At a time when course names sound more and more like dissertation titles, the core class of theater arts has a refreshingly brief moniker. It is called, simply, Acting. Suffice it to say, nothing else is simple about this semester-long odyssey led by the charming Associate Professor of Theater, Speech, and Dance Lowry Marshall. The class meets for seven hours every week - twice as much as most other courses - and students put in another eight to ten hours practicing with scene-study partners or improv groups, writing in journals, hunting down props and costumes, and filling out self-evaluation forms. Sound grueling? Sure. But Acting remains one of the most popular courses in one of Brown's most under-recognized departments, a time-tested crucible where some of tomorrow's directors, stage performers, and screen stars are formed.
Situated at the bottom of an unmarked stairway in Faunce House, the crucible itself was renovated five years ago and named after method-acting guru Lee Strasberg, whose sons, Adam '91 and David-Lee '92, attended Brown. Resembling a dark but cozy dungeon, the Strasberg Studio holds a typical accretion of actorly paraphernalia: a sloping mound of wrinkled costumes, a beanbag chair, a pile of rocks, a bouquet of plastic flowers, a battered spinet piano, and other thrift-store tchotchkes.
Steven Tynan '00 and Diana Hofshi '00 perform an excerpt from Marsha Norman's Getting Out during TA 23's Day of Scenes.
Yet, like David Mamet's Chicago garages, the studio's appearance belies the seriousness of the work done in it. One day last December, students bundled in hooded sweatshirts and vintage coats sprang from their seats to take part in a game called How to Make the Chair Your Friend. The improv exercise is part of the preparation for their final project: a two-minute monologue delivered, audition-style, from the Stuart Theatre stage. Urged to do something, anything, with the dilapidated wooden chair that will be their only prop during their "mock audition," they came up with some wild scenarios. One student pushed it like a shopping cart. The next used it to beat back an invisible lion. One waltzed with the chair; another cowered beneath it like a child afraid of the dark.
As adults we are trained to be cautious, accommodating; here the point is just the opposite. Improvs like these "spin the actors out of control," says Marshall, who functions as the students' ringleader, playmate, and self-described "partner in crime" throughout the semester. "It's all about accessing the unconscious - that's the creative state." Marshall's own journey to the unconscious began when, as an aspiring Shakespeare professor at the University of South Carolina, she tried out for her first college play to get over a bout of stage fright. After all, she could hardly justify teaching the work of the greatest English dramatist if she was too afraid to perform it. To her surprise, she got the lead in that play, Jean Anouilh's Thieves' Carnival, and then went on to a master of arts degree focused on directing.
All the while, Marshall maintained her passion for teaching - first sixth grade, then high school, then college - as well as acting. She landed roles in summer stock theater productions and did a brief stint on Broadway in the 1970s before returning to the South to raise her twin sons, now twenty-one years old, and to get her M.F.A. in acting at the Asolo Conservatory in Saratoga, Florida. It was a chaotic life, Marshall admits, but one that prepared her well for her post at Brown. Not only can she relate to her students' crazy schedules, but as an actor herself, "she approaches the material with humanism and sympathy," says James Barnhill, professor emeritus of drama.
There is a method, dramatically speaking, to the madness, Marshall explains in her Lyman Hall office. Acting (formally known as Theatre Arts 23), she says, is the "place where we establish for our students a basic vocabulary." By "vocabulary" she means not merely words to talk about the theater but "a whole arsenal" of ways, as David Edison '00 puts it, to bring it to life.
Having taught the course thirty times since succeeding Barnhill, Marshall has amassed a substantial arsenal, the most powerful weapon of which is the improv. These guided excursions not only break down inhibitions; they illustrate the basic building blocks of acting, from establishing place to forming relationships to agreeing on a topic. "It's like learning your scales as a musician," Marshall says.
But where musicians work toward technical precision, some actors initially strive for spontaneity, Marshall says - an almost childlike state of openness. The paradox is that for most actors such openness does not come naturally after childhood, especially onstage. So it must be relearned. To teach it, Marshall says she employs an "amalgam of approaches," many of which are derived from the "method" of Konstantin Stanislavsky, founder of the Moscow Art Theater and the first to stage Anton Chekhov's plays. Marshall's method is Stanislavsky with a forward-looking twist: While Stanislavsky urged his students to probe their own past for an emotional basis to their characters' actions, Marshall asks her students to look into the future. "It's the difference between motivation and intention," she says.
Using a series of exercises developed by one of her own acting mentors, Michael Shurtleff, author of the acting classic Audition, she asks her students not only to create memories for their characters but to create "real dreams that are pulling you into the future." For example, a helpful improv for actors playing Hamlet and Ophelia might be imagining the characters together in old age: this is the future they want, after all. Playing it with that image, rather than the tragic final bloodbath, in mind could, Marshall suggests, bring out the drama's richer ironies.
"The reason we are so successful," Lowry Marshall says, "is that we get wonderful students in here and we don't mess them up."
Of course, delving into a character's past or future, sans script, takes a certain amount of bravado. To improvise, you have to trust your scene partners to respect your sometimes awkward fumbling for words, and they have to trust you. In other words, says Marshall, in improvisations "you always say yes" - even if your improv group elects, as did sophomore Molly Rosen's at one point, to "crawl around half-naked smearing ourselves with barbecue sauce and ripping apart chicken with our teeth while Jim Morrison droned in the background."
On the day of the improv incorporating only the chair, for example, Marshall tells Meredith Barnett '00, who is playing a "proper" gossip columnist, to loosen up. "Play it drunk," Marshall suggests, applying the theory that finding the opposite to a character's psyche adds complexity and friction to a performance. "Don't worry about doing it right. Just play it to see what will happen." Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Barnett starts over, reeling and giggling in an attitude far from that of the repressed socialite she'd played before. Weirdly enough, it works.
