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In memoriam: Jewel Walker

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Campus community remembers noted theatre director, stage movement teacher

At the 2015 UD Commencement ceremony, Jewel Walker (left) is presented an honorary doctor of humane letters degree by Gil Sparks, then-chairman of the Board of Trustees.

​At the 2015 UD Commencement ceremony, Jewel Walker (left) is presented an honorary doctor of humane letters degree by Gil Sparks, then-chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Jewel Harrison Walker Jr., whose career encompassed a range of achievements from regular appearances on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to major influence on the Professional Theatre Training Program and the Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware, passed away on Nov. 16, 2020. He was 93.

The professor emeritus of theatre at UD was a nationally recognized director and stage movement teacher.

Sandy Robbins, chairperson of the Department of Theatre, said, “Jewel Walker was the heart and soul of the Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) and the Resident Ensemble Players (REP.) It was Jewel’s original thinking that animated and sustained the PTTP and gave rise to the REP. He was my teacher, my mentor, colleague and my closest friend for just under 50 years, and my debt to him can never be repaid. His contributions to the American theatre, to his students and to me personally are incalculable.”

Robbins posted a tribute to Prof. Walker that is reprinted at the end of this article.

Joann Browning, professor emerita of theatre, called Prof. Walker “a master.” She said, “I know of no one who had the depth of understanding and knowledge about the way in which the human body works expressively in its behavior as Jewel did.  Jewel taught you to see, to observe, to learn from what was right in front of you all the time. In the classroom, and in life, Jewel lived in the moment, in the now. He didn’t just teach what he knew, he taught what was needed.  He taught us all that we could be “...a human being, here, now, able, to provide what’s needed, now.” It is the rare teacher about which one can say he made a profound difference in the lives of every single student that crossed his path.  From Tony Award winners to theatre makers contributing to their small communities, if Jewel was your teacher, you carry his golden nuggets with you always.  Jewel will forever be in the ‘audience’ of all those who knew him, studied with him and loved him.”

Leslie Riedel, professor of theatre, was a friend of colleague of Prof. Walker for 42 years. “We met when Sandy Robbins created the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1978 -- that program and most of its faculty moved to the University of Delaware in 1989,” Riedel said. “From the beginning in Milwaukee, Jewel and I became fast friends. We shared many interests besides the theatre. Sports of any kind, music of almost any kind, and exotic audio equipment to play that music, were a few of our common interests. Our family lives became intertwined – our wives shared the same birthday. Our children knew one another. We celebrated many events together. For 11 years, Jewel and I had lunch together every working day – at the Pancake House; Jewel always ordered “Swedish pancakes with lingonberry butter.” He had very specific tastes and knew what he liked. Fortunately, he liked me and we became, and stayed, best friends until he died.

“Jewel was a great teacher, perhaps the best that I have ever encountered,” Riedel said. “The many awards and legion of remarkable students who he taught easily attest to this fact. He was our program’s ‘Master Teacher.’ Jewel was also the best learner that I have ever known. Endlessly curious, he was our trailblazer who was always seeking the next idea, technique or pedagogy that might move our work forward. He would ‘experiment’ on himself and then bring that work into our studios. Jewel never stopped questioning the purpose and nature of the theatre and how we were training future artists. In that spirit, under the leadership of Sandy Robbins, our training program became and remained one of the very few ‘experimental’ theatre training programs in the world. This was remarkable. Our classes and productions were our laboratory and our students were our laboratory assistants. None of this would have happened without Jewel Walker!”

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Jewel Walker appeared as the Stage Manager in the 2010 REP production of Thornton Wilder's classic 'Our Town.'

​Jewel Walker appeared as the Stage Manager in the 2010 REP production of Thornton Wilder's classic 'Our Town.'

Prof. Walker began his teaching career at the HB Studio in New York City and then went on to teach at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he was a founding member of the PTTP graduate theatre training program that moved to UD in 1989. Prof. Walker, who appeared on the popular television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as Mime Walker, taught at UD for 21 years, retiring in 2009 as the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Theatre.

He received the Barrymore Award for Choreography and Movement in 2005 for his original work Tuesday, which was first staged at the University and later at festivals nationally and internationally.

