By Lauren Newkirk Maynard
It was 1993, and Joyce Stilson (MA ’90, BA ’86) was struggling through her opening monologue as Helena during a dress rehearsal of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Stilson’s director, Saul Elkin, gave the young actor some directions to try. She ran her lines again, and then Elkin did something she’ll never forget: He walked up to her, gently put his hands on her face, and said, “Joyce Stilson, that was lovely.”
“It’s a very vulnerable thing to be an actor,” Stilson says, as if still in disbelief. “To turn and make a 180-degree change on the spot can be difficult. Saul was right there with me the whole time.”
During his 39-year career at UB, Elkin, now SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Theatre and Dance, made similarly indelible impressions on thousands of thespians on campus and throughout Western New York. An actor by the age of seven with the Yiddish Art Theatre in Manhattan, he has stage credits in more than 250 performances on and off Broadway, and has appeared with several regional theater companies—and in film—in New York State. In 1969, he began teaching at UB, chairing the theater department from 1975 to 2000.
Elkin retired from UB in 2008, but is still very active in the Buffalo theater scene. This summer, he's directing “Henry V” as part of Buffalo’s acclaimed outdoor Shakespeare in Delaware Park Series, which he founded in 1976.
Stilson’s first role for the series was as Perdita in “The Winter’s Tale” in 1988, but that production of “Midsummer” will always remain a career highlight.
The play opened on a Tuesday, she remembers, but just a few days before, the set still wasn’t done. Then it started to rain. As the cast huddled together under some trees, Stilson recalls Elkin slowly walking toward them up the hill toward the stage. “We were silent, which was unusual. He put his hands on his hips, looked at us and said, ‘Well, it’s raining,’ and we all laughed, scared to death that the play wouldn’t come off. Then he told us, ‘It’s going to be fine. We’ve done good work.’”
He was right; although they never had time to do a run-through with the new set, the cast had been “incredibly well-rehearsed,” Stilson says, and the production was a hit.
Stilson took undergraduate acting classes with Elkin, returning as a graduate assistant in the late ’80s to help him and other faculty members teach UB’s Theatre 101 course.
The two have since acted together and directed each other in several local productions over the years, including seven plays “on the hill.” Being onstage with Elkin every night is wonderful, Stilson says, calling him a “generous” director and colleague. But just hanging out with him is even more special. “He’s very jovial, and so amazingly present when you speak with him—you feel like you’re the only person in the room,” Stilson says. “It’s a rare gift.”
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