The secret lives of our profs: Kathy Privatt

Andrew Kim

After receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in education, Associate Professor of Theater Arts and James G. and Ethel M. Barber Professor of Theater and Drama Kathy Privatt underwent an ordeal of a year teaching theater and speech at a small-town high school with severe drug problems.

Leaving shortly thereafter, she spent eight years “doing jobs that paid bills and doing theater work on the side,” before returning to school to take her interest in theater further. She received her doctorate in theater from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Now at Lawrence, Privatt is currently directing Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Mandrake,” a Renaissance comedy adapted by Timothy Troy to be set in 1960s America.

AK: How would you compare the experiences of acting in a play to working with student actors?

KP: I would say that both are creative processes. In every single performance of mine, I listen to what other characters say to me and I modify what I give them back. The same is very much true when I’m working with student actors. I am going to be watching what’s happening and adjust accordingly to what I see happening. Everything is in response to what I saw. So I think teaching and directing is, to a certain extent, acting — in the sense that good acting is responding — and that’s also good teaching and good directing.

AK: Is there a genre of theater that you’re partial to?

KP: The very honest answer would be whatever I’m directing right now. Beyond that, my special area has always been American theater. I’m very fond of theater from the ‘30s, partially because so much of it is political — and I enjoy political theater — but also partially because there’s a certain kind of romance to it. There’s a bit of the rose-colored glasses going on. It’s one of my favorite time periods. I just really enjoy the intersection between theater and the time period they’re trying to express — that’s one of the chief joys from working on “The Mandrake” right now.

AK: Apparently you are the “doyenne” of the Alexander Technique here at Lawrence.

KP: It’s true! I have the certificates here to prove it!

AK: You focus on how actors should be aware of their bodies. How does that impact your life outside of acting? Does it make you hypersensitive, in a way?

KP: Yeah, I can understand how you might think it might, but in a lot of ways it’s the exact opposite. I started taking Alexander lessons because an acting coach in my master’s program said to me, “I think you might enjoy this. It will help you quit trying to do everything right.” What he was talking about was that the technique lets you pay attention to the information your body is giving you all the time. If I can change the way I look at the world so that I can include some of that information, it actually minimizes the number of times I get startled by “Oh my gosh, I have a cramp in my lower back. Why?” So it invites you to change your perspective to something that’s a little bit wider. It actually kind of mellows things out a bit. It’s not like the technique is going to say, “Don’t move that way”; it opens back up the possibilities to what you can do.

AK: Looking at your acting career, what would you say has been your favorite role to play?

KP: Oh, yikes. That’s hard. I guess if I had to narrow it down to one, it would be Kate in “Dancing at Lughnasa.” She’s very trapped, and partially by her doing. She has so many restrictions for what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. 25 percent of my ancestry is Irish, so there’s a tie there… and it was a generation that wasn’t so far removed from me. And that was one that my folks got to see. My daddy came up to me afterwards and told me that I made him cry. And my daddy… not publicly expressive, if you know what I’m saying, so… pretty powerful stuff.

AK: Going off of that, it’s pretty obvious that real life is integral to theater. For student actors you work with who might not have the same breadth of life experiences you might have, what would you give them as advice in this endeavor to reflect life?

KP: Any time you approach a character, look for the things that do resonate. There’s probably always something that you can connect to that you can understand at some level. The other advice I would give, with a caveat, is… to watch people. Allow yourself to take the imaginative journey of “so I don’t know them, but what do I imagine when I watch them?” And try them on. That sounds a lot like stalking, but that’s not the intent. So I would say… stalk people appropriately, and don’t get caught.