Exit the Queen

The one and only Harlene Marley - teacher, director, class act - retires

Sentiment won't do. No wallowing in nostalgia, please. No mush.

It's true that, with Harlene Marley's retirement, the Kenyon drama program loses part of its soul. The College, moreover, loses part of its modern history--the first woman to become a regular member of the faculty, arriving even as the first female students arrived in 1969.

But sentiment misses the mark. For one thing, Marley is a supremely unsentimental person herself. Act II is over: Act III begins. That's as it should be, in Marley's view, and all the better because the scene shifts southward, far from Ohio winters.

Marley has always been a traveler, anyway, flying off to see new productions in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and London, city-hopping across the country to judge student plays for the American College Theater Festival, and in the process visiting the many Kenyon alumni with whom she stays in touch. Despite thirty-five years as a force and an icon at the College, she has never been "of" Gambier, never rooted in local pleasures and squabbles. It's not just her worldliness. It's what one student calls her "completeness."

"Harlene remains Harlene," says a colleague.

On May 21, Marley gave the Baccalaureate address to the graduating Class of 2004, and a week later she headed for Mesa, Arizona, and a year of sabbatical, to be followed by retirement proper. What remained were indelible memories of an extraordinary figure. Her decisiveness. Her smarts. Her inimitable laugh. Her inimitable presence.

It's palpable, this presence, but hard to dissect.

Part of it resides in the maxims that former students of every era remember, pearls of Marley wisdom, enunciated with perfect diction and a dash of humor.

"All plays are about sex and money."

"There's always a cat, and there's always a mouse."

"If you turn the sound off, you should still know exactly what's going on in the scene."

Instead of "blah, blah, blah," she says, "blah-ta-da, blah-ta-da, blah-ta-da." And, most famously, she calls class to an end with the trademark closer, "All right now, go away."

The grace notes on blah-blah and the comic abruptness of go away reflect a distinctive Marley mixture of sophistication and directness. It's not some put-on persona. She embodies, quite simply, herself. Melanie Lichtenstein Ellsworth '98, founder of the Dance and Drama Alumni Association, and organizer of a party that brought generations of alumni to the Bolton Theater to honor Marley after her last production in April, puts it succinctly: "She's classy."

The Marley mystique emanates from a combination of gestural grace and sheer integrity. "She always has perfect posture," says Ellsworth. "She's almost like a dancer, as if she's above everything, floating."

Virtually every student who has ever encountered Marley remembers an initial sensation of being in the presence of an unusual force. "The first time you met her, it was intimidating," says Brad Bennett '04. "It's the way she carries herself and talks to you. She's so knowledgeable, but she never condescends. It's just her confidence and how intelligent she is. Within five minutes of meeting her, you wanted to earn her respect."

The first-years were intimidated, too, perhaps, by the fact that older students referred to her as Queen Harlene. "You don't really get it at first," says Bennett. "Then you work with her and it clicks."

Professor of Drama Thomas Turgeon, Marley's colleague since 1972 and the drama program's paterfamilias to her elegant mater, attributes the respect she engenders to her clarity and decisiveness. "She's clear, resolute, and unambiguous," says Turgeon. "She's admired because she's in charge. There's a standard there, and the students want to meet that standard."

In class, whether it was "Baby Drama" or one of the advanced courses on directing, Marley brooked no nonsense. "She has the ability to set very specific and reasonable limits for her students, and she does not waver from those," says Associate Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell '84, who knows Marley not only as a colleague but also as a former student. "She treats you as an adult. She says, 'This is what I expect from you.'"

Her rigorous attention to the essentials--telling a story, fashioning scenes to serve the story--grounded students in the craft underlying theater's power. Ellsworth remembers an exercise in the course "The Director" in which the students had to break down every scene in a play, analyzing "the tactics for each beat in the scene," each choice a director had to make in terms of gesture, inflection, body language. "It was hard," she says. "You expect all of this to happen magically."

Rigor prevailed even in "Voice and Diction," the Marley course that always attracted large numbers of non-majors--future lawyers who wanted to speak in public without quaking, science jocks who needed to fulfill the fine-arts requirement. According to Beth Schaefer Bruner '80, when Marley learned that the football team was calling the course "Breathing for Credit," she stiffened the requirements--everyone would have to learn the phonetic alphabet.

Wendy MacLeod '81, Kenyon's playwright-in-residence and another former Marley student turned colleague, remembers Marley in the classroom as "powerful, not nicey-nice in a conventional feminine sense"--but wholly caring as well. "She's both fierce and supportive," says MacLeod.

