Shepard brings fresh excitement to theater

For visiting theater professor Tina Shepard, asking questions about acting is a way of life. Shepard has sought answers by teaching acting, voice, and movement at Princeton, Smith, and on and off at Williams, where she has taught and directed on a visiting basis since 1987. This semester, Shepard is teaching both Theatre 204: Interpretation and Performance II and Theatre 401: Senior Seminar in Theater.

To listen to Shepard is to be enchanted by a master storyteller. Shepard’s powerful voice, at times full of uncertainty, terror, or laughter, is an actor’s voice, using its full range to assist her body in expression. Her thirst for that which is theatrical, be it on the stage or off, combines with her youthfulness and energy to betray her years (she is now in her sixtieth).

In a class with Tina Shepard, students don’t receive a syllabus on the first day. The direction of the course constantly shifts as she becomes acquainted with her students’ strengths and needs. She describes the purpose of Theater 204, her acting class, as training for an actor to be in a show she would direct. This includes extensive work in breath, voice, movement and partner relationships. The senior seminar class this year includes five senior theater majors, who Shepard will mentor as they write, design and direct a play for production at the end of the semester.

Shepard was born in 1941 in Louisville, Kentucky but grew up in North Wales, Pennsylvania. In eighth grade, Shepard discovered her love for acting in a drama class. She performed the title role in Sophocles’ Antigone, and says about the play “it seemed in performance that everything made sense.” It was in this moment of clarity that she knew her future was on the stage.

Shepard attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, majoring in acting. After graduating, Shepard became a light designer at a small theater on St. Mark’s Place in New York City, then went on to study at a school started by a group of Israeli mimes. The mime school provided excellent physical training. Shepard began to tour with this group, which called itself the “Pantomine Theater of New York.” However, as the tour neared its end, Shepard’s aesthetic sense began to diverge from that of the group, and they soon parted.

Meanwhile, Shepard married Paul Zimet, a Columbia student who had acted with Shepard in Sarah Lawrence/Columbia collaborations. After graduating, Zimet began attending workshops with the Open Theater, under the direction of Joseph Chaikin.

When Shepard returned to New York City she began sitting in on and then working directly with Open Theater workshops. In October 1967, Chaikin assembled a group from his workshop (including Zimet) to begin a project which would eventually become the Obie-award (one of Off-Broadway’s highest honors) winning experimental production, The Serpent. After observing Shepard in a workshop, Chaikin asked her to join the group.

This began Shepard’s six-year collaboration with the Open Theater (and more than twenty years of collaboration with Chaikin). By the time of The Serpent, the group included eighteen actors, and Shepard recalls that she was thrilled to be chosen play the pivotal role of Eve.

After the Open Theater’s second production, Terminal, Chaikin cut down the size of the group to six actors, including Shepard and Zimet. They went on to produce two more shows, Mutation Show and Nightwalk, before disbanding in 1973.

After the dissolution of the Open Theater, Shepard, Zimet, and Ellen Maddow (another Open Theater member and soon Zimet’s new wife when he and Shepard divorced) began to hold regular workshops. These workshops, called the Talking Band, continued studies of the intersections of language, music and body which had been part of the Open Theater’s work.

Together with the Talking Band, Shepard has collaborated on and acted in numerous productions since the mid-seventies. In 1988 she was awarded an Obie for her performance The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol and in 2000, she conceived and directed Bad Women, based on women of Greek tragedy.

In 1987, the Talking Band undertook a three-day workshop with New York experimental theater director Ann Bogart and became quickly convinced of the effectiveness of Bogart’s methods. Shepard noted that Bogart was trying to answer the same questions about acting that the Open Theater had explored, but Bogart’s methods were entirely different. Shepard said that the simplest metaphor for this difference was that Open Theater actors always worked in a circle, whereas Bogart put her actors in a grid configuration. Bogart used “the Viewpoints” (a method originally developed by choreographer Mary Overlie) to reinvigorate her actors with awareness of their bodies in space and time.

Shepard said “it confounded me in a wonderful way.” In the spring of 1988, the Talking Band collaborated with Bogart to create the Obie-winning No Plays, No Poetry.

