Sunday, January 27, 2013

Letters from Alvina Krause: October 16, 1981

The last letter

Thank you! thank you for the beautiful flowers. You know how I love them. Soft pinks, pale yellows, white. It's a lovely basket and it speeds me on to health. I am much better. Just need to get confidence in my ability to do things for myself -- .
I was grateful too to hear that your Dean was not guilty of that threat. Your School is still dear to me. The BTE "Music Hall" is a big success.


Alvina Krause died December 31, 1981, just one month before her eighty-ninth birthday.

February 2, 1982

Dear David,
Thank you for a very beautiful letter.
I know how much you meant to Alvina and what more can I say.
Carry on as only you can do!


Dear David,
Thank you for the note, and thank you for the earlier one which I treasure!
Spoon River opened last night -- a rave review -- I have an idea you have heard already.
I missed it -- minor but compelling ailments -- but R is an excellent director and I was assured of his success before it opened.
I will see it tonight.
I hope your work continues to grow and I am sure it will!
Love, Lucy


The Alvina Krause Theatre was dedicated in Bloomsburg PA

Dear David,
Why were you the one chosen to deliver this dedication speech? Was anyone ever given more help in the exact direction this theatre should go?
Whatever comes from your heart is what you should say. No one should say anything about what you feel and want to say, yourself.
I have avoided writing because this is your day, and as important as anything you can ever do. You will come up with all you need, and it will be right.
Much love,


Dedication of the Alvina Krause Theater
August 5, 1984
Keynote Address
David Downs

Governor and Mrs. Thornburgh, Mayor and Mrs. Bauman, honored guests and dignitaries, Miss Lucy McCammon, Members of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, and friends of Lucy, of the BTE, and of Alvina Krause:

            Let me first thank Betsy for a most gracious and generous introduction.  And let me thank the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble for extending this invitation to me.  I regard it as the finest moment of my professional life to date.
            As I was packing my bags on Friday to come to this finest moment of my professional life to date, I stopped in the midst of folding a shirt and I said to myself, “Do you think Alvina Krause, that supremely optimistic of human beings, really believed this day would come?”  And I answered myself instantly: “Of course she did, you fool.”  Alvina Krause spent the last ten years of her life working for this day.  After all, who is the driving, propelling force that has brought us all together here?  It would be no surprise to her.
            I used to think that all of the years Miss Krause had lived and worked were only years of preparation for my appearance in her life.  She spent so many years at Northwestern University learning—learning what teaching is in a way that I wonder if anyone else ever has or ever will.  And those twenty seasons at Eagles Mere where she learned so intensely what an audience is, what a creative imaginative part in any theatre the audience must be.  And finally those ten years after her retirement from Northwestern, spent traveling and doing workshops and conferences only to discover, as she once said to me, “the horror, so late in my life, that no one else was teaching acting.”
            There are people here today who can speak much more authoritatively about those years than I can.  She came into my life, or rather I barged into hers, at the very beginning of what was to be the last decade of that life.  She was seventy-nine years old then, living in Bloomsburg.  And in March of 1972, Miss Krause and Lucy graciously agreed to allow five people from Chicago to spend seven days and seven nights living in their house and studying theatre.  Miss Krause conducted class from nine o’clock to twelve  o’clock every morning and from seven  o’clock to ten-thirty, every  evening.  And, of course, ten-thirty became eleven-thirty, then quarter to twelve until Lucy would finally take over and kick us all out to rehearse for the next class.
            At the end of the week, three of us told Miss Krause that we were returning in July for six more weeks.  She and Lucy found us rooms in the college dormitory and we came for six weeks and worked every day from nine to twelve and seven to ten-thirty.
            During this time “Eagles Mere” became a name that resonated like “Camelot” resonates.  We resented you all for your Alvina Krause.  But in the years since that beginning time of ours, I have come to think that we have an Alvina Krause that no one else has had.  We have a distillation of a lifetime’s living and teaching; we have a clarity of vision and wisdom reached only at the end of the journey; we have a person who was free of all the social and political distractions of the academic world.  (Henry Kissinger, I think it was, once said that conflicts in the academic world are so very intense because the stakes are so very small.)  We experienced Alvina Krause at a time when she could be, as we sometimes jokingly said, our own personal Star Wars Yoda.
            And so, at the end of those six summer weeks we decided that we were coming back temporarily forever, and we announced it to her.  Without so much as a blink of her eyes, she said, “Well, then you’ll have to get jobs and we’ll hold class only twice a week.  Be here October 10.” You simply didn’t surprise Alvina Krause.
            Within days of our return, work began in earnest:  Besides class work, we now kept detailed written journals.  She wrote notes, she talked to me, she began to expand our thinking of why we were in Bloomsburg.  She began to connect us and our work with the life of the community. It began to occur to me that as far as Alvina Krause was concerned, theater did not exist for its own sake in her basement so that we could revel privately in what we were learning.
            “Couldn’t you do A Midsummer-Night’s Dream in the park this summer?” she asked.
            I nearly choked. “Miss Krause, there are only three of us.”
            A moment’s thought and then, “Yes, we’ll have to double up the roles.”
            “What about a stage and scenery?” I asked in growing terror.
            She said, “We’ll have to get evergreens from the park.”
            Well, that project never materialized. We were not so courageous in our thinking as she was.  But she pressed on. In my journal one day she included an article about lunchtime theatres in London. Little twenty  or thirty minute pieces performed at noon had begun to be very popular. There was a note from her attached to the article:
Couldn’t you get Dick Benefield   [manager of popular hotel and restaurant in town -- DD] interested in something like this? You could start with something like an old melodrama, get a heroine, a lover, and a villain.  My favorite is Lady Audley’s Secret.

