​Remarks by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., at the opening of the new building for The Theatre School

September 12, 2013

 

Good afternoon.  As we dedicate this splendid new home for The Theatre School, permit me to share someone else’s appreciation for the work that is done here, with the hope and trust that it will be said of our alumni for many years to come. 
 
The acclaimed Harlem Renaissance writer, James Baldwin, in the February 1962 edition of Show, wrote of visiting the set of “Sweet Bird of Youth” - from its first rehearsal to opening night - and being mystified by a young actress named Geraldine Page.   He wrote:
 
I watched Kazan, who presumably knew what he was going to do with this improbable and disparate collection of actors.  I was especially afraid of Gerry because, to tell the truth, I was afraid for her.  I simply could not imagine her as the aging, desperately predatory, and somehow majestic ex-movie queen that Tennessee Williams had created.  How was this open-faced, quiet Midwestern-type girl going to make herself believe in this creation?  Or make us believe it?  My sense of doom was strengthened when I overheard someone whisper one day, “She’s much too young for the part.”  I thought so too – and insufficiently elegant.
 
As we all now know, I could not possibly have been more wrong.  But now I find it nearly impossible to re-create my view of the steps which led to this transformation.  The most crucial steps, of course, did not take place in my view at all, and I suppose that all I really saw were the results of a process which had begun long before rehearsals started. 
 
“Oh,” she said to me one afternoon, “so-and-so is such a worry bird.”  So-and-so had vanished [to study his part], as did nearly all the actors when they were not needed….  Her book was closed, in her lap.  Perhaps I ought to study,” she said, with a smile…, “but…” and her voice tinkled helplessly into silence.  I felt that she had put me down as another worry bird.
 
The first hint I caught of [what Gerry would do with the part] was when [she], preparing, rather wearily, to listen to her beach-boy lover’s discourse, (played by Paul Newman), sits down at her wardrobe trunk, picks up her mirror, looks into it, and puts it down again.  It was electrifying.  It was terribly funny.  It was terribly sad.  And I also remember her achievement of that moment when the boy finishes his monologue and turns to her, saying, “Princess, will you help me?”  And she holds out her arms, incurably predatory even as she is incurably lonely, but, also, at that moment, very beautiful and moving, because for that moment, if only in her own mind, she is both wife and mother and has again a human value for someone in the world.
 
Acting is (for me, anyway) one of the most mysterious of all the arts – mysterious because the instrument, the actor himself, without changing at all, undergoes such inexplicable transformations before one’s eyes.  Seeing Gerry, I saw a girl who was enormously sympathetique, not strikingly pretty, with a rather light, agreeable voice.  That’s all I saw.  How in the world, then, did this girl manage to turn herself into a ruined and desperate harridan, with a voice that made one jump and with a face into which had somehow been burned the defeats, indignities, and agonies of a long and intolerable lifetime? 
 
I know that, technically and theatrically speaking, there are a great many answers to this question, although I also know that no one has ever really answered it.  My point, anyway, is that all I saw of Gerry is all that most of us, wandering in our grisly isolation through this world, ever see of any other person.  Whoever forces this terrible truth once more on our attention has also helped us to bear it and to that extent, at least, has lessened it.  It is a small light brought into a vast darkness – but a small light, considering, especially, what everyone is searching for, may be quite enough.  As for the light which Gerry holds, may it burn long. [1]
 
Geraldine Page, of course, studied at this school.  When I came to DePaul some years ago, I asked various artistic directors around town what people say of actors trained here.  I was told that DePaul graduates have a reputation for showing up prepared, for having done the work before setting foot into the theatre.  And so I was struck when James Baldwin made the same observation, so many years earlier, of Gerry Page. 
 
This is a theatre school with a proud history.  We celebrate a new building, but not a new work.  Not new values or revised pedagogical beliefs about the training for the craft and art that is the theatre.   From its earliest days as a training arm of the Goodman to its present contributions to stage and screen, this Theatre School has had a certain fierceness of pride for proper technique, for preparation and professionalism, but also for taking the contribution of all of the theatrical arts most seriously, whether the writing itself, the costuming, the stage managing, the lighting, the scenery, sound, directing or dramaturgy.  It is the collective that produces the inner transformation when it comes to theatre. 
 
And make no mistake, it is our transformation that is sought.  The world does a great deal of its thinking and self-reflection on stage and on screen.  Noble work is done here, worthy of a great university, worthy of learning and teaching well, and worthy of new walls and open spaces that house the fierce ideals going back to the very founding.
 
May our good God bless this building, and may all those who pass through its doors become, in turn, a blessing back to the world. 
 

[1] Baldwin, James. (2010). Excerpts from “Geraldine Page: Bird of Light.”  The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited and with an introduction by Randall Kenan.  Pantheon Books, NY: 35-38.