It’s hard to even express the impact she had on me as a child, through participating in her after-school Theatre program, starting at age 9 years old. I worked with her well into high school. She ran her theatre program through the school system sometimes, but it was also a local community group, ran out of the library (where I eventually had my first after-school job). Taking her classes was a huge part of my life. We did plays, of course. I remember doing Free to Be You and Me. And a production of Alice in Wonderland. But it wasn’t just about putting up plays. We did theatre games and exercises.
One of the things I really remember is she was STRICT. This was not all fun and games. She TRAINED us. It was like she was preparing us to head out to Broadway. We had to be there early (so we would be ready to go the moment the class started – she wouldn’t let you in if you came late, OR if she did let you in she would let you KNOW this was not acceptable). We had to have our pencils sharpened, we had to be ready to work the MOMENT the class started. You couldn’t chatter or fuss or fidget. You had to pay attention. She taught us how to focus. How to surrender our lives, at least for the time the class was in process. If you’ve ever been in any rehearsal process, then you know that that’s what is required. You have to be totally there, and in the moment, and forget everything else. The concentration this takes is enormous and Jan TRAINED our concentration. And I am telling you, as I moved on in my acting life as an adult, being tossed into different processes with different actor pools, and I would see people with poor discipline, or shaky concentration abilities, or … an inability to just sit still and LISTEN – and there were times when I would take a moment and thank Jan Grant in my head for drilling into us the importance of being prepared and being professional. Remember, we were 8, 9, 10 years old. We were not precocious New York theatre kids. This was just a little community theatre group but she was a professional and she WORKED on us. She made us work on our posture, diction, stage presence, emotional preparation, but more than anything else, having a professional attitude. Professional meant having respect for your peers, for the director, and for the process. So important.
All of this would have been enough to secure Jan Grant a place in my personal emotional lexicon. (Like, later, Kimber Wheelock. I have been very fortunate in my acting teachers. Angels showed up from the jump.)
But then, amazingly, about 10 years later, I actually worked with Jan Grant as a peer, I got to act with her, and alongside her, in a production of Anne of Green Gables, when I played Anne and she played Mrs. Lynde (brilliantly). Her reading of the line “Yoo-hoo! Matthew! Where you off to?” was the stuff of legend. It was more like:
“YOOOOO-HOOOOOO! MATTH-EWWWWWWWW! WHERE YA’ OFF TOOOOO?”
As funny as it was, look at how she was pointing up all those “oooo” rhymes with her pronunciation. She literally didn’t miss a beat. She didn’t miss ANYthing.
I knew I had a picture of Mitchell and Jan, backstage, screaming that line together. And I found it!
To end up getting to work alongside her in a play was so special!
That’s Jan Grant over on the right. I can be seen on the second floor, mooning around on the ladder outside my window.
There are so many memories, but here’s the main one. At the end of the play, I had to come onstage, and I’m all happy and excited about something, and I enter Green Gables and Marilla (Julie Pember) and Mrs. Lynde (Jan Grant) had to break the news to me that Matthew died. I enter the scene a happy young girl and then a moment later am forever changed by the tragedy, and etc. It’s one of those scenes that WORRY you as a young actor. Because it has to happen in real time. The first time we did the scene for real in rehearsal, Jan in her rehearsal Victorian-era garb (she always came prepared, with her own hats, and gloves, and collars, and sewing kits – she understood business!). Anyway, I entered, and she turned to me, and I was completely blown back by the sight of tears literally streaming down her face. I can see it now. STREAMING. And she said, in this long slow perfectly-articulated sob, “Ohhhh Anne.”
To this day I feel the power of it. She was IN it. (She was in it every night to that degree. It was always there for her. Her work was immaculate). Like I said, I was a young actor and I was already highly trained but I was nervous going into that scene. “What if I don’t feel it in the moment? What do I do if I can’t start crying on the spot?” You know. Young actor concerns. I was nervous about it, and I forgot there were other people onstage and that the moment wasn’t MINE but a collective one. Just be present and pay attention. You don’t have to WORK at anything. You know the story. But, whatever: young actors need to learn these lessons. And Jan helped me learn it.
Jan Grant GAVE me that moment in the play. I never had to WORK to get up the emotion about Matthew’s death. I never had to prepare myself going into the scene, tricking myself, or gearing myself up, to save it in reserve for when the news drops (all the things you have to do. Now, if the actress playing Mrs. Lynde sucked, then yes, I would have had to fall back on my own reserves. But in this case, she was there for me, ahead of me, and she just tossed the whole scene at me. I got everything I needed FROM her, and, honestly, in acting, this is the Utopia you want.) All I had to do was walk on the damn stage, and she would slowly turn around to look at me, tears pouring down her face and she’d say slowly and mournfully, “Ohhhh Anne” (the same way every. night. Every. NIGHT. It never altered. And it was always real. That’s how good she was.) I never had to DO anything to “get there”.
It was an honor to actually get to share that moment with her onstage, especially since she played such a huge role in my childhood, in my understanding that acting was a technique, a craft, and a worthy way to spend your time. Acting wasn’t a hobby, it was a calling, a valid job, and I got that early (yes, because of my aunt Regina, who was a professional actress, but also because of Jan). Jan could be intimidating! She demanded a LOT of us children in her class. She would make us speak properly, enunciate. You were not allowed to murmur, to not be heard. She demanded perfection when we rehearsed something. She would drill us over and over until we got it right. She shared stories about her own process. We hung on every word. We wanted to please her. We worked our butts off for her.
And there we were 10 years later, and I could SEE what her focus on discipline, concentration, and focus looked like in the final result (as well as in the rehearsal process, where she was constantly inventing things, trying things. Process is not passive! You have to find your way towards what you are trying to accomplish. And you have to try things BIG. You can’t “save it up” for opening night. It doesn’t work like that). So I saw, working WITH her, what all that work she put us through as kids looked like in reality. She trained us that hard because she knew that if we wanted to do this thing we needed to be ready.
I was so so lucky to have Jan in my life at such a tender young age. We are all sharing stories about her on Facebook. Jan Grant made such a difference.