You notice she was going to leave it all up to me.

Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, and then you have to have an entr’acte:  I suggest “Bird in a Gilded Cage”.  No setting.  All you have to have is a card bearer.  Here’s what should be on the card….

            And then she’d say, “I didn’t know this was going to happen”.

By the way, does anyone in the group play the piano? And then once established with melodrama, you could change to other things.

            This idea, too, fell on deaf ears.
            In two months we three were joined by six or seven  others. We met downstairs in the recreation room twice  a week  and Chekhov, Shakespeare, Shaw began to come alive for us.  None of us had the nerve to think beyond that wonderful room.  None, that is, but Alvina Krause.  On January 10 in my journal she wrote:
You have a good grasp of these principles.  Why don’t you look into the opportunity of an hour or two at the junior high school on Wednesday afternoons?  This is the very way to teach theatre to young people.  And you could do it so well and make Bloomsburg begin to see itself through its children.

            Well, I still didn’t have confidence enough to take action on that assumption and the suggestion came to nothing.
            In March of 1973 I was invited to interview for an acting teaching position at Northwestern and I told Miss Krause there was no way in hell that I would take it.  Earlier she had written to me:
If you are going to be an actor and a teacher, it’s time for you to get a job.  It’s time for you to start teaching.  Aim for some of the public schools in this area.  Go to the Bloomsburg College perhaps.