Tina Shepard’s connection with Williams College began with Arden Fingerhut, the light designer for the final two Open Theater productions and several Talking Band shows. Fingerhut, who became chair of the Williams theatre department in 1986, invited the Talking Band to lead a workshop in Winter Study of 1987. In the fall of 1987, both Zimet and Shepard returned to teach at acting classes at Williams.

That semester, when the guest director of a production of Tartuffe became sick, Fingerhut approached Shepard about directing the show. Shepard, who had never before directed, recalls responding, “That’s the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard of – I’ll do it!”

As she prepared to cast Tartuffe, Shepard asked Bogart how one goes about casting a show, to which Bogart replied “choose people whom you can love.” Shepard took this instruction to heart, and with the group she assembled undertook a “wonderfully engaged investigation.” Shepard adds “I think it was a dreadful production.” But despite her claims, Fingerhut asked Shepard to return the next year to direct an original collective work.

In the fall of ‘88 Shepard returned to direct What Matters? The show, staged in the AMT shop, was developed from student answers to the question “what matters?” While answering this question, the actors engaged in a game that they invented called Velcro-Ball, in which actors wore wool sweaters and caught Velcro-covered balls with their bodies.

Teaching acting classes and simultaneously directing what she and the theater department refer to as “Tina shows” has since then become a tradition for Shepard and the department. Shepard said that working with student actors who have been in her classes and experienced her training methods is invaluable to her working process in directing collective creations. She mentioned that, while directing in New York City, “the stakes are too high,” but at Williams she is “able to play to make a play.” She adds, “I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of approach that student actors engage in and suspect the work that us ‘actor’ actors engage in.”

Since What Matters?, Shepard has overseen seven shows, often created by her students in classes such as the advanced acting class. The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendina and Her Heartless Grandmother (1989) was based on the novella of the same name by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What Is Theater, What’s My Life? (1991) incorporated student answers to these questions into a production which had guides leading the audience through many locations around the theater. Shepard calls the production “an extraordinary chaos.”

In 1992, when she was asked to direct a Beckett production, she said “okay, but it won’t be a play of his.” The result, The Beckett Project, was created from the resonance that the actors found in Beckett’s prose with their own lives.

In what you love about it (1994) the actors played their favorite characters from dramatic literature. In this production, as in many of hers, Shepard notes that “the gift that chance gives you was the reigning aesthetic. . .it was so hard and the work was beautiful.”

The spring of ‘95 saw the creation of Family Values out of the most exciting scenes of Greek tragedies. This show was staged in the Chandler courtyard and was created using the current Republican rhetoric about “family values.” With what (1995) Shepard worked with a group of mostly first-year students who had not yet gone through her training but were still able to make wonderful choices and pull from extremely personal sources.

In the fall of ’97 Shepard directed A Streetcar Named Desire on the Mainstage, her first production from an extant script since Tartuffe ten years earlier. She explains that she attacked the play in much the same way that she came at Tartuffe: diagonally. “I can’t take a play and look at it head on.” About the product, Shepard says “we did some great stuff and it wasn’t a great success.”

Since the late ’80s, Shepard has noticed a significant change in campus interest in theater. She finds that there were greater numbers of “displaced” students ten years ago who came to the theater searching for relief.

This year, for example, only one student registered for the advanced acting class with which Shepard used to direct productions. In general, she finds that people are losing interest in theater as an art form and are looking to theater for simpler entertainment. Shepard hopes that the creation of the new performing arts center will bring about renewed interest in the theater as a space and as a possible life.

A number of Williams theater majors have cited classes with Shepard as their favorite theatrical-academic experience of their time at Williams. This is high praise for a professor who teaches at Williams for one semester per year at most. Meredith Fruchtman ’02, who is currently in her second class with Shepard, says “she lets you have your own ideas, and develop at your own rate, and in these mad, seemingly circuitous ways, teaches you exactly what you want to learn without your ever realizing it.”

Teachers and directors like this are what Williams actors and theater students need to grow, and one can only hope that student interest in theater can again grow to meet Tina Shepard’s unflagging excitement.

