Acting out a dream As a young woman, Vivienne Shub figured she'd never make it in the business. Today, it's hard to imagine Baltimore theater without her.

November 12, 1997|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Vivienne Shub's radiant smile vanishes as she considers the question. Her eyes scrunch up. She studies the questioner. She ponders. She starts to vacillate. Then, finally, a decision.

Shub thrusts a fist in the air. "Yes," she says, once again all smiles. "Put it in!" Vivienne Shub has decided she will tell her age. Darn it, she's proud of it! Why shouldn't she be?

She's 79 years old. Looks great. Feels good. And best of all, this consummate actress' actress is still on the stage doing what she does best. "I spent my birthday rehearsing, and it could not have been a better day," says Shub.

Consider this: Before there was television, before professional theater came to Baltimore, before anybody even considered making a movie outside of Hollywood, there was Baltimore's Vivienne Shub, who has spent a lifetime acting while remaining true to her hometown. Her latest play, Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful," is scheduled to open at the Everyman Theatre on Friday.

"I didn't really dream of being a professional actress. I mean it wasn't even an impossible dream. I was going to be a schoolteacher," says Shub, laughing at the memory.

Shub is well-known to Baltimore audiences and those in the local theater scene. "I've known her for 31 years," says Peter Culman, managing director of Center Stage. "Whether Vivienne is on the stage acting, whether she is sitting in the audience or in a workshop where she is teaching, Vivienne Shub is passionately in love with the theater."

Shub's comfortable Randallstown home is full of memories of her career as a professional actress and of life in a creative family. Pictures of a younger Shub, beautiful then as now, are on the wall, and two pianos are side by side in the living room. Walk to the front door of the Shub home, and you may be greeted by piano music courtesy of her husband, Louis, a concert pianist. One of their children, Amy, is also a pianist. Father and daughter enjoy getting together sometimes for intimate, impromptu "concerts."

Shub credits her own father, Samuel Slovin, for instilling a sense of drama in her at a young age. "My father was such a wonderful creator of stories," says Shub, who grew up in East Baltimore and later moved to the Forest Park area of the city. "He was a dentist. But I think he was really a frustrated writer."

By the time she was 8 years old, Shub was busy acting out the stories her father told her.

"I didn't know it, but it was improvisation," she says. "Now I know I was putting on one-woman shows back then."

As she was growing up, she never considered making a career out of acting. It was difficult to find a place where local actors could perform and get paid for it.

"There was no television. There was no professional theater in Baltimore. Any drama that came to Baltimore was either 'pre-Broadway' or 'post-Broadway.' And there were no movies outside of Hollywood," Shub says.

Shub gladly performed wherever and whenever she could.

"In high school, there were no drama classes, although we did have a drama club," she says.

"It was an exciting time. It was like being on Broadway for me!" she says. And Shub made sure she saw every play that made a pit stop in Baltimore on the road to Broadway. "I saw Henry Fonda, Margaret Sullavan," she says.

"That would have been in the '30s." About that time, an English teacher took note of her student's love and talent for acting.

"She sent me to go audition at the Vagabond Theatre," Shub says. She began appearing in summer plays there, but she still figured there was no way she could earn a living acting.

So after high school, in 1936, Shub enrolled in what is now Towson University.

"It was called Towson State Teachers College back then, and there was no theater department," she says. Still, Shub hooked up with like-minded souls who loved to perform.

In the summer after freshman year at college, Shub's parents agreed to send her to an acting school that had just relocated from New York to Baltimore.

"I plunged into all theater that summer," she recalls. "It was fulltime, every day. We did scenes from Shakespeare, contemporary dramas, everything. We studied speech, dialect, improvisation."

One of the hardest challenges Shub faced was getting rid of a pronounced Baltimore accent. "That was something to try to overcome," she says. "It was a real hurdle, but I worked hard at it. I had to. You know, there are not a lot of plays written for people who have a Baltimore accent."

Shub's blue eyes sparkle when she is talking about three subjects: her husband, whom she married in 1941; her three children; and that summer. "It was a summer of utter joy," she says.

And then the summer, with its acting classes, was over.

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