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THEATER : Truly, Madly, Deftly : Juliet Stevenson, a ‘national obsession’ in England, is making her American stage debut in ‘Scenes From an Execution’ at the Taper

Richard Stayton is a playwright and free-lance journalist

“You are the most inept, virginal, sexless, inexperienced, passionless, middle-class creature!”

Now on the verge of making her American stage debut at the Mark Taper Forum, one of England’s most sought-after actresses still vividly remembers the drama teacher’s contempt that almost ended her career.

“I was 18, very inexperienced, not literally virginal, but a pretty virginal creature,” explains Juliet Stevenson, speaking in her gentle London lilt. “But in class he told me to portray a sexually experienced, middle-aged woman of royal blood--Cleopatra.

“I’d have been better off trying to fly.”

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Rather than limp tearfully from the classroom, however, Stevenson turned defiant. In the midst of her teacher’s diatribe, Stevenson suddenly thought: “How dare you!”

“When we resumed the scene, everything I was feeling went into the language,” Stevenson recalls, “and it was like I was flying. Language became the only outlet to communicate this total piece of humiliation. The room went quiet, and I thought: ‘This is what it is. It’s about losing yourself. . . . ‘ “

And in losing herself, Juliet Stevenson found herself. An artist was born: independent, confident, focused.

Stevenson went on to join the vanguard of a brave new generation of British actresses that includes Fiona Shaw and Emma Thompson. Feminist without being militant, political without being radical, experimental yet faithful to the classics, Stevenson evolved into what one prominent journalist has called “a national obsession.”

Since her Cleopatra experience, Stevenson has become known for playing heroic women. Her celebrated roles include Nora in last year’s PBS “Masterpiece Theater” telecast of “A Doll’s House,” the torture victim in Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” (which earned her the coveted Olivier Award as Britain’s best actress), and now the rebellious painter in the American premiere of Howard Barker’s “Scenes From an Execution,” opening Thursday.

Today, the 35-year-old Stevenson remains true to that 18-year-old’s first stage lesson: Never play yourself, but always lose yourself in the character.

For example:

* Before playing a Russian, she traveled to pre-Glasnost Moscow and explored the dissident underground movement.

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* Before playing a nun, she lived in a convent.

* When cast in Garcia Lorca’s “Yerma,” she flew to Spain and lived with peasants in a house lit solely by candles.

* To portray an Italian Renaissance painter, she flew to Los Angeles and . . . What’s wrong with this picture?

Stevenson laughs. “It becomes pretty eccentric to come to California to do a play about a 17th-Century Venetian. It’s a theatrical journey that doesn’t quite make sense.”

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Then again it makes perfect sense for Stevenson to portray Galactia, an independent, politically active artist who defies male patrons. Critics have called Stevenson “the Glenda Jackson of her era,” and it was Jackson who originated the role in London in 1990. But Stevenson appears even more typecast for the role than Jackson.

Originally a radio play, “Scenes From an Execution” is loosely based on Italian Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Like that 17th-Century iconoclast, Stevenson’s Galactia rejects conventional expectations. For example, commissioned by the Doge to paint a huge patriotic celebration of a triumphant battle, the artist instead produces a realistic picture of war’s horrors. Her paint “smells,” notes the Doge. The artist is warned that a 100-foot-long canvas is “not a painting. It’s a public event.”

This aesthetic debate became the primary topic of the first Taper rehearsal, much to Stevenson’s surprise. Stevenson discovered that Americans approach a text much differently than their British cousins. She didn’t hear art history discussions about the Renaissance, as she would have in London. Instead, she heard Frank Langella prepare for his co-starring role as the Doge by comparing the play’s painting to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

“It was a conversation we could not have had at home,” Stevenson marvels. “The Vietnam War Memorial’s resonance and national status--there’s nothing comparable in contemporary England. It would be very difficult to understand at home how a work of art could have such public significance.”

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One difference Stevenson did anticipate never materialized.

“There’s so much nonsense talked about English and American actors, the way they work,” she says of the clash between Method acting and the British allegiance to technique. “But I don’t experience that sort of difference. Everyone works differently. Frank (Langella) experiments a lot in rehearsals, and I work very much like Frank works.”

Langella, who had never met Stevenson before starting work on “Scenes From an Execution,” seconds her assessment: “She’s willing to walk all the way out to the edge of the limb with you, willing to risk looking foolish in rehearsals. Actors who are frightened of doing the wrong thing never quite do the right thing . . . (Stevenson) isn’t afraid to take chances.”

For Stevenson, “experiment” doesn’t mean avant-garde. She says she loathes “productions of Shakespeare where people are walking around in cowboy boots and jeans and denim jackets with car phones.” Like her contemporaries Shaw and Thompson, Stevenson believes in a faithful adherence to classics.

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“I like to go as far as I can,” she explains, “but back in time. For Nora (in “A Doll’s House”), you have to unwind your brain and go back 117 years ago to understand what it was like being a woman with no knowledge of the women’s movement, no sense of being a woman who’s anything other than what a man told her she was.”

To accurately portray Galactia, Stevenson is taking art classes, studying books and videos on artists, and carrying a sketch pad. She laughs about following actors around during rehearsal breaks and incessantly sketching their faces.

“It’s just about looking, looking, looking, looking,” she says about an artist’s eye. “Galactia draws so much in the play that I look at the other actor’s faces and start drawing them during a scene.”

