All the World's Her Stage
Theater professor Caitlin Langstaff creates an actors’ boot camp from real life.
By Sam Tremont
"Jillian, watch going up on your toes. This guy you’re playing is a very big Marine. Oh, and where does he put his hands: hips or ribs?”
Seven actors have just completed tonight’s run-through of At Ease, an innovative play in which the actors portray real-life military veterans. From the front-row seats in Suffolk’s Modern Theatre, they observe intently as their director and professor, Caitlin Langstaff, shares specific feedback, often visually, with each cast member.
"Ashley, look at the screen and let your eyes move with the imaginary children.”
Like each cast member, Ashley Hevey BA ’13 spent many hours observing and interviewing the veteran she plays, Army Specialist Audra White. Hevey, who has taken two classes with Langstaff, says, “Much like her teaching style, Caitlin’s directing style is very hands-on. If she has a note for you at the end of rehearsal about something she wants you to try, or stop doing, she will quite literally show you what she means. It always amazed me that her notes were so specific to each actor.”
"Adam, for your dog moment, let him sniff your hand, then go pet his head when he snaps at you.”
Adam Santaniello BA ’13, who plays veteran Jim Mihelidakis and claims to have taken every class Langstaff has ever offered, describes the benefits of her courses this way: “If you are a performer, expect to really fine-tune your craft and explore many areas of theater. Also, expect a great deal of unique, memorable moments that you can look back on once you have graduated from Suffolk.” He adds, “There is always an element of surprise in every class.”
Spontaneity has often factored into Langstaff’s career path as well. Originally,“teaching was not part of my plan,” she confesses. “I grew up seeing great plays, adult plays, political plays done well by devoted, hard-working, talented people.” Among them was her father, John Meredith Langstaff, who founded the company that created The Christmas Revels, a holiday tradition at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge; and her mother, Robin Howard Roberts, an actress who co-founded the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, where Langstaff grew up. “I would fall asleep in the front row watching my mother in Entertaining Mr. Sloane so many times—and beginning to snore—that they asked her to perhaps move me to the back,” she recalls.
One of Langstaff ’s first roles as an actress was in Boston for Jackie: An American Life, a play based on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Since then, she’s played other real-life characters, such as Lillian Hellman in the one-woman show Lillian and Emma Goldman in Emma. The latter was produced in 2008 at Suffolk when its author, the late Howard Zinn, was a Visiting Distinguished Scholar here. “Howard approached me years earlier,saying he would love me to play Emma someday and that I should hold onto it incase the chance arose,” she recalls. “I did get to read it in front of him, thanks to Suffolk, and later in remembrance of him and his legacy.”
While Langstaff had won some significant roles, she found that, as an actress, she was going from audition to audition, “saying yes to anything just to keep working.” In order to have more control over her career, she co-founded Tidal Theatre Company. Then, for “all the short plays we loved but couldn’t produce,” she and her partner created Tsunami Sound Waves, a venture with a Provincetown,Massachusetts radio station. “We asked if we could co-produce weekly live radio plays with live sound effects,” she explains. “We had a blast cramming eight or nine actors into a small studio space.”
Small stages are a recurring theme in Langstaff ’s work. She also created Car Theater, which took place in three automobiles. “The actors were in the front seat, and the audience was in the back," she explains. “Each play would run about 20 minutes and then you would exit one car and enter another.”
While visiting a friend at a college in Pennsylvania, Langstaff sat in on an acting class. “That was it,” she recalls. “I loved college-age students.” She put together her CV, threw a dart at a dartboard, and “got very lucky with Suffolk University needing an adjunct as my package landed on [Theatre Department Chair] Marilyn Plotkins’ desk.” After two years, she was offered a full-time position.
It was Plotkins who asked Langstaff to come up with an idea for a production that would eventually become At Ease after Langstaff observed one of her students, an Iraq War veteran, struggle through assignments.
“I started going to veterans’ workshops where students would explain what worked and didn’t work for them in the classroom,”she remembers. “Situations would arise making them want to leave the classroom and never come back.”
Langstaff assembled a group of seven veterans willing to share their stories and seven acting students anxious to tell them. At Ease had its premiere at the Modern in 2012 before its reprise this past July.
“I do love teaching [these] students in this department,” Langstaff says. “Where else can your studio classroom be surrounded by all your professors, making them all the more connected to your work and accessible for richer,deeper discussions than just the classroom alone?”