Eric Powers Staff Writer

For visiting theater professor Tina Shepard, asking questions about acting is a way of life. Shepard has sought answers by teaching acting, voice, and movement at Princeton, Smith, and on and off at Williams, where she has taught and directed on a visiting basis since 1987. This semester, Shepard is teaching both Theatre 204: Interpretation and Performance II and Theatre 401: Senior Seminar in Theater.

To listen to Shepard is to be enchanted by a master storyteller. Shepard’s powerful voice, at times full of uncertainty, terror, or laughter, is an actor’s voice, using its full range to assist her body in expression. Her thirst for that which is theatrical, be it on the stage or off, combines with her youthfulness and energy to betray her years (she is now in her sixtieth).

In a class with Tina Shepard, students don’t receive a syllabus on the first day. The direction of the course constantly shifts as she becomes acquainted with her students’ strengths and needs. She describes the purpose of Theater 204, her acting class, as training for an actor to be in a show she would direct. This includes extensive work in breath, voice, movement and partner relationships. The senior seminar class this year includes five senior theater majors, who Shepard will mentor as they write, design and direct a play for production at the end of the semester.

Shepard was born in 1941 in Louisville, Kentucky but grew up in North Wales, Pennsylvania. In eighth grade, Shepard discovered her love for acting in a drama class. She performed the title role in Sophocles’ Antigone, and says about the play “it seemed in performance that everything made sense.” It was in this moment of clarity that she knew her future was on the stage.

Shepard attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, majoring in acting. After graduating, Shepard became a light designer at a small theater on St. Mark’s Place in New York City, then went on to study at a school started by a group of Israeli mimes. The mime school provided excellent physical training. Shepard began to tour with this group, which called itself the “Pantomine Theater of New York.” However, as the tour neared its end, Shepard’s aesthetic sense began to diverge from that of the group, and they soon parted.

Meanwhile, Shepard married Paul Zimet, a Columbia student who had acted with Shepard in Sarah Lawrence/Columbia collaborations. After graduating, Zimet began attending workshops with the Open Theater, under the direction of Joseph Chaikin.

When Shepard returned to New York City she began sitting in on and then working directly with Open Theater workshops. In October 1967, Chaikin assembled a group from his workshop (including Zimet) to begin a project which would eventually become the Obie-award (one of Off-Broadway’s highest honors) winning experimental production, The Serpent. After observing Shepard in a workshop, Chaikin asked her to join the group.

This began Shepard’s six-year collaboration with the Open Theater (and more than twenty years of collaboration with Chaikin). By the time of The Serpent, the group included eighteen actors, and Shepard recalls that she was thrilled to be chosen play the pivotal role of Eve.

After the Open Theater’s second production, Terminal, Chaikin cut down the size of the group to six actors, including Shepard and Zimet. They went on to produce two more shows, Mutation Show and Nightwalk, before disbanding in 1973.

After the dissolution of the Open Theater, Shepard, Zimet, and Ellen Maddow (another Open Theater member and soon Zimet’s new wife when he and Shepard divorced) began to hold regular workshops. These workshops, called the Talking Band, continued studies of the intersections of language, music and body which had been part of the Open Theater’s work.

Together with the Talking Band, Shepard has collaborated on and acted in numerous productions since the mid-seventies. In 1988 she was awarded an Obie for her performance The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol and in 2000, she conceived and directed Bad Women, based on women of Greek tragedy.

In 1987, the Talking Band undertook a three-day workshop with New York experimental theater director Ann Bogart and became quickly convinced of the effectiveness of Bogart’s methods. Shepard noted that Bogart was trying to answer the same questions about acting that the Open Theater had explored, but Bogart’s methods were entirely different. Shepard said that the simplest metaphor for this difference was that Open Theater actors always worked in a circle, whereas Bogart put her actors in a grid configuration. Bogart used “the Viewpoints” (a method originally developed by choreographer Mary Overlie) to reinvigorate her actors with awareness of their bodies in space and time.

Shepard said “it confounded me in a wonderful way.” In the spring of 1988, the Talking Band collaborated with Bogart to create the Obie-winning No Plays, No Poetry.

