Stella Adler Theatre
On Saturday, August 5th, 2000, Kate Mulgrew participated in the “Hollywood Speaks at the Adler” seminars held at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood, California. Many thanks go to Totally Kate! contributor, K.K. O'Brian, who attended and provided the following wonderful report.
KATE AT THE ADLER
by K.K. O'Brian
Resplendent in a simple white jersey and long beige skirt, Kate Mulgrew came to address acting students and guests of the Stella Adler School in Hollywood. From the moment of a carefully orchestrated pause before her entrance to her final gracious bow, Mulgrew was in command of the stage.
Mulgrew's "portrait" of the legendary acting professor and teacher Stella Adler seemed to flow spontaneously from her keen memory, but it was clear, however, that Mulgrew's presentation was a carefully crafted and studied presentation of her mentor. Kate began with a story of her first encounter with Adler in acting class. There was a regality to Adler, which is both legend and tradition among Adler students. A throne was set up at one end of the classroom space, and when Adler came to class on that day, she made a typically grand entrance. Students in the class presented Adler with long stem roses: Adler held court while she held class.
Kate's first experiences of acting in front of Adler were met with the devastating comment that she was in "a banker's way": that her acting skills were pedestrian, rote, blasé. The toughness Mulgrew had to muster to conquer the scathing remark levied at her by the master was precisely a part of Adler's plan: she saw talent in the young woman, and would make her rise to the occasion, to swim and not sink. Adler's toughness was legendary. Mulgrew related the story of a smug young acting student who refused to react on stage to any of the directions Adler would give to him. She asked the flippant young man to hold out his palm, and with a lit cigarette, held the lit end against his palm. He defiantly refused to react even to the pain of that burn, and found himself expelled the next day.
Mulgrew learned Adler utilized toughness to break through barriers for young actors who had not yet "lived into" the parts which they attempted to play. One day in class, Kate, by her own admission, gave a dreadful portrayal of a woman who was supposed to be suffering and dying for a man's love. Adler came over to her, grabbed her by the hair, and pulled her across the stage by her hair. Mulgrew learned quickly the embodied sense of her character's desperation in love.
Another Adler lesson came when Mulgrew attempted to express longing while looking out an imaginary window at a lover, leaving. Again, Adler was unimpressed with Mulgrew's attempt. Knowing she had more inside of her, Adler pulled Mulgrew into the deeper pathos of this particular scene. She told Kate that what she was seeing out that window was not simply a man leaving, but that this was her precious lover, whom she loved with all her heart and soul; it was snowing outside the window, and freezing, and that lover had forgotten his coat. Mulgrew got the point. Such was the emotive impact of Adler upon her students.
Mulgrew reported that Adler had a command of her art which was founded upon passionate study of a playwright's body of work as well as the emotions and life situations which individual characters encompassed. The actor must be a student of the human emotions as well as an intellectual. Adler believed that the actors' art was a profound gift to the human condition, and should not be offered sloppily, without a connection to human suffering, or without passion. She immersed her students in the classic dramatic foundations of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Ibsen.
Later in her career, when Mulgrew tackled Ibsen's enormously demanding character, Hedda Gabbler, live on stage, she looked out into the audience to see Stella Adler sitting there. Adler had lived this part so thoroughly that she mouthed each line along with Mulgrew's performance. Upon the play's completion Mulgrew mustered her courage to come from behind stage to meet her mentor (Stella Adler did NOT go backstage, actors CAME to her!) With a fair amount of trepidation, Kate approached Adler, who kissed her upon both cheeks, saying only, "Now you understand." This counted as one of the great compliments of Mulgrew's career.
It was a particular treat to hear Kate Mulgrew speak of her craft as an actor and artist, especially for the many of us who have come to know Kate's work through her continuing portrayal of Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek "Voyager". In this venue those present were treated to watching Adler's method and philosophy of acting not only described, but thoroughly demonstrated in all that Mulgrew did on stage. One watched with a certain amount of awe as Mulgrew virtually embodied Adler's teaching.
The school had prepared the small, acting class stage for Mulgrew's presentation with a podium, a small round table, and a stool upon which she could sit. The student stage was also littered with the bad props and a lumpy bed the likes of which have appeared in countless community theatre productions. A consummate professional, the entire stage was Mulgrew's realm. She systematically refused to sit in the chair provided for her, but rather first claimed one corner, and the next, and then center stage by perching gracefully on the bed: in doing so, she commanded the entire height and breadth of the stage. From kneeling to make a point, standing center stage to stretch the audience's eye to its height, and languishing diagonally on the bed to stretching the audience's eye from side to side, Mulgrew illustrated how one actor could fill an entire stage space. She humorously demonstrated two kinds of stage entrances: one in which the actor simply entered the stage from the wings facing forward, and the second, in which the actor backed onto the stage as if embroiled in a conversation. The latter was infinitely more dramatic and compelling. Unlike most stage performances, the audience lights were on, and Mulgrew was able to see audience members. This author found it both tremendously engaging and yet unnerving when Mulgrew expertly made eye contact and held it with one audience member, then another, riveting you to her every word and every eye movement. And of course, there was the voice: that distinctive Mulgrew trademark with its demonstrably perfect diction, capable of an enormous range of character and emotion, the coup de grace which Mulgrew delivers with devastating precision to captivate her audience.
The generous question and answer period Mulgrew granted allowed for the telling of some of the more wonderful stories of the afternoon session. How did she get to study with Stella Adler? She bamboozled her serious father into allowing her to attend New York University as a philosophy major, all the while knowing that she would spend the lion's share of her time pursuing acting at the adjoining Adler School. What does she think of actors today? She was scathingly critical of the sloppy presentation and "mumbling" of many of today's actors: her imitations of these slouching thespians were among the comic highlights of the afternoon. Should a young actor pay to take auditions and get noticed? Absolutely not!
