TAPS professor takes final bow after 28 years

Students laud Lowry Marshall’s mentorship, performance insights and commitment to U. theater

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2014

Retiring Theater and Performing Arts Professor Lowry Marshall has taught Pulitzer Prize winners and Tony-nominated actors.

Lowry Marshall moved about her cluttered office, highlighting the several photographs and promotional posters that adorn it. “You know who that is,” she said, as she passed by a photograph of her and Morgan Freeman. A photo of Marshall and Paul Sills, a founder of the Second City in Chicago, leans against books on her shelf, next to a magazine cutout of John Krasinski ’01 resting on a large frame.

“John’s first role at Brown was in drag in my production of Tennesse Williams’ ‘Camino Real,’” she said.

Marshall, professor of theater arts and performance studies, marvels at many posters of past shows and photos of former students, who are now Pulitzer Prize winners, Tony-nominated actors and graduates of the world’s most prestigious MFA programs. Through various Theater and Performing Arts classes and the summer theater program she established, Marshall helped to nurture each of their voices.

After 28 years of teaching and directing at the University, Marshall has recently announced her retirement.

Though Marshall tends to shine a spotlight on her students and their remarkable evolutions as actors and writers, not dwell on herself, many students said Marshall has been integral to their development and to the advancement of Brown’s theater program.

“If you’re interested in doing theater, you come to Brown knowing who Lowry is,” said Skylar Fox ’15. Fox performed in Marshall’s productions of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” in the fall of 2011 and in “A Streetcar Named Desire” last semester. He has also taken her TAPS 0230: “Acting” and TAPS 1160: “Style and Performance” courses.

“Before I met Lowry, she was this character that I had heard about,” said Josh Linden ’14, who has taken  “Acting” and TAPS 1210: “Solo Performance” with Marshall. “There’s a Lowry vernacular that gets passed around the community.”

Marshall has become so famous within the theater community that her students have recorded “Lowry-isms” and developed impersonations that don’t always resemble the real figure.

“You can’t talk about Lowry without a southern accent,” said Alex Lee ’14, a Brown/RISD dual degree student. “There’s a Lowry impression, but Lowry doesn’t sound like it,” added Alejandra Flavia ’14. Flavia and Lee have taken Marshall’s beginner and advanced classes, participated in her summer theater program and worked closely with her on the Sock and Buskin board.

Before arriving at Brown in 1986, Marshall attended the University of South Carolina. She worked as an actor in New York before she returned to school to earn her MFA from Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory. She also taught at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and coordinated the MFA program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Marshall did all this while raising twin toddlers, Logan Marshall-Green — who is now known for his performances on “The O.C.” and in the film “Prometheus” — and Taylor Marshall-Green — a reality television producer who currently produces the show “My Cat from Hell” on Animal Planet.

Reflecting on simultaneously studying for her MFA and raising her sons, Marshall said, “I depended on the kindness of strangers, as Blanche DuBois would say, and I got a lot of good strangers who helped me out.”

When Marshall earned a teaching position at the University in 1986, she moved with her young twins to Cranston. Once at Brown, Marshall founded the annual Alumni Cabaret, which brings together past and present performers for commencement, and started the Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theatre in 2005. She also established “Solo Performance,” a class that culminates in a festival of solo shows.

Lee said “Solo” is the best class she has taken at Brown. “It’s a different beast,” she said. “You come into class every day, you cut your heart out, and you put it on the table, and everybody has to touch your heart.”

In the class, students work with Marshall over the course of the semester to write and produce a 50-55 minute solo show. Though students write one-character shows, they work collaboratively. “Solo but not alone” is the class’s motto, which is also emblazoned on all of the shows’ promotional posters.

Additionally, with Marshall’s guidance and superior perception, the course  becomes “half acting class, half psychoanalysis,” Linden said.

Marshall’s students said she has an astonishing intuition and knows exactly what actors or scenes require. “She’s a very practical, intelligent thinker about how things function on stage, how people function on stage,” Fox said, adding that Marshall provides “a map for how to work as an actor and director.”

Marshall also employs this instinct in her productions. She pays close attention to every detail on a stage, said Anna Reed ’15, who has taken “Acting,” performed in “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and starred as Blanche DuBois in “Streetcar.”

To prepare for “Streetcar,” Marshall traveled to New Orleans the summer before rehearsals began. She wanted to understand the city that playwright Tennessee Williams conceptualized.

“There’s not a lot of truth in the way Williams deals with the geography in New Orleans. He moves things around,” Marshall said. So she returned to the city to follow his footsteps.

“I felt like I was on his tail the whole time. I was chasing behind him, going to places where he had written the play itself, seeing the restaurants and eating in the restaurants, one where he had been a waiter,” she said. “I felt him come to life in New Orleans.”

In addition to understanding the intention of the author and the demands of the text, Marshall has the capacity to recognize the needs of her students and to mentor accordingly. When Marshall noticed Reed’s rigid physicality as Blanche — what she called “Velcro arms’’ — Marshall encouraged Reed to wear gloves, Reed said. Reed then wore large, red gloves for the latter half of the rehearsal process and soon realized what she did with her hands during each delivery.

Many of Marshall’s students had these revelatory experiences. Flavia said, “It was with Lowry that I discovered what kind of actor I was.”

For Reed, Marshall’s acting class “taught me what it took to be an actor. Prior to all of that, acting was very much putting on a mask and working outer to inner.”

Students said working with Marshall pushed them to find their dramatic voices for writing or to develop deeper identities for acting. And Marshall believes Brown students in particular have a special intellectual capacity to do so.

“Brown is the best place in the country to teach acting,” Marshall said. “The people who come here to do theater come because they want the intellectual stimulation of a place like Brown.”

Unlike in other bachelors of fine arts programs, “We teach our students what to say,” she added. “They have something to say rather than know how to say something.”

The success of the students’ performances and solo productions are due in part to student talent, but Marshall is always at the core. “You couldn’t write Brown’s history of acting without Lowry being one of its protagonists,” Reed said.