Playing Her Part

Lynn Redgrave goes out of her way to help a new generation of actors learn the art.

April 27, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Awarm day in late April:

Crabapple branches scribbled in purple. A temporary tattoo drawn delicately on a young arm. Toenails painted the colors of tulips. Life is budding both outside and within Richard Pilcher's classroom in the Baltimore School for the Arts.

Fifteen juniors lean forward to catch actress Lynn Redgrave's every word as she critiques their interpretations of some of Shakespeare's most famous characters: Lysander from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Kate from The Taming of the Shrew and Lord Capulet from Romeo and Juliet. What a thrill to have this famous scion of one of the world's most storied acting families watch them perform the Bard's words. And, serendipitously, on April 23, the Bard's birthday, no less.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section misspelled the name of the setting for William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. In the play, twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria.

This is the second time that Redgrave has visited Baltimore to coach the class. She and Pilcher are long-time friends, dating from the mid-1970s, when they acted together in suburban Chicago in a production of George Bernard Shaw's The Misalliance that also starred Irene Worth.

Pilcher recalls being intimidated by his famous fellow actors.

"At the time," he says, "actors in Chicago used to joke, `How would Larry and John do this scene?' " meaning Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. And then after one rehearsal I heard Lynn and Irene talking about Larry and John. I realized, `My God, they really know them. This is a different league.' "

But Redgrave's warmth soon relaxed him - just as it did Pilcher's students.

Who would blame Dory Zeitler, the first student to perform for Redgrave, for being a bit nervous? Her character, the shrewish Kate, has intimidated far more experienced actresses. But after 15 minutes, when Redgrave asks Dory if she wants to try the scene again, Dory pumps her fist in the air and shouts, `Yes!"

Redgrave's visits to the school came about when the actress performed last fall in The Exonerated at Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre. Pilcher met her backstage after a performance and persuaded her to visit his class.

"I liked the enthusiasm of the students when I met them, and I want to help any school that is trying to make Shakespeare accessible," Redgrave says. "So we agreed that I would come back for a second visit in the spring."

And here she is, with her close-cropped blond curls and guileless blue eyes. Her British accent gives her voice a cool, refreshing quality, like peppermint, especially when she says things like "hey-ho."

Several students sit cross-legged on their chairs, their hands on their chins, physical proof of the pliability of the young. There are two large windows in Pilcher's classroom, and just outside each are those super-hardy trees that thrive in cities. The leaves seem to be getting larger and greener by the minute.

Redgrave is generous with praise, quick to dispense hugs and teases gently. She has a knack for devising physical tasks which help the performers speak the difficult Shakespearean dialect more naturally. For instance, she tells Zeitler to alternately swat and caress the hapless servant with whom the imprisoned Kate is pleading for food. Not only is it funny, but Zeitler's words pour out as though they have been unbottled.

Later, Redgrave tells Buddy Pease, who is playing Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, to grab his rebellious teen-age daughter by the arm as he berates her for refusing to marry the young, rich aristocrat he has chosen for her.

"That's really good," Redgrave says. "Wow! I'm scared myself. Bravo you, just jumping in like that."

Then she suggests places in the script where Pease might modulate his rage so as to keep the audience off-guard. She translates the scene: "He's telling her, `You're not my daughter.' That's the most terrible thing a father can say to his child."

After his scene concludes, the 17-year-old Pease seems exhilarated.

"It was so much fun," he says. "We have really experienced teachers here, but sometimes when you're acting the same scene day in and day out for the same people, you can start to feel trapped into a certain way of doing it. She pointed me to new directions that I hadn't thought about before."

Shakespeare knew a thing or two about fathers and daughters, and Redgrave knows a thing or two about Shakespeare. She also knows a thing or two about being young and scared.

Daughter of the famous Michael and younger sister of the prodigiously gifted Vanessa and the accomplished Corin, Lynn was the Redgrave child who wasn't thought good enough to be on stage. In her youth, she was big-boned, plump and clumsy, without her parents' legendary good looks.

For much of her adult life, her relationship with her father was distant.

Michael Redgrave's diary entry on March, 8, 1943, mentioned several items of interest to him: what play he'd been in that night, how the performance had gone and even where he had lunched. But he neglected to mention the birth of his third and youngest child, Lynn.

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