'Step Inside the Text and Try It On'

Liberal arts provided a foundation for Theater's Catharine Slusar.

A mainstay of the Philadelphia theater scene as well the Bi-Co Theater Program, Assistant Professor Catharine Slusar took home the 2015 Barrymore Award for her turn as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “I’ve never done anything so hard in my life,” she says of the role.

When did you know you wanted to go on stage?

As the second daughter in a family of four girls, I felt compelled to perform, as a way for a middle child to distinguish herself. I acted the role of “tomboy” for my dad so he wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the femaleness of our household I acted the role of extrovert so that I wouldn’t feel so shy; but my first formal “aha!” moment came in eighth grade, when I got to fly as Peter Pan in the eponymous musical. Soaring through the cafetorium while singing wonderful music made a rich and compelling soup. Many of the years post middle school were spent trying to figure out how to avoid acting, which seemed a frivolous and dubious life choice.

You went to Yale, renowned for its drama program. What was that like?

I went to Yale as an undergraduate, imagining that I would become a marine biologist but majored in theater and history of art instead. Yale’s undergraduate program is similar to Bryn Mawr’s, although Yale’s is larger. The most exciting actors, in my opinion, know how to research and to think. A strong liberal arts experience steeps students in what it is to be curious, which is at the heart of all creativity and research. I learned as much about acting through my classes in art history as I did in my acting classes.

That being said, Yale in those days was defined by the teaching of the renowned Nikos Psacharopoulos. We all hung on his every word, but also cowered at his feet. A rare word of encouragement kept one floating for a week. He taught in the old style: a fickle god of the classroom. Although I learned a great deal, my learning was accompanied by terror. He continues to serve as a model of what I don’t want to be in the studio; I wish to bring empathy and encouragement rather than fear. Many of my Yale undergraduate compatriots continue to make their mark on the world of theater today: Paul Giamatti in film, Jefferson Mayes on Broadway, Sandra Luckow in documentary film—illustrating this idea that a strong liberal arts education is preparation for many different kinds of careers, including those in the arts.

You describe your research as “blur[ring] the lines between theory and practice, looking to understand the power of the embodied mind through performance.” Can you unpack that?

One could argue that the only true way to know the characters and stakes of Hamlet, say, or Antigone, is to step inside the text and try it on. The study and practice of theater invites an exploration into the art of thinning the membrane between oneself and one’s character through given circumstances and actions. Theater invites this radical practice of empathy. We use the theories of theatrical scholars and our own theatrical practices to bring our whole selves inside a role. The most exciting moments of theater are, to me, when the words of the playwright, the actions of the character, and the actions of the actor meld.  Thought becomes action. The mind and the body harmonize. The weeks of work pay off in this synthesis.

That question also leads into another about the nature of acting itself. How do you understand what it is to take on these other identities?

At the start of a rehearsal process, it’s like my character is in California and I am in Pennsylvania. We start to walk toward each other, through the rehearsal process, exploring each other and finding our mutual ground, our shared humanity, and noting the differences. By the opening of the play, the character and I have reached each other (perhaps in Kansas). I am never only the character and the character is never only me. We are combined. We are filtered through each other. That is one of the exciting aspects of live theater; it is not definitive. It is alive. There is not one King Lear. There are many. We go to see King Lear and continue to work on King Lear, because we are interested in where our own specific biography intersects with Shakespeare’s written Lear. Each telling, each embodiment, reveals something new that perhaps we could not have imagined without this experience. And because it is live, the particular biographies of the audience intersect with the work as well. The combination of the three make for the experience we have together.

You talk about working with extreme physicality and other languages. Again, can you elaborate on that? How does that play out in your acting and directing?

As a teacher and director, at the beginning of a process I am interested in developing an ensemble aesthetic to help level the playing field and engage actors in activities where no one is an expert. This often takes the form of physical training that requires participants to move and behave in unfamiliar ways, emphasizing full-bodied participation. A sense of the unfamiliar and the challenge of rigorous physical work encourage us to think and create in new directions rather than fall back on what we already know.

I use acrobatics, weight sharing, and singing as examples of ways we explore partnering skills, listening, and collaboration.  

For instance, we explore “walks” based on exercises I acquired at The Moscow Art Theater School, in Russia (MXAT): walking on all fours, body pressed to the floor like a horizontal mountain climber, upside-down backbend walks, and walks where all limbs are straight, extended, and making contact with the floor. We work together, often while singing simple canons. These manipulations of orientation and physicality require a significant amount of strength and ask our rational minds to venture into uncharted territory. These multi-layered activities encourage body-thinking and kinesthesia.

My experiments with language also began while studying at MXAT. One of my deep pleasures in that experience was seeing plays almost nightly. I was riveted by viewing cherished plays in a language I do not speak. One profound viewing experience was Shakespeare’s Richard III, at Moscow’s Satyricon Theater. The story was told with passion and invention; language circled around itself (the “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” speech appeared three times), and despite my understanding only a handful of Russian words, for the course of the two-hour play I was fluent. So I asked myself, why? Partly it is because the story is one I know (albeit vaguely, never having worked on the play), partly because it was rendered using extreme physicality, and partly because there was no need to “respect” Shakespeare or do it the “right” way because it was in Russian. They were granted a bit of freedom. By putting the play in Russian, the essence of the play was revealed. The rules of “proper” Shakespeare were set aside and the actors were invited to be full creative partners with the text.

