18 May 2008

James O. Barnhill

The story goes that Jim Barnhill came to Providence in pursuit of a pretty girl. He was fresh out of the Navy and ready to launch his future. In the meantime, he finagled a job at Brown University mostly as an excuse to continue the courtship. The girl got away, but Jim stayed. Some 30 years later, as I sat in his acting class, he explained that he was “brought up in the South but lived in the Northeast, and I’ve never felt quite at home in either place.”

My youthful ears caught only the romance, not the wistfulness, of his words. At the time, I understood that I, too, was a transplanted Southerner, but I didn’t understand that I, too, might some day feel the way Jim did. Like him, I’d reach a certain age, still a bachelor, still unsure what place to call home.

It’s in the nature of teaching to impart lessons, and yet very few of the lessons Jim taught me had anything at all to do with acting. This was in part due to my peculiar talent: I was awfully good at Molière, and not much else, while most of my energy was devoted to a kind of acting that had nothing to do with theater. Onstage or off, I was fully committed to the role of a person I was not, a character of my own invention, an erudite, preppy, liberal Democrat from Litchfield, Connecticut. I had nothing left to invest in the characters of Eugene O’Neill, or anyone else.

Jim was mostly gracious, if hardheaded, about my prospects in theater. Any conversation about my future invariably turned toward his urgent recommendation that I look into graduate programs in arts administration — not acting. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had less talent for administration than I did for performing, and in time we both learned to talk of other things.

At the time we knew each other best, Jim was in his 60s and the oldest man I knew. Somehow we settled into a pattern that has held with every subsequent friendship I’ve enjoyed with an older man: Burgess Meredith, Dan Rather, Henri Boutrit, even my father. There’s a bit of Quixote and Sancho, a bit of Hamm and Clov, a bit of Gloucester and Edgar (or Lear and the Fool) to each of these relationships, and sometimes I wonder: Would I have behaved the same way with these men, if I hadn’t known Jim Barnhill?

One sample of our interaction: Jim was a prodigious storyteller, but not endowed with the world’s most retentive memory.* Over time, I came to hear enough of his stories that on some occasions I became his prompter.

JOB: “I was in summer stock, performing in a play — er — ah — ”

WVM: “The Solid Gold Cadillac?”

JOB: “The Solid Gold Cadillac. And the star was a marvelous actress, named — er — ah — ”

WVM: “Josephine Hull?”

JOB: “Josephine Hull, who was so marvelous in the movie, Harvey, with Jimmy Stewart. But in the play, she couldn’t remember her — er — ah — ”

WVM: “Lines?”

JOB: “Lines. So she wrote her lines all over the stage — on the blotter on her desk — even on the inside of her — er — ah — ”

WVM: “Brassiere?”

JOB: “Brassiere! Heh-heh-heh.”

I may exaggerate a bit — though not much, and that is precisely one of the stories in question. Later, with other friends, particularly with Dan Rather, this model of reciter and prompter was adhered to slavishly. Jim trained me well.

Good-looking as a young man, he grew into a face that was meant to be caricatured, with a creased nose, a curling lower lip, and a brooding brow. The artist best able to do him justice, I think, was Sir John Tenniel, and flipping through the Alice books, you will see bits of him in the Carpenter’s face and in the White Knight’s hair, and sometimes even in the Duchess’ scowl. He had a richly resonant voice, with impeccably precise diction; and memorably eccentric gestures that could be Buddhic (“And buh-ghee, and buh-goo,” as Tom Dunlop translated it) or benedictory (“Press on!”) or both, palms upraised to his destiny.

This made him an irresistible target for mimics — and in acting class, each and every student is by nature and design a mimic. Literally hundreds, probably thousands of Brunonians can “do” Jim Barnhill, and the secret to our success lies most especially in our utter conviction that, when we imitate him, we look like him, too.

And we may be right. Years after leaving Brown, I discovered that a colleague at CBS News had studied with Jim. Instantly, she and I began to perform “Duelling Barnhills” — until somebody called security. What was charming in Jim could be alarming in others.**

Jim was a pretty good mimic himself, and one of his favorite subjects was Ben Brown, who launched the acting program at Brown (yes, there’s a relation) and divorced it from the English Department. Jim’s favorite story was of the time a Providence doyenne crossed swords with Ben. “Who does Laura Sharp think she is?” Jim/Ben roared in orotund indignation. “Everyone knows the Sharps were the Browns’ indentured servants!”


He was, I admit, a bit of a ham. I’ve never seen anyone happier to be onstage than Jim, singing Bunthorne’s song from Patience at the end of a rehearsal, his little gift to the rest of us. I’d come to realize, years earlier, that theater was a form of worship, from its origins as a religious rite. Bruce Donovan stressed that the Ancient Greeks sang their tragedies, and I instantly recognized that opera must therefore be the truest form of theater, and the holiest ritual. But Jim Barnhill showed me that even spoken theater offers ecstasies and epiphanies.

His frequent exhortations, “More! Bigger!” were not, as I came to understand, merely stage directions. They were exultations and prayers, expressions of Jim’s philosophy, the best advice he could give us for leading happy lives.

He could be a wonderful mentor, and when it was announced that he would direct a mainstage production of Bernstein’s Candide, I went to him immediately, months in advance. I told him I wanted to be involved, but that I knew I’d never be cast in the show.

“What makes you say that?” he asked.

“It’s an operetta. And I can’t sing.”

“Oh,” said Jim thoughtfully. “Well, you never know. There might be a part for you — ”

I cut him off. “I’d like to be your stage manager,” I said.

