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Kristin Linklater Was a “Master Teacher, Great Healer”

linklater opening mouth wide
Kristin Linklater performs a vocal exercise in her 20s. Courtesy photo

By Erin Clossey

Kristin Linklater, a world-renowned voice teacher and former head of acting in Emerson’s Performing Arts department, died Friday, June 5, at her home in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. She was 84.

An actress, director, teacher, and lecturer, Linklater taught many generations of students and drama teachers her Linklater Voice method, around which she built the Kristin Linklater Voice Centre, a year-round residential facility on the Orkney Islands which she founded in 2014. Her life’s work was bridge the gap between the authentic self and the voice.

“Kristin was a master teacher. She was a great healer. She changed lives,” said Professor Maureen Shea, head of Theatre Studies.

Linklater came to Emerson in 1990 from Shakespeare & Company, which she co-founded with Artistic Director Tina Packer in 1978. During her six years on faculty, she designed and implemented a voice-based acting curriculum with her student and “right hand,” Designated Linklater Voice Teacher Paula Langton, now head of acting at Boston University.

Nearly 25 years later, Linklater’s methods are still integral to the way acting is taught at Emerson. A number of current faculty members are Designated Linklater Teachers, including Senior Artist-in-Residence and Head of Voice Amelia Broome, Senior Artist-in-Residence Melissa Healey, Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Timothy Douglas, Associate Professor Craig Mathers, and affiliated faculty members Valerie Madden and Rebecca Schneebaum; and a number of current and former faculty members who teach acting and directing are deeply informed by Linklater’s methods.

“While Kristin’s tenure at Emerson was relatively short, her impact on our lives and program has been profound and lasting,” Shea said.

Broome, Emerson’s current head of voice who said she owes her career as a teacher to Linklater’s support and mentorship, said Linklater held her students in a kind of reverent fear.

“Kristin taught with such profound empathy,” she said. “One of the great gifts from Kristin was watching her and learning from her how to listen deeply. That being said, she was formidable in class. She said exactly what she thought, she brooked no nonsense, she took no prisoners.”

Linklater stands above group lying in circle
Kristin Linklater, then a faculty member at Emerson, leads a workshop on voice training for teachers in the early 1990s. Photo/Emerson College Archives

Film producer and director John Crye ’93 echoed those sentiments in a Facebook post announcing Linklater’s death.

“She was the most ruthlessly challenging, yet deeply compassionate mentor I ever had. In three years, I think I satisfied her stringent expectations once, and I will carry that shining moment with me into the next world. When I arrive, I anticipate notes.”

While at Emerson, together with feminist and psychologist Carol Gilligan, Linklater formed and led The Company of Women, an all-female professional Shakespeare company which ran workshops for women and girls and staged all-women Shakespeare productions. As an actor in the company, Linklater played the Chorus and Fluellen in their inaugural production of Henry V (1994) and the title role of King Lear in 1996, both directed by Shea.

Born and raised in the Orkney Islands, Linklater trained at the London Academy of Dramatic Arts, and from 1965-1978 taught in New York University’s graduate theatre program. Linklater returned to New York after her time at Emerson, joining Columbia University’s graduate program in Theatre Arts. She taught there for 16 years, retiring as Professor Emerita in 2013.

The following year, Linklater returned to the Orkney Islands to found the Kristin Linklater Voice Centre, which she was directing at the time of her death.

Shortly before Linklater died, her former student and colleague Paula Langton had the opportunity to watch her teach a master Shakespeare class on Zoom. Online instruction was not something Linklater had trained for, and in many ways, it was the antithesis of what her method is all about, Langton said. But her “extraordinary spirt” carried over the Internet, and she was so good at it that she had begun investing in technology so she could launch an online career, pandemic or not.

“There are so many elements of Kristin that have taught me, but this kind of game spirit and willingness to take leap after leap into the unknown with that generosity of spirit and clarity of intent,” Langton said. “The woman died fully alive, in full stride, willing and game to carry her work forward. I’ve never been more inspired in my whole life by the fullness of a life.”

Ken Cheeseman, who retired as Senior Artist-in-Residence this spring after 15 years at Emerson, and who is married to Langton, said that beyond the heartbreak of losing a good friend, he feels a particular profundity to losing her now, when people are rising up against a racist system that makes it difficult for Black Americans to breathe, both literally and figuratively.

“That’s her legacy,” Cheeseman said. “Getting the world to breathe and speak out.”

Maureen Shea contributed to this article.

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