Akalaitis Stresses Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education for Artists

JoAnne Akalaitis also received her B.A. in philosophy at the University of Chicago. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PUBLIC THEATRE)

JoAnne Akalaitis also received her B.A. in philosophy at the University of Chicago. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PUBLIC THEATRE)


JoAnne Akalaitis also received her B.A. in philosophy at the University of Chicago. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PUBLIC THEATRE)
JoAnne Akalaitis also received her B.A. in philosophy at the University of Chicago. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PUBLIC THEATRE)

JoAnne Akalaitis sat at the front of the White Box Theatre judiciously, equipped with her tools consisting of a pen, a notebook, and a heavily sticky-noted copy of Euripides’ “Iphigenia at Aulis.” Unarguably an expert at her work in the theatre, Akalaitis has directed at renowned theaters all across the continental United States., tackled the classics of Euripides and Shakespeare as well as works by modernists Genet and Pinter, and, in 1970, co-founded the Mabou Mines theatre company, an avant-garde group whose work has been received with both much acclaim and criticism. Regally dressed in dark gray and black, the only color on her person came from the multicolored flowers on her black scarf, red lipstick, and smoldering fire-red hair. The energies of two young women filled the air of the studio as they rehearsed the final scene between the Messenger and Clytemnestra in Euripides’ epic Greek Tragedy, in which the Messenger recounts her observation of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Clytemnestra’s oldest daughter. Akalaitis watched with a questioning, critical, aiding gaze through the lenses of her black-rimmed glasses.

“My mind’s spinning,” Akalaitis said, as the actors finished the scene. As she delivered her notes to the actors on how to modify their performances, she herself gestured–, her arms spread wide to describe the massive Greek armies with thousands of ships. Akalaitis spoke the poetic, highly classical dialogue of Euripides to the actors, using a modern English slang, to help the actors find the natural emotion behind the lines. “I’m a wreck! Gee whiz!” she described one of the characters as saying, even though this vocabulary is nowhere to be found in the original script. The actors then switched roles, with Clytemnestra now delivering the Messenger’s monologue, and vice versa. They repeated the scene, again. Akalaitis’ notes helped–: a tangible shift occurred in the energy of the scene, and it indeed felt more naturally spoken. It improved. After the Messenger finished her monologue, there was an expectant pause as Akalaitis contemplated. Finally she said, “You guys made a dent… It was a good dent,” in the monolithic wall of Euripides.

Akalaitis accepted the guest position of the Denzel Washington Chair in Theatre for this semester after being the “happy recipient” of an email from theatre program director Matthew Maguire. For this position, endowed by Oscar award-winning actor Denzel Washington, FCLC ‘77, Akalaitis is teaching the class “Creating a Character” to upperclassmen in the Theatre program. “JoAnne Akalaitis’ career embodies the goals, ‘Work smart, Work hard, Work different,’ of the Fordham Theatre Program,” Carla Jackson, the theatre program administrator, said. “It takes a very special person to be able to maintain such an eclectic, innovative, and forward-thinking career.”

Always interested in theatre, JoAnne Akalaitis’ directorial work has been some of the most critically-acclaimed and controversial work in the world of contemporary theatre. HoweverBut, Akalaitis hasn’t always been as fully immersed in the world of theatre as she is now. As a college student, she earned a B.A. in Philosophy from University of Chicago and continued to study Philosophy at the graduate level, all the while being involved in theatre on the side, when one day she finally decided to follow her heart. “I was in graduate school, pursuing a PhD in Philosophy when I felt ‘Oh, I better do it’,” Akalaitis noted. From then on, she began to pursue work in theatre full-time.

There’s nothing like a liberal arts education for artists…Because, not only all of our daily life experiences, but certainly our education feeds either directly thematically into the work itself…or pursuing subjects that maybe one wouldn’t in theatre.”-JoAnne Akalaitis, FCLC’s Denzel Washington Chair Holder

Her studies of Philosophy and decision to earn a Liberal Arts degree have ultimately proved to be beneficial to her work in the Performing Arts. “There’s nothing like a Liberal Arts education for artists,” Akalaitis said. “Not only theatre artists, but for all artists. Because, not only all of our daily life experiences, but certainly our education feeds either directly thematically into the work itself, but sometimes in a deeper way, and often in a way of processing information, or pursuing subjects that maybe one wouldn’t in theatre.”

As one might deduce from reading a history of the work she has directed, Akalaitis is very much attracted to reading and working with the texts of Shakespeare, Euripides, Genet, Pinter, and generally “great writing for the theatre.” She finds the most affective writing in existence to be purely poetry: “a combination of poetry and humanism written for characters in a storytelling motif… is what affects us so much.”

Akalaitis finds that her work as a director is not that different from her work as a teacher. “In some ways it’s so similar: we’re working on a project together. In one case, the project is destined for an audience. In another, the project is destined for us, in the studio. Classroom. But the process is not that different… the process is basically exploration of moments, character, space, rhythm, storytelling.” She always experiences her work through collaboration with the artists she is working with, whether they are students she leads in a class or actors she directs in a production. Learning and sharing is a significant part of her process: “We all have secret wisdom that we impart to one another… there’s a constant exchange.”

Akalaitis’ perspective in stage direction is a distinctly unique one, which has caused many to regard her work as attractive and intriguing. Jennifer Tipton, renowned lighting designer and longtime collaborator of Ms. Akalaitis, finds that “she’s always looking for a new way of seeing the material… It always makes me see it in a fresh way.” Consistent with her process for creating work for the theatre, Akalaitis and her collaborators experience a constant exchange of ideas, and Tipton has experienced firsthand secret wisdom imparted on-to her from Akalaitis.

In the White Box, Clytemnestra and the Messenger received notes on their last iteration of the scene. Akalaitis wanted to see it repeated one final time. She reminded the actors of the reality of the story: “The great thing about Euripides is that it’s real. It’s like real husbands and real wives, except human sacrifice is involved.” The actors returned to their spots at the beginning of the scene, but before they began to go through Euripides’ dialogue again, Akalaitis told them to pause, to offer a suggestion–: “What do you want to work on? Why don’t you try that?” She listened to their reply. There is a constant exchange between Akalaitis and the students. Secret wisdom is imparted, shared between these powerful artists. There is collaboration. They explore, together.