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by James Goode, Founding Ensemble Member
Alvina Krause (or AK, as she was known to her students) was the founding artistic director of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, which is the resident acting company of the Alvina Krause Theatre, named in her honor in 1983.
Alvina Krause was born January 28, 1893 in New Lisbon, Wisconsin, the daughter of Carolyn and Charles Krause, a farmer in the small community.
“When I was 9 or 10, I discovered a little blue book on the shelf: it was Hamlet. I do think I was hooked then.”
- The Philadelphia Bulletin, 1979
When an older sister teased her for being too young to pronounce the Shakespearean words and names, she responded that, since she was reading silently, she didn’t need to know the pronunciations. Other childhood reminiscences included being a tow-head with “straight, white, ugly hair”, and a visit from Germany by the Lutheran pastor’s sister, who enthralled the children by announcing dramatically “Ich bin eine welt dame!” (“I am a woman of the world”!)
“I think I’ve always been interested in why people are what they are. Even as a child, I was fascinated. I would sit silent in a room and watch people. And people would say, she’s shy, she doesn’t talk much, but I was fascinated with watching them and trying to understand what they did.
- from Class Notes, 1976-78
She entered the Cumnock School of Oratory (later the Northwestern University School of Speech) in 1914.
“It’s 1914. And I – a stringy haired, freckled faced, undersized runt of a girl- am sitting, at last, in the auditorium of Annie May Swift Hall. Dean Dennis is introducing the founder of the school, Robert McLean Cumnock! I know there were a hundred or more students in that room, but I swear the great man looked straight into my eyes as he said “Stand up, each of you, tell me who you are, where you come from, what you have done.”
“St. Paul, Minnesota, and I…”
“Boston, Massachusetts, and I…”
“Los Angeles and I played Juliet.”
“Tallahassee and I played Rosalind.”
And I stood up and blurted out “Alvina Krause, New Lisbon, Wisconsin” and I sat down. Nobody from nowhere who had done nothing! That was my beginning in this famous school.”
- from AK’s speech at the dedication of Northwestern’s new theatre building, 1980
She received her diploma in 1916. After teaching elocution and girls’ athletics in high schools in Colorado and Missouri (one of her students was Lucy McCammon), she returned to Northwestern for her bachelor’s degree in speech (1928), taught high school English and drama in Seaside, Oregon, and then at Hamline University in St. Paul. The success of her Hamline students in an Evanston, Illinois drama festival brought an invitation from Ralph Dennis, dean of the NU School of Speech, to join the faculty in 1930.
“Do you know, I never had an acting course, personally. I explained that I was teaching oral interpretation; I had never taught acting. Someone said: ‘Teach them to walk, speak, move,’ At the end of the semester I looked at them. I had done a good job. But I found my foot tapping and I knew that foot knew something I wasn’t admitting. I said: ‘I’ve got to go out and find what acting is’. I had to look for what theatre was and I came to discover that theatre is humanity. I discovered that’s what I had to teach.”
- Philadelphia Bulletin, 1979
She gained her master’s degree from Northwestern in 1933.
“Early in her teaching career she was a shy, over-formal woman, but after about 10 years she gained confidence and a tremendous relaxation set in” recalled John Van Meter, a friend and business manager of the Eaglesmere Playhouse.
“I helped my students learn to observe, perceive, understand the astonishment of living, which is the core, the source of drama. The spine of teaching (for me) was not to have all the right answers. The important thing is to ask the right questions; the questions which touch off the creative process, which provoke, illuminate.”
- Educational Theatre Journal, 1977
During her 34 years at NU, she attained the position of associate professor, and designed a comprehensive four-year training program in acting Her students included Patricia Neal, William Daniels, Walter Kerr, Marshall Mason, Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, James Olson, Robert Reed, Gerald Freedman, Laird Williamson, Agnes Nixon, Inga Swenson, Tony Roberts, Ronald Holgate, Corrine Jacker, Charlton Heston, George Furth, Penny Fuller, Lawrence Pressman, Garry Marshall, Frank Galati, and many others . She began directing at NU in 1938 with O’Neill’s Anna Christie.
