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Award-Winning Actress Olympia Dukakis Visits LSU, Holds Master Class with Theatre Students

It's one thing to seek out advice from a colleague in your field of study or employment on how to better your work. It's another when you also have the chance to interact with and learn valuable lessons in your craft from a seasoned veteran in the field who has achieved the highest of honors for their work.

Olympia Dukakis, star of such well known films as "Moonstruck" and "Steel Magnolias," offered pointers to LSU theatre undergraduate and graduate students during a master class held Sept. 21 in the Music & Dramatic Arts Building's Studio Theatre.
Eddy Perez/University Relations
Frank Bourgeois/University Relations

Students in the LSU Department of Theatre and actors in the Swine Palace theatre group had the opportunity to do just that recently, as Academy-Award winning actress Olympia Dukakis visited the campus on Sept. 21 to teach a theatre master class in the Music & Dramatic Arts Building's Studio Theatre.

In introducing Dukakis to the class, LSU theatre professor and Swine Palace Creative Director George Judy called Dukakis "one of the world's most accomplished theatre artists" and "a national treasure."

"She is very committed to supporting the growth and sustenance of regional theatres, like our own Swine Palace and others across the country," Judy said of Dukakis, who herself was a producing artistic director of her own regional theatre in New Jersey for nearly two decades. "She knows the ins and outs of trying to sustain theatre, especially in the world today."

During the class, Dukakis sat amongst the audience as selected undergraduate and graduate students performed monologues. After each performance, she offered the students advice and critique of performed monologues, while also answering their questions and relating her own acting experiences, many through humorous anecdotes.

Dukakis said she feels performance art such as acting has three components - conditioning, skills and craft.

"It's important to be conditioned not only physically, but also to condition your voice, your sensibilities and your imagination," she said. "Conditioning never stops. We always want strength and flexibility.

"It's a skill to learn to be active in a scene, to be interpersonal in a scene where you can react with someone else," she told the students. "It's a skill to personalize a role and to break down a scene and understand the dramaturgy of a play.

When conditioning and honing the skill of acting, Dukakis said, the will to learn can often outweigh talent level.

"I wouldn't say you need a lot of talent for conditioning and skill," she said. "You can learn them, if you have decent intelligence and are willful. Willfulness is very important for actors, because there's a lot of stuff that you confront that you'll want to back away from. Be willful, have discipline and have the desire to engage."

In discussing the craft of acting, Dukakis said the most important part is "finding your way into the heart of the play."

"What moves into your landscape or your personal methodology is what the play is about, so that you're not burdened with your own reactions or interpretations," she said. "'Interpretation' is a dirty word. Hold it back as long as you can."

Dukakis also challenged the students to using their bodies and voices as tools to properly convey a character. To advance this idea, Dukakis had the students who performed place chairs on the stage, using those chairs to help the student focus on aspects such as emotion, vocal range or when to use silence in a scene.

"Your body can give you information that your brain can't give you," she said. "Let your voice go and let it happen where you are. You can't be ashamed of anything as an actor. It limits you. You have to have honesty in your body and voice."

A storied career

A native of Lowell, Mass., Dukakis has been an actor, director, producer, teacher, activist and author throughout her career. She now resides with her husband, Yugoslav-American actor Louis Zorich, in New York City. The couple co-founded The Whole Theatre Company in Montclaire, N.J., and ran the company from 1973 to 1988. She has also served periods as a master instructor of theatre at both New York University and Yale.

She has appeared in more than 130 off-Broadway and regional productions, and she has received two Obie awards, for Bertolt Brecht's "A Man's a Man," and Christopher Durang's "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" at Joseph Papp's Public Theater.

After years working in theatre roles, including co-founding two different theatre companies, Dukakis found her way into feature film roles. Her nearly 50-year movie career includes memorable roles in "Steel Magnolias," "Mr. Holland's Opus," "I Love Trouble," the "Look Who's Talking" series and "Moonstruck," the latter earning her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1987.

