Touched by Duse

By Guest Contributor

Alexandra Innes

She inspired the playwright Henrik Ibsen and modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. Stanislavski and Chekhov learned from her. Marilyn Monroe kept a picture of her in her home, as did James Joyce. But few people today know the name of Eleonora Duse.

Yet Duse, a legendary 19th and early 20th century, Italian actress, created what we recognize today as modern acting. Instead of artificial melodrama, she elevated acting to a subtle art form that reveals the truth of the human condition.

Two women of the performing arts, Jennifer Dale from Toronto and Tyler A. Chase, of New York City, believe Duse’s remarkable artistic achievements as the mother of modern acting belong in the center stage of history. They are on a mission to bring Duse’s name and significant accomplishments out of obscurity, with a docudrama about her life and the people who idolize her, called “Touched by Duse.”

“There would be no Brando without her,” says Tyler, a New York-based filmmaker, who learned about Duse while studying acting with Herbert Berghof in New York’s HB Studio. “I was shocked to find out that people don’t know about Duse.”

Duse’s groundbreaking acting allowed the compulsions and passions of the characters she played to express themselves through her entire being. Her standout performances – always in Italian – first brought success in Europe. She also toured South America, Egypt, Russia and the United States.

During her triumphant 1896 U.S. tour, President Grover Cleveland and his wife attended every Washington performance. Mrs. Cleveland went even further. She shocked Washington society by holding a White House tea in Duse’s honor – the first ever held for an actress. Later, in 1923, Duse became the first woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

“Because of the time she was living in, she was a pioneer and a revolutionary in the art form,” says Jennifer Dale, a prominent Canadian actress who began her career playing classical roles at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. “Duse was the one Stanislavski was looking at, and saying this is what I’m talking about, that naturalism.”

Jennifer discovered Eleonora Duse in her late 20s. “I became passionately consumed with studying her life,” she says. “She has been an archetypical iconic talisman that I’ve carried with me all these years”

Following Jennifer Dale’s portrayal of Duse on the Toronto stage, a serendipitous reconnection after 30 years with former friend, Tyler, president and CEO of a New York- based independent film company, L’ORAGE Productions, gave birth to their docudrama, which Tyler also directs. The film is a moving and mystical journey that follows Jennifer into the personal inner sanctum of lives touched and changed irrevocably by Eleonora’s inspiring art. It weaves the present with the past, recreating scenes from Eleonora’s eventful life.

The New York segment of the film includes interviews with author Helen Sheehy, whose biography of Duse is a New York Times “Notable Book”; several of New York’s top acting teachers; and also such renowned actors as Paul Sorvino and Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn.

Burstyn, the co-artistic director of the Actors Studio, attributes the work created in the prestigious New York acting school to a direct lineage to Duse.

Tyler A. Chase and Jennifer Dale regard their film as an act of gratitude to Eleonora Duse. “When the craft of acting changed, society evolved with it,” Tyler says. “People need to know who started it all. Duse was the first realistic actor. She shocked the art world by reflecting back truthful human behavior.”

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