OAKLAND, Calif.—Victor Talmadge has been an actor, director, and playwright for more than 40 years. He’s been there, done this and seen it all.
He performed on Broadway at the world premiere of David Mamet’s ‘November’, played Scar in ‘The Lion King’ and toured the country as King in the production ‘The King and I’. Tony Award winner.
His original play, “The Gate Of Heaven”, was awarded the Nakashima Peace Prize and was the first live theater play to be produced at the US Holocaust Memorial. He lists a recurring role on the television series “Manhattan” among his many film and television credits.
These days, Talmadge divides his time between the stage and the classroom, serving as director of theater studies at Mills College at Northeastern University.
In addition to teaching two classes this fall — a senior thesis class for theater majors and an acting debut for freshmen — Talmadge is performing in “Indecent” by Paula Vogel at the San Francisco Theater. The play, which premiered last week, opens Wednesday and will run until November 5. Talmadge plays Sholem Asch, a playwright struggling to write a Yiddish play with universal appeal.
Working and teaching at the same time isn’t just Talmadge’s job title – teacher of the practice – it’s what first attracted him to Mills in 2014.
“You really need a professional as a teacher if you’re in the arts,” he says. “It was time for me to be that mentor. In fact, I consider my students, those who are serious about the art form, as apprentices.
After working for a decade in New York, Talmadge moved from New York to Northern California where he became a regular at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the American Conservatory Theater and the Magic Theater in San Francisco. He also directed the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.
Talmadge’s resume includes teaching playwriting at Johns Hopkins University, English at the City University of New York, and performing arts at the former University of Art and Design in Santa Fe in New Mexico. He received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1977 and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1980.
“Mills gave me the best of both worlds,” says Talmadge. “I find the energy of young people very rejuvenating.”
Mills had a theater program until 2004 when it disbanded. A decade later, Talmadge was asked to revive it and he jumped at the chance. Since then, he has settled into a routine of teaching during the day and performing in the evenings and on weekends. It is limited to two productions per year, usually in the Bay Area.
Talmadge does not fail to work in New York. Broadway is the biggest stage in the world, he says, but tends to cater to a very commercial audience. Meanwhile, theaters in small towns like Boston and San Francisco often allow for greater artistic freedom. He prefers documentary pieces based on real events.
Talmadge’s Thesis Course students are required to produce and star in their own productions. They don’t have to be original plays, but last semester students wrote several autobiographical plays. One was about growing up as an Asian American in the Bay Area, while another was about life in the gold mining country of California.
“They have to produce it themselves,” Talmadge explains, “which means they have to cast it. They have to find a director. They have to get all the props.
In the spring, he will teach a documentary theater class, a new offering at Northeastern.
When Talmadge isn’t mentoring aspiring actors, actresses, and playwrights, he teaches early acting to non-drama freshman majors. Her first class always includes a lecture on 25 skills that translate from her profession to any career.
The top three, says Talmadge, work in groups, work under pressure and meet deadlines. A close fourth is communication skills, followed by active listening.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in business or in a lab,” he says. “Theatrical skills are essential skills.”
Talmadge is a teacher, but, like Northeast President Joseph E. Aoun, says he will always be a student. He spent two years touring with “The King and I” and two more with “The Lion King,” but he approached each show as if it were his first. Perfection is a myth, he says.
“If you can’t appreciate this art form as a process, you will stagnate and die,” says Talmade.
Some actors and actresses tend to solidify their performances almost immediately, then do the same thing night after night, he says. Talmadge is not that guy.
“Until the closing party, I still discover new things about the characters I play,” he says. “We bring human beings to life, and human beings change from night to night.”
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