Dukakis with LSU theater arts students.
Dukakis with LSU theater arts students.

By Chelsea Brasted | LSU Student

Louisiana State University junior theater student Mercedes Wilson nervously shifts from foot to foot and wrings her hands as she stands in front of about 50 of her peers during a special theater class, wearing casual khakis and a grey sweater.

"Can you do your grandfather?" asks a smoothly elegant voice.

Wilson nods, and her body transforms. She instantly holds her head higher, drops her shoulders and recites a poem in a gruff voice.

"Good. Do your grandmother now."

Wilson again morphs, this time crouching lower to the ground, and she flits her hands in front of her and bobs her head in time to the syncopation of the poem's words.

Wilson finishes with a giggle, and the voice, which belongs to Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis laughs with her.

Wilson was just one of eight students — four undergraduate and four graduate — who had the opportunity to take the master class last week from Dukakis in LSU's theater program.

Dukakis, who was in Baton Rouge for a two-night run of her one-woman show, "Rose," at the Manship Theater, agreed to do one-day, three-hour master class with the university students.

" [Dukakis'] personal assistant, is a graduate of LSU's School of Music, and … he contacted me and asked if we would be interested in having her come," said Kristin Sosnowsky, interim chair of the Theater Department. "Of course, we were thrilled. That's something we were very excited about."

In addition to the Oscar she won for her work in "Moonstruck," Dukakis has also received a Golden Globe, both New York and Los Angeles Film Critics awards and two Obie awards. She has appeared in more than 50 films and in more than 130 off-Broadway or regional productions.

Although only eight students received instruction, all Theater Department students were invited to observe.

Wilson said she was surprised at having been chosen to take part in the master class with Dukakis, but relished the opportunity.

"I was really excited, and I told my family and everything. It was a privilege to represent my department," Wilson said. "I'm so happy I got to work with her."

Dukakis made several comments about Wilson's performance, calling the young actress "transformative."

"I love that you laugh and cry and talk," Dukakis told Wilson.

Dukakis asked Wilson to explore the different characters in her life to experiment with the performance of a poem, explaining that the experience of the people with whom Wilson grew up will help to delve deeper into various characters

"You have to decide, what is it that's shaped this person? All of us are shaped by the people we grew up with, the culture we lived in, the part of the country we come from, the racial, ethnic background we have," Dukakis explained. "We're all shaped by these things, and we've learned to survive. That's what characters do in plays. They survived their youth, their family, their area, their culture. … They have done exactly what you have done."

Wilson said the recommendations Dukakis made on her performance would help her in the future, and that she was pleased to hear Dukakis' commentary of her acting style.

"It seemed like she knew what [we] needed to do to find more in [our] monologue — to make new discoveries in it," Wilson said.