MacLeod and her classmates used to do a "Harlene cigarette impersonation." At the time, MacLeod recalls, Marley would always teach "with a cigarette squeezed between two fingers, tight. When she put the cigarette down in an ashtray, you could see the indentation on it, from the fierceness of her grip."

The supportiveness was fierce too, in the sense of stemming from genuine care. Marley never missed student productions. She gave honest advice, sometimes telling students things they didn't want to hear. She was "compassionate without being patronizing," wrote Liza Wirtz '89 in the tribute book that alumni compiled for the April party.

The result was that students depended on her as a source of stability and authenticity. "I felt so comforted hearing your laugh in the audience when I was on stage," wrote Erin Dowdy '01 in the tribute book, "and having you in the room during orals, knowing I had you in my corner, believing in me."

The expansive laugh, ringing out in class and in rehearsals, has always been a kind of landmark for students, reminding them of the particular community they inhabited by virtue of their ties to Marley. "Harlene has one of the world's great laughs," wrote Elliott Holt '97. "It is truly infectious, and whenever I heard it echo from the seats in the audience, everything seemed right with the world."

Since 1998, another part of the landscape has been Marley's dog Nettie, an extraordinarily mellow Jack Russell Terrier who accompanies her to the office, departmental meetings, oral exams, interviews with job candidates, and rehearsals. "Harlene is as tough as nails," says MacLeod, "and she melts around that dog."

Marley grew up in Helena, Oklahoma, and went to a school--it housed grades one through twelve--that got her involved in theater and music. (It's typical of her dedication as a correspondent that she still stays in touch with one of her high-school teachers.) At Oklahoma City University, she majored in music (voice) but found it too hard and switched to theater. Music has remained an important part of her life--she plays piano, sang with the Harcourt Parish choir in Gambier for much of her time at Kenyon, and carefully incorporated music in her productions.

She earned an M.F.A. at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1965, and, after teaching stints at private schools in Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, and a year on the faculty of Central Missouri State College, arrived at Kenyon in 1969. She was twenty-nine years old, and if she was at all self-conscious about being the first woman ever hired for a tenure-track position, it wasn't apparent in the choice she made for her debut production: Peter Weiss's ambitious, powerful Marat/Sade.

Much has been written about Marley's female firsts at the College--the first woman to chair a department, to become a full professor, and so on. She was, perhaps unavoidably, treated as a token: asked to join countless committees, invited to lots of social gatherings. "There was a time when you couldn't have a cocktail party without inviting Harlene, just to show that there was a woman on the Kenyon faculty," recalls Tom Turgeon. And there is the often-told story about a faculty wife asking Marley to bake cookies for a party, only to face a blunt question in return: "Have you asked any of the male professors to bake cookies?"

For students, the most vivid Marley memories involve not the string of institutional firsts but rather the string of productions. Alumni contributing anecdotes to the tribute book range from Mike Lynch '77, whom Marley cast as a dead body in The Real Inspector Hound and who went on to become a librarian (doing community theater on the side), to Meg Merckens '75, whose student role as Portia in The Merchant of Venice (she remembers Marley telling her to "lose the Cleveland accent") led to a successful career in acting.

"Harlene is a fantastic director," says Jonathan Tazewell, who in 2000 played the lead in Marley's production of Othello. (Turgeon played Iago.) "She takes a traditional position. Her feeling is that her primary responsibility is to create the stage pictures for the audience." As a result, she trusts her actors and gives them a good deal of freedom.

"The shows are never about Harlene," says Tazewell. "They are about the story and about the performances on the stage."

Marley herself has occasionally taken the stage at Kenyon, most memorably in September 1987, when she played Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Turgeon played George, and Tazewell played Nick.

But, mainly, she has been a nurturer of other actors--and playwrights, and directors, and stage managers, and arts administrators, and teachers and professors, who pass on the Marley lessons to their own students, or, as Marley calls them, her "grand-students."

Asked to list some alumni with whom she regularly stays in touch, Marley will begin reciting names, complete with class years, and will be in the dozens before interrupting herself to ask, "Do you want me to go on?" She exchanges letters, cards, and e-mail messages with them; she keeps up with their lives, their glories and struggles. She drops in for weekend visits.

They, in turn, harbor a kind of inner Marley against which they measure the quality of their efforts. "If I do a production, I try to imagine what Harlene would think," says Tazewell. Others report much the same feeling.

It seems that if you studied with Marley, worked in one of her productions, or mounted your own play under her guidance, you came to count on the fact that Harlene remains Harlene. And when you left Kenyon, you left with a star to steer by.

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