A week later, the Strasberg Studio is transformed. What was once a secret dungeon has suddenly become a festive public performance space for the Day of Scenes, a seven-hour showcase of scenes entirely staged, directed, and performed by TA 23 students. Silver garlands and white lights droop behind the makeshift stage. The smell of hot apple cider wafts through the room, as does the crackly voice of Frank Sinatra singing Christmas carols - until Marshall breaks in, as she does from time to time. "Okay, folks. We're movin'!" she screams, emerging from behind the punch bowl in a red velvet body stocking, elf booties, and a Santa Claus hat. "Let's go, guys!"The two or three people shoving furniture onstage shove even faster, the audience members drift back to their folding chairs, and the music stops. A moment of silence, then lights up on a scene from the first of a number of plays that will be excerpted today, a list that includes Hurly Burly, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Bent, The Fox, and Getting Out.
A theater department tradition, the Day of Scenes can be best described as a frenzied one-ring circus. "It is insane in the best possible way," quips David Edison. As students, alumni, and faculty drift in and out throughout the day, "the students get to show they've absorbed what they've learned in class," says Barnhill, who is glued to his seat in the second row. Here's where the improvs, the theory of opposites, and the rest of the weapons in Marshall's arsenal are put to use. The trick is to discover what Marshall calls "wild cards," those moments that give the audience a sense of the character's inner life, as expressed by a barely perceptible nod, gasp, or unexpected pause.
For actors to find those wild cards, they have to repeat the scene in a multitude of seemingly bizarre ways - as Edison had Justin Vogt '00, Molly Rosen, and Bonnie Schiff-Glenn '00 do four days earlier. Directing their scene from The Fox, based on the D.H. Lawrence novella, Edison asked Rosen to "play it drunk," to heighten the irrationality of her behavior. Schiff-Glenn was told not to make any eye contact with her scene partners, to bring out her passive-aggressive streak, and Vogt was asked to tone down the wild flailing of his arms. After all, Edison said, he was playing a soldier just coming back from the war and would likely be tired. While the exercise made for some unintentionally funny moments in practice (as when Justin staggered onstage for the first time, his arms flopping at his sides like rubber hoses), it pays off in performance, with the three conflicting deliveries wordlessly expressing the trio's fatal lack of understanding.
As is customary for the Day of Scenes, The Fox elicits a rowdy round of applause and bleacher stomping. Also customary is the next move. "Who's up next?" Marshall calls out. Two hands go up in the audience, Marshall shouts "Let's get a move on!" and the furniture-pushing scramble resumes.
Like any art, acting contains a wealth of contradictions. Thought and action are frequently at odds, and all the improvisations, scene work, and soul-searching that actors do in private won't amount to anything if they can't present the fruits of that labor onstage, in two minutes or less, within the confines of a brief introduction and a single monologue. It is the latter lesson that Lowry Marshall sets out to teach her students in their final project, the mock audition.
"You're selling your wares when you audition," she tells her students in rehearsal. "Your wares are your intelligence, your imagination, your sensitivity, your voice, and your physical prowess. And, like a dog after a bone, you must look tirelessly for ways to display your wares in a comely manner."
The catch is that "comely manner" is a narrowly defined category. Filing obediently into Stuart Theatre, these stubbornly individualistic actors look like bedraggled temps. One by one, they march, as if in etiquette school, to center stage to deliver polished monologues by writers ranging from Chekhov to Salinger. Once there, they try to make the chair their friend, by sitting on it, leaning on it, jumping over it - anything to keep themselves from looking like ventriloquist's dummies.
Avi Venkataraman '99 plays a scene from Jean Giraudoux's Madwoman of Chaillot with theatre arts grad student Zeynep Aksoy.
Throughout it all, Marshall calls them by number, like prisoners, not by name. As they perform, she scribbles silently on auditor's sheets, making notes on their dress, professional demeanor, diction, movement, and projection. Now and then she issues a curt "thank you" before barking out the next number. No applause is allowed. "I want them to get the terror of the audition process without the consequences," Marshall explains. "I want them to see what it feels like to have people sitting out there judging you."
Herein lies the central contradiction of Marshall's class - and of the theater department in general. By all accounts, TA 23 is one of the most off-the-wall, touchy-feely courses at Brown, yet the final project resembles a military exercise. It is Marshall's acknowledgement of the world fully half these students will face when they leave Brown for a life in professional theater. Which leads one to wonder: if presentation is so important, why isn't more time spent on it?
"Because we don't think students should be trained seals," Marshall says. If students harbor an abiding desire to be actors, the department reasons, they will go on to get the training they need in graduate school. For now, let them "find out what it's like to be real," says Rebecca White '00, who took time off from a ten-year television-and-theater career to study anthropology and English. Though she plans to continue acting after graduation, she says, "I want to use as many parts of my brain for as long as I can."
More and more aspiring actors seem to be choosing to do the same. For six out of the past eleven years, Brown students have represented the Northeast at the national acting competition in Washington, D.C., and the roster of now-famous alumni is long. Marshall rattles off a partial list: Michael Silver '90 from NYPD Blue; Randy Becker '92 from the film and Broadway play Love! Valour! Compassion!; Ben Sheinkman '90 from Tony Kushner's Angels in America; Marin Hinkle '88 from the recent New York production of The Seagull: The Hamptons; Jason Neulander '91 and playwright David Bucci '92, founders of the Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, Texas; Aunjanue Ellis '93 from the New York production of The Tempest; David Conrad '90 from the sitcom Relativity; and Jennifer Dundas '95 from the New York production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.
The list is humbling, but Marshall doesn't claim to have "made" any of these actors into actors. "The reason we're so successful," she says, "is that we get wonderful students in here and we don't mess them up."