Acting the Part

black and white head shot of smirking brunette

A vintage armoire, a straight-backed chair, a telephone, a sturdy, worn table, and an open suitcase that starts out empty but is eventually full. A dark-haired woman, late twenties, perhaps thirty. She speaks aloud. Her emotions are strained. It is apparent the conversation she is having with herself is a rehearsal for one she'll have later with her husband:

"I see them as having been married for several years. And I think she's probably packed three or four times before," says Tania Vujoshevich of the pre-World War II couple featured in Bertolt Brecht's short play, The Jewish Wife. "I think they are very much in love," she adds.

Vujoshevich, a master of fine arts candidate at Penn State who played the wife in a recent performance, explains that there are a lot of things she had to invent as an actor, things that aren't clear in Brecht's script: The couple's marital history, for instance. The play centers around a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish husband in the early years of the Nazi regime. She knows—and yet, does not fully know—of the atrocities being done to other Jewish wives. Fearing for her life, and for the life and reputation of her husband, Fritz, who has recently been excluded from professional lectures, as well as from the doctors' weekly bridge game, she has decided to leave Germany—and her husband. By going to Amsterdam, she hopes to escape the Nazi persecution.

Alone on the stage, the wife rehearses what she'll say and predicts how Fritz will respond. Her emotions range from angry to knowing to sad, because she realizes that her only choice is to leave and that Fritz won't try to persuade her to stay.

"I tried to imagine myself leaving my fiancé and my family," says Vujoshevich. "I come from a big Serbian family, and Slavic people are known to be very passionate. I remember, as a child, going from tears to laughter in no time. There was just such a wide range of emotions in my household. I've had professors tell me, 'Your emotions are very close to your skin; that will help you.'" Perhaps that's why she had no trouble heeding the advice of her adviser, Mark Olsen, associate professor of theatre arts, who told her to "open up her pores to the audience."

Playing a part that required saying good-bye also seemed perfect for Vujoshevich, who found good-byes always so hard for her as a child. All of her extended family lives in Yugoslavia. "I remember bawling at good-byes because they were always such big events—we were usually leaving Europe. This made even small good-byes seem huge. I'd know someone for two days and I'd find myself crying when it came time to say good-bye.

"Once when we were leaving Montenegro, where my mother's family lives, the whole village came to see us off. All of the kids that we had met while we were there were wearing our clothes"—hand-me-downs that Vujoshevich's mother had given them in previous years—"and I remember just bawling," she laughs.

"Emotion is the result of your own thoughts on how everyone else is perceiving you. That's why you cry so easily when you're upset and someone does something as simple as placing a hand on your shoulder. Once you find out where that emotion comes from—once you get it as an actor—you just have to remember where it came from.

"In the beginning, during rehearsals, I would replace Fritz's name with my fiancé's, and pretend I would never see him again," Vujoshevich says. By personalizing the situation, she found she was able to convey the pain and sadness and fear the character was feeling. She found she could become a woman facing discrimination by people too terrified or too brainwashed to oppose Hitler's hostile philosophy, a wife whose own husband, a respected German surgeon, could do nothing to protect her from violent hatred.

"When a woman can't feel safe in her own home, that's the horror of all horrors. And when a couple that's really in love can't talk to each other, how can a whole society?"

Tatiana Vujoshevich is an M.F.A. candidate in theatre arts, College of Arts and Architecture, txv122@psu.edu. Her advisers for this performance were Mark Olsen, M.F.A., associate professor of theatre arts, 124 Arts Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4703; meo2@psu.edu; and Jane Ridley, M.F.A., associate professor of theatre arts, 106 Arts Bldg.; 863-1452; jmr19@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 1999