The Mumblers Needed Their Consonants Pricked

June 20, 2020

 

 

My mom died the morning of June 5th, at the ripe, full age of 84. The day previous she’d spent a long, leisurely, laugh-filled FaceTime with her granddaughters, a regular quarantine ritual, and this past January we had all made the trek from L.A. to Orkney to ring in the New Year with her, and we had a fair party full of dance, songs, and toasts before the world shut down.

 

If anyone asks me about myself, I’ll typically answer with my mother’s story; she’s my best context. So if we were sitting at the West Bank Cafe right now with our martinis, waiting for the calamari, here’s the spiel you’d get:

 

I’m an only child of a single mother.

 

 My mom came to New York in 1963 to be part of Kennedy’s America—the Civil Rights part, not the man on the moon part.

Within a week of arriving in the U.S. Kennedy was dead.

And Mom had no job. Apparently her only real plan in coming to America was get nearer to Jack. But then the phone rang—this all happened in the first week, no apochrypha, she was called to interview at a new theatre that needed a voice teacher, she met the bosses in a cigar smoke-choked office. “I’m Gadge, this is Houseman, our new rep company the Lincoln Center opens in a few weeks and we’ve got this kid Robards who can’t be heard past the orchestra.”

 

She was in the right place at the right time.

 

Here was a nation of actors trained in the Method to mumble, and masses of money from Ford’s, etc., flooding America’s regional theatre barns. The mumblers needed their consonants pricked, their vowels individuated, and their volumes turned way way up.

 

They had the naturalism, but they needed it freed.

She went on to work at, help establish, and/or co-found, the Guthrie, Stratford, the Negro Ensemble Company, the Open Theater, the Working Theater, the Manhattan Project. She worked with Dr. Feelgood on the original production of Hair, she was a lover of Donald Sutherland and purported intimate of Peter Brook, she was a voluntary human shield for the Black Panthers, she was a professor at NYU, and Emerson, and Columbia.

 

In 1978, she wrote down what she was doing, Freeing the Natural Voice, a book which with its partner, Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice would sell 120,000 copies and become the industry standard for training elite Shakespearean motherfuckers. She quit NYU to co-found Shakespeare & Company with Tina Packer. I was 2. She burnt her tenured paycheck to raise her son in the country, in a commune of actors, cohabitating in a no- electricity-or-hot-water haunted mansion built by Edith Wharton called the Mount, where every summer her kid sat on the lawn and dozed off with the rest of the second homers watching Shakespeare.

 

Or she’d put the kid in the show if they needed a changeling child, and to save on babysitting money. Mom played Margaret, the Nurse, and Lady M with Delroy Lindo. She made her Broadway debut at 47 filling in for Cecily Tyson in The Corn Is Green. She had three granddaughters and figured out you can’t raise a grandkid like a grad student—you cannot mold them, the best you can hope is to surf them, and be delighted by them.

 

And she was my only mother, my wonderful person, the priest in my temple, the gossip on my Rialto, my historical contextualizer when the world went mad. “Well, in the Blitz we…” “Well, in ’68 we…” “Well, Olivier got terrible reviews for Romeo, too… ”

Her work’s been translated into nine languages, her teachers warm-up has reached the Globe’s four corners. She’s rolled down her spine in Soviet Russia, in Communist China, she loosened her jaw from Taiwan to the Yucatan. And she didn’t do it to be famous, or to get likes—listen up, Granddaughter No. 1—she did it for a higher purpose.

 

This is from her essay, The Incredible Shrinking Shakespearean, published in American Theatre (for whom she once was a cover girl) in 1990. I pull the article out right at the table, it’s in my back pocket:

Within the elements of Shakespeare’s language is encoded Shakespeare’s creative force. When that language is incarnated—when the words become flesh and breath and feeling—today’s actors are reborn to embody the archetypal stories told by the greatest poet-dramatist ever.

Through the incarnation of language, today’s theatre could rediscover the whole purpose of theatre, which is to bring healing and new life to the community it serves. The breath of life within the words, the word animating emotions in the body, the body and voice deepening and expanding the humanity of the actor, the actors revitalizing the theatre, the theatre nurturing the soul of its community, the community a microcosm of our global village, where, breathing deeply the air common to all humanity, we may one day before it is too late—find and share words and stories that can save our universal souls.

 

And then she retired to where her people are from, Orkney, these little islands off the northern coast of Scotland, washed and blown in the bitter spray of the North Sea.

 

And as you signal for the check, you might at this point say, “Phew, well, she deserved a rest after all that.” To which I would take a sip, and resume: Rest? Oh no, Then she built a studio, and a residence, and an amphitheatre, and dug a loch in her back yard, started the Kristin Linklater Voice Centre, where she teaches 22 weeks out of the year, and the world flies to her now, the rest of the year it’s still conferences, forums, still trying to work it all out, right the world, or the theatre, at the very least. And on it went, till last Friday.

 

(Here I pause for a sob. And then resume.) Oh, but I forgot The Company of Women with Carol Gilligan, and when she played Lear! Let’s have another…

 

Mom, I love you, and the life you made for me.

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