Lowry relishes 'midwifing' students' creative process

Veteran theater arts professor studies, teaches lamentation rituals

Photos/Mike Lovett

Marya Lowry

Schools, theaters and prisons: Marya Lowry, an associate professor of theater arts, has performed and taught in all of them. A theater and voice professor and founding member of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston, where she will perform in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” this year, Lowry is interested in equipping students with more than just stage skills and technique.

As a longtime actor with the Riverside Shakespeare Company in New York – where she worked for a decade before teaching fulltime – and a variety of showcases and regional theaters, she’s been in their shoes and wants to help instill in them a sense of confidence and offer a support system.

“I was of a generation where there really wasn’t very much mentoring,” says Lowry, who quit college after one semester and was swept up in the upheaval of the late 1960s before returning to finish her degree at three different colleges and earn an M.F.A. at Ohio University, one semester at a time, as a single mom. “We were really finding our own way and getting whatever information we could however we could get it. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about mentoring my students.”

focus on facultyThis fall at Brandeis, she’ll direct “A King of Infinite Space – Hamlet in a Nutshell,” for which students will draw upon their ability to devise new work, a skill she says actors increasingly need in modern theater. Based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” they’ll create moments based on ideas and themes.

Lowry began teaching full time at Brandeis 22 years ago, drawn by the M.F.A. program’s reputation, but has since pared down to part-time to better balance teaching with her own stage work and raising a family in Newton, Mass., where she lives with her husband, Adjunct Associate Professor of Theater Arts Bob Walsh. But she still gets the panicked midnight calls from alumni looking for reassurance, and relishes the deep, personal relationships she builds with her students.

BrandeisNOW: How did you first become interested in theater?

Lowry: I first discovered theater my first semester of college. There wasn’t really much that was interesting to me at that point in my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just knew you had to go to college. I started at a school called Daemen College in Buffalo, N.Y. I fell into the theater. The first production I did was “Trojan Women.” I’ve been haunted by the Greeks ever since. There’s no getting away.

What interests you about teaching?

I teach voice and acting so the nature of what I teach is human to human. It’s deeply personal contact. The difference between that and my professional work is that I think of teaching as midwifing someone else’s creative process and I love that.

I feel like the theater department and the university in general has given me a lot of room to grow. It is one reason why people who still practice their artistry also teach. Working with students and exploring new things and having to work with them to deepen their work and develop their work is constantly challenging to me. Sometimes I see an actor do something in my class and I think “Oh, I wish I could do that.” Or I’ll see an actor working on a role that I have played and I’ll think “I never would have thought of that” and that’s thrilling.

Do you often hear from students after they’ve graduated?

I got two emails in the middle of the DNC convention saying “Marya, I can’t stop thinking about you as I’m listening to all these speeches” because, of course, in the studying of Shakespeare, we do a lot of studying about rhetorical skills and we also look at great speeches in the voice class.

Sometimes people just call and they just need some affirmation about where they are in their life. I just had a conversation with a student who – it’s been 20 years – on the phone because she’s involved in a certain kind of theater that I’m not involved and so I called her for a little advice. She’s been calling me for 20 years, so we flipped the coin in that one. They filter in and out.

Some want to go into teaching careers. I help them put their CVs together, because putting a CV together for someone who is in the performing arts and then is going to be teaching in the performing arts – it’s a very different animal.

What kind of research do you do?

My research for the last 10 or so years in terms of the voice work has been on what I call ecstatic voice and lamentation. I started doing research in 1990 on lamentation rituals from ancient day to modern times around the globe. I’ve been developing work on how one incorporates that extended voice work into actor training. So I teach workshops on the outside on ecstatic voice and lamentation.

People have been lamenting their sorrows and their deportations from as long as we’ve been keeping track of history. We have examples of lamentations in Homer, in the Greek plays, in Shakespeare, all the way… As I started doing my research, there’s a lot written on it, lamentation rituals, how to bury the dead well. But there’s very little oral… how do we do it now, in a play, in our lives. We actually work on those sounds that people incorporate in lamentation.

How did you research those sounds?

I started by reading. I used a third-year M.F.A. class here as my guinea pigs and we explored doing what people were talking about in books. We took quite a bit of one semester in their third year where they have a lot of training and they are very strong vocally and we explored and played and experimented with how to do it. In the process, of course, we were also stumbling on little examples. I was giving a workshop in Wales and I found this amazing treasure trove of ethnomusicology from around the world. I would listen to records and recordings and music from other cultures until I could begin to cull certain sounds that were repeated no matter what the culture was.

You work with incarcerated youth and women through the Actors Shakespeare Project. Do you see a connection between that and your professional life?

It’s an extension of what I do here but on a much different level. I’m always compelled by those who don’t get the same breaks the rest of us got. I know how valuable it is to have someone sit with you and hear your story and not try to judge you or fix you, but just be with you. It’s really powerful for me to see something that for me started out as an artistic adventure become so life changing for young people.

Categories: Arts

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