And Jim’s face was instantly transformed. He’d been struggling to be polite, but this idea made perfect sense. I was hired on the spot, and the skills I acquired backstage during Candide gave me the skills I needed — not so much technical as interpersonal — when I worked on Rags and even today, when I hang out with actors and singers. Stage management wasn’t a career path, but it led to a consistently rewarding part of my life, and largely because Jim Barnhill gave me a chance.

It must be said that not all of Jim’s qualities were sterling, though one could sometimes defend them. He was exceedingly impressed by students who already had connections in Hollywood and on Broadway. This was insulting to the rest of us, and yet it was only right, because those kids had an undeniable advantage.

Life is not fair — why should acting class be fair?

Jim let us savage each other after scene work, offering “criticism” that cut deep. He’d let us go on wounding each other for brutal quarter-hours before stopping us. (In one of the mildest of these episodes, Sasha Zieff complained of my monologue, “It’s like you’re masturbating up there.” Regrettably, though I had the rejoinder at the ready, I didn’t answer, “Better with myself than with you.” Jim didn’t intervene.)

And yet a working actor has to endure far worse.

Sometimes his suggestions for scene work were impenetrable. After two students performed an impressionistic scene of writhing and wordless groaning and shrieking, ostensibly derived from Dante’s Inferno, Jim questioned the choices. “There was lots of ‘Eeeeeee’ and ‘Aaaaaaaarrggh,’” he conceded, “but where was this sound: K-k-k-k-k-k-k?”

Why would a tormented soul in Hell say “K-k-k-k-k-k-k”? No idea. But in preparing a scene, shouldn’t an actor be open to any and all suggestions?

And he was an excellent dancer, which was not objectionable in itself except one night at a party, when he began to jitterbug with my girlfriend. Not jitterbugging in quotation marks, not a simulacrum of the form or an imitation, but the real deal: they knew what they were doing. Melia is an infinitely better dancer than I, but she had the courtesy to restrain herself when we danced together, so that I didn’t look like an idiot. With Jim, she could really cut loose.

They were gorgeous together. Their bodies understood each other, and time stopped. Jim was young and handsome, and Melia the child of art and history. Meanwhile, totally emasculated, I could only watch the son of a bitch do with my girlfriend what I could never do.

The lesson here? Well, without an audience, there is no theater.

And thus, in a roundabout way, Jim’s class and Jim himself taught us plenty. Sometimes practical skills, sometimes professional. Most, though, were life lessons, drawn from the dramatic conflict of a play, or from an anecdote he told, or from a newspaper article he shared with me over coffee in the Blue Room, or from the infuriating way he made it perfectly clear that, in 25 years, he would recognize Jared Seide but not me. If I see Jim in Providence at Reunion this week, I’m confident he will not remember anything about me.*

But it doesn’t matter, really. Jim did his job already.

One night in the lobby at Faunce House, someone pointed out to me the woman whom Jim had followed to Providence. At least, that’s who we believed her to be. She seemed pretty enough, yet rather dull. Perhaps all those years of marriage to another man had sapped her of her more seductive qualities. Perhaps Jim saw in her that which we could not see. Or perhaps no one on earth could embody, to our satisfaction, the irresistible force that had driven Jim Barnhill to change so many lives — beginning with his own.

*UPDATE: Either I have done Jim an intolerable injustice, or his memory has improved immeasurably during the intervening 25 years. I discovered him this weekend at Brown, and although he has taught generations of actors, he did indeed remember little ol’ me. He is fit and active, and already quite fully aware of any bit of news I tried to share with him: he was fully up-to-date on the current activities of Andy Weems, Melia Bensussen, and Merrill Gruver, for example. I was reminded of Sillery, the Oxford professor in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, whose intelligence (in the espionage sense of the word) is flawless, and whose influence extends far beyond the classroom and into every level of English society and politics. We are all Jim Barnhill’s students — we are all taking his direction — whether or not you knew it before now.

**We were even more alarmed when we realized that others might be imitating us. The best Barnhill imitator, hands-down, was Andy Weems. While in graduate school at the University of California at San Diego, Andy taught acting; he’s pretty certain that among his students was Andrew Cunanan, soon to gain fame as a serial killer. We realized with a shock that as an acting student, Cunanan must unquestionably have done an Andy Weems imitation. What is not known is whether Cunanan imitated Andy Weems imitating Jim Barnhill.

5 comments:

Rebel Deb said...

I loved this. I'm an old friend of Jim's, too, as well as a transplanted Southerner he inspired. Thanks for posting. :)

Anna Fields

Tom said...

A terrific portrait of a great man and utterly unique acting teacher. To the kudos given Andy Weems -- as an actor and teacher and mimic -- I must also hand off to him the invention of "buh-ghee and buh-goo." If he didn't invent it, I don't know the man who did.

And my impersonation of Jim is really nothing more than a carbon copy of Andy's -- as is Kevin Pariseau's of mine. Except I can also credit Kevin with the utterly disassociated, stroke-like, but still hilarious filigree to the "buh-ghee and buh-goo" Barnhill distillation: "buh-GHAAAAK!")

Thanks for this great post, Bill.

Tom

Unknown said...

i am trying to get in touch with jim, i knew him during his trips to india. can you plz send me his contact details, please please.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for writing. You should be able to reach Jim by mail in care of the Theater Department at Brown.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! I howled at the "kkkk". Good to know it wasn't just in OUR year that the children of famous people got all the parts. Terrific article, wonderful to go back there.