Jewel Walker: Body Talk

Article excerpt

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. …