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Helena Hale 1920-2006

by Jinny Webber

Hellena_Hale.jpgWhen 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.

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