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Acting Students Embrace Humorous, Emotional Characters in 'Crimes of the Heart'

Put three sisters in a room and emotions tend to run high—especially when one’s a would-be murderess, another a former mental patient, and the third is careening toward spinsterhood. 

Tragic on the surface, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Crimes of the Heart has become one of the most beloved classics of American comedy since its 1981 Broadway debut. The Academy of Art University’s new production, directed by School of Motion Pictures and Television instructor Tracy Ward, runs through November 5 at the theater at 620 Sutter.

Crimes of the Heart is a play I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Executive Director of the School of Acting Diane Baker. It has so many good parts in it especially for younger people, and it just seemed perfect for our students and for Tracy. When it was brought up for her to direct I must say it was the perfect choice.”

Penned by Beth Henley, Crimes of the Heart takes place in 1970s Mississippi. It’s hilarious, but it’s dark, and the characters are tremendously complex on a psychological level, offering an excellent opportunity for the cast of six actors to delve into the acting process in ways many of them haven’t done before.

Sophomore Zoe Foulks who plays Babe Magrath (the youngest sister), said it’s one of the most difficult parts she has ever played. “Babe is very complex,” she explained. “She has a lot of baggage that she’s repressing, so you have to take that in but not do anything about it until the timing is right—until the moments when the character is able to release it.”

While graduate student Valerie Compton, who plays Lenny (the oldest sister), is trying to embrace her character’s calm spirit and introverted personality, which contrasts with her own, sophomore Zaya Kolia is working on riding the “roller coaster of goofy quirks” that define his character Burnette Lloyd, Babe’s lawyer.

Crimes of the Heart

Meanwhile, graduate student Anna Krieg is enjoying becoming more sensitive to the finer nuances of Chick Boyle (the Magrath sisters’ cousin), a part she also played as an undergraduate at San Diego State University.

“It’s fun doing it again,” said Krieg. “It’s fun exploring this person and giving her more life and making her whole. When I did it as an undergrad I was just seeing her on the surface and thinking—‘she’s a bitch, she’s mean,’ but now I’m looking at her like she has reasons for doing this, she’s a whole person, no one’s mean just to be mean, so it’s fun giving her more justice and defending her more than I did when I first did the part.”

Each time the actors run through their scenes they get to know their characters a little bit better, and a lot of their understanding about their own characters comes from understanding their relationships with the others. “Your relationships and connections with everybody else makes your character clearer,” Foulks said. “That’s when it starts to become easier and you just naturally form into this character.”

One afternoon in mid October, about three weeks before opening night, Stage Manager Shona Rajamohan followed the script as the actors rehearsed, feeding them lines as they worked their way through each scene. One of the many layers involved in constructing the final production, it’s one of the most integral. Graduate student Amanda Casarella, who plays the middle sister, Meg, said that once the cast knows their lines perfectly, they can explore their characters on a deeper level.

“The definition of acting, how they teach it here, is ‘to live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances,’” Casarella explained, quoting the motto of the Meisner Technique. “The longer we rehearse, the further we get into that process.”

Though Ward has been an instructor at the Academy since 2004, this is the first fully produced play she has directed for the School of Acting, and the students are relishing the opportunity to work with her. “She’s so brilliant and experienced with looking at a whole story and then layering things on top,” Casarella said. “She sees the whole picture, not just each scene, each moment. She’s also very welcoming to our input, which is nice. You don’t always have directors who want actors’ input, so it’s nice for her to welcome us and have a discussion.”

Baker invited Ward to direct a play for the Academy after getting to know her work both as a colleague and as a fan. “I always liked what she directed very much and I realized Tracy has to have an opportunity to show what she can do,” Baker said. “She is a very talented director and she needs to be appreciated by the university for her talent.”

By working with directors like Ward and the School of Acting’s Artistic Director Clark Lewis, students gain a valuable sense of professionalism that they take with them after graduation. “When my students go out and get professional roles in the theater, people are always commenting back to me how professional they are, so this is a wonderful way to keep them moving on that path,” Baker said. “It’s all about discipline and learning how to stick with the discipline and this is just one part of our program that I think is supporting the success of our students when they leave the school.”

While Ward certainly relays a great deal of professionalism to the student cast, she hopes they also garner some joy from the process. “The joy of working on something bigger than themselves, the joy of storytelling, and the joy of bringing forward their own artistic voices while honoring and seeing the others as a contribution... It’s this magical thing that we do,” Ward said. “It’s a really magical thing. It’s always such a great collaboration and group effort. It’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

Crimes of the Heart runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday starting October 27 at 8 p.m., through November 5, at the Sutter Theater (620 Sutter Street); $15 for general admission, free for Academy students, staff and faculty.