When Jewel Walker died on the afternoon of Nov. 16, the American theatre lost one of its most powerful and influential teachers and artists.
He studied acting with Vera Soloviova, Herbert Berghof, and Lee Strasberg, and mime with Etienne Decroux. Walker was one of Etienne Decroux’s foremost students, performing in Decroux’s company, then touring nationally as a solo mime. Walker later partnered with Tony Montanaro in mime performances in New York City.
Walker incorporated the discipline, aesthetic, and technique of corporeal mime into an original approach to movement training for actors, which he taught to several generations of acting students, first at the HB Studio, then for Lee Strasberg’s school, then for Carnegie Tech (later Carnegie-Mellon University), and then as a founding member of the professional theatre training program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which relocated to the University of Delaware, where Walker was the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Theatre. At Delaware, in addition to heading the movement department, Jewel served as a play director and head of acting. He also led London winter session programs and taught for many years with the Governor’s School for Excellence summer program.
Walker was a founding member of the American Conservatory Theater and a regular performer on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as Mime Walker. He wrote and directed plays for the Cincinnati Playhouse, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, and the American Players Theatre. He played Friar Laurence for the Pittsburgh Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet and appeared in many programs of WQED in Pittsburgh. His original play Mimecircus was performed in Pittsburgh’s parks and at the Milwaukee County Zoo. He received the Moebius award for creativity in teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
In 1998, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education designated him the Outstanding Teacher of Theatre in Higher Education. Walker was also the recipient of the Association of Theatre Movement Educators Lifetime Service Award. In 2015 the University of Delaware awarded Jewel the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
Jewel Walker was far more than America’s foremost trainer of stage movement. He was also one of the country’s most innovative teachers of acting and a profoundly gifted director. Audiences remember fondly his productions of King Lear, The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters, An Ideal Husband, Peer Gynt, Uncle Vanya, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Henry V, Arcadia, Travesties, The Real Thing, and Lysistrata, in his own adaptation. He was honored at the 2005 Barrymore Awards in Philadelphia as Best Choreographer for his original play Tuesday, which also won in the category of Best Performance by an Ensemble in a Play. Most recently he directed Delaware Rep’s acclaimed production of Our Town, in which he also played the Stage Manager.
Walker made a deep, lasting, and profound difference in the work and in the lives of the hundreds of students lucky enough to study with him, including Ted Danson, Cherry Jones, Tom Hewitt, Sandy Robbins, Lori Cardille, Linda Balgord, and countless other theatremakers who have credited Walker with being the most important influence on their work.
Walker’s passion, brilliance, commitment, theatrical genius, and unique combination of gentleness and ferocity lives on in his former students. It is a testament to Jewel Walker’s teaching and an indication of who he was as a man of the theatre that a remarkably large number of his former students have founded and/or now run successful theatres.
His passing marks the end of an era. He is gone but he will never be forgotten.
Sanford Robbins is chair of the theatre department at the University of Delaware.
An earlier draft of this article mistakenly attributed this piece to Sara Valentine.
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