for the crime of being human.

Alvina Krause’s “method” was to watch closely when an actor was “acting” and try to deduce which neuron complexes were doing what.  She was very much aware that no two human beings have organized their brains the same way (after all, we are preschoolers when we set up our basic categories and who knows what has happened since then?) but she tried to know students well enough to have a good idea of what their “dashboard” conversations were like.  One thought everything was an intellectual puzzle, another saw only wine and roses, and a third was shuttling from one thing to another without settling.

Over and over in her notes you’ll read,  “I think what X is doing is trying too hard to . . .”   Then she would try to devise something that would derail that unhelpful process, whatever it was, into something that worked.  One of the funniest is the woman who was being so lyrical and poetic with her iambic pentameters that the sense left them.  To get her feet back on the ground, Krause asked her to say “mashed potatoes” at the end of each line.  That was the most ordinary, bland, unpoetic phrase Krause could think of.  It worked.  Suddenly the actress had her feet on the ground.

The riskiest was when an actor had gone off to cloud-cuckoo-land, some strangely dissociated parallel universe.  She would resort to a slap, the kind that movie heroes used on hysterical movie heroines while commanding, “Snap out of it!”  And then the heroine says,  “Thanks.  I needed that.”  You’d never get away with that today.  The main reason Krause got so close to her actors was so that she knew how to calibrate whatever she was doing, but there’s a total taboo on contact now.

Of course, the misfires and those impervious to such tricks simply left.  We writers watched very closely indeed.  Even though we were too -- what? -- to get on the stage.  But for us the cast of characters inside has never stopped talking to each other.  We can put it on a page rather than the stage.

The world comes at you:  sun in the morning, fog at night;  sounds of traffic and sounds of wind;  taste of wine and crunch of bread; smell of a lover and reek of death; and in your glass skull you weave a story about it.  Then -- wait, go back!  I was wrong!  It works better this other way.  SLAP!  Thanks, I needed that.

(Also posted at

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


In David Press’ 1971  thesis, Neal Weaver, now film and theatre critic for the LA Weekly, wrote a vivid description of Alvina Krause entering the auditorium of Annie May Swift Hall.  She generally waited until everyone was likely to be seated, then flung open the double doors at the back of the raked seats and strode down the central aisle.  It was an ENTRANCE.  Often she wore purple and there was a hanky tucked into her left wrist -- in sleeve or watchband, I suppose.

She was not a tall woman, not as plump as Margaret Mead, who had the same trick of taking charge of a space.  Mead had a “thumb staff” which her father had advised her would be a sign of authority to compensate for being short.  AK had her hair in a roll, anchored by a Spanish silver comb, and posture as erect as a military horseman.  This was her “platform,” in today’s jargon when every author must have a “platform,” a kind of shorthand identity.  She was projecting that she was the person in charge, that she knew what she was doing, and that the focus should be on her unless it was on the stage.

But she didn’t always stay in this role.  Sometimes, either to make a point or out of pure devilish mischief, she would become “kittenish” as one former student put it.  She tossed her head, peeked out the sides of her eyes like a bird, laughed softly, flirted her hands as though scattering rose petals at a wedding, maybe even twirled on her toes.  “Isn’t this fun?  Isn’t this just wonderful?  Will you play with me?”  We were eager to do so.

That wasn’t my favorite of her little shticks.  I liked best the one in which she became a little irish pipsqueak who pretended to be a great brawler, one who could not possibly be defeated -- particularly if he had enough whiskey in him.  An accent so thick it was practically unintelligible, he would talk up a terrible rage, while all the time backing up -- he threatened to tear his victim limb from limb, rolling up his sleeves in preparation -- but then saying he regretted having to go home and putting on his coat.  It was a demonstration of how a character could say one thing while conveying the absolute opposite with body language, and even the body language contradicting itself.

The first part of Alvina Krause’s career was about “interpretation” which I suppose we might now call “performance art.”   “ In art, performance art is a performance presented to an audience, traditionally interdisciplinary. Performance may be either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. It can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer's body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work.”

Some day I’ll sit down with my friend, Brian Rusted, who is a professor of performance arts in Calgary, and get this stuff figured out, but what i understand at the present is that what he studies is the interaction of a performance and an audience on a “meta” level.  One of the important aspects of this is how the performer moves in and out of personas as well as establishing a basic platform.  I will be very interested to see whether he has tried working with the new theories of brain function (Antonio Damasio).

Bob Scriver used to play dumb cowboy artist when he was pitching to a potential customer.  It drove me crazy because he was anything but -- he wasn’t even that much of a cowboy.  But he was very convincing and his ploy did indeed get the people -- who clearly expected a dumb cowboy and never questioned the song and dance -- to believe in him and show their own true selves.  Or maybe not.  Maybe their vibe didn’t ring true, which probably meant their check would bounce.

The counter-context to agonistic theatre, which is often intensely tragic, is trickster drama: shape-shifting, runaway, defensive, full of jokes and even slapstick.  Contradictions, ridiculous juxtapositions, seductions, and general foolery.  The best antidote for the all-in-black terribly serious drama student might be a little old lady skipping around, wafting her hanky and lilting some nonsense.

Somewhere in between tragedy and comedy seems to be irony -- comment through dissonant juxtaposition.  There’s been a lot of talk about that recently.  It gets harder and harder to pull off when every day brings more dissonant juxtaposition.  But fear not:  Robert Wright said this in the Atlantic.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, scientists seem to have located a part of the brain centrally involved in grasping irony.  The French research team that made the latest contribution to this effort presents its findings in the current issue of the journal NeuroImage. Referring to a part of the brain known as the "ToM network," the researchers write. "We demonstrate that the ToM network becomes active while a participant is understanding verbal irony."

“ToM stands for "theory of mind," which in turn refers to the fact that we naturally attribute beliefs and intentions and emotions to people we interact with. That is, we develop a "theory"--though not necessarily a theory we're consciously aware of--about what's going on in their minds. (An inability to do this is thought to play a role in autism.) And this "theory" in turn shapes our interpretation of things people say. The "ToM network" is a brain region--or, really, a network of different brain regions--that seems to play an important role in the construction of these theories.”
In short, you need to know your performer pretty well  before you can really grasp the irony.  And therein lies a deeper irony, because performers are generally invested in hiding their identity -- at least at the moment.  That’s the essence of performing, isn’t it?  Is that why everyone is so obsessively insane about what they call “truth”?   Isn’t insanity defined as the inability to grasp reality?
Alvina Krause was one of the sanest people I’ve ever known.  She taught acting successfully because she was always aware of what was what.  Those students who trusted her broke open their preconceptions and began to live.