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Lura Dolas: Helping hearts 'shine hugely'
Theater lecturer shares stage skills with aspiring thespians - and those who 'perform' in other walks of life

| 18 April 2007

Theater students hoping to attend a top graduate acting program after leaving Berkeley are under pressure to show their stuff. As part of the application process they're typically required to perform as many as eight short monologues before a panel of discerning faculty - fully cognizant that the odds of admission can run as low as 12 out of 2,000.


The walls of acting teacher Lura Dolas' office are lined with photos of former TDPS students - and of her mother, the singer Lura Stover (off Dolas' right shoulder). (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

In such an audition, "you've got three minutes to prove you're God's gift to the American stage," says Berkeley theater teacher Lura Dolas. "You must breathe life into a bit of text, revealing your heart and sensibilities. That's very hard to do." Part of the challenge is choosing the right material. "You don't want to exhibit your worst flaws," she says, "and you don't want to look like someone who thinks they've got nothing to learn."

An actress for 30 years and a lecturer for 17 in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS), Dolas directs TDPS mainstage productions periodically, teaches advanced acting each semester, and will direct the department's London program this summer. She also coaches the program's most promising undergraduate actors for their critical Master of Fine Arts auditions. In that role, she's known for identifying monologues that "play to students' strengths" and then working effectively with students to hone their performances, says acting student Brant Rotnem. The trick is to "discover who's really in there," and how to allow him or her "to shine hugely" through a chosen text, Dolas notes.

Sometimes "who's really in there" takes everyone by surprise. Dolas recalls working with a heavy-set senior who was known for being comedic. When it came to practicing for his Shakespeare audition, an obvious choice was Falstaff, the portly knight. But when she "stepped back" to sense what the student "really wanted to say," as she puts it, she ended up sending him off, instead, with Romeo's speech that begins the balcony scene.

"A few days later," she recalls, "he came into my studio, looked up at an imaginary girl in an imaginary window and began: 'But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.' It was so pure, so simple, and so completely from his heart and mind that I found myself crying. That's always a very good sign." The student was accepted into New York University's elite MFA program, and has been working in theater, film, and TV ever since, Dolas reports. "He always tells people that he never would have gotten into NYU if he hadn't found that Romeo monologue."

Though relatively small, TDPS routinely sends a handful of its graduating seniors on to prestigious acting programs like those at Yale, NYU, Brown, Harvard, and the University of Washington. Dolas' preparatory coaching is one reason for Berkeley's growing success in this highly competitive arena - along with, she's quick to note, the TDPS acting program as a whole and Cal students' all-around education. Top theater schools "want actors who understand theater as a means of social change and cultural interaction," she says. "They want people with some sense of what theater can be."

Destined for the arts

For Dolas herself, as a child, it was always assumed she would wind up in the arts. "No one ever offered to send me to math camp," she recalls. Her mother - the acclaimed classical singer Lura Stover, now a nonagenarian - pursued a successful career in New York City and later taught in Santa Barbara, where the family moved in the late 1950s. Her father, Michael Dolas - now in his mid-90s as well - was a painter and illustrator, best known for his cover art for the Saturday Evening Post.

An undergraduate at Berkeley in the 1970s, Dolas earned her B.A. in theater, taking roles in the department's mainstage productions for much of her college career. Later, she studied in the American Conservatory Theater's advanced training program and at Antioch International, where she earned her M.A. A petite woman with a modest self-presentation, Dolas has learned, through her acting training, how to fill a theater or a classroom with her presence, when necessary. Specializing in classical drama and Shakespeare, she's played dozens of roles at the Oregon and California Shakespeare festivals, and served for 14 years as founding director of Cal Shakes' training conservatory. Most recently - for her performance in an Aurora Theatre production of the Aeschylus play The Persians - Dolas earned a Bay Area Critics Circle nomination. As a "strong anti-war piece with very distinct resonances to the current situation in Iraq," the ancient Greek tragedy made for an extraordinary onstage experience, Dolas says. The cast "felt the kind of communion with the audience that you hope for when you do live theater; there was a communal grief and a shared sense that something different needed to happen."

Making one's case

In 2002, she and her husband, novelist Darryl Brock, adopted a baby girl from China. Since Phoebe Zhilan's arrival, Dolas has become "fairly choosy" about acting commitments, she says - though there's still a mortgage and babysitting to cover. To fill the breach, she augments her lecturer income with a coaching business she calls "Acting Techniques That Make Your Case." Clients include trial lawyers and witnesses, business people, UC's Continuing Education of the Bar program (this coming December), even the 80-member staff of the local OCSC Sailing School - anyone, in short, who is called on to "perform" in everyday life.

"An authentic voice, pitched in its natural register, flowing from an energized but relaxed body and accompanied with organic body language" is the first goal of her work, says Dolas. She also stresses rehearsal. "I'm always surprised that people fail to rehearse presentations where so much is at stake," she notes.

Working one-on-one or in a workshop setting, Dolas draws on her knowledge of vocal technique, body language, and storytelling skills to help clients present themselves and their material confidently, clearly, and persuasively. Listeners are moved, she says, "by a speaker who appears comfortable with his or her presentation of self" and his or her story.

When a client is hampered by stage fright, sometimes it's the text itself that's problematic, Dolas notes. A speaker who doesn't trust the words he's saying "may use unfocused and distracting gestures, or his eye contact may become erratic, making him appear disingenuous," she says, though simply pointing out these behaviors may exacerbate the problem. Frequently "the story and the words need to be taken apart and reconstructed," she says. "Often my critiques begin with, 'Let's think about the words you're saying.'" Rather than hammering away at a troublesome mannerism, she says, "We go back and treat the cause."

San Francisco attorney Bruce Nye, a 30-year trial lawyer, took Dolas' three-month workshop, "Acting for Lawyers and Others," to gain "a different perspective on how to reach 21st-century jurors," he says. An important take-away, for Nye, "involved shaping the presentation with a single objective in mind and carefully considering word choices, particularly one's verbs." He and Dolas have since co-taught a course, at his law firm, on preparing witnesses to tell their truth clearly and simply for depositions, and have collaborated to prepare an abrasive witness who nonetheless "had a compelling story to tell."

Like those who aspire to a lifetime in acting, people who have never stepped foot on stage have the best chance of success, Dolas says, if they can persuasively communicate a message they believe is true. "Helping that happen is a joyous process."