Actress Shares Sense of Community With Her Students

By Lawrence Biemiller

Washington -- "Everybody says that -- 'I thought you were taller,'" says Sarah Marshall. In fact, she isn't. She's 5-foot-2 on a good day. But it's easy to understand why people who see her on stage think otherwise. She can crack grins that are two feet across, sometimes three. She can do double takes in which her eyes widen till they're as big as headlights coming at you out of a black night. She can twist her face into expressions that would challenge Bart Simpson -- and he's a cartoon character. Or she can lower her forehead, bat her eyelashes, part her lips as if to whisper sweet nothings -- and people grow strangely restless in the front rows, then in the back, then out on the sidewalk, then in restaurants halfway down the block. Sarah Marshall is fierce, which is better than tall any day.

Washington audiences see Ms. Marshall frequently. This summer she earned glowing reviews as a singing, gun-toting Ma Barker in the Woolly Mammoth Theater's production of WANTED, a comedy inspired by J. Edgar Hoover. Now she's crossed 14th Street to appear at the Studio Theater in Tony Kushner's new play, Slavs! Her role there is more serious: She plays a pediatrician who is not entirely comfortable with her lesbian feelings and who maintains her faith in socialism even after a moralizing commissar has her transferred to Siberia, where she treats children poisoned by radioactive wastes. Her third-act dressing-down of a Moscow bigwig sent to report on provincial health issues is one of the play's highlights.

If they look her up in the program, audience members will see that Ms. Marshall also "teaches acting at Georgetown University." But that's not how she describes it, not exactly. She has two sections of a course called "Acting Improvisation," true, but she's the first to say she can't teach 20 people how to act in just 15 weeks. What she can do, she says, is help them acquire some appreciation of what acting is about, some basis on which to judge what they see if they take a date to the theater.

Class starts with a warm-up: "Shake out your hands and your feet," Ms. Marshall says, having spread students out across a ground-floor theater space. "Jump up and down. Lean over forward. Now walk your hands out in front of you." The athletes in the class, who do this kind of thing every afternoon on the playing field, slink back to the corners and feign indifference; she is forced to go on a little patrol. "And back to your feet. Legs left. And right. And left. ... "

If there's time, a few vocal exercises come next -- Ms. Marshall makes everybody lie on the floor, so no one will feel he's being watched. "Buh. Buh. Buh, buh, buh-buh-buh- buhbuhbuh. Good! Now with a D." Next might be a speedwalking relay race -- "Count off, ones and twos!" -- in which each person walks balancing a peanut on the back of his or her hand; the teams cheer their members wildly. Or the students might choose partners, blindfold them, and take them on a no-talking, touch-only tour of the room and its furnishings -- heavy curtains, big wooden cubes, stepladder, chairs.

Ms. Marshall says she never performs for classes herself. Instead, she gives students a variety of exercises -- a five- minute autobiographical sketch using only five words, for instance, or a group effort at representing a particular environment through its sounds, or a solo portrayal of someone "very different" whom the student has spent three weeks studying. "I give them assignments that will hopefully open them up to the world around them" -- to the many things they could see, hear, and even touch if they weren't all so paralyzingly self-conscious. She also requires students to see two plays during the semester, and to keep a journal in which they discuss what they've done in class and whether it's had any effect on the rest of their lives.

What Ms. Marshall wants most, she says, is to create among students from varying backgrounds a sense of community, even a sense of trust -- much the way actors develop a sense of community while they're rehearsing a play. "What I love about the theater is that sense of community -- the community built in rehearsal, and also the community of people who come to the theater for a dialogue with the actors." Hence the team races, the blindfolds. Whenever she can, she tells students to work with classmates they don't know -- stony-faced lacrosse jocks, gregarious foreigners, shy women, basketball players in warm-up suits, a man with waist-length hair, assorted lawyers-to-be. "These people would probably never intermingle," she says. "I force them to. I make them exchange phone numbers, do outside rehearsals together. It's interesting to see how they blossom, coming out like people."

Many blossom, though not all. And things don't always progress exactly as Ms. Marshall intends. At the end of one class, students evaluate a decidedly mixed bag of autobiographical sketches, one of which has weighed on Ms. Marshall. She pauses, eyes closed, forefingers massaging the bridge of her nose. "It is my intention for this class that we build a community," she begins. "You can sit back, or you can join in. And you need to know that certain words offend me, and may offend other people in class. Words like 'bitch,' 'nigger,' 'faggot,' the use of the word 'knockers' to refer to a woman's breasts." Traces of her consonants arc in a sudden silence. "If you are going to use these words -- and I'm not saying you can't -- if you are going to use these words in a sophisticated way to mirror a prejudiced society, I encourage you. But if you're going to use them to make your friends in the class laugh, I suggest you make fun of yourself first."

Later, sipping juice in a corner luncheonette, she says: "Each term I get more honest with them. I was more afraid of them three years ago." Before coming to Georgetown four years ago, she taught high-school students at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, part of the District of Columbia's public-school system. Teaching offers her "good money and a good schedule." Lately she's been in three or four shows a year, but she says: "I never know in any given year what my acting income will be. Teaching is very dependable." Her classes are early in the day, so she can get to afternoon rehearsals -- she starts work on Anton Chekhov's classic Three Sisters at the Studio later this month.

Ms. Marshall dates her interest in theater to childhood: "As a kid, I had a fantastic imagination. We'd play elaborate games in which I would gather the neighborhood together, and I would always be in charge of the plot." In junior high in Huntsville, Ala., she won a citywide monologue competition -- she no longer remembers what her monologue was -- and she was hooked. She went to Birmingham Southern College because of its theater facilities, and afterward studied here in Washington at the Studio's acting conservatory.

By now she has played everyone from Antigone to Piglet. "I've been blessed, because in the theater I've been allowed to work through a lot of things that years of therapy couldn't have fixed," she says. "A brother's death, different kinds of sexuality, rage, joy." And each play offers her something to think about: "One of the first lines in Slavs! is, 'People are not capable of change.' I've been obsessed on this for a week." Asked what roles she'd like a shot at, she names only one: Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

A few days later, Ms. Marshall accompanies a reporter to a performance of Master Class, a new play about Maria Callas that has opened here before going on to Broadway. Zoe Caldwell, rail-thin and impressively tall, plays the opera star exquisitely -- and, what's more, plays her opposite recordings of several of her most magnificent performances.

The text is replete with references to life in the theater, but what Ms. Marshall says when the applause ends is, "Her curtain call!" She smiles, then: "She stayed in character." In the midst of the crowd shuffling toward the doors, Ms. Marshall tilts her head and lifts her arms, one slightly forward of the other, hands outstretched. Unrehearsed, it is nonetheless perfect. For a fraction of a second, and as easily as you might zip up a jacket, she becomes Caldwell playing Callas -- arms uplifted in thanks at the edge of the stage, smile reaching the topmost tier at La Scala. She seems impressively tall.

Copyright © 1995 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published October 6, 1995.