Jewel Walker: body talk Essay

Published: 2021-07-12 00:45:04
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Category: Culture

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The 40-odd students in the professional theatre training program at the University of Delaware are sprawled across the floor of what was once a women’s gym, waiting to begin the daily ritual of their group warmup. It’s 9:00 a.m. on a chilly November morning, and among the students who are stretching and chatting are many who look as if they would rather be asleep. But when Jewel Walker, one of the program’s founding faculty members, steps onto a small, slightly elevated area to begin the morning’s exercises, the students actors, stage managers and technicians move together in concentrated activity.
Walker’s sweatpants and T-shirt don’t fit his stentorian tones. But as the warmup continues, he comes down from his private stage and circulates among the students, guiding their movements, never allowing the possibility that any body–even the most out-of-shape or the least coordinated won’t be able to keep up. By the end of the warmup, he’s on the floor himself, no longer leading but participating.
I’m sure Walker would laugh if I were to describe his movement from the stage to a place among his students in any metaphorical way; he would, I’m certain, disagree if I were to suggest that the psychological movement from leader to participant was emblematic of his approach to training as a whole. His own view of the warmup is entirely practical: “If you get them all up at the same time every morning you don’t have to worry about when they go to sleep.”
Walker has been training students in stage movement or, more accurately, serving as a teacher of movement for actors–since 1964, when he was invited to join the faculty of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon (then Carnegie Tech). He stayed in Pittsburgh for 13 years, directing and teaching acting as well as stage movement, then left in 1977 to help establish the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s professional actor training program. In 1989, the members of that faculty–including Walker and the program’s director, Sanford Robbins relocated to Delaware, expanding the program on the East Coast.
Today, Walker is widely respected as a pioneer in his field. “In many departments at the time I started teaching,” he explains, “there wasn’t anything called stage movement teaching. You would send the actors to dance or eurythmics teachers for a couple of hours every week and think that they would get graceful or something. My tendency is to demonstrate things in more of a hands-on kind of way. You can teach someone to dance, but that won’t necessarily make them a good stage mover.”
If one can trace in Walker’s career the development of stage movement from a catch-all exercise to a valid artistic and academic discipline, it also spans a philosophical divide, straddling two worlds with markedly different points of view about acting itself.
In the late 1950s, Walker studied with Vera Soloviova, who had acted with Stanislavsky; the great modern mime Etienne Decroux; Actors Studio guru Herbert Berghof and Group Theatre founder Lee Strasberg. He’s deliberately unassuming about his own beginnings: “I didn’t set out to be in theatre,” he says. “I wanted to be a ball-player, and when that didn’t work out I was at loose ends, so I went to New York and took acting lessons to meet girls.” (Walker was, in fact, a professional baseball player in the low minor leagues from 1949 to 1955. And he did meet at least one girl: his wife of 34 years, Marjorie Walker, who was a fellow student of Decroux, founded Pittsburgh’s City Theatre and now teaches at the University of Delaware.)
Walker takes the various legacies he has sampled seriously, but skeptically. “To actors, it looks as if their job is to make up a character, and hope that the director can then shuffle them around so that a play may get conjured somehow. That’s to some degree their heritage, whether they’ve ever been instructed in it or not. It’s the way everybody thinks. You can ask people who aren’t even in the theatre: What do they talk about? They talk about the characters.”
For Walker, such a character-driven approach to text has, as he puts it, had its day. “We’re going to be somehow mimicking a dead past, and I don’t see how the theatre can live on that,” he goes on. “The theatre is there to presence the eternal, which is different from being in the presence of somebody’s past, or their particular statement about themselves. I don’t see any reason to be limited by those kinds of things. In a way, that way of working takes away the freedom of the audience to have their own creation. The work is complete, so it leaves the audience with nothing to do but read their programs, count the lights and look at their watches.”
Delaware’s professional training program aims to find and create new legacies. The revolutionary Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, for instance, first brought his company to the U.S. through the Milwaukee program, and Walker and his colleagues have adopted his exercises which demand total control and manipulation of the body–as part of their own daily training routine.
The Delaware students go through the exercises with looks of fierce concentration on their faces, their bodies straining to meet the demands of this alien vocabulary of movement. “Our effort has always been to get into training more in the water than on the shore,” Walker says. “That’s what I like about the Suzuki exercises the students get close to actually doing it. Some of them even get there.”
When I ask Walker if he considers himself a trainer, a mentor or a teacher, he laughs. “I’m just a worker. You can say any of those things and I’m not offended by them, but all I’ve done really is come to work. I just have a kind of vision, and a willingness to take on any job.”
 

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