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From Page to Stage

“The creativity is theirs,” says Elly Donkin of her acting and playwriting students, “but with the security of having someone behind them, standing guard over the technical details.”

For this professor of theatre, few things are more moving than watching students struggle to take the contents of their lives and make with them an imaginative leap into the darkened theater. Her goal is nothing less than transformation, to bring students to a place where the personal is so beautifully articulated and modulated that it transcends the self.

Professor Donkin hesitates to single out individual former students because she treasures them all. But when pushed, she does remember one extraordinary performance by a young Liev Shreiber 85F, today recognized as among our finest stage and screen actors.

The play was Sam Shepard’s Savage Love, in which Schreiber’s character sang out the lines, “Now that I’m with you I’m saved/From all grief. Now that I’m with you I’m saved/From being in parts. Now that I’m with you I’m saved/From all other wanting.”

On each “saved” Schreiber leapt straight up into the air and seemed to hang there before touching down lightly on the second half of the line. “It was a dance of pure joy that was not about reaching the unreachable; it was about grabbing the thing out of reach and bringing it triumphantly back to earth. I heard the words as if for the first time,” Donkin says, even though she was directing the play.

“He got underneath that line and it just lifted right off the page. That’s what actors do. That’s the great gift. They get so fully inside the language that they inhabit it and create a new world.”

Language is important to Donkin, who completed a master’s degree in English from the Bread Loaf School at Middlebury College, where she also earned her bachelor’s degree, before getting her Ph.D. in theater history from the University of Washington.

Her scholarly work concentrates on playwriting and gender issues in theatre. She is the author of Getting Into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776-1829, and coeditor of Upstaging Big Daddy: Directing Theater as if Race and Gender Matter and Women and Playwriting in Nineteenth Century Britain.

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