by Jinny Webber
When I think of Helena Hale, the longtime actor and professor of speech and English at Santa Barbara City College who died one month short of her 86th birthday on May 28, it’s easy to envision her rather like the sculptor Louise Nevelson, who was the subject of the second of Helena’s one-woman shows. Nevelson, with her “darlings,” bowler hat, fabulous improvised clothes, one cigar a day, and eyelashes that “preceded her into the room,” embodied Helena’s flamboyant, glamorous persona. Rather than reminiscing about her life from the perspective of old age as did many of the women artists Helena portrayed, Louise Nevelson makes her appearance onstage after her death. So too would we be thrilled to have Helena burst into our lives once again, but in place of Louise’s false eyelashes and bowler, we’d have Helena’s own uniquely zestful and imaginative self!
As sometime driver and sound person for Helena’s theater performances at various museums and colleges around California, I had many opportunities to witness her captivating professionalism. Upon meeting the young stage tech usually provided by her hosts, Helena would launch into tales of her USO acting days during World War II, her travels, and her adventures. Henceforth, the smitten listener would treat her like a diva. Yet more than her personal charm, Helena’s passion for the subjects of her shows and her attention to every production detail earned her respect and willing assistance from theater staff.
At the time of her death, Helena was completing a handbook for one-person acting, using examples (including how to deal with disasters) from her own performance experiences. When this is published, it will offer useful hints to actors and wonderful stories for those who knew her, told in her own inimitable voice.
Voice in the literal sense is the actor’s major tool — and the teacher’s as well. Helena’s distinctive voice carried her into acting at Northwestern, earning her a degree at the age of 19 and opening theatrical doors in New York City as a contemporary of Jennifer Jones and Lauren Bacall. Later, her voice gave momentum to her second career as a college professor and was modulated to fit each of the women artists she played and endured until the end. Indeed, she can still be heard: her Creative Community interview with host David Starkey is periodically broadcast on educational access cable, Channel 21.
Like many of the moves in Helena Hale’s life, her coming to graduate school at UCSB in the early 1960s and hence to her job at SBCC was fortuitous. A single mom, she wanted a good place to raise her two daughters, Sherry and Randy. Over her 48 years in Santa Barbara, she earned her MA degree, brought innovations such as Readers Theatre to her SBCC classroom, offered faculty workshops, and inspired hundreds of students and colleagues in the pursuit of their own creative paths before she returned full time to the stage as a solo performer.
A mutual friend of ours used to say, “The universe speaks to Helena more than to anyone we know.” Helena definitely listened, and was open to suggestions and alert to opportunities. After Helena returned to acting in local theater, her mother suggested she do one-woman shows. Playing Georgia O’Keeffe and Virginia Woolf in Terre Ouwehand’s Voices from the Well gave Helena the chance; she commissioned a full-length O’Keeffe play, A Way of Seeing. Helena produced the show with costumes, music, and sets, premiered in Santa Barbara, and toured successfully for the next 20 years, often in an expanded version combined with her “transformation” into Louise Nevelson.
From the Nevelson play onward, Helena wrote her scripts, taking pains to capture the unique voice of each artist she portrayed from letters, journals, and personal accounts. These plays included Mary Cassatt Speaks, Artemisia Gentileschi: Of Lies and Truth, Käthe Kollwitz: Through Her Heart, Emily Carr: Beyond the Totems, and A Woman’s Place: Intimate Glimpses of Six Women of 19th Century France.
Helena gave more than 300 performances of her shows in 40 states and in Italy, England, and France; she received grants from the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, the Nevada and Maine Arts Councils, and others. She performed benefits for the local Rape Crisis Center and Planned Parenthood as well as the Simon Wiesenthal Center at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Her show at the Wiesenthal Center — About Friedl: A Window into Her Life, based on the life of artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis — coincided with a traveling exhibition of art made in the Terezin concentration camp by children Friedl taught while incarcerated there. Friedl was transported to Auschwitz in the final days of World War II, where she was killed along with some of her students. Helena first encountered Friedl’s work on a trip to Prague when she saw the children’s art and knew she had to tell her story.
Even before Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the women artists Helena portrayed worked against tremendous odds and confronted various sorts of prejudice. Although she referred to her endeavor as “theater that teaches,” her shows are not polemical: each artist speaks her personal truth. Still, many were political: Artemisia Gentileschi was subjected to a rape trial where she was tried rather than her assailant, and Käthe Kollwitz suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Helena’s plays depicted how these artists’ challenging political situations helped define their art.
Helena’s political conscience was demonstrated in her occasional aphoristic letters to the Santa Barbara News-Press, in which she pointed out the follies of the present administration, and in her commitment to organizations such as the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. She was also a huge supporter of the arts, a founding member of the Wildling Art Museum in Los Olivos, an original member of the Actors and Directors Theatre in Santa Barbara, and a good friend to the Ensemble Theatre Company, among others.
Ever beautiful and handsomely dressed, even when a visitor dropped in on her in her elegant home overlooking the city, Helena’s secret of youth seemed to be her enthusiasm and dedication to her art and mentoring others. She worked with passionate intensity, expecting the best of herself and overcoming moments of self-doubt by pushing onward.
Helena’s gift for making use of every contact came, I think, from her deep and clear sense of purpose. When her lights failed for a show, she’d find someone waiting in the ticket line who could fix them; when she needed a cow skull for O’Keeffe, not one but two came her way; friends and relatives of the artists she portrayed sought her out with anecdotes and sometimes friendship; audience members shared reminiscences and works of art. Her One-Woman Theatre incorporated the talents of others, such as Randy Tico for music and Tracey Martinez and Barbara Lackner for costumes.
Everyone who met Helena Hale — as old friend, new acquaintance, colleague, or audience member — could not help but be touched by her. Her force of inspiration remains with us.
A celebration of Helena Hale’s life will take place on the anniversary of her birthday, July 6, 2007, at Creek Spirit, the gardens of Patti Jacquemain and Dave Gledhill in Mission Canyon. Expect details closer to the event.