Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

A maestro of movement

Jewel Walker, professor of theatre, has written, directed and performed in numerous plays and has trained generations of professional actors, including Ted Danson and Holly Hunter.

But, in reviewing his 33-year career, Walker says more people probably know him from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood than for all of his other past productions.

In the mid-1960s, when Walker was teaching and performing mime at what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers was trying to get his new television program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, off the ground. Walker became Mime Walker, a regular on the program who walked a tight rope in a circus, rushed to see his friend give birth to a baby and traveled with Mr. Rogers into the land of make-believe.

His talent as a mime and his gift for training actors in stage movement is evident in Tuesday, a play written and directed by Walker now being performed by the Professional Theatre Training Program, or PTTP-UD's graduate program in acting, stage management and technical theatre.

"Tuesday is a silent play that illustrates all the events that can take place on the street in one day," Walker says. Actors in Tuesday portray all sorts of characters-from girls playing hopscotch, to boys playing baseball on a summer afternoon, to a police officer directing traffic. The play, which was performed at Newark's Community Day in the fall, toured schools in the state. Tuesday also enjoyed an off-Broadway run in 1979.

It's hard to believe that Walker never planned to enter the world of acting. His first job was with a minor league baseball team in Gainesville, Fla. When it seemed his baseball career would be "unprofitable," he moved to New York City. There, as an experiment, he started taking acting classes during the evening at Carnegie Hall. To his surprise, he soon found he enjoyed acting, and he received professional support from his teachers who encouraged him to continue.

From 1955 to the early 1960s, Walker studied with Vera Soloviova, Herbert Bergoff, Lee Strasberg and Etienne Decroux. It was Decroux, who trained actors in his New York City flat that doubled as a studio, who really sparked Walker's interest in studying mime. "He used you completely," Walker says of the man with whom he trained every day, twice a day, for four years.

In 1964, Walker was offered a position to teach and perform mime with the professional theatre company at Carnegie Mellon, where, for the next 13 years, he taught, directed and served as head of stage movement.

During this time, Walker trained such actors as Judith Light of Who's the Boss?, Albert Brooks of Mother, Bruce Weitz of Hill Street Blues, Mike Tucker of L.A. Law and Broadway star Cherry Jones.

Walker and Sanford Robbins, now chairperson of UD's Department of Theatre, created a professional theatre training program at the University of Wisconsin in 1977.

"Jewel was the first person I hired to begin the program at Wisconsin," says Robbins. "He has been considered the leading teacher of stage movement in the country for more than 25 years. He pioneered the teaching of movement to actors in this country, and many of his ideas and innovations have become standard in the field."

In 1989, the theatre program moved to Delaware as the PTTP, a three-year program that attracts approximately 500 applicants for each new class, from which 25-35 students are selected.

Walker heads the acting area, the largest division of the program, with 35 students enrolled, and he incorporates his love of mime by teaching all the movement classes. "Jewel's aesthetic and pedagogic genius is at the heart of the PTTP," Robbins says.

At Delaware, Walker has trained and directed some soon-to-be-famous actors, including Steve Harris of the current television drama The Practice, Lee Ernst of the Summer American Players Theatre and Hollywood actress Lindsay Frost.

"I'm learning so much from him," says Gerson Decanay, a second-year student in the program. "He taught us that every movement means something to our audience and that our bodies can enhance their listening.

"Simply said, the guy's a genius."

-Emily P. Young, AS '98