Sculptors have clay; musicians have instruments; painters have brushes; and actors have their pasts.

“I admire actors so much. They bare their soul. They rip their skin open, take their heart out, and go like this—” said JoAnne Akalaitis, her hand outstretched. “Night after night after night. It’s amazing what they do.”

The significance of one’s own story is at the core of this year’s advanced acting class, thanks to the leadership of Akalaitis, the fifth Denzel Washington Endowed Chair in Theatre.

“I think the bottom line with acting is emotion,” said Akalaitis, an award-winning director. “What an actor uses is his or her imagination and personal history—especially that history—to invent their characters.”

A “giant in American theater,” as Fordham Theatre program Director Matthew Maguire described her, Akalaitis is the second director to be named to the chair, following Kenny Leon in 2014. Over her decades-long career, which includes five Obie Awards and a Drama Desk award for direction and sustained achievement, Akalaitis has become renowned both for her original work and for her reimagining of classic works by Euripides, Shakespeare, Beckett, and others.

Creating a character

In her class, Creating a Character, Akalaitis is helping Fordham acting students delve deep into their art. The students work together on scenes from plays, paying special attention to believability, honesty, understanding storyline, and being in touch with both one’s body and one’s emotions. To do this, actors must go back into their own past experiences. By drawing on real emotions, actors can truly empathize with their characters, rather than merely impersonating them.

“If you’re 18 years old, you’ve got 18 years to work with,” Akalaitis said. “A lot can happen in 18 years.”

JoAnne Akalaitis, Denzel Washington Chair in Theatre
JoAnne Akalaitis, the Denzel Washington Endowed Chair in Theatre.
Photo by Dana Maxson

Before becoming a director, Akalaitis spent 22 years as an actor. She studied with the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, the Open Theater in New York, and with acting virtuoso Jerzy Grotowski. From Grotowski she gained her appreciation for the “medium” actors use to create their art: namely, their personal histories.

Eventually, though, Akalaitis realized that she did not want to spend her career relentlessly revisiting the past—nor did she like acting very much.

“I only liked rehearsal, not performing,” she said. “I was interested in the process, not in repetition.”

Still, her work as an actor became the foundation of her ethos as a director. Theater, she believes, is an “unlonely pursuit.” It is unique in the sense that it is a collaborative process. Each stakeholder in a play—from directors, to playwrights, to actors—has an equally important role in bringing the story to life.

It was this philosophy of collaboration that she had in mind when she founded the critically acclaimed Mabou Mines theater company in 1970 with her ex-husband, composer Philip Glass. Located in New York City’s East Village, the company is an artist-driven coalition dedicated to experimental theater.

“Actors could become writers, writers could become directors, directors could become designers,” she said of Mabou Mines, where she remains a mentor in the resident artist program. “We supported each other in a way that was very unusual. I didn’t ever have to ‘break into’ any [new undertaking]. It was there for me.”

Teaching the next generation of characters

Akalaitis has had scores of young actors under her tutelage. Before occupying the chair endowed by Fordham alumnus Denzel Washington, FCLC ’77, Akalaitis has done workshops and taught at various universities, including Yale, Harvard, and her alma mater, the University of Chicago. She also holds two named professorships—the Wallace Benjamin Flint and L. May Hawver Flint Professor of Theater at Bard College and the Andrew Mellon Co-chair of the Directing Program at Juilliard.

“I like being in urban universities. It feels as if the world is passing through,” she said.

Her stint at Fordham marks her first experience at a Jesuit school (“Though, [in high school]I was an incredible fan of the St. Ignatius basketball team on the west side of Chicago,” she noted), and she says she can appreciate the differences.

“I’m impressed at the diversity here [at Fordham],” she said. “There’s a variety of types and styles and ways of thinking. It feeds into a very refreshing creative energy… And the camaraderie between students in the theatre program is inspiring.”

Meanwhile, Akalaitis is also working on a play she has called Bad News! i Was There…, a compilation of messenger speeches—the bearers of bad news—from classical plays.

It’s the sort of pursuit that she wouldn’t be able to turn down even she wanted to.

“Every once in a while I make these announcements that I’m giving up theater for good,” she said. “I call people and tell them I’m giving it up, but no one takes it that seriously.”

“So, [in the case of Bad News,]about two years ago I’d given it up again when someone from Poets House called and asked me to do something for the River to River Festival. I said, ‘No, I’m not in the theater anymore.’

“But then I had an idea for a new show.”