The Fred Coe Artist in Residence fosters creativity and exploration, vital ingredients in Vanderbilt’s theater education experience
by Kara Furlong
photography by Steve Green
It’s late afternoon, and several students have gathered near the stage in Neely Auditorium, home of Vanderbilt University Theatre. They talk amiably about a long day of classes, their academic workloads, the parts they will play that evening in VUT’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and what led them to study theater in the first place.
David Alford, an accomplished actor and the former executive artistic director of Tennessee Repertory Theatre, listens with interest, asking questions from time to time. After several minutes of conversation, he directs a pair of students to take the stage.
“Take a second to shake off that last class, clear your heads, and start whenever you’re ready,” Alford says.
Seniors Brett Bolton and Hannah Hayes launch into a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, a playwright known for his sharp, punchy dialogue. But something is off in the actors’ delivery – not to mention the steady hammering coming from the rafters of the theater, and the university photographer moving about the space, snapping photos.
“That was rough,” the students admit when the scene is finished.
“That’s OK,” Alford says. “There’s a lot going on in here.” Someone is dispatched to the source of the hammering, no doubt a necessary technical adjustment being made for that evening’s production. “But when something like that happens,” he advises, “you’re always better off acknowledging it in your performance.”
Alford says to try the scene again, but this time to “raise the stakes, create a sense of urgency.” The noise has stopped; the students refocus and begin anew. Almost immediately, things go more smoothly.
They will perform the scene a half-dozen times, with Alford stepping in periodically to make observations, suggest different approaches and offer actorly insight. On one run-through, he directs the students to adopt a different physical position with each recited line, whether the movement makes sense or not. The result has the actors bounding across the stage, standing and sitting, ducking around and climbing atop furniture. Before long, their constant motion turns from frenetic to fluid; the dialogue speeds up, approaching a more Mametian pace.
Alford asks them to perform the scene once more, this time without the exaggerated physicality. Their movements are just as fluid but more purposeful, natural – better matching the emotion of the piece.
“Even some of the more bizarre and seemingly esoteric exercises might open up something for the actor,” Alford explained later. “Something about a voice or attitude or physicality might key the actor’s imagination and turn them on to something they end up using in a performance, something that’s also accessible to the audience.
“That’s one of the things I’ve encouraged them to do – to think outside the box as far as what they can try in a rehearsal,” he said. “Because a rehearsal – a scene class – is just a rehearsal. The point is to find things out and screw things up. You’re supposed to do it right in a performance. In rehearsal, you should be exploring, even goofing around a little. I can’t remember who said this, but someone called acting ‘serious play.’ That’s really what theater is, you know – you play really seriously.”
Alford, the latest Fred Coe Artist in Residence in the Department of Theatre, conducted a weeklong seminar in mid-November for 10 advanced theater students workshopping scenes from some of Mamet’s best-known plays. Hayes, a theater minor from Howell, Mich., was up for the challenge.
“Mamet is something that I’ve never done before,” she said. “The way that he writes is the way that we speak. You don’t realize until you read one of his plays just how chopped-up and disjointed our everyday speech actually is.
“Not only is it hard to memorize, but then you have to breathe life into these ‘ums’ and pauses and left-off thoughts,” Hayes said. “A lot of the work has been to let the text move us.”
Alford, who many of the students saw perform in Tennessee Rep’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross last year, said Mamet is among the most difficult playwrights an actor can tackle.
“His material can defeat the best of professional actors,” Alford said. “It’s dense and rich and, I think, particularly good for students to take on. If you can handle Mamet, then you can handle just about anything.”
The Coe residency was endowed in the late-1980s by Delbert Mann, a Vanderbilt alumnus, trustee and Academy Award-winning director. Named in honor of one of Mann’s early mentors, the series has brought a host of theater professionals to campus to work one-on-one with students.
“These actors, directors and designers bring an insight that we don’t necessarily have here,” said Terryl Hallquist, associate professor of theatre and director of Vanderbilt University Theatre. “It’s invaluable for the students to rub shoulders with people who have chosen the theater profession for their lives, and it’s wonderful for a small department like ours to be able to add another person to the faculty, even for a brief amount of time.”
Lance Kinsey, a Vanderbilt Theatre alum and veteran of Chicago’s The Second City, will serve as a Coe artist in the spring to conduct an improvisation workshop. Coe artists are a boon to theater education at Vanderbilt, but they are just one part of a robust program that is bringing more and more students to the stage.
Vanderbilt offers an undergraduate major and minor in theater. The department’s mission is to provide a disciplined study of the craft of acting or design for students interested in pursuing these fields in graduate school or at the professional level.
“Our mission is also to facilitate a heightened understanding of the art of theater for those students who will only ever be audience members,” Hallquist said. Students might take a theater course to fulfill a humanities requirement, or they might seek out performances purely as an artistic outlet.
Vanderbilt University Theatre stages two classical and two contemporary works each academic year, and a Shakespearean work every other year. This provides a solid foundation in dramatic literature for the students who will pursue theater after college, Hallquist said. This fall’s productions were Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and Neil LaBute’s In a Dark Dark House are scheduled for the spring.
And Vanderbilt theater students are going on to prestigious graduate programs. Two gained admission to Brown University’s MFA program last year, and Bucknell University has proved a fruitful outlet for Vanderbilt students seeking advanced experience in theater design. Graduates also are pursuing careers in theater education at high schools around the country.
Any Vanderbilt student is welcome to audition for a VUT production, and many others get involved backstage, front of house or with the technical crew. Hallquist estimates upward of 100 students from across the university participate in theater each year.
Alford, for his part, seemed to relish his time on campus as a visiting artist.
“Vanderbilt Theatre has a very good reputation in terms of work ethic and the kinds of students it turns out,” he said. “And this space, in particular, is envied by a lot of theater professionals in town. It’s small, but it’s intimate. Most professionals acknowledge this as the kind of space they want to work in.
“I get very excited when I see a light go on in the students’ eyes, when they try something and it works and they haven’t experienced that before. That’s really very rewarding,” said Alford, whose current project is starting a drama major at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tenn.
Theater contributes a vital ingredient to the Vanderbilt educational experience, Hallquist believes.
“Theater provides a place to create; a different perspective; a way of learning that doesn’t necessarily come from a book,” she said. “If the university represents a very rich culture, hopefully we are a part of that. We’re helping students to look at life through a different window.
“Even if our students don’t do anything with theater once they graduate, that’s OK,” Hallquist said. “If they’ve worked with us for four years, they will have a more profound understanding of the human condition.”
For more information, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/theatre.