And then the invitation came to interview at Northwestern University.
            In May 1973 Miss Krause was invited to speak to the Rotary Women. The next day she wrote in my journal, “I had hoped that these intelligent educated mothers of today would see a need for theatre in Bloomsburg. I failed.”  But she never failed for long.  I still don’t know how it happened, but suddenly, in June of 1973, we were doing Oliver! with the children at St. Columba’s School.  We turned the cafeteria into a theatre and Alvina Krause came to our rehearsals.  I will never forget how those ten and eleven year old children responded to her, how she got them all to understand what it was to become a character and to love theatre.
            And how did I ever get the courage to direct Everyman in the Catholic Church?  And to ask Father Casey to take a role in it!  I played the voice of God.  Miss Krause wrote notes to me after the production and said, “Your God was all right, but you could have punched the ends of lines a little more.”
            It was in the middle of the last week of rehearsals that I was officially offered the position at Northwestern.  Only the week before, I and the two original sojourners to Bloomsburg had decided to stay in Bloomsburg and to create a theatre.  I called NU and turned down the job.  That afternoon my two friends told me that they had decided to go to  London in the fall.  The fall!  That was only two months away!  I called Northwestern.  “I changed my mind.  I’d like the job.”  Thank heaven they gave it to me.
            That evening Lucy and Miss Krause appeared at rehearsal.  Miss Krause had not come to any rehearsals.  She had been determined to make me discover that I could direct the production on my own.  But this was dress rehearsal week, her last chance to see what we were doing.  I suppose she simply could not resist.  She came into the back of the house as unobtrusively as she could.  (Imagine God being unobtrusive.)  When I saw her, I realized with simultaneous grief and horror that only hours earlier, I had pledged myself to leave Bloomsburg.
            I don’t remember how rehearsal went, but afterwards, as AK and Lucy got into their car, I ran up to them and asked if we three could see Miss Krause the next morning.  As she looked at me, I burst into tears and told her that we were coming the next day to tell her that we were leaving Bloomsburg.  There was the slightest of pauses and then Lucy tramped down on the gas pedal, the car roared out of the parking lot, and I didn’t see what Miss Krause thought.
            We arrived the next morning and AK was downstairs in the classroom reading a magazine, startled to discover that the time had gone so quickly and we were there.
            “Well,” she said, “what’s so important?”
            We choked on the lumps in our throats.  The others did not know I had already told her.
            “You’ve decided to quit the theatre!” she said with mock horror.
            “No, Miss Krause.”
            In a slightly more serious tone: “Have you decided not to go on with Everyman?”
            “No, Miss Krause.”
            A pause. She removed her glasses. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”
            We all began to cry.  And that wonderful woman said, “Why so sad?  Your leaving was implicit in your coming here, wasn’t it?  Did you not get what you came for?  Have you not leaned what you wanted?   Are you disappointed in me?”  And on and on she went until she made us feel absolutely good about leaving.  I like to think that her heart was breaking too, but she wasn’t going to let her breaking heart ruin our futures.
            So I went to Northwestern.   And then I started getting news from Bloomsburg.  “We’re doing a program called The Human Comedy for the AAUW next month.  We’re planning a parable in mime for the Bloomsburg Fair.”
            I sent Miss Krause a weekly journal of every class I taught, and though she had her own classes here, she wrote extensive notes to me with specific comments and suggestions meant to stimulate my own thinking, and questions, questions, questions.  She had simply decided to do everything in her superhuman power to make me discover my own way of teaching.  I returned to Bloomsburg over Christmas vacation and then for spring break.  In March 1974 I got this note:
If the little group here succeeds in the promotion of theatre in the park this summer, would you be interested in joining them—acting, directing, building a youth theatre for Bloomsburg?  Whether anyone will come up with a subsidy is anybody’s guess.  But it doesn’t do any harm to plan, does it?  What would you suggest?

Now she knew I was going to come for the summer to work with her on teaching style.  For heaven’s sake, the next year I was assigned to teach the course in style, something she had worked twenty years to develop.
It occurred to me that we could do an old melodrama with style.  Lady Audley’s Secret perhaps….

Well, once again she was more adventuresome than her students.  There was no theatre in the park that summer.
            Each year as a class of my theatre students graduated from Northwestern, a certain few made the journey to Bloomsburg to continue their study.  By October of 1975, however,  Miss Krause had become thoroughly frustrated with the current group.
Yes, I have told the group we stop work in two weeks.  It is useless to go on and I refuse to pursue a useless course.  I would rather work in my garden.

            And then, the next month: “Lucy has fallen ill.  Please pass the word:  I will not be answering letters.” And I thought:  This is it, it’s all over now.
            One month later in December, I got the following letter:
The doctor insists Lucy is recovering.  It is slow but it is recovery.  When she will be able to go home he can’t say, but she will go home.  And that starts contemplation of a future.  I have been thinking perhaps of resuming acting classes.

And it was the class that went to Bloomsburg in the spring of ’76 who are here today dedicating this theatre.  From the time of their arrival in Bloomsburg, the list of programs and plays and projects and productions done for the community grows and grows.  I will not believe that Alvina Krause was forced to create the BTE.  Today’s dedication ceremony is the direct result of her unquenchable burning drive to bring theatre to Bloomsburg.
            And so I said to myself:  I am the Keynote Speaker at the Dedication of The Alvina Krause Theatre.  What does all that mean?  Keynote.  Dedication.  Theatre.  Alvina  Krause.  To what should such a theatre be dedicated?
            AK had this to say about teaching:
To achieve what in your heart you long to achieve you will need a clarity of mind and vision, a physical stamina beyond that of ordinary man.  I know whereof I speak.
            And in response to my questioning her about those years after her retirement when she traveled from college to college and conference to conference, she wrote this to me:
Please try to make clear why I traveled so extensively—it was not for money nor fame nor self-exploitation—it was because I believe totally in the importance of theatre in our culture.  It must be restored to that importance if we are to exist in this world of conflict—understanding—God help us!  Let us do the drama of all nations, all people, with understanding, for understanding.  Please get the motive for my teaching and my concern for young people (like you) who truly want to learn to achieve, to reach for stars.

