The Actor Explores

Theatrical students refine their craft near two Squares: Harvard and Red

In Betty’s Summer Vacation by Christopher Durang ’71, cast entirely with Institute students, Janson played Mrs. Siezmagraff.Photograph by Michael Lutch

In Moscow there are 200 theaters, and the drama students from Cambridge who study there can see plays every night in the company of impassioned audiences. “The theaters there are packed,” says one such student, actress Merritt Janson, who in June completed the singular program in theater arts offered by the Harvard-affiliated American Repertory Theatre (ART) and the venerable Moscow Art Theatre (MXAT) School.

During three months in Russia, she and 17 other young actors, four dramaturges, and one voice student watched three- to four-hour-long plays performed in Russian. They read War and Peace and played scenes from the novel in English, sometimes using Tolstoy’s prose for dialogue. In one scene, Janson played Countess Rostova as she, with her daughter Natasha, confronts the news that Natasha’s brother Petya has been killed in war. Two master teachers from the Moscow school, assisted by translators, coached the players, who found themselves immersed in an environment “totally out of your comfort zone,” Janson says, adding, “That only heightens your sensitivity to the text.”

The Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, as the joint program is known, was born in 1987 at the ART as a training ground for professional American theater. Eleven years later it began its exclusive collaboration with the MXAT School, which the celebrated Russian director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko established in 1943. (He and Russian theatrical legend Konstantin Stanislavsky, author of The Actor Prepares, had in 1897 founded the Moscow Art Theatre itself, where three of Anton Chekhov’s four major stage works had their world premieres.) The Institute’s students—about 45 are enrolled at any one time, ranging from recent college graduates to well-established actors—study for five semesters (including the Moscow residency) in the course of two years. They work six days a week, morning, noon, and night, at all aspects of their craft. Graduates receive both a master of fine arts degree from the MXAT and a certificate of achievement from the ART.

All Institute actors may audition for ART productions, and many are cast; Janson, one of the most accomplished of the group, won two such roles. The trainees’ first assignment (given by former ART artistic director Robert Woodruff) was to write a 10-minute stage piece, a “one-man show,” drawing on their personal lives. Janson performed a dramatic scene based on an experience from the Wanderjahr she took after graduating from Colorado College. “I traveled around the United States on trains, taking odd jobs in the places I stopped,” she recalls. “On the way from Albuquerque to Chicago, our train struck a woman on the tracks, and she died.” In her piece, Janson brought to life several characters based on train passengers, showing their contrasting reactions to the shocking news from the conductor.

In a solo piece of this kind, the performer is also writer, director, costume designer, and more. But an ensemble actor also draws upon a range of skills requiring an impressively varied training; in Moscow, for example, the students tackled acrobatics, ballet, and fencing along with the “Stanislavsky system.” In Cambridge, where the program is based at the Loeb Drama Center on Brattle Street, they learned another acting theory, Practical Aesthetics, developed by playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy. “Many theater programs teach a particular method—for example, that of Stella Adler,” explains the ART’s executive director, Robert Orchard. “We try to give students multiple approaches. There’s vocal and movement work. [ART actor and teacher] Jeremy [Geidt] does mask work. It takes six to eight months for the students to realize the value in all of this, and put it together for themselves.”

The goal is to develop versatile theatrical performers. Janson says the training “causes you to really seek out which parts of these techniques resonate with you. Acting is about availability,” she explains: “Using everything from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet. You’re not just acting from the shoulders up. It’s the whole body.”

For example, she exercised her musical skill last winter in an ART production by playing blues piano onstage for her role as Junia, the ingénue in Jean Racine’s rarely performed 1669 play Britannicus, set in the Rome of Nero but played in modern dress. Previously, she had deployed her athleticism as the “girl in the bear suit” in The Onion Cellar, a cabaret-style piece mounted by the ART at the Zero Arrow Street Theatre. Moving from that role to Junia, in which Janson was scantily costumed, was, she quips, “going from bear to bare.”

Britannicus ran for more than two dozen performances, but Janson explains that from the actor’s standpoint, “Every night, you’re at the beginning of the story—the story hasn’t been told yet. You have to allow the audience to come with you, through the play. If it’s all handed over to them, if the performers make it too easy for themselves, then it will also be too easy for the audience. It’s not the job of the actor to show emotion, or show the story—you want to evoke emotion from the audience, to enable the audience to experience the story.”

Janson has been connecting with audiences for a long time. She took dance and music lessons from a tender age, and as a six-year-old in Yardley, Pennsylvania, went with her parents to see a neighbor perform in a play, which prompted her to stand up and declare, “That’s what I want to do!” Soon, acting classes joined studies that already included violin, piano, and gymnastics. At Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey, she was active in theater and also played lacrosse, field hockey, and ice hockey.

Photograph by Andrew Brilliant

Janson as Junia in Jean Racine’s Britannicus, with Kevin O’Donnell in the title role.

Colorado College’s strong English department attracted her; Janson, “a huge reader,” also writes fiction and plays. She had her vagabond year, and another year at the Arcola Theater in London, before returning to the States to work for several years with theatrical companies in New York and Philadelphia. She applied to the Institute because, she says simply, “It was time. This was the program I wanted, with outstanding mentors and conservatory-type training. And I wanted to be directly connected with a professional theater.”

After graduating from the Institute in June, she took the starring role of Chevalier in The Deception by Pierre Marivaux, presented last summer by the prestigious Theatre de la Jeune Lune at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. Although she is now based in New York City, she will re-create the role this fall on the Theatre’s home stage in Minneapolis. She plans to “keep a balance,” she says, grinning, “between acting, writing, guitar, piano, and skateboarding.” A thoughtful pause. “The best thing,” she says, “is to keep training.”

~Craig Lambert

Read more articles by Craig Lambert

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