Friday, 15 July 2011

Marketa Kimbrell 1928 - 2011

I dreamt of Marketa and woke up this morning with her advice in my head about the scene I did last night - an "Aha - of course that's what I was forgetting" moment.    I had completely forgotten the flaw theory of comedy - had worked on spine and need, but had weighed down the scene and the character, rather than opened it up.  As soon as she appeared, I knew what I'd needed to do.  I guess that was her last visit to me. The first thing I saw in the New York Times this morning was her obituary.

I'd often rehearsed the idea that she was dead - it sounds crazy, maybe is crazy, but I needed to do that.

The obituary does not mention that she was an original member of the Actors' Studio - her memories of Lee Strasberg are priceless.  It also does not mention her as a founding member of the Lincoln Center Theatre Company, where she did productions with George C. Scott and many others.  She was fiercely protective of animals and their rights, and was easily adopted by dogs looking for homes.  Her New York Street Theatre Caravan took theatre to the people -  she championed theatre in shelters and prisons and anywhere there was a forgotten population.  The values that  informed the Caravan informed every aspect of her life.

Marilyn in class at the Actors Studio
The obituary glosses over what is probably her greatest legacy - her almost 30 years of teaching at Tisch School of the Arts.  Teaching acting to aspiring film directors can be a thankless task, yet I'd venture thousands of students fell in love with Marketa and are much better filmmakers for it.  She fought tirelessly for the rights of the students, made professor despite not having even graduated high school, and in was one of the architects of what makes NYU's filmmakers' work feel so authentic.  

She created a safe space for young filmmakers to explore their craft and their boundaries, to learn  how to become an artist, and to grow.  She not only received a Distinguished Teaching Award, she was also given a huge tribute at NYU for her contributions - something I have never known for any other teacher there.  Her influence was widely felt at Tisch and will be for years to come.

Sidney Lumet - director of The Pawnbroker
As a teacher of film acting, she devised a deceptively simple technique to help actors and directors create real emotional moments despite the fact that film is shot out of order.  Starting with principles that Strasberg and Kazan employed for script analysis, she created her 5 questions.  In this way, each actor could create a strong reality, even for a short close-up within a scene.  She encouraged directors to utilize all the elements of film available to them - light, color, sound, setting - even during the rehearsal process.  She was gentle, patient, knew how to push on something to create challenge, but not obstacle and her immense joy for the craft of acting was present in every breath.  She was always talking about writing a book, but I have long feared she never made it through a draft.

11th floor
After graduating NYU, students would sneak back into her classes and take them.  I think I took class on and off for about 3 years after I left.  It was like a secret workshop, tucked away in 721 Broadway.  The first room we had was like our own little wasteland - a completely gutted and forgotten floor of the building where we'd drag props and abandoned furniture and use building materials lying around to create post-apocalyptic sets.  The people I met in those rooms changed my life, and I'm sure I changed theirs.

It seemed sometimes Marketa was choosing boyfriends for me by pairing me up with certain people - some of the choices were not so great, honestly - though she kept trying to get me to date outside the artist community and repeatedly told me never to marry anyone in the business.  She talked about finding someone outside, someone stable, someone who was not an artist in any way.  It often confounded people that she had been married and had children with someone in the military; she was an ardent pacifist.  Yet she hated oppressive regimes passionately - as well as oppressive strictures governing anything.  She could not stomach cruelty of any kind.

I used to think she knew my path better than I did.  Sometimes I searched her eyes for answers to questions much larger than how to direct a scene or how to really become Nancy Spungen.  I knew she wanted things for me that I hadn't yet learned to want and I knew she tried not to want them for me, but to rather inculcate a freedom to choose within me.  More than anyone, she is responsible for who I am as a person and artist.  If anyone other than me has shaped me, it was Marketa.  Her constant engagement with life and art - she never once looked bored or uninterested  - her kindness and compassion, her willingness to fight authority to protect those who needed protection, her insistence upon process and craft over result - all of these gave her life a resonance well beyond her list of accomplishments.  Like water on parched ground, Marketa poured her talents into others to help them become their best selves.   As far as I could see, she had no vanity, no ego, and no need to pull focus.  Even facing devastating grief, she maintained her commitment to craft and to her students.  She will be carried forward inside all those she touched and everything they create.


Douglas said...

Thanks for your articulate tribute to Marketa. It resonated with me, only when I heard of her passing I found it hard to express my feelings. I remembered a scene from Good Woman of Setzuan I worked on in her class at NYU many years ago. A hard scene when the pilot is going to commit suicide in the rain under the willows. In her gentle. patient/impatient voice Marketa told me to work on the rain. Getting the rain is how I feel now trying to find words to honor this great teacher.

E. Amato said...

Hi Douglas - Thank you so much. "Getting the rain" is a resonant and beautiful image. All expression stems from growing one true thing - in this case, the fact of rain.

ali johnes said...

I just came out of a 5-year production hole and wanting to re-connect with all those I have lost touch with. Marketa was one of them and I just learned today that she died this past summer. The last time I saw Marketa was in 2007 at her home. Thank you for writing a more complete tribute to her.

E. Amato said...

Thank you for reading. You're welcome, as well. The most fitting tribute to Marketa is how many lives feel her loss.