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Fall 1998

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Vanessa Redgrave Gives MHC's Aspiring
Actresses Personal Attention

By Chris Rohmann

"I was really nervous before meeting her. I couldn't believe I was going to do this monologue for Vanessa Redgrave!"

Danielle O'Connell '00 was not the only aspiring actor to be excited and nervous at this prospect. She was one of nine theatre arts majors from the Five Colleges, five of them from Mount Holyoke, who participated in a master class with the acclaimed British actress in April. The class, held in Rooke Theatre, was organized by the MHC Department of Theatre Arts and the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts.

The Oscar-winning star of more than seventy films, who is considered by many the greatest stage actress of her generation, arrived on campus straight off a plane from England and went directly to the Rooke's greenroom to meet with the young performers. "Everyone was sort of freaking out before she arrived, wondering what she was going to be like," Laconia Koerner '00 later recalled. "I said, 'It would be great if she just came in blue jeans,' and then she did-she came in blue jeans-and I said, 'Yes! She's a real human being.'"

"She was so down-to-earth," O'Connell agreed. "She didn't seem like this famous person, but someone you could easily relate to. I wasn't as nervous as before."

Redgrave brought that down-to-earth approach to the stage where the master class was held. Outfitted casually in jeans and denim jacket, a long scarf wrapped around her long neck and a flat cap set upon her short, pure-white hair, she was dressed for work, not show.

"This is and isn't a performance," she announced to both the invited audience and the students gathered onstage. "Anyone can stop in the middle if they want." As the actors performed their pieces one by one, she sat to one side of the stage, her lanky frame angled onto a wooden chair, leaning forward, watching and listening intently.

By chance, the first two monologues-all drawn from Chekhov plays at Redgrave's request-were consecutive speeches from the same play, The Bear. In this comic one-act, a grieving widow is confronted by a boorish landlord to whom she owes money. After University of Massachusetts student Jesus MacLean and S. Ann Hall '00 had run through their speeches once, Redgrave brought them together on stage.

"So often in real life, we say one thing when we really are thinking something else entirely." This impression, that the words spoken are not at all what the characters are thinking, pervades all of Chekhov, she explained. "What is really going on is just the opposite of what is in the text."

With that approach in mind-"You don't want to be saying the things written for you"-she asked MacLean to perform his speech again, this time addressing it to Hall instead of empty air. As she reacted to the speech, a misogynistic diatribe, Hall's shifting emotions played across her face, from polite interest to disdain to horrified fascination.

Again and again during the evening, Redgrave stressed the importance of achieving "a feeling of complete spontaneity" onstage, but also emphasized the painstaking research and textual analysis necessary to accomplish that effect. She also encouraged actors to take all the time they need to fully understand the character they're playing. "Directors get unhappy when it takes time," she said, "but passions, emotions, events have their own rhythm."

After the first few monologues, time pressure limited Redgrave to commenting on problems and opportunities in the scenes without reworking them with the actors. With Mary Haddad '98, she analyzed the many unspoken feelings in a soliloquy from Uncle Vanya. Elena, an idle beauty married to an old man, is titillated by the attentions of a country doctor but discomfited because her plain young friend Sonia is lovesick for him.

"It's a tricky one," Redgrave suggested. "She's looking at reality and not looking at reality. Is she feeling competitive with Sonia?"

"Maybe slightly," replied Haddad. "Or maybe a lot," Redgrave countered. With O'Connell, she investigated why Nina, the ambitious young actress in The Seagull, compares herself to that graceful but scavenging bird. Redgrave offered a range of possibilities, from the notion that the seagull is an emblem of freedom to the observation that it may be just the opposite-since in the play a seagull is shot and mounted-that Nina may see herself as a victim of chance and circumstance. "That's the thing about acting," she mused. "You can't take even the simplest statement for granted."

From her downstage perch she watched the monologues with keen-eyed interest and palpable enjoyment. She laughed out loud at Laconia Koerner's comical impersonation of a bumbling lecturer in The Dangers of Tobacco and praised Dorien Davies '98's nicely balanced reading of a speech from The Three Sisters: "Lovely; that's excellent."

Reflecting on the experience later, the students marveled at Redgrave's commitment to detailed character-building and her generosity of spirit. "It's inspirational to see someone who is so talented and so famous work so hard still," commented Davies. "She stayed around for an hour and a half afterwards, talking with us and signing far too many autographs. It was like each autograph was the only one she'd ever signed in her life. She's a real pro."

Photos by Jim Gipe

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