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Class Acting

October 2004


When asked how he prepares to play a role on stage, St. Ambrose theatre professor Michael Kennedy '60 chuckles and quotes Spencer Tracy: "Memorize the lines and don't bump into the furniture."

Kennedy, a Quad City area broadcaster, actor, and 34-year veteran of the SAU Theatre Department, is legendary at his alma mater. Opinionated, demanding and entertaining, he has helped to create a theatre department that stages everything from the most delicate and difficult Shakespearean dramas to musicals, comedies and plays for children.

Next fall may see the department's most ambitious production ever, when SAU theatre alums return from around the country to help stage Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" with Kennedy playing the lead role of Willy Lohman. He says he will be modeling everything he teaches his students.

"When acting is really working, it's an altered state, or an act of self-hypnosis," Kennedy says. "You can't fool other people until you fool yourself.

"You begin with the lines. You have to find out what they mean. Then you have to memorize them. It sounds simple, but you shouldn't be rewriting Arthur Miller.

"Next you must marry the lines to feelings, and you can't do that without trying to figure people out. You have to touch the audience at a gut level. You have to make them forget they're sitting in a hot theater. They have to enter an altered state, too."
It's all part of the art of acting, says Kennedy.

"To play anyone successfully, you have to find the place where he's human, the place we all understand. How could you play a beast like Hitler? (Actor) Alec Guinness said he was standing over a table, looking at a map of Berlin, when he realized all Hitler's hopes and dreams were gone. That's where Hitler became human, and Guinness could play him convincingly.

"One of the things I tell my students is: morality rests with the playwright and the audience. Action rests with the actor. Actors can't make morality judgments. They have to act.

"I tell my students everything I know. But I don't know if I've ever taught anyone anything they couldn't have learned on their own. I try to get them to quit thinking about fame and fortune. I try to help them adopt an attitude of caring about people. And I urge them to show up on time and prepared. Most people will think you're good if you do just that. And I wish them luck, a lot of luck."

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