At School of the Arts, accomplished actresses share their experiences with students waiting in the wings

Getting a glimpse backstage

May 11, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

Most of the theater majors at the Baltimore School for the Arts ache to be on stage. But yesterday they were transformed into an audience of acolytes, soaking up anecdotes and advice from three professional actresses appearing in Doubt at the Hippodrome Theatre.

The school's jampacked dance studio was hot, and the ambient noise - buses, trucks, a siren, even clarinet practice - threatened to drown out the speakers. But the 100 students sat in rapt attention, their eager hands shooting up in droves with questions for Cherry Jones, who won a Tony Award as Sister Aloysius, the stern parochial school principal in John Patrick Shanley's play; Lisa Joyce, who plays a young teaching nun; and Caroline Stefanie Clay, who plays the mother of a student. The plot revolves around Sister Aloysius' suspicions about a priest's behavior.

"What is the difference between film acting and theater?" asked ninth-grader Raenard Weddington.

Jones - whose film credits include Erin Brockovich, The Perfect Storm and Maryland-made Swimmers - answered with a story from The Horse Whisperer, a 1998 movie directed by Robert Redford. For a scene in which her veterinarian character was supposed to examine a horse, "I thought we'd be looking at a horse," Jones said.

Instead, "What we're looking at is 30 men and cameras and equipment crowded into a small stable."

And not a single horse.

It helped, she explained, that the filmmaker was an actor. Gamely, Redford threw his leather bomber jacket over his head and bucked his head in imitation of a horse - an impersonation she re-created for the audience.

The story illustrated Jones' contention that "everything in theater helps you, and everything in film hinders you."

The detailed answer "really opened my eyes," Raenard said afterward.

For Jones and Joyce, addressing a class was a real-life reflection of their work playing faculty members in Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. (Half of the theater students received opening-night tickets from the Hippodrome Foundation.)

Moderated by Donald Hicken, head of the theater department, yesterday's symposium was the eighth installment in the Colgate Salsbury Visiting Artist Series. The program was established by Rhea Feikin, co-host of Maryland Public Television's ArtWorks This Week and the widow of Salsbury, an actor who died in 1999. Past artists have included Andre Braugher, Hal Holbrook, Lynn Redgrave, Martin Short, Kathleen Turner, John Waters and the pianist Lang Lang.

This was the first time, however, that the students have been treated to more than one artist on the same program. The three-fer came about, Feikin explained, when Jones responded to her invitation by saying, "Our company is so wonderful and close-knit - would it be OK if I brought some company members with me?"

Jones and Clay (who started as an understudy) have been with the show since its beginning off-Broadway 2 1/2 years ago, through its Broadway triumph and into the current tour. Joyce joined the company in August. Baltimore is the next-to-last stop on the tour. When the show closes a week from Sunday in Philadelphia, Jones will have done 707 performances.

Senior Jane Abell, who will enter Swarthmore College in the fall and is considering an acting career, asked what sacrifices the actresses have made for their art.

"I still have my catering jacket hanging in my closet," quipped Clay, whose credits range from Washington's acclaimed Shakespeare Theatre to a recurring role in the daytime soap All My Children. A graduate of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, she recalled being inspired by such visiting actors as Lena Horne and Colleen Dewhurst when she was at Ellington.

"I haven't lived in the same place more than six months in the three years I've been out of school," said Joyce, who earned her degree from DePaul University in Chicago and attended an arts magnet school, North Springs High School in Atlanta.

"I missed my grandfather's funeral because I was in a show; there wasn't an understudy," added Jones, a native of Paris, Tenn. "I wouldn't do that again, but I was young enough that I thought letting down the team was the greater thing."

For Jane, the experience confirmed some of her concerns about the stability of the acting profession.

"I knew the response I was going to get," she said later, but "to hear even from people as successful as Cherry Jones that it's not stable - I don't know."

Eric Berryman, a senior headed for Carnegie Mellon University, Jones' alma mater, refused to be discouraged by her response to his query about the difficulty of finding work after graduation. Jones said she was in New York for three years before she got an acting job, and she was 33 before she felt comfortable calling herself an actress.

"They all show you that what we learn here is really going to prepare us," Berryman said. "They use it in the same way we have."

At the end of the intense, hourlong Q-and-A, the theater majors rose to their feet and gave the three actresses an enthusiastic ovation. Clumps of students gathered around the guest artists with more questions, and one handed a camera to a friend to shoot a photo of her and a classmate with Jones.

But the students weren't the only ones who left the session feeling exhilarated.

"We come thinking our job is to affirm them, and they affirmed us," said Clay. "This is a high point of this tour. The energy and audacity - if this is what the future is, we're in good hands."

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

Online

To see a video clip of Doubt, go to baltimoresun.com/doubt.

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