            If the bedrock of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble is to be found in the life of Alvina Krause, I want to end this address by asking, “Where do we find such a bedrock in which her life was anchored?”  Not surprisingly, she gave me the answer.  In the fall of 1978, in response to a letter from me about the burning of the Speech Building at Northwestern,  I got this letter from Alvina Krause:
“In the beginning was the word.  And the word was with God”.  Do you know that that was the beginning of the School of Speech?  That was how it started.  That was its function, its purpose.  To read the word of God, to speak the world of God, to communicate the word of God with beauty, with meaning, with dignity, with truth, with conviction.  Isn’t that wonderfully unique in this crass, unbelieving world of ours?

A young theological student sat listening with growing indignation at the way his fellow students, his instructors, his Wesleyan ministers read the glowing words of the Bible.  He sensed that “out of the depths” came the Psalms.  He cried out when “Lift up mine eyes unto the hills” was read in dull, dead, meaningless tones.  He experienced the vitality of the scripture, he recognized the beauty of the King James version.  The Scottish poet soul in him rose in rebellion.  He was a man of action.  He started classes for his fellow students in reading the Bible, in public speaking for ministers—all based on his deep feeling that the word of God, the life of Christ, the acts of the Apostles was too deep, too important to humanity, that it must be communicated in a form fitting the importance of the subject and the beauty of the language.

I wish you could have heard him read a Psalm!  It glowed with understanding of the depths of our needs.  And the book of Job.  To me it had been a lengthy over-wrought tale of misery until I heard him read a passage with the simplicity of great art and the comprehension of a great mind revealing, through the beauty of the spoken word, the depths of human faith.  He illuminated the Bible, Shakespeare, Bobby Burns.  He saw the need for Speech education.  With his own funds he bought from NU the land on which Annie May Swift stands.  He set about raising money for his school, he assembled a staff of people who shared his sense of truth and discipline.  And among those students was Ralph Dennis whom he recognized as a worthy successor.  And Dennis carried on.  It was glorious.

These people believed.  They believed in their work, they believed in the School and they believed in their students.  They had true comprehension of the power of the spoken word to reveal humanity through great writing and they shared that belief with their students.

I saw what speech could be.  It shook me, stimulated my mind, my imagination, my will.  You have written to me of my ‘greatness’. I have just given you the source.

            When Alvina Krause died during the early hours of that last day in 1981, she left me as I was emerging from the tortured adolescence of my teaching life.  It was as if a cherished parent had left me just when I was beginning to understand.  It was as if a compassionate, loving, knowing doctor had left a patient just as that patient was recovering enough to be able to thank the doctor properly.  It was as if suddenly the beloved places of my life—the hills at the horizon that comforted always during my troubled childhood in Pennsylvania, that magic lake in Evanston that has sustained me through eleven long years of teaching, and that amazing house at the end of Second Street in Bloomsburg where I learned to live and first truly came to life—it was as if these places had left me.  When Alvina Krause died it seemed to me that one of humanity’s rare proofs of what it can achieve, given the passion and the will, had died with her.
            Well, I have survived and I will thrive.
            Alvina Krause left the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, it seems to me, in its needful childhood.  Today we meet to dedicate its theatre.  We meet without  Alvina Krause whose dynamic drive provided the life force for this theatre.  Somewhere in all those letters to me she said,
Theatre fulfills a need in humanity as fundamental as sex:  the need to work the imagination, the need to feed our hunger for revelation, for understanding—to stimulate our growth as rational beings and as responsible members of society.  Are not the performing arts, and theatre in particular, as significant to a country as the national defense on which we spend billions every year? For the performing arts defend our beliefs, our ideals, our achievements, defend the creative mind and imagination.  And on that we spend so little.

            There is only one thing left for me to do and that is to strike the keynote.  I went through the journals and through all of those letters, and it seems to me that the keynote of Alvina Krause’s life was the power to believe and the determination to work to achieve those beliefs.
            The BTE exists, it struggles, and it must thrive.  The continued health of the community depends upon it.
            I will always cherish the way Miss Krause ended one particular letter to me, written at a time when I thought I would quit teaching and go away forever.  The letter said, “Chin up, spine erect, eyes bright, stride into the future like Renaissance Man”.  That advice sustains.
            Thank you.

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