Virginia Commonwealth University Newsletter
(2001, source details unknown)
“What are you feeling right now? What do you want your character to accomplish?”
These questions echoed off the wooden floors and ceiling beams of the acting studio as Randle Mell, an accomplished Broadway and film actor, dug into a student’s psyche to give a prepared monologue new life.
“I feel frustrated, angry and sad,” he said, his eyes shut tight as Mell peppered him with more questions, intent on helping him discover the emotions that he needed to truly identify with his character. The other students leaned forward in their chairs, as if directing their energy to help their classmate focus.
This scene was replayed in eight VCU acting classes as Mell and his wife, Oscar-nominated actress Mary McDonnell, taught classes and visited with students as Theatre VCU Guest Artists, March 5-8.
David Leong, MFA, chairman of the Theatre Department, has previously worked with both actors and invited them to teach for one week at VCU.
“All top-notch theater training programs bring in notable theater artists to inspire and encourage the students,” said Leong. “With Dr. Trani’s support, our department now joins the elite group of university theater training programs that offer this service to students. Having worked with both Mary McDonnell and Randy Mell, I knew their professional credentials and interest in teaching would complement the mission of Theatre VCU. They are also generous and giving people, and that makes the experience more rewarding.”
McDonnell is perhaps best known for her performances in Passion Fish (Best Actress nomination) and Dances with Wolves (Best Supporting Actress nomination). She has also had roles in Sneakers, Grand Canyon, Blue Chips, Tiger Warsaw, Matewan and Independence Day. On television, she starred in the CBS series High Society and in TNT’s The American Clock. Her stage credits include the Broadway productions of Summer Smoke and The Heidi Chronicles. She made her New York theater debut in Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer-prize winning Buried Child, and in 1981 received an Obie for her performance in Emily Mann’s Still Life. Her next project is a pilot for a television show starring Tom Skerritt and Patrick Dempsey titled, Chestnut Hill.
Mell has appeared on Broadway in Macbeth, Noises Off and Rainmaker. His off-Broadway credits include The Cradle Will Rock (a Drama Desk nominee), The Crucible and Savage in Limbo. He has had roles in the film productions Grand Canyon, Wyatt Earp, The City of Hope, Eight Men Out, Fearless, The Postman and Cookie’s Fortune. His television performances include roles in Separate But Equal, The Kennedys of Massachusetts, The American Clock, Oh, Pioneers and The Cradle will Rock for PBS.
“We’ve only appeared in one movie together,” said McDonnell. “In ‘Grand Canyon’, he was the homeless man who kept giving me advice.” McDonnell and Mell have been married for 15 years and reside in Los Angeles with their two children.
During classes, the couple described the reality of being a two-actor family. Mell primarily works in New York, while McDonnell does most of her filming in Los Angeles or on location.
The couple often juggles the demands of a growing family from opposite sides of the coast, with help from a nanny. But even when they are together, their family life can be complicated by their work. For example, while at VCU, they had to make arrangements for their 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, to take a field trip with her class from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., nervous all the while that the trip would be cancelled due to bad weather. Meanwhile, they had to find a playmate for six-year-old Michael, who still loves to travel with his parents, but needs to be entertained while his parents work.
From Stage to Classroom
Not only does their love of acting show when Mell and McDonnell are working with students, but so does their love of teaching.
“I love the art and craft of acting, and teaching allows us to revisit that,” said Mell.
“When you are teaching, you’re brought back into an environment that is familiar,” added McDonnell. “It is like stepping back into your roots, and that is a good reminder for me. You get busy with other agendas that are attached to your career. I feel stimulated in new ways when I teach.”
While Mell and McDonnell have both taught college acting classes before, this was the first opportunity for them to work together.
One question that continually came up during the week was if acting students could get as much out of their education at VCU and be as prepared for an acting career as students who attend college in New York or California. McDonnell assured students that they could get everything they needed from an education at VCU, but Mell added that no matter where you earn your degree, there will be a lot of hard work before you become successful.
“You have to learn by working,” he said. “Most of my knowledge comes from the experience of doing it. I have learned things from directors that I would never learn in the classroom.”
Elizabeth Brinkley, a second year graduate student in theater, understands how invaluable it can be to have accomplished actors share their own struggles and experiences with students. “We are blessed at VCU to have professionals working with us everyday,” she said of the faculty. “But to bring in these professionals is an extra blessing for us.”
Brinkley described her turn at delivering a monologue in front of McDonnell: “Sheer terror,” she said, laughing. “But that terror actually worked for the monologue I was doing. She really pulled the emotions out of me. She didn’t criticize — she gave guidance and assistance. My acting teacher told me afterwards that it was the best acting I’d done. I was inspired by working with both of them. They were genuinely nice, honest people.”
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