I finally persuaded my husband to leave our house in January 1967 after almost a year of his disapproving silence, his refusal to see a therapist, his unwillingness to talk about the many issues separating us.
Our son was six and a half. I was working part-time teaching dance and pre-school movement classes. Although I had a bit of savings secreted away, I had barely enough to live on and pay the bills. It didn’t help that when my husband left he refused to pay child support. Despite this, I managed to save enough money to take a course in children’s theatre—something I’d been doing for years—writing and directing with a bit of performing. Although I was credentialed to teach physical education and science, the thought of doing so made me nauseous. I decided to get an MA in theatre offered by the University of Delaware.
Friends and family were equally horrified. How could I be so irresponsible? How would I find work with an MA in theatre? Not even an MFA. How could I be so selfish? I had a child to support. I had a mortgage to pay. The roof needed to be replaced. How was I going to pay for it all? Why wasn’t I using the education I had to make life easier for my son, if not me?
I tried to explain that for more than six years I’d taken care of my child and husband, focusing on their needs—finding work to fit their schedules, losing a job interview because my husband was sick, dealing with my son’s illnesses. I felt like I was dying emotionally. I needed something to do that was mine, that nourished me.
Nothing I said to friends or family made a difference. I expected my mother to be harsh in her judgment, but friends? I felt like a broken person although at the time I didn’t know why I felt such despair and depression. I had trouble taking care of a son who missed his father and blamed me for the divorce.
Ten years before, in 1957, I had a technical scholarship to Connecticut College, School of the Dance. In exchange for tuition, room and board, I worked lights, helped with costumes, and generally did whatever the technical director needed doing. Now, in 1967, that technical director, Tom Watson was the new Chairman of the Theatre Department. He remembered me. He remembered how hard I’d worked. When the student who had a university technical fellowship had to leave because of mental illness, Tom phoned to ask, “Would you like to take over his fellowship for the spring semester?”
I wanted it more than anything but I told him, “I can’t do what he did.”
“That’s true, but you could teach movement for actors, which would be great since we don’t have any movement courses for students to take. As you know, dance isn’t the same.”
I had no idea what this involved, but I said yes. I knew there were no courses in movement for actors that focused on the needs of actors to physicalize their characters’ words and actions anywhere in the US so I had to develop whatever I was going to teach—a daunting process. I knew about the body; I’d studied anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, done kinesiological movement analysis when studying dance in graduate school, and I knew about acting. I just had to find a way to put all my bits of knowledge into a coherent whole.
Fortunately, it was the late 60’s. Even at conservative University of Delaware, the students I had, encouraged by me, asked challenging questions: Why are we doing this activity? What’s the point of looking at blocking in terms of expressive movement? How do you physicalize emotions without miming or being obvious? Sometimes I had an answer. Sometimes the answer occurred at the moment I was asked, but sometimes I said, “I’ll let you know next class.” What I didn’t know I figured out. I relished the challenge. I felt invigorated because it was a wonderful semester and depressed because I had no money to continue.
I spent the summer directing and teaching a Title One Grant using movement, music, and acting to create theatre with kids we met on the street, culminating in a performance. I earned enough money to pay bills and living expenses with a bit left over. I realized that if I was extremely frugal, and nothing catastrophic happened, I’d probably have enough money to pay for one course, but at this rate it would take years to finish my degree.
Toward the end of August, days before the new term was starting, Tom called me up. “How would you like to finish your degree?” I told him I didn’t have the money. “You won’t believe this,” he said, “but the woman we hired to do costumes decided to teach in Vietnam. Want the fellowship? You’ll be able to graduate by the end of the school year.”
I was excited by the offer, then saddened by my reality. “I can’t make costumes, Tom. Besides, I have a kid to take care of. I can’t be out nights and weekends.”
“I know,” he said, but you can continue teaching movement for actors and do a theatre program for kids as part of your performance thesis. Create whatever schedule and courses that work for you.”
His words changed my life. I was able to develop a coherent program using movement as part of actor education. I wrote and directed plays for kids. I finished my degree. My MA thesis became my first book: Theatre Movement.
Contrary to University of Delaware policy of not hiring its own graduates, the university hired me to teach in the Theatre Department where I continued to develop courses in movement and nonverbal communication for actors, as well as a new approach to teaching creative drama and children’s theatre. I was soon invited to teach workshops and seminars in Theatre and Language Arts Departments around the US and abroad.
I now had an identity separate from being a mother. Not only did I create a career that nourished my soul and spirit, I was able to support my son, pay the mortgage, fix the roof, and look all my disparagers in the eye. I never said, “Told you so.” How could I? I never had a plan. It all unfolded—each choice opening up a new opportunity.
Was there a time when you had to make a difficult choice that could affect the whole of your life? If so, what was that time like for you? What choice did you make? How do you feel now about the choice you made then?
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.