March 3, 2016
At heart, Myra McFarland is a country girl who likes to go a little bit against the grain.
“I was, and still am, an outgoing introvert,” she says. “I spent most of my growing-up years on a small 13-acre farm out in the country with Bantam roosters, dogs and cats and lots of room to roam. I am an only child, and my closest companions were books and music.”
When she began junior high school, her family moved to Portland, Indiana.
“Our house was in the perfect location: one block from the movie theater and catty-cornered across the street from the public library,” she says. “I spent nearly all my allowance and Christmas money on movie tickets. The librarians occasionally would call me if they couldn’t find something, because I knew the library so well.”
Music was a creative outlet for her, and it also allowed her to reach out socially.
“I was the only person in town under the age of 60 who played the violin,” she says, “which gave me a certain cachet, as well as a certain weirdness.”
She also played piano, church organ and several band instruments.
“The baritone [saxophone] was my favorite,” she says. “It’s the cello of brass bands. I played for two years in the Indiana University concert band.”
Although no one in her family had a theater background, both her parents had musical leanings.
“My father sang in the church choir, and my mother supervised my music practice,” she says. “Dad played trombone in the first marching band at Ball State University. They believed that performing built character because it involved striking out into the unknown and conquering fear as well as providing an avenue for self-expression. And, I suppose, parental bragging rights.”
She got her foot in the performance door through piano, violin and tap recitals. But she discovered the magic of theater when she ventured into playwriting in the fifth grade.
“It had a Greek chorus of sorts off stage in the cloak rooms,” she says. “I don’t remember much about it, not even the title, but I do remember that addictive applause.”
Fast forward to her senior year at the former Portland High School. She attended a field trip to Fort Wayne where the class saw a production of the Civil War drama The Andersonville Trial.
“I can still see in my mind’s eye the set and the costumes. That was a life-transforming experience.”
She went to her first audition: an evening of two one-act operas directed by John Tolley at First Presbyterian Theater in 1978.
“I gave a terrible audition,” she recalls. “I had musical training, but I have never had much of a singing voice, and my throat closed up. I was all but paralyzed with fear.” Nevertheless, she was cast in the chorus.
She went on to perform in several straight plays at First Pres, but considers her “first significant acting” to be her several ensemble roles in the PIT (the former Purdue Indiana Theatre at IPFW) production of Auntie Mame under the direction of the late Larry Life.
“We had such a brilliant cast and production crew, so failure was neither an option nor an opportunity,” she says. “I learned a lot about comic timing, keeping it real at all times and how to work in an ensemble. I also realized I had a knack for coming up with bits of business and putting my own stamp on a role.”
The experience further solidified McFarland’s love of theater.
“I was hooked,” she says. “Eventually, I worked at IPFW doing media relations and completed half a second bachelor’s degree in theater.”
Not content to merely hone the craft of acting, McFarland says she has performed virtually all functions of theater: “Acting, writing, directing, stage managing, running lights and sound, sewing costumes, dresser, scrounging props, doing PR, painting sets. Pretty much everything except hanging lights; I don’t do ladders.”
She believes it’s important to have this diversity of experience.
“This is community theater, and the participants often wear many different hats,” she says. “Working backstage makes me respect acting even more and vice-versa.”
McFarland has spent most of her time in the theater as a stage manager, but her acting experience has informed the way she performs that important role.
“I consider myself an actor’s stage manager rather than a technically oriented one,” she says, “and I will go out of my way to help the actors any way I can.”
In many ways, acting is less responsibility than backstage work, she says.
“When I am acting, I am responsible only for myself and for being giving and responsive to the other actors,” she says. “Backstage, I have to be tuned in to the entire show and seamlessly and efficiently execute the invisible parts of it – handing off props, calling places, moving set pieces and so on.”
Perhaps due to her experience as a writer, McFarland understands the importance of the text when preparing for an acting role.
“The playwright intended something – something specific, something important – or else those words wouldn’t be there,” she says. “It’s my job as an actor to discover that intent and bring it to life.”
Acting goes beyond merely learning lines verbatim.
“I look for speech rhythms, little jokes, asides,” she explains. “Does the character use slang or contractions or sentence fragments, or does she speak in complete, rather formal sentences?”
She also spends time researching when necessary, whether it’s due to the time period, the profession or the philosophy of the character.
“Then begins the hard work of finding beats,” she says. “That is, a chunk of thought or conversation or information, internal actions, intentions and other technical work that one hopes the audience never sees. After you’ve done all that work, you throw it away and just play. And memorize the words – back to the beginning, again.”
Sometimes the challenge comes from not having any lines to memorize at all.
“I played Grandma in Tobacco Road,” she says. “Grandma has no lines, but is on stage for nearly the entire play. It was much more difficult than I had imagined to make a character who does not speak into a real person with thoughts and needs and ideas. The danger is having her turn into a simplistic cartoon.”
Currently McFarland is playing Professor Evelyn Ashford in the First Presbyterian Theater production of Wit. Nancy Kartholl plays the lead role of Dr. Vivian Bearing, an intense, emotionally closed-off English literature professor who is dying of cancer. Through her relationships with her care staff, memories of and visitations by her family and colleagues, she learns how to deal with her illness, treatment, and death “with wit, bravery and humor,” says McFarland.
“Dr. Ashford has great intellect and respect for rigorous scholarship, as well as great personal warmth,” she says of her own character, who is Dr. Bearing’s mentor. “My biggest fear is that I will accidentally misquote one of the John Donne poems, and an English teacher in the audience will leap out of his seat and shout a correction at me.”
McFarland says that despite the heavy subject matter, Wit is loaded with humor.
“I don’t want to turn people off by having them think you have to be a Ph.D. in literature to appreciate this play,” she says. “Far from it. It is a very human piece with laughter and tears – and a couple of lovely children’s stories tossed in.”
She acknowledges that most actors in Fort Wayne have what they consider a “home” theater group. She finds herself returning to First Presbyterian Theater more often than others, mainly due to the space’s intimacy.
“Despite a house that seats 270, it has a very intimate feel and is larger than it seems,” she says. “I also appreciate that this theater has a wide range of offerings. First Pres loves to take on challenging work – Shakespeare, Shaw, contemporary dramas such as Wit – as well as silly, fun-filled romps such as last season’s Nunsense, and everything in between.”
Although McFarland is sometimes drawn to more serious works and takes the business of acting seriously, she prefers not to take herself too seriously. Instead, she likes to have fun and to work with actors who feel the same, going into every project with “generosity of spirit, an open mind with an open heart and a willingness to work hard.”
Onstage or off, McFarland believes strongly in the power of live theater. She still cites one of her greatest influences as her high school English teacher, Mr. Cotner, the one who took the class to Fort Wayne to see The Andersonvile Trial.
“He instilled in us that plays only truly come to life when seen live, in three dimensions, with real people giving breath and life to characters,” she says.
McFarland places great value on the theater education she received in school as well.
“Theater teaches all sorts of valuable skills like how to measure, cut and use a hammer, how colors change what the lights look like.” But first and foremost, she says, it teaches “an appreciation of an art form that has endured for thousands of years, the value of ensemble, and working together for a common purpose.”
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