Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Commercial theatre productions that demand large audiences to be profitable are located on both coasts of the US.  The ones on the Atlantic seaboard have their roots in Europe with those in Manhattan esp. strongly influenced by Russian and German Jews with a rich intricate tradition of psychoanalytic concepts.  The ones on the Pacific seaboard are influenced by the Asian theatre traditions, more ceremonial, ancient and symbolic.  In the middle of the US, especially on the early prairies where populations are thin, centering on school and church (which often shared the same buildings), before there was television or even radio, public speaking was a cherished art. Government was participatory, which gave extra emphasis to political speech.  My father and his family depended upon lectures and my mother and her family was deeply influenced by missionary speakers raising money for good works.  Most people thinking about theatre give these patterns little thought.

But this middle rural America of the 1900’s was the sturdy foundation on which Alvina Krause built her understanding of human communication.  Not that she was limited to speech.  The times prescribed “healthy exercise” and regimes of various sorts.  She accepted them, recommended them.  Spoken arts are nothing without breath support and singing was as popular as speaking.  But there was little money for costumes and sets.  As a high school girl, Alvina Krause was a star, winning prizes.  But since she was the youngest of five children, her older siblings, as is the custom in the Middle West, made sure she didn’t get the big head.  At the same time, the family had good books and she was a bit of a showoff to be reading Hamlet at a young age.

The most vital influence on AK’s life was Dean Dennis, a renowned Chautauqua speaker who took a near-ministerial interest in individuals, both students and faculty.  The style was secular humanist, a movement that was strong on the prairies in early days, but the venue was Garrett Seminary where the Comstock School of Oratory operated before moving to the School of Speech at Northwestern University.  Universities tend to operate like the formation of planets, accepting and integrating “asteroids” that had formed elsewhere.  Dennis was a sort of father to the young teacher of oral interpretation, encouraging standards of rectitude, discipline, idealism, and compassion.  With his support she bloomed.

AK turned 21 just as WWI began.  A whole generation of young men was eliminated at the same time that the qualities of successful soldiers were elevated.  Emotional bonds formed with England, including the Masterpiece Theatre sort of ambivalence about social class: admiration of elegance while defending the sturdy middle-class and supporting the upward mobility of the lowest classes through education.  Sexuality was not addressed: marriage was.  Many women ended in female/female alliances, what is sometimes called a “Boston marriage,” not based on sexuality so much as being practical helpmates.  This does not exclude love.

For the long period until AK’s forced resignation she taught in the same place in the same way, building by trial and error, a sensibility and insight based on the practical interaction with the students at that moment.  When in 1963 over Christmas vacation someone who evidently had a key to her office removed a filing cabinet of materials, the paper record of what she had done from the beginning in the Thirties.  Twice the culprit mailed back parts of that theft, evidently wanting to gloat and tease.  But it was useless, because what mattered was very much in her head and heart.  It was a skill -- not a lesson plan.

So when in 1970 David Press approached AK to collaborate on a Ph.D. thesis that would explore her methods, she was ambivalent.  On the one hand, it would replace the missing record, but on the other hand she had found that people had a hard time understanding what she did to evoke good work from students.  She was working out of her Evanston home tutoring individuals.  There was a strong need for vindication.  Judging by my reading, which includes some pretty malicious online stuff from a graduate teacher in debate who was a friend of Dean McBurney, and from AK’s own private report of McBurney’s style, very much like that of a high school principal, there was a struggle within the School of Speech, partly over lifestyle issues.  Dean McBurney was the opposite of Dean Dennis and his own tenure was not long.  He was one of those marcelled, corpulent Chamber of Commerce types one runs across in small towns, a dominator.

The evidence preserved in Press’ thesis suggests that when she was suddenly assigned to teach acting, with no particular training in that field, she went directly to the books about the Stanislavky “Method” which was the gold standard at the time.  She was particularly impressed by the “sense memory” material and added it to her resources.  Three other particularly useful books were “Modern Acting: A Manual,” (1936), “Acting: the First Six Lessons” (1933) and “Improvisation for the Theatre” (1963).  (This last is by Viola Spolin, who was a Chicago person with a background in community youth work.)  These prompted her use of improvisations to trigger and clarify concepts.   They also legitimated her interest in individuals.

About the time the “Method” was electrifying Manhattan, the film industry on the opposite coast was expanding the realism and psychological depth of their dramas.  The Method fit into this with excellent results and was hailed as the magic answer to acting, endorsed by specific actors.  Mostly taught in conservatories rather than universities, the Method melded with ideas about individualism, genius, madness, and other preoccupations that had been associated with writing, but now without the writing.  AK, however, remained committed to the script and its faithful expression to audiences.  At her summer theatre, Eagles Mere, she was able to protect this definition and practice it in a passionate way to a high level of skill.  Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble continued on after Eagles Mere ended.

At the time the “community theatre” movement swept the country, AK was listening and part of her own “method” was believing in the development of ensemble repertory acting companies where the actors could learn from each other and form a kind of tribe.  When Meyerhold, leaving Stanislavsky and Russia, triggered “encounter theatre” and a host of experiments coming out of all sorts of social and national movements -- not least WWII -- AK knew it was happening but was not moved by it.  A rural midwestern girl with basically middle-class values could appreciate the need to protect the non-conforming student but was not interested in changing the culture in that way.  She and Lucy drove a Cadillac and shopped at Marshal Field.  A silver comb for her upswept hair was about as exotic as she was prepared to be.  What counted was the mind and heart as instruments of communication and registers of astonishment.

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