Does she have other talents? No, she doesn’t play a musical instrument, nor is she an artist, as is her mother. She reads "voraciously," loves to cook, and spend time with her two boys and husband Tim, in-between eighteen hour days on the set of Voyager. Does she find it difficult to memorize the long scripts involved in television serials like "Ryan's Hope" and "Voyager"? No, she rather sheepishly admitted that she has a photographic memory. Does she enjoy doing talk shows? She wished more could be like the Tom Snyder show (now off the air), where she could talk of "interesting things, such as Jesus and abortion." Advice to actors: study, read, learn to suffer for your art, it should be the thing for which all is sacrificed.
How did she break into the business? "Lie, cheat, murder and steal". She told the delightful story of securing her first agent by this unorthodox method. Reading the trade papers, she picked out the top five "boutique" agents, and concocted a padded resume, laughingly remembering adding a bogus starring role in "Cleopatra. " She researched the agents' backgrounds, and found that the one she was most keenly interested in had a home in the Hamptons. Arriving promptly at 10 a.m. one morning in his office, she presented her resume, announced that she was Kate Mulgrew, and that she had an appointment with Mr. So and So at 10 o'clock. His assistant searched the book and said, "No, I'm sorry, I don't see your name here." Without missing a beat, she said, "Oh, I was with him at a party at his home in the Hamptons and he said to come by at 10, he is expecting me." The assistant disappeared behind closed doors and soon came out, saying, " Miss Mulgrew, you may come in." After entering the agent's office and being invited to sit down, he said to her: "That is the last time you will lie to me. " He then invited her to come back and take a series of auditions. Shortly after that she received a phone call from him preparing her to be very busy: she would work days on the new soap "Ryan's Hope" which had cast her as the lead character Mary Ryan, and her evenings would be spent on stage as Emily in "Our Town". Kate Mulgrew was all of nineteen.
How did she get the role of Kathryn Janeway in "Voyager"? Away in Dingle, Ireland, with her two sons following the dissolution of her marriage, she received a call from her agent informing her that the producers of Star Trek were seeking to cast the first woman captain on the series: "if I were you," he said, " I would be on the first plane back to the states." Mulgrew responded curtly, " You are not me", and remained on the Emerald Isle. She had barely placed her feet back upon American soil when her agent was on the phone again.
"They want you to come and take this audition for the captain of "Voyager."
It was pouring rain, and Mulgrew threw on a rain coat, grabbed a taxi and went uptown to the audition. There, by her account, she gave a very bad audition, which she ended by saying, " I must humbly apologize for this horrific performance, I've just met the man of my dreams and I'm on my way to meet him for coffee." She took the script in her hand and walked out in the rain to meet Tim Hagan. Tim greeted the soaked Mulgrew at the door and glanced at the wet script she had tossed down. He picked it up, interested in the fact that Star Trek was seeking a woman Captain, and said to her, "You're going to have this job".
A number of days passed, and hearing nothing, Mulgrew decided that she was out of running. Finally, the announcement was made that Genevieve Bujold had been cast in the part, and Mulgrew let it go out of her mind. After a marvelously gracious description praising Bujold’s skills as an actress, she delivered a hilarious tongue-in-cheek representation of Bujold greeting the "Voyager" crew on the bridge, delivering a delicate, French accented, "Engaaage", as a means of illustrating that the Captain's command chair wasn't meant to be filled by Bujold.
Soon after Bujold turned the part down, Mulgrew's phone rang calling her to an emergency competitive audition for four women actors--the producers at the same time opening a search for yet another male captain. These intense auditions pitted the women against each other, and Kate recalled hearing the actor before her captivating the producers with laughter in an extended period of time. Kate followed with a quick fifteen minute hearing, and a curt, "Thank you, Ms. Mulgrew." Again, she felt as if the part was not hers.
Arriving home in LA, her longtime housekeeper met her at the door and practically dragged Kate to her answering machine (a device she says she usually ignores). From the tape came the producer's voice, "Welcome aboard, Captain!" Kate fell to her knees for the audience, explaining that was yet another instance in her career which brought forth a profound, on her knees, "Thank you!"
Other questions included: What of her Janeway as a role model for young women? An 18 year old in the audience shared how much the character of Kathryn Janeway encourages and inspires her as she negotiates young adulthood as a woman. Responding with great tenderness and encouragement to this young woman, Mulgrew spoke of the humbling experience of being invited as a keynote speaker to a room filled with women scientists to hear stories of how other young women had chosen careers in science and astrophysics due to the inspiration of watching a strong woman at the helm of a starship. A woman professor of religion who was in the audience mentioned that women in academia have also found Mulgrew's portrayal of Janeway to be a role model for the kinds of morality, strength, and confidence they seek to model in their teaching. Mulgrew seemed genuinely moved by these exchanges.
Life after "Voyager"? To move to New York City, return to the theatre, her first love, and to "have the wisdom to age gracefully". Mulgrew will be starring as Emma in Pinter's "Betrayal" at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco immediately following "Voyager".
Roman Catholic background? Oh, yes…
Any hints about the 7th and last season of "Voyager"? Mulgrew hinted broadly that she would like the character of Janeway to end with the show, stopping short of revealing whether Janeway would die. She did express a fondness for the last scene to dramatically focus and fade out upon Janeway's face. An Adlerian vision, if 'ere there were one.
Gracious in answering questions, scathingly professional, witty, and compassionate, she bid the audience goodbye and disappeared, leaving the room filled with the undeniably regal presence of Kate Mulgrew. Stella Adler would have been proud, and Kate left us all saying to ourselves, "Now we understand."
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