What Bill and Elaine May did for me

As a young woman in the last blush of my teenage years, I studied acting at the HB Studio in New York's Greenwich Village. The classes were very inexpensive, fortunate, considering my salary of $43 a week. This sum was earned from selling South American artifacts at Piñata Party, a little import shop located on MacDougal Street.

I loved the classes and especially the opportunity to study with William "Bill" Hickey, who had a well-deserved reputation for excellent and insightful instruction. He peppered teaching with anecdotes about members of his Irish family, one of whom was a conductor on the Staten Island Ferry. I tried to never miss a session and cherished each class. The structure of the classes was progressive, beginning with a series of simple improvisational sessions and leading to more complex scene studies.

After three years of intense work with, for the most part, the same group of students, I was able to enter the advanced scene study class that met every Sunday morning. Bill loved teaching at 10 a.m. Sundays because only the most dedicated actors in training would arise at such an ungodly hour.

One dreary winter's day, Bill Hickey slipped on the ice and suffered a concussion that required extended hospitalization. He did not want to suspend the classes and brought in substitute teachers. At first we had other instructors from the studio until a more permanent replacement could be found.

Just imagine how I felt when I learned that one of Bill's myriad of friends, the remarkable Elaine May, had volunteered to teach for him. What a remarkable opportunity, and how kind it was of this brilliant woman to help out her friend! The way that our scene study classes were organized involved working with different partners for several weeks in a row. My partner during the time Elaine was going to teach was a woman in her 50s named Dorothy. She was fairly new to the class, having decided to pursue acting since her children were grown.

We chose to work on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams called "Hello from Bertha," in which I was cast, if memory serves me, as a syphilitic prostitute. What I do remember clearly is doing research on primary, secondary and tertiary syphilis. And quite honestly, as a 19-year-old, this role was well beyond my understanding and certainly not one on which I wanted to spend my valuable lessons with Elaine May. We spent six weeks working on the scene, addressing nuance after nuance. Elaine was an extraordinary perfectionist, and every gesture had to be carefully orchestrated. Classes went well over the assigned one-hour-and-a-half period. I lived right next door to the studio on Bank Street, and we often adjourned there when our room at the studio was needed.

I remember how other teachers tried to draw Elaine away before she became exhausted from the intense concentration needed to teach acting, a task requiring rigorous focus. Dorothy proved a wonderful partner and was far more able to capture her role as the dying prostitute than I felt I, with my shallow interpretation, was. I grew to admire how bold she was at starting over and living out a dream that had been put to the wayside for many years. Working on this scene week after week was a humbling experience, one in which I ploddingly persisted.

When at last Bill returned to teach his classes, "Hello from Bertha" was finally put to rest. However, the experience provided me with the opportunity to work closely with a person who was picking up on a goal that had taken second place many years earlier.

What exuberance and satisfaction my partner demonstrated. How grateful for the amazing opportunity of working with the master teachers Bill Hickey and Elaine May. Whether she became a working actress or not remains left to the imagination. Memorable to me was that Dorothy followed her own Yellow Brick Road. Reaching a similar crossroad myself, I dearly wish to be as courageous to do the same.

When children leave the nest, family constellations alter, and consistent patterns are shattered. As the New Year arrived, along with promising the new, it may be time to shake out the old. Although my early dream of becoming an actress was long ago silenced, the experiences learned under master teachers have continued to inspire me and have been passed down to my students.

Wonderful examples of people in transition filter through my memory: the amazing Loretta, for instance, who dreamed of becoming a nurse and instead married at 16 and quickly became the mother of two children. Years later, divorced, she completed her GED, entered a community college and eventually earned a degree as a registered nurse. At the time she graduated it was difficult to secure a position. Not for Loretta, however: her aplomb and passion for the field found its home as a supervisor on a geriatric ward.

Then there is Ursula, a union contractor who dreamed of a high school diploma and was fearful oftaking the GED as a dyslexic. It took time to break through the bureaucracy, but we did it, and this woman, well over 50, became the first person to take the test untimed with a reader. Her persistence paved the way for others with learning differences.

I am sure that you, too, if of a certain age with children leaving or soon to leave home, have ambitions that could light up the sky like stars. Hold on to them, do not be discouraged and reawaken the dormant. Find a mentor, for there are many Bill Hickeys and Elaine Mays out there, just waiting to lend a hand.