Her habit of observation was acquired during her childhood as “an army babe,” she said jokingly. Although her parents were musical, economics forced her father to remain in the army after World War II, a career that required him to relocate every two years.

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Stevenson’s earliest years were about “packing and unpacking” between stops in Germany, Australia, Malta and back to Germany. By the age of 8, she knew she didn’t want more “German education in a difficult, violent, problem-ridden urban state school” so she begged her parents to send her to an English boarding school.

They agreed, and it was there that Stevenson experienced one of those rare, fortunate accidents of fate. The small boarding school was operated by Leslie Howard’s sister, Dorice Stainer, “a progressively educational woman who had been a prima ballerina and who believed the arts were fundamental to a child’s education.”

She found herself rising at 6 each morning to practice the piano. After breakfast, there was dancing, drama and art wedged in with general education courses. “If I hadn’t gone there, who knows what might have happened,” Stevenson muses.

She remembers the precise incident when acting became her calling. On “speech day,” students were assigned various poems and dramatic monologues to be read aloud. Stevenson picked up a love poem by W. H. Auden.

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“It was like a light going off,” she says, snapping her fingers forcefully. “I wanted to communicate that poem. But when I asked permission to read it, the teacher suggested I read something from ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ But I insisted. So I read this thing and I didn’t understand what it was about, I’d never experienced anything yet, but it was instantly clear, somehow. I just knew. It was something in the rhythm of the language.”

“If I could tell you I would let you know,” she remembers reading from Auden’s poem, " . . . time will say nothing but I told you so.”

Stevenson discovered that “if you yield up your own rhythms to the writer, you can go into places you would not otherwise go.”

When she graduated from boarding school at 15, Stevenson was prepared to enter college and major in English literature, with a minor in drama. But just before leaving for the university, she suddenly changed her mind.

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She snaps her fingers again: “If you’re lucky enough--and it’s just pure luck--to have a vocation for something, then you must do it.”

Without formal guidance, Stevenson auditioned at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1975. Afterward, she exited the building, confident that her performance had been inferior to auditions by more glamorous actors waiting their turn. As she walked away, an instructor ran after her, shouting that there was “a short list” and she was on it.

But despite the academy’s prestige, Stevenson was not satisfied with RADA.

“It was all about process,” she remembers, “and endless voice classes and movement classes, and then all of sudden you were supposed to become a 17th-Century French maid. How do you change who you are? I didn’t know how. And it was terribly intimidating.”

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Nothing at the Royal Academy was as intimidating as her audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978, however. There, her judges included actor Ian McKellen and director Trevor Nunn. She was selected for a road show, but a previous commitment to a different touring production kept her from accepting. Soon after her tour ended, though, a frantic phone call came to Stevenson’s rescue. A young extra in the company’s London production of “The Tempest” had broken her leg. Could Miss Stevenson report immediately for the dress rehearsal? She could, and was rushed onstage in her street clothes.

For the next eight years, Stevenson remained a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, meticulously building a reputation ranking her among London’s premier stage actors. Her close friend, writer-director Anthony Minghella, thought Stevenson’s career was being subtly constricted by limited typecasting.

“In Britain, she had been seen as a formidable classical actress who’s particularly good at powerful, forceful women,” Minghella said by phone from Warner Bros., where he’s currently editing his most recent directing feature, “Mr. Wonderful.”

“I thought that was playing only to one aspect of her. I knew her as a person to be much more variable and elusive and have many more qualities. She’s a rigorous thinker but quite skittish and funny too, and I was determined to find a story that would show all her qualities,” Minghella said.

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The result was “Truly, Madly, Deeply.” Stevenson initially read his script in its first draft. Under Minghella’s direction, the movie, released in 1991, became a cult hit in London and in the U.S.

“The film came out and there was all this pressure to come to L.A. and hang out,” Stevenson remembers. “Much to my agent’s disappointment, I said I had to do this play I’d found, a fiercely challenging piece about the nature of justice.”

That piece, “Death and the Maiden,” in which Stevenson plays a Chilean torture victim, became the talk of London theater. The Olivier Award for Best Actress followed, as well as others. But when Mike Nichols cast the Broadway version, Actors’ Equity in America refused to recognize Stevenson as “a major international star” indispensable to the play, and insisted that an American act the part. Nichols ultimately selected Glenn Close to replace Stevenson, and the Broadway version failed to achieve the stature of the London production. Time magazine’s William Henry III, for example, described the show as “high-voltage talent giving low-wattage portrayals.”

Stevenson, who now has a green card, says she is not disappointed to be making her American debut on the Taper’s stage instead of Broadway. Nor is she anxious about not being a “marquee name” in Hollywood.

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“I adore working a play in a town where I don’t have acres of history that everybody knows about,” she says. “Not that I’m running from any ghastly skeletons in the closet, but London is a very, very busy, very active small theater pond. There’s something wonderful about coming here and not knowing anybody, and not anybody much knowing you.

“I remember that moment at age 9 when I read the Auden poem,” Stevenson adds, “because I think one should keep coming back to that original impulse. During the stuff in our business about ego and career management, politics, strategy, you have to remember why you’re doing this. So I think about the rhythm of the way that poem was written. It’s like, you try to get a child to sleep, what do you do? You rock him.

“It’s rhythm. And acting should be like that, where you’re not controlling the material all the time.”


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