Monday, January 18, 1982
TEACHER’S LIGHT REFLECTED IN STARS
Because the career of Northwestern University drama coach Alvina Krause was spangled by the galaxy of Broadway and Hollywood stars who were graduates of her classes, it is sometimes easy to forget that she shone brightly on her own, with no need for brilliance reflected from others. She shed the light of her tremendous intellect, spirit and energy on the great and the small, diffusing it through others to millions, and it is for this that she was properly remembered Friday afternoon during a memorial tribute at the Northwestern campus in Evanston.
Krause, who died of a heart attack at 88 on the last day of 1981, was hailed as a gifted teacher, a genius and a friend. During 34 years at Northwestern she nurtured the budding talents of Charlton Heston, Cloris Leachman, Paula Prentiss, Paul Lynde, Carol Lawrence, Patricia Neal, Edgar Bergen, drama critic Walter Kerr, and many others who have gone on to great success. To scores of fair-to-middlers who went on to careers far removed from the bright lights, she taught something about living, learning and loving. Stage pioneer Lee Strasberg hailed her as the finest teacher in America.
Due to her fierce dedication and broad range of ability, students and colleagues have said of the diminutive Krause that she was a university rolled into a person. She taught aspiring talents not only about movement and speech, but about other human beings: what they are; how they think; how they feel; how to put yourself in their places. Her technique and success was so legendary that, after she had to leave Northwestern in 1963, she became something of a guru for drama students, who sought her out at her home in Pennsylvania for private instruction and even coaxed her out of retirement to create a repertory company at age 83.
Krause was born in 1893 in New Lisbon, Wis. She earned her bachelors degree in science and speech from Northwestern, and taught at a high school and a small college before returning to Northwestern to join the faculty in 1929. Early in her career she was a somewhat shy, over-formal woman, but after about 10 years she seemed to gain confidence and, according to former student and colleague John VanMeter of Evanston, “a tremendous relaxation set in.
“I remember her as a very warm, outgoing, steadfast sort,” said VanMeter before Friday’s tribute. “She loved to garden, and she loved music and good literature, but her whole life was dedicated to education. Acting instruction she regarded as a preparation for life.”
Indeed, Krause was a determined, challenging instructor who forced her students to look beyond a particular role or part in a play. She asked them to keep a personal journal in which they were to take note of situations and people that might one day contribute to their ability to interpret in a dramatic setting. She often asked her pupils to confront their emotions directly in front of a roomful of people. She once asked a young woman to ad lib a scene in which she finds out while sitting in an ice cream parlor that her father had died, knowing that this very thing had happened to the young woman only a month earlier.
Her gift, said Les Hinderyckx. theatre department chairman, was “the ability to point out what was wrong with what you were doing without making you afraid to try again.”
Hinderyckx was among five speakers at Friday’s tribute in Annie May Swift Hall auditorium, the site of many of Krause’s pedagogical triumphs. She was, said another speaker, “an endless source of enlightenment.”
Called a starmaker, Krause said she never discovered talent, but encouraged young people to discover themselves.
Students loved and occasionally feared the legendary “A.K.” They rallied to her support when she reached retirement age in 1961, but still had the energy and enthusiasm to continue. The university allowed her to stay two years to teach part-time, then enforced the rules, and asked her to leave. She was not pleased by this edict, and neither were many students and staff members who believed that Northwestern was turning its back on a woman who had made immeasurable contributions to the national reputation of its theatre department.
She “retired” to Pennsylvania but drama students nationwide would not let her stop teaching, and she continued work with her Bloomsburg [Pa] Ensemble until almost the time of her death.
Any bad feelings she may have had about Northwestern were erased in late 1980, when Krause, who had already been named professor emeritus and seen the dedication of the Alvina Krause Theatre in New York City [where another tribute took place Monday], was awarded the University’s medal for distinguished service. It marked the first time that award had been presented on the basis of academic merit, according to Roy Wood, the dean of the School of Speech.
At Friday’s tribute, the audience saw a videotape of the presentation of the medal, beginning with the words of Academy Award - winning actor Charlton Heston: “She marked every student who worked with her. She did honor to her school and to her profession.”
Listening steadfastly, almost critically through her introductions, she then took the stage and delivered a powerfully simple acceptance speech in which she answered the question: “Who am I?”
Addressing her audience -- now from beyond the grave -- Krause declared, “I am a teacher!” She affirmed her belief in the salvation of mankind through the arts and said, “I believe the theater can illuminate the life in which we live; in the dark days that are today.”
She continues to shine, for Alvina Krause was not just a molder of stars, but star in her own right. Though she helped to create actors and actresses whose named will be remembered beyond hers and who will touch millions more poeple directly than she ever did, it is her light we see reflected in those stars; her wisdom, her patience and only a small part of her glory.