Tina Shepard’s connection with Williams College began with Arden Fingerhut, the light designer for the final two Open Theater productions and several Talking Band shows. Fingerhut, who became chair of the Williams theatre department in 1986, invited the Talking Band to lead a workshop in Winter Study of 1987. In the fall of 1987, both Zimet and Shepard returned to teach at acting classes at Williams.

That semester, when the guest director of a production of Tartuffe became sick, Fingerhut approached Shepard about directing the show. Shepard, who had never before directed, recalls responding, “That’s the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard of – I’ll do it!”

As she prepared to cast Tartuffe, Shepard asked Bogart how one goes about casting a show, to which Bogart replied “choose people whom you can love.” Shepard took this instruction to heart, and with the group she assembled undertook a “wonderfully engaged investigation.” Shepard adds “I think it was a dreadful production.” But despite her claims, Fingerhut asked Shepard to return the next year to direct an original collective work.

In the fall of ‘88 Shepard returned to direct What Matters? The show, staged in the AMT shop, was developed from student answers to the question “what matters?” While answering this question, the actors engaged in a game that they invented called Velcro-Ball, in which actors wore wool sweaters and caught Velcro-covered balls with their bodies.

Teaching acting classes and simultaneously directing what she and the theater department refer to as “Tina shows” has since then become a tradition for Shepard and the department. Shepard said that working with student actors who have been in her classes and experienced her training methods is invaluable to her working process in directing collective creations. She mentioned that, while directing in New York City, “the stakes are too high,” but at Williams she is “able to play to make a play.” She adds, “I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of approach that student actors engage in and suspect the work that us ‘actor’ actors engage in.”

Since What Matters?, Shepard has overseen seven shows, often created by her students in classes such as the advanced acting class. The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendina and Her Heartless Grandmother (1989) was based on the novella of the same name by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What Is Theater, What’s My Life? (1991) incorporated student answers to these questions into a production which had guides leading the audience through many locations around the theater. Shepard calls the production “an extraordinary chaos.”

In 1992, when she was asked to direct a Beckett production, she said “okay, but it won’t be a play of his.” The result, The Beckett Project, was created from the resonance that the actors found in Beckett’s prose with their own lives.

In what you love about it (1994) the actors played their favorite characters from dramatic literature. In this production, as in many of hers, Shepard notes that “the gift that chance gives you was the reigning aesthetic. . .it was so hard and the work was beautiful.”

The spring of ‘95 saw the creation of Family Values out of the most exciting scenes of Greek tragedies. This show was staged in the Chandler courtyard and was created using the current Republican rhetoric about “family values.” With what (1995) Shepard worked with a group of mostly first-year students who had not yet gone through her training but were still able to make wonderful choices and pull from extremely personal sources.

In the fall of ’97 Shepard directed A Streetcar Named Desire on the Mainstage, her first production from an extant script since Tartuffe ten years earlier. She explains that she attacked the play in much the same way that she came at Tartuffe: diagonally. “I can’t take a play and look at it head on.” About the product, Shepard says “we did some great stuff and it wasn’t a great success.”

Since the late ’80s, Shepard has noticed a significant change in campus interest in theater. She finds that there were greater numbers of “displaced” students ten years ago who came to the theater searching for relief.

This year, for example, only one student registered for the advanced acting class with which Shepard used to direct productions. In general, she finds that people are losing interest in theater as an art form and are looking to theater for simpler entertainment. Shepard hopes that the creation of the new performing arts center will bring about renewed interest in the theater as a space and as a possible life.

A number of Williams theater majors have cited classes with Shepard as their favorite theatrical-academic experience of their time at Williams. This is high praise for a professor who teaches at Williams for one semester per year at most. Meredith Fruchtman ’02, who is currently in her second class with Shepard, says “she lets you have your own ideas, and develop at your own rate, and in these mad, seemingly circuitous ways, teaches you exactly what you want to learn without your ever realizing it.”

Teachers and directors like this are what Williams actors and theater students need to grow, and one can only hope that student interest in theater can again grow to meet Tina Shepard’s unflagging excitement.