“The Cherry Orchard was my second production at NU. A Chekhov production, with college amateurs? Unheard of! Impossible! Incredible! It was the beginning of theatre at NU that was recognized nationally. I am not being egotistical, these facts can be corroborated.”
- from AK’s personal writings
“What is the hardest thing for an actor to learn? Well, I think -possibly- It’s the fact that he has to act with his total self -and he has to discover that’s more than saying lines emotionally, or memorizing lines, or becoming a star. To act with your total self means to act with -this is a big word- your humanity, with your humanness. I think I’ve come to believe that’s the most important part of acting -the most difficult to teach, but that’s where it comes out. You can have a marvelous voice – and you should as an actor- and a well trained body- and you should have, that’s exceedingly important – and a sense of timing and rhythm, and everything that goes into a public performance. But those are the communicative arts- what lies behind that? Always behind that is the human being that the dramatist has created. In a sense I think the actor has to be a dramatist. That is, a creator, he has to create, he has to put flesh and blood on the character the playwright has created. The playwright can only give you the words and a few stage directions. Well, what is that? Behind that is a human being.”
- from Class Notes, 1976-78
In 1945 AK and her longtime companion Lucy McCammon leased the Playhouse in Eaglesmere, a popular summer resort town north of Bloomsburg, PA where Lucy was on the faculty of Bloomsburg State College (now Bloomsburg University). During the next 20 summers, AK directed, or supervised student direction of, 180 plays (one a week for nine weeks) including works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Moliere, Chekhov, Ibsen, Pirandello and contemporary plays and musicals. The cast, designers, and technicians were students from Northwestern. She acted in two of the Playhouse productions: as Miss Moffat in The Corn is Green, and as the Dowager Empress in Anastasia.
Richard Benjamin recalled: “She had steel blue eyes that looked into your skull. You couldn’t hide. She does that magical thing that makes your imagination come alive.”
When she reached retirement age in 1961, Northwestern was persuaded to let her continue teaching as a part-time lecturer. Her final production there was Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in 1963, the year her contract was not renewed and she was named professor emeritus.
She taught master classes around the country (University of South Dakota, Gallaudet University, Los Angeles State College, and University of Texas) and directed The Three Sisters and Becket at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in California. An honorary doctorate from Doane University in Nebraska was awarded in 1969.
In 1966, she attempted to found a repertory company in Chicago at the Harper Theatre, which failed despite critical praise after its first season of Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Physicists, and Too True To Be Good.
That same year, the August 22 issue of Newsweek hailed her NU acting classes as one of the two college theatre courses which had made an exceptional contribution to the American theatre (the other was George Pierce Baker’s playwrighting classes at Harvard and Yale, 1905-1935, which included Eugene O’Neill, Edward Shelton, Philip Barry, Sidney Howard, S.N. Behrman, John Dos Passos, and Thomas Wolfe).
She moved to Bloomsburg in 1971 (when her Evanston home was razed for NU expansion) sharing a home with Lucy on East Second Street. Having attained nearly guru-like status among drama students, she was sought out for private instruction and from time to time accepted students for master classes. The last of these occurred in 1976 and 1977; some students in these classes founded the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in 1978, with AK (then aged 85) as artistic advisor and later artistic director.
“Isn’t it mad, at my age? BTE is nothing highbrow -just good theatre. These young people don’t want to go to New York. That’s difficult to explain; people don’t understand that. The first two season were ‘nip and tuck’, (but) the community is beginning to see what I’d hoped they would see- that theatre should be, can be, a vital part of the community- I think just as important as the school, the church, or for that matter the grocery store. All theatre is entertainment first of all, but theatre can illuminate what life is.”
She directed two plays at BTE, The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, and Lady Audley’s Secret, a 19th century melodrama which was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered.