Television appearances in the "Tales of the City" television mini-series, "Lucky Day" and "Joan of Arc," each garnered Emmy Award nominations for Dukakis. She most recently appeared in the NBC series "The Event."

Dukakis' genre-spanning work has also led to numerous awards and recognitions. These include an Obie Award, a Drama Desk Award, a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and a Golden Globe.

Dukakis also starred in Martin Sherman's one-woman play, "Rose," both on Broadway and in London. She has recently revived the latter role for a nationwide tour, performing for two nights at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge prior to her visit to LSU.

In the one-woman play, Dukakis takes the character of 80-year-old Rose, who relates an epic journey of a Ukrainian Jewish woman through the 20th century, alone onstage while seated throughout.

"The audiences were very responsive," she said of those who attended the two performances. "I thought it was terrific that they got a lot of the humor, and I felt they were very appreciative. I was very moved by the response that I received."

Dukakis is no stranger to Louisiana, as "Steel Magnolias" was filmed in the north Louisiana city of Natchitoches.

"The food, the weather, the people, the atmosphere; there's nothing quite like it," she said of Louisiana. "When I worked in Natchitoches for 'Steel Magnolias,' I gained a real love and respect for Louisiana. I always enjoy coming here."

Dukakis has another Louisiana tie on her current tour as Patrick Healy, a 2001 vocal performance graduate of the LSU School of Music who is now based in New York City, is traveling with Dukakis and serving as her personal assistant.

Learning from an icon

Ryann Pinkerton, an undergraduate theatre student who performed during the class, said she relished the opportunity to meet Dukakis and learn from her wealth of experience.

"It was great for us as theatre students who are aspiring actors and actresses to work with someone who is so accomplished," she said. "She has a great sense to almost instantly pick out parts of a performance that could be improved. She found something different with each of us. She nailed the parts of my performance that I thought were lacking, but also helped me to see other things I didn't realize I needed to work on and new things I can implement."

Graduate student Jenny Ballard said that she felt being able to meet Dukakis and receive pointers from Dukakis on her own performance skills was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"We all grew up watching Olympia. If you're a woman in the South, you're pretty much required to watch 'Steel Magnolias,' and 'Moonstruck' is a classic. Some of us got misty eyed when she walked into the room. I'm honored to have been able to perform in front of her and speak with her. This was an amazing experience."

Dukakis said she enjoys working with both younger and older actors because each group has its unique differences.

"(Older actors) have their own sets of issues they work with, but they are in a great position to help train and mentor younger actors," she said. "Especially in this last year, I've been very involved in working with older actors. In the past, younger actors got experience from watching performances. You didn't have graduate programs. It's a relatively new thing. Even with that, there's a lot to learn from older actors once you're out of school. You're not on your own."

Dukakis complimented the LSU students on their willingness to listen and experiment with ways to improve their performance skills.

"They were tremendously eager to hear what I had to say and to try it out," she said of the students. "I thought they were very successful in finding things for themselves that were useful."

Dukakis added that she hoped the students took away from the class constructive criticism and a willingness to remain adaptable in order to help shape their careers.

"They hopefully took away a belief that they can take a hold of their own work," she said. "It's not complicated. I mean, we're actors. We're not brain surgeons, after all."

Dukakis' visit follows in a long and rich history of guest artists working with LSU Theatre and Swine Palace. These include playwright and filmmaker Adam Rapp, international theatre director and artist Ping Chong, theatre director Deb Alley and Pulitzer Prize-nominated director and artist Robert Wilson.

"This was a wonderful opportunity not only for the students with whom Olympia worked with directly, but those who watched in the audience as well," said Kristin Sosnowsky, interim chair of the LSU Department of Theatre. "This shows that we have a commitment to bring in high-level performance artists to work with our students in a variety of capacities, whether professional artists who come to perform at Swine Palace or those who come in for a shorter period of time. It demonstrates we're committed to bringing in lots of diverse people for our students to meet, hear real-world world experience from and gain valuable knowledge."

To learn more about the LSU Department of Theatre, visit www.theatre.lsu.edu.

More information about Swine Palace can be found online at www.swinepalace.org.