R.I.P. Kimber Wheelock

Dear Kimber:

You changed my life forever by casting me as Millie in Picnic. Some people make ripples in other people’s lives. You were a giant wave. I was one way Before Picnic, I was another way After.

You saw something in me. Trembling 16-year-old high school me who strolled into the audition from “out of nowhere,” unknown to you, unknown to anyone there, and read for the role. You looked at me and saw Millie. You trusted teenage high school me with that gigantic part, the playwright’s “stand in”, when I was young and had no idea what I was doing. But you could see that I DID know what I was doing. You took me seriously.

On the first day of rehearsal, I walked into that room of older people, some of them much older. Everyone knew one another. I was the shy newbie, the only high schooler. You pulled me aside before we got started and said only one thing to me: “Don’t try to prove to me that I was right to cast you. Millie’s yours now. She’s yours.”

That one comment alone almost single-handedly changed my entire concept of acting. More revelations would follow. I grew by leaps and bounds during Picnic. I could practically feel the growing pains.

You taught me other things. You taught me to always be suspicious of the word “just.” “What were you doing in this scene?” “I’m just trying to tell him how I feel.” BZZT. GENERAL. Remove “just”. See how much stronger an objective that is? I still think of “just” all the time, in my critic work, and in my real life. If I say “just,” somewhere – deep down – I am avoiding something.

You also drilled into me the importance of picking up cues. You were a MARTINET on this score. You would sit out in the back row during a performance, and if the pace lagged, we onstage could HEAR the snap of your fingers coming to us from the darkness. We hopped to attention. Faster is always better. There are few exceptions.

You smoked a pipe during acting classes. You had a drawling walk, your notebooks under your arm. You could be intimidating. You had an eagle eye for Untruths. Your gaze could be merciless. You made us work hard. You TRAINED us. I was ready to go out into the world of professional rehearsals and auditions because of the RIGOR of your training.

“Do you want to know why I cast you?” you said to me one night at the Pump House after a rehearsal. I was so unsure, so needy, so full of ambition then that it literally kept me up at night. I so needed to hear what you were going to say but I didn’t want to SHOW you how much I needed it. You went on, “During your audition – when you read the scene with Madge, and you said the line ‘How do you talk to boys?’ a blush covered your face and neck. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was what they used to say about Duse –” I nodded like, “Sure, totes, uh-huh” – even though I had no idea who that was. I would eventually learn all about Eleonora Duse and her famous onstage blush and how it inspired a generation of actors who would eventually become the foremost acting teachers of the 20th century. It would only be later that I would fully realize the LEVEL of the compliment you were paying 16-year-old me. You went on: “When I saw you blush – in the middle of an imaginary circumstance – that an imaginary circumstance was so real to you that you would blush when you said a vulnerable line – I knew you were incapable of faking anything.”

I barely understood what you were saying to me. I barely remembered the audition because I was so nervous throughout that it was practically an altered state. I wasn’t TRYING to blush, I thought, confused, not realizing that 1. you cannot TRY to blush, a blush is involuntary, and that is the whole point, that is why Duse amazed people, and 2. that was what you saw in me, that I didn’t TRY to have an effect, to make an impression, to even “act.” But at the time, I was confused by your comment. I didn’t ask you to elaborate because I was intimidated by you. Sometimes people say things when you are not ready to take it in yet. Hopefully the words stick, though, so you can pull them out later and incorporate them into your understanding of yourself. That’s what those words were like for me.

In the years to come – and still, sometimes, to this day – I would remember those words, hold onto them during rough times of failure and disappointment. There have been many of those times. It was the only time in my life that I was compared to Duse – freakin DUSE – but honestly once was more than enough. You gave me a gift – not just by casting me – although that was huge – but by taking a moment to tell me your reasoning – to hand me your observations OF me, because I was blind to TRYING to “act.” I was in a state of total unconsciousness in my ability, and worked purely by instinct. In telling me Point-blank what you saw in me, you handed me a small spot of ground of self-knowledge and self-confidence that would come in handy – be a life-saver, really. To quote Lorna from Golden Boy, in a scene I worked on in your class: “You stiffened the space between my shoulder blades.”