Besides the Alvina Krause Theatre in Bloomsburg, the Meat and Potatoes Company in New York City named their theatre in her honor in 1980. This company disbanded in 1984 after 8 seasons.
She died of heart failure on December 31, 1981, the last of her immediate family, though survived by seven nieces and six nephews. Her obituary was published in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, Variety, Backstage and other national papers, and reported on NPR’s All Things Considered. Memorials were held for her in New York City, Evanston, and Bloomsburg.
“I believe in the capacity of young people to learn. And I can tell you in this long lifetime they have never failed me. If I can touch off that spark -they all have it, it’s deep in young people- to want to do, to want to create, to want to live, to want to extend. That is native, I have found. They respond to that. Why be a teacher if you can’t believe in youth and the thing you’re teaching? I used to think if I were starting over I’d change my profession and go into law and politics -which fascinated me because again it deals with human beings. But I know now if I were starting over I would still be a teacher.”
- from Class Notes, 1976-78
Though nicknamed the “maker of stars” she detested the star system.
“Repertory is the only hope for our theatre. Broadway today is nothing and Hollywood is a graveyard. I believe the American people deserve and need theatre.”
- The Philadelphia Bulletin, 1979
Newspaper articles quoted John Gieguld as saying she was “the best kept secret of the American Theatre “, and Lee Strasburg as saying “she was the finest teacher in America” but the origin of these statements has not yet been documented.
Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble dedicated the Alvina Krause Theatre in 1983 with a production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. The original structure was built in 1930 as the Columbia movie theatre, on the site of an older Columbia Theatre, which itself had replaced the Bloomsburg Grand Opera House built in the 1860′s. In the years since AK’s death, new artists and ideas have found their way into the ensemble’s creative processes to complement AK’s original inspiration.
Lucy McCammon (born Springfield MO, August 12, 1898) was the daughter of John Purdue McCammon (a prominent lawyer and nephew of the founder of Purdue University) and Lucy Campbell Owen (granddaughter of John Polk Campbell who deeded the land that became the city of Springfield). As a little girl, she rode with Buffalo Bill when his circus came to Springfield, and set up their tents on the family’s huge yard. At 18, she cut her hair short. After receiving her master’s degree from Columbia University, she taught Physical Education at Bloomsburg State College until retiring in 1958. She died December 19, 1991.
The American College Theatre Festival Award for Excellence, 1974
Hazlett Award for Excellence in the Arts in Pennsylvania, 1980
The American Association of University Women Centennial Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1980
Northwestern University President’s Medal, 1980
“Forever Beginning”, by Alvina Krause, Northwestern Tri-quarterly, Fall 1962
“Alvina Krause: Teacher”, by Neal Weaver, Ballroom Dance Magazine, March 1968
“You Can Do Better Than That” by Peter Jacobi, Christian Science Monitor
“A Great Teacher of Acting”, by Billie McCants & David Downs, in Women in American Theatre, edited by Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkin, (Crown Books)
“A Teacher of stars devotes herself to young ‘unknowns’”, by Doris Wiley, The Philadelphia Bulletin, November 26, 1979
“Alvina Krause Revisited” by William Wegner Educational Theatre Journal, May 1977
“A Chekhov Summer” by Randy Michael Testa, Secondary School Theatre Journal, 1977
“The Actor’s Eye: Seeing and Being Seen” by David Downs, Applause Theatre Books, 1995.
AK and her teaching have been the subject of several films and video:
Over Easy (PBS with Hugh Downs) January 1980
AAUW public Service announcement
Acting-A Study of Life (6 films by Forward Productions, chronicling her workshops of University of South Dakota, Introduced by Charlton Heston
Class Notes, 1976-78 independent film by Jerry Holway.
“Acting Lessons with Alvina Krause” – DVD excerpts of “Acting – A Study of Life”
Laurie McCants and the Ensemble Ethic in American Theatre Magazine
How Bloomsburg’s ‘Gunpowder Joe’ Took Aim at 2017 in American Theatre Magazine