At Commencement in 2015, the University awarded Prof. Walker an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Calling him an accomplished actor, noted mime and admired writer and director, the degree citation noted that Prof. Walker was “widely considered to be one of the first inspiring movement teachers in the United States” and that he “influenced generations of performers,” many of whom credit him for their success. The citation also quoted Tony Award-winning actress Cherry Jones, who has said that Prof. Walker’s “extraordinary artistry, discipline and commitment has proved to be a vital navigational star” in her professional career.

Prof. Walker is survived by his wife of 60 years, Marjorie; daughter, Jessie Walker and her husband David Banner; son, John Walker and his wife Deborah (Curtis) Walker; grandchildren, Emily Walker, Justin Banner, Grace, Sophia, Ava and Lilianna Walker.

Donations in memory of Prof. Walker can be made to support the Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware. Please use UD’s secure website, www.udel.edu/makeagift, or send contributions to: University of Delaware, Gifts Processing, 83 East Main St., 3rd Fl., Newark, DE 19716.  Make checks payable to: ‘University of Delaware’ and include on the memo line ‘in memory of Jewel Walker.'

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A remembrance by Sandy Robbins

Jewel Walker, in a 2005 photo

​Jewel Walker, in a 2005 photo

Jewel Walker passed away on the afternoon of Monday, Nov. 16. The American theatre has lost one of its most powerful and influential teachers and artists.

Jewel studied acting with Vera Soloviova, Herbert Berghof and Lee Strasberg, and mime with Etienne Decroux. Jewel was one of Etienne Decroux’s foremost students, performing in Decroux’s company and then touring nationally as a solo mime. Later, Jewel partnered with Tony Montanaro in mime performances in New York City.

Jewel incorporated the discipline, aesthetic and technique of corporeal mime into an original approach to movement training for actors, which he taught to several generations of acting students, first at the HB Studio, then for Lee Strasberg’s school, then for Carnegie Tech (later Carnegie-Mellon University) and then as a founding member of the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which relocated to the University of Delaware, where Jewel was the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Theatre. At Delaware, in addition to heading the Movement Area, Jewel served as a play director and head of Acting. He also led London Winter Session programs and taught for many years with the Governor’s School for Excellence summer program.

Jewel was a founding member of the American Conservatory Theatre and a regular performer on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as Mime Walker. He has written and directed plays for the Cincinnati Playhouse, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and the American Players Theatre. He played Friar Laurence for the Pittsburgh Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet and appeared in many programs of WQED in Pittsburgh. His original play Mimecircus was performed in Pittsburgh’s parks and at the Milwaukee County Zoo. He received the Moebius award for creativity in teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 1998, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education designated him the Outstanding Teacher of Theatre in Higher Education. Jewel is also the recipient of the Association of Theatre Movement Educators Lifetime Service Award. In 2015 the University of Delaware awarded Jewel the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

Jewel was far more than America’s foremost trainer of stage movement. He was also one of the country’s most innovative teachers of acting and a profoundly gifted director. Audiences remember fondly his productions of King Lear, The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters, An Ideal Husband, Peer Gynt, Uncle Vanya, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Henry V, Arcadia, Travesties, The Real Thing and his adaptation of Lysistrata. Jewel was honored at the 2005 Barrymore Awards in Philadelphia as Best Choreographer for his original play Tuesday, which also won in the category of Best Performance by an Ensemble in a Play. Most recently he directed the REP’s acclaimed production of Our Town, in which he also played the Stage Manager.

Jewel Walker was a co-creator, along with Sandy Robbins and Werner Erhard, of The World Is Your Stage, a transformational program offered by Landmark Worldwide.

Jewel made a deep, lasting  and profound difference in the work and in the lives of the hundreds of students who were lucky enough to study with him, including Ted Danson, Cherry Jones, Tom Hewitt, Sandy Robbins, Lori Cardille, Linda Balgord and countless other theatremakers who credit Jewel Walker with being the most important influence on their work.

Jewel’s passion, brilliance, commitment, theatrical genius and his unique combination of gentleness and ferocity lives on in his former students. It is a testament to Jewel Walker’s teaching and an indication of who he was as a man of the theatre that a remarkably large number of his former students have founded and/or now run successful theatres. No one in the history of American theatre training has been more influential. His passing marks the end of an era. He is gone but he will never be forgotten.

Article by UDaily staff; photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and P. Cerro.

Published Dec. 3, 2020.

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