You were the first to usher me into the world where I so wanted to be. There would be others after you. But you … you were the all-important first. I am in tears of gratitude as I type this.

I wrote you a letter once, years ago, years and lifetimes ago, telling you all this. I was terrified to send it. I regretted it the second I dropped it in the mailbox. Was it “too much”??? (I was young. I had been told I was “too much” since I was 5 years old.) But now – older and hopefully a little bit wiser – I am so glad that you knew the seismic impact you made on my life.

Rest In Peace, Kimber. And thank you.

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8 Responses to R.I.P. Kimber Wheelock

  1. Amy says:

    What a beautiful tribute. I’m so glad you were able to bring yourself to tell her how what an impact she made on your life, even though that was such a frightening thing to do.

    I can’t help but comment that I came to your blog when I googled “Luvvy and the Girls,” which was also my favorite book as a middle schooler. My life was also changed by being cast as Millie in “Picnic” by a charismatic theatre teacher who was an huge influence on me. And I see you enjoy the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where I apprenticed many years ago.

    I’m not sure I’ve known anyone else who had all three! :)

    • sheila says:

      Amy – oh my gosh, Luvvy and the Girls!! I STILL have the copy I had when I was a kid, with those haunting illustrations.

      Millie is such a great part, isn’t it? There’s only a short window when anyone can play it – and I know I was basically in exactly the same place Millie was in my life when I played her – I barely had to DO anything!

      I love the way our experiences have intersected – I mean, Luvvy and the Girls is so random. Not too many people remember that book but those who do?? It just sticks with you!

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Brooke A L says:

    Beautiful. What great stories you have (and Amy seems to echo your experience above). And I completely understand what you mean about “just”: hiding something, trying to make something smaller out of fear, or many other reasons. I’m very conscious about it, I always notice when I say it.

    • sheila says:

      Brooke – I love that you have noticed “just” too. I STILL fall into the trap – I think it is part of the human condition, I guess – which is why he was so brilliant in pointing it out to us. In our acting, of course – but it was a good life lesson too.

      The other thing we all remember is another quote from him. So many acting scenes have to do with love: declaring your love, losing your love, quietly wishing you could express your love … whatever. So we’d work on these scenes. Kimber would stop us to talk about it. He was world-class at script analysis and objective. “So what do you want in this scene?” “I want to tell him I love him.” “Why?” “Well … but … beCAUSE.” “Because why?” “Because I love him!” You know … he’d have to really push us to dig deeper.

      At some point, he would always ask: “What is love?” (Each one of us had our own time when he said this to us. It always came up.)

      Over and over again we would give the same answers. Again, like “just” it seems to be the human condition … to maybe get a little vague when things are actually quite simple. So we’d say “When you care about someone else more than you care about yourself” or stuff like that. He would say “No.” hahahaha . Meanwhile, we’re 18, 19 … he’s in his 50s. We must have seemed like babies to him.

      Finally he would say, “Love is needs fulfilled.”

      And I have to say, it blew my mind. I didn’t quite like it. It sounded selfish. But as my life has gone on … I have come to learn the truth in what he said.

      AND, more importantly for our purposes: “Love is needs fulfilled” is much MUCH more “act-able” onstage. You’re not trying to express your love to someone. You are trying to get YOUR needs fulfilled. HUGE difference experientially.

      He was brilliant.

      • Brooke A L says:

        “Love is needs fulfilled”. Wow. Yep, so true. So much of what we do is trying to get needs met, dealing with ones that weren’t met, with ourselves and others. That’s pretty essential. Probably everything we do comes down to that. What a great quote. You’ve had some pretty great acting teachers, that’s for sure.

        • sheila says:

          It was a mind-blower at age 19. I resisted it. It seemed so cynical.

          But it sure made acting scenes easier to play. Instead of being general (“I love you” – like, what is that, how do you play that) it became specific (“You fulfill my needs and you must not stop fulfilling my needs. My life will be over: fulfill my needs NOW.”)

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    We should have a reunion of all the 16 year olds who played Millie in Picnic! Even though “mine” was over 50 years ago, I remember it well. What a great tribute you’ve written.

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