Marian Seldes was devoted. She was devoted to the theatre, to the students she nurtured, and to every shade and hue of purple.
For the fortunate students of the Juilliard Drama Division who were freshmen when Marian was on staff from 1968 to 1993, the very first challenge and assignment of your training was something called “The Discovery Play.” Upon arrival, your class was put in Marian’s elegant hands, where you and your ill-equipped classmates would “discover” a Shakespearean play. After weeks of more exploration than rehearsal, students performed in a bare room without sets to lean on or costumes to hide behind, for the rather intimidating Juilliard faculty. They in turn would “discover” the few strengths and the many weaknesses of their newest student ensemble. My class discovered Antony and Cleopatra. We also painfully discovered why we needed to be at Juilliard.
Marian gently introduced us to our new conservatory life with warmth and inspiration. Everything about her was generous. She was gloriously tall, with limbs that seemed to reach for miles. Her hands would often drift to her face in dramatic fashion to emphasize pleasure or concern. When she was not fond of something happening in rehearsal, a regal stillness seemed to elongate her already impressive height. It never lasted long, but in those brief moments of her internal judgment, her pose could easily have lived among the statues of Hadrian’s palace.
She wore purple. Always. Violet, amethyst and dark magentas flowed from her in chiffon scarves or light velvet coats. Her voice would raise and fall gently but with unmistakable strength. She summoned us to open our minds, to accept the challenge before us, to move boldly and with purpose.
Marian was a rite of passage. As Juilliard’s gatekeeper, she ushered young artists into the rigorous world of actor training and responsibility. She serenaded us with her own unique fanfare, and she was a serious professional.
Our first time together, she sat like an empress on a metal folding chair with a dirty cardboard box full of Penguin edition scripts at her feet. My class, like the dozens of classes before us, I am sure, sat on the floor around her. She gazed into that beat-up box as if it were a gleaming cradle holding the most precious, beautiful infant. She gracefully lifted up each script and ceremoniously placed it into our hands. She pressed each copy of Antony and Cleopatra into our palms as if she were trying to press into our souls the wisdom, strength and joy she knew we would all need to survive the years ahead.
I always had the sense that she was tremendously conscious of the past, was deceptively alert in the present, and felt compelled to contribute to the future. She spoke reverently of Katharine Cornell, Judith Anderson and the Lunts. If you watched Marian carefully, you could see a mind and a heart absorbing everything that was before her. And as one of her students, or her “little birds,” as she called us, you could feel her desire for us to carry on, and for us to give ourselves, all of ourselves, to the theatre.
She was famous for her greetings and departures. While you were still a student, she would breeze and flow around you; but after graduation, you became a fellow actor, and she would embrace you for minutes at a time. Holding your hands to her cheeks, she would whisper words of encouragement in your ear, and make you feel that you were a part of a vocation that was indeed sacred. And then, before you knew what was happening, she was gone.
We all have our Marian imitations. Many thought she was over-the-top; some mistakenly thought her foolish. Underneath Marian’s signature theatrical persona was a tenacious commitment to work and to an artist’s life. She was singular. She was sharp, kind, stalwart and fiercely strong. She was beautiful. Her life had a mission, and to me she was noble.
The last time I saw Marian, I was passing through Columbus Circle and saw her walking with her caregiver. She was wearing a purple turtleneck. She looked frail. Her gait was awkward, her skin was translucent, and yet somehow she appeared taller. Her gaze was distant, but she recognized me, and I want to believe I heard her whisper “my birds.”
I will be forever grateful to be one little bird in Marian’s murmuration.
Laura Linney is an actress who graduated in Group 19 from Juilliard.
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