We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.~ Anton Chekhov
I am heartbroken. My dear acting coach, Jeanie Hackett, passed away from cancer yesterday. She was one of the purest devotees of art I’ve ever known and was vibrantly creating until the very end. Art was her fuel and, in that, she was a kindred spirit. Meeting her seemed like kismet from the beginning. As a teenager, I read every acting book I could find at the library, and one of my go-to favorites was authored by her: a compilation of interviews with her mentor at Williamstown Theatre Festival on the subject of Chekhov. Fittingly, she was rehearsing a reading of The Cherry Orchard over Zoom during her final months.
After I moved to L.A., I learned and grew so much from various teachers and studios, but the last place I landed was with Jeanie. I wanted someone to take me deeper into my craft and a friend recommended I come study with her. At our first meeting, I saw a black-and-white photo hanging on the wall of her office, which was of a group of her castmates at Williamstown that included Christopher Reeve. It took a bit to realize that I already “knew” her. For a girl growing up isolated in the cornfields of Indiana, who tried to educate herself, it felt surreal to be studying with someone I had been drawn to so long ago.
My Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings in Jeanie’s Workroom were the happiest hours for me, a respite from a grind that was increasingly unraveling, as I wrestled with whether I should leave Los Angeles. Jeanie’s coaching was rigorous, thoughtful, unbelievably intelligent, and inspiring. I often sat in my seat shaking, trying not to throw up, before I stepped on stage for a scene or monologue. I felt safe to fail, which I did over and over, until those glorious moments when the work finally kicked in. She deeply and passionately valued process, which cannot be rushed, and she encouraged us to work on scenes in chunks, for long periods of time, before putting it all together. She was unrivaled in her approach to text analysis and to the physical embodiment of that text.
While Jeanie was kind and compassionate during the work, a compliment from her had to be earned. If she thought I did a good job, I could trust that I really had. That kind of integrity is invaluable to an actor. The last scripts I worked on with her were some of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever tackled. Most of the time, I didn’t think I could do it, but the fact that I found moments of success was truly a testament to her coaching and to the craft I had honed in her class. I can judge my work as an actor as Pre-and-Post-Jeanie. My family even asked what had happened at one point, when they saw the difference, and I told them, “It’s Jeanie.”
I spent my final night in L.A. attending a Preview of her production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Geffen. She workshopped the play in class with us for a long time as she prepared to direct, and I was one of her readers during auditions. I loved the deep dive into that classic work and her insights will still be with me if I ever get to play Mary.
Jeanie was one of the people from my L.A. world who affirmed me even after my move back to Massachusetts. She thought I was doing exactly what I needed to for my art; not abandoning my dream but rather creating a new and beautiful version of it for myself. She told me that I often came up in her conversations. Her studio is one of the things I have missed the most and I hadn’t given up hope that I would work with her again.
In May, I received a last message from her: Just thinking of you and wishing you were around. Me too, Jeanie. I’m wrecked that we’ve lost you and so very grateful that I knew you. Thank you for being my teacher and for helping me to become the artist I always wanted to be.
“The light comes at the same time as the Voice…I would that every one could hear the Voice as I hear it.”
Every actor has at least one dream role they must play before they die. For me, that role was Saint Joan. I still consider her the most profound and invigorating acting challenge of my life and I am deeply grateful I got to play her before I was too old. I do, of course, wish that I could go back and take another crack at it, knowing what I do now, with all of the experience I’ve gleaned since then. Joan is notorious, though, for being a tough nut to crack and I know that I did the best I could for her at the time. I’m sure the timing was right, anyway, because spending countless hours in her skin gave me the courage I needed in other areas of my life back then.
Any time I write about Joan, I mention that she won’t leave me alone, and that she still crosses my path even 12 years later. I was looking through a box in my closet the other day and came across this photo that I hadn’t seen in forever, that I had completely forgotten about. Sure enough, it was coming up on an important date. Jeanne D’Arc died on this day, nearly 600 years ago. It’s obvious to me that her spirit lives on.
The theatre community of Elkhart, Indiana, is mourning the passing of Marcia Fulmer, a prolific arts editor, writer, critic, director, and actress. I met Marcia at the age of 15, when I was cast in the chorus of a musical called Carnival that she was directing for Elkhart Civic Theatre, which operates out of the historic Bristol Opera House. In terms of community theatre, ECT was one of the best around, and I was beside myself to be performing on that stage.
Early into rehearsals, someone left the show, and so I was “upgraded” to a role with one line, as half of a “fake Siamese twin” duo. Marcia told me, in a rush, to pick up my sides from the office. I was so green, I didn’t know what she meant, but was too scared to ask her. So I asked for my “sign” from the office and discovered that it was one square of paper bound between a cover. Typed on the page was the “cue” line and then my own line of dialogue. I didn’t have a full script so I had absolutely no idea where my line was supposed to come in, which caused me tremendous anxiety.
Marcia knew her stuff and pulled no punches in her direction. I realized I was working with the most professional person I’d encountered up to that point and tried to do everything right. One day, we were choreographing a big musical number with the entire cast, and I was situated up on a ladder with streamers in my hand. I was worried about calling attention to myself, certain that the focus should be elsewhere, and so I held the streamers still while I sang. Marcia singled me out in exasperation during notes, saying, “Don’t just stand all the way up there with your streamers hanging down. Wave them around!” I felt humiliated to be called out in front of everyone and for doing the “wrong thing” but it gave me a swift lesson I needed to learn: that I was allowed to be seen and that I was encouraged to contribute of my own accord instead of waiting for instruction. I also had trouble because my line was comedic and over-the-top and it felt like death-by-torture for someone as insecure as I was. Marcia had to demonstrate a possible line reading for me (which she rarely did) and, once again, she gave me permission to at least attempt to come out of my shell.
We had an amazing cast which included quite a few mischief-makers. During a tech rehearsal, I learned that it was a bit of a tradition to play practical jokes during the scenes. I was terrified of what Marcia would say but, to my surprise, she tolerated the tomfoolery while also refusing to crack or to deviate from her rigorous direction. I celebrated my 16th birthday during the run and the cast surprised me with singing, cake and cards one night, which she also tolerated, even though it cut into her time. Participating in that show was truly one of the happiest experiences of my life.
A couple of years later, I was cast in another musical, again in the chorus. In addition, I was given a little comedic featured role that had some solo singing. And, yet again, I was terrified. I worked hard to overcome my nerves but could never relax until that part of the show was over. My castmate, and the lead of the musical, congratulated me on “shaking less every night” at the end of the run. A dubious accomplishment. But perhaps the highlight for me was when Marcia came to review the show; I could hardly believe it when she included me in a trio of actors who “contributed some nice comedy bits.” It was the first review I’d ever received and I knew that, from her, it was significant. It remains one of my favorite pieces of feedback, especially since I knew how much those “comedy bits” scared the hell out of me.
I can’t begin to touch on the accomplishments of Marcia’s life, which are better relayed by those who knew her best. She was, however, a full-blown artist, who brought a level of insight and professionalism to a small Midwestern community in ways that completely raised the bar for many, many years. In a recent podcast, she touched on the rough spots in her life, saying that we may have tough times but being a part of something with our neighbors, like putting on a great show, can be an elixir: “God, theatre helps.” I hold such a special place in my heart for the people I worked with on those community theatre stages while I was growing up. Theatre saved my life, in so many ways, and it was artists like Marcia who helped me to see what was possible beyond those stages…even for a scared Indiana girl like me.