Another influence on my work with multiple languages is The Jo Strømgren Kompani of Norway. Jo Strømgren creates works of theater/dance in nonsensical languages that are based on the sound patterns of real languages. I was part of an ensemble that created one such work, The European Lesson (2007), which we performed in nonsensical Slovak and real English. In this work the incomprehensibility of the language released comedy and a sort of post-apocalyptic dreamscape. Strømgren questioned the performers’ and the audiences’ reliance on language by deliberately constructing the piece using nonsense and then having an unreliable narrator “translate” the nonsense into questionably accurate English. As a wonderful side effect, on any given performance night, small pockets of the audience laughed or reacted very differently from the rest—we realized that they were Slovak speakers. They found great joy in their secret knowledge: while most of the audience was reacting to a high stakes situation that seemed to be about marital discord, for example, they were delighted to know that we were actually using guidebook Slovak about hotel room availability or vegetarian options on a menu. There was humorous discord between the actual words used and the intention of the actors using the words to provoke or inflame, for example.

As an actor in the piece, I found that speaking pretend Slovak forced a kind of physicality on my performance that helped to lift it out of the quotidian. Nothing in the performance is stable, nothing reliable. Language is a slippery and untrustworthy companion. 

Combining these experiences of performing and witnessing theater in languages I do not know, I have been experimenting in my directing work with multiple languages. I am intrigued by the simultaneous outcomes of deeper access for some and deeper destabilization for others. This has been particularly interesting at Bryn Mawr, where there is a significant International student population. When I directed Antigone at Bryn Mawr, the actor playing Tiresias was a native Mandarin speaker and spoke most of her role in English. The first time that the audience heard Tiresias speak in Mandarin she was condemning Creon: amazed recognition rippled through clusters of Chinese students, while at the same time, non-Mandarin speakers leaned back. As the condemnation of Creon became direr, more actors combined with the first to create a “monster” Tyresias. Each new actor spoke a different language (seven in all), and the effect became that of universal condemnation—the whole world joined to condemn Creon (and by extension, us). It was no longer necessary to understand specific words; the weight of the languages combined to supply meaning through volume, focus, and gesture.

How does teaching inform your own stage work?

One important way to learn one’s subject or one’s art is through teaching it to others. Some of my most influential role models have been teacher-practitioners. The act of translating a known, intrinsic truth into a spoken truth can clarify and articulate that truth. Bi-Co students are marvelously curious; they ask questions and interrogate givens such that a deeper understanding is achieved by all. One thing I love about acting is that it is never “solved.” I am always a student. My classroom is a laboratory where we all, students and teacher alike, experiment together. I take the results of our explorations with me onto the stage. I am a better actor now because I teach, and I am a better teacher because I constantly practice what I teach, professionally.

You do a lot of work on Philadelphia stages. What have been your favorite role/s and what is it about it/them that got to you?

A favorite role was Fay in the Theatre Exile production of Iron, by Rona Munro. Fay is serving a life sentence in a Scottish prison for killing her husband. The play is a harrowing two-hour journey into the details and circumstances surrounding the murder, which may or may not have been self-defense. The play is essentially a conversation between Fay and her grown daughter, whom she has not seen in 15 years. In the Exile production, the set was a cinderblock catwalk in the center of the audience. Audience members were never more than two feet from the stage, and I was always on stage. A combination of the setting, the dialogue, and the circumstances made the experience utterly immersive. I learned a tremendous amount from the action of launching into the role and riding the text through to the finish.

Another similarly immersive role at Exile was Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I loved exploring the character of a brilliant woman thwarted in her ambition because of her gender. Her fury and frustration were epic. 

You also do a lot of work at Stanton Elementary. Can you talk a little about that experience? How did you get involved?

I have been teaching Shakespeare every spring at E.M. Stanton School in Philly for the past 10 years. Originally, I got a grant through The Picasso Project, an organization that connects professional artists with public schools for onetime project-based immersions. Our production of Romeo and Juliet (with seventh graders) was such a success that for the first time in its history, The Picasso Project granted me for two years with Stanton. Since then I have brought Bryn Mawr on board with the help of Nell Anderson and the Praxis and Community Partnership Program. Every other spring, a group of us travel to Philly once a week to work collaboratively on a Shakespeare play. It has been important in this work that we are all learning together—a mixed group of learners. We do not go to Stanton as “bestowers” of knowledge, but as collaborators. We create small ensembles of seventh- and eighth-graders and Bryn Mawr students. The groups and roles mix: sometimes the director is in college and sometimes she is in eighth grade.  Eighth-graders and college students act and learn together. As bell hooks says, we look to “bond across differences” through a shared project and a shared goal.