As most teachers know, there's an art to being emotionally vulnerable in front of your students.
There's a craft to it, too, as Sarah Shippobotham reveals this weekend on a University of Utah stage playing Vivian Bearing, a John Donne scholar, English professor and cancer patient in the heart-wrenching 1999 Pultizer Prize-winning play "W;t."
"I do like to perform," says the professor noted for her work as a voice and dialect coach for Canada's prestigious Shaw Festival, as well as locally at Salt Lake Acting and Pioneer Theatre companies. "I like to check out that what I'm teaching my students is actually practical. And to remind myself of the experiences that they go through."
As the script demands, Shippobotham, who directs the U.'s actor training program, strips off her hospital gown at the end of "W;t," performing a rare, albeit brief, act of nudity on a local stage.
But the part will have a longer lasting effect on the 42-year-old British native. Last week, she shaved her shoulder-length hair to prepare for the role, which will be performed through Sunday at the U.'s Studio 115.
And this week, after she decided the makeup treatment wasn't working, Shippobotham went even further. She shaved off her eyebrows so she could deliver this line authentically, as she coaches her students, "to do it for real." "I'm a scholar," says Vivian Bearing from her hospital bed. "Or I was . . . when I had shoes. When I had eyebrows."
As much as professionals talk about the technical challenges that are part of the job, whether it's stripping naked or crying when the script demands, pulling them off is still difficult. Especially when tough critics, like your students, are watching. "It's certainly a risky thing to do, and it's a fearful thing to do," says Bob Nelson, "W;t's" director and the chairman of the U.'s theater department. "I admire her more and more each day for her willingness to put herself on the line. I really respect her willingness to go the whole distance with the character. She does so beautifully, and by the end of the play we care deeply about her."
Shippobotham and other professors are known to act occasionally in university productions (coincidentally, assistant professor Hugh Hanson is also sporting a bald head for his role as Caldwell B. Cladwell in the satirical musical "Urinetown," which plays through the weekend at the U.'s Babcock Theatre.) "Two shaved heads in one season - that may be rare," cracks adjunct instructor Larry West, who directed the show.
Yet it's considered something of an event when faculty take on such a substantial part. "It's a great learning experience, learning by example," says Nick Zaharias, a 22-year-old junior and "W;t" cast member. "It gave me an insight into the female mind, how women think of dying and how men think of dying. Even though she plays a very gruff character, a very closed-off character who hides behind her profession, the character is very feminine in the way that Sarah plays her. She draws her strength through her female power."
U. senior Colin Elliott, who plays another doctor in the cast, was impressed with the professor's attention to the acting process. "I actually found her humility rather inspiring," says Elliott, 23. "She was always very open to doing whatever was best for the group. If she had a problem and there might be an easy solution to it, she would ask if it was OK."
The part was simply too good for Shippobotham to pass up, even if it required her going bald. "That's who she is; she's fully committed to whatever she does," says Keven Myhre, producing director at SLAC.
Still, to civilians - non-actors, that is - it sounds extreme for a professional to shave her head and eyebrows for a university show that will play only six times on a tiny, 58-seat theater in the basement of the same campus building where you teach.
"I only get freaked out when I look in the mirror," Shippobotham says, laughing. "I have way too little personal vanity. I don't consider myself particularly brave because I had the choice to do it. And it's an amazing role for a woman, to have that much stage time and be able to tell that story, whether it's six times or 200 times, it's the fact that the story is out there."
But there's also the nudity required as Bearing dies, a plot twist the character reveals to the audience early in the story. "I've never been naked on stage before, and that was an interesting aspect of the project, that sense of physical vulnerability," Shippobotham says. "Although as I have discovered, it's the emotional vulnerability that's the difficulty at the level I'd like to achieve.
"I'm British, so I tend to use sarcasm and vicious jabbing as a way of telling people I have emotion inside of me."
To take on the part, Shippobotham tapped into the fresh emotion of her own brushes with cancer, remembering how she felt when her cat died of the disease last month or when her mother underwent a mastectomy. But the character of the 50-year-old workaholic scholar has had a deeper kind of personal resonance, as well.
"I live my life for my students way too much," says Shippobotham, who has worked at the U. for eight years. "I haven't gone out and found a social life particularly. I don't have anybody in my life, and I'm living in the worst city for that. And now I've gone and made myself bald with no eyebrows."
Audiences cared deeply about the story the last time it unfolded on a Salt Lake City stage, back in 2000 in a production of the now-defunct Emily Company. The role of Vivian Bearing was played by Katharine Clark Reilly, who died last year of uterine cancer in what one obituary writer noted as "a cruelly ironic example of life imitating art."
In this production of "W;t," playing alongside Shippobotham are seven students, as well as another professional, Marilyn Holt, a theater department professor emeritus who plays Bearing's mentor.
"There's one point that gets to me every night," Shippobotham says, "where she says, 'Time to go,' and kisses me, and says 'Flights of angels sing me to my rest.' Which, of course, is from 'Hamlet,' and the way she says that line tends to disrupt my coma."
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* "W;t" plays Friday through Sunday in Studio 115, Performing Arts Building, on the University of Utah campus. Curtain is at 7:30 tonight, with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee.
* Tickets are $9 ($5 for students) and are available by calling 801-581-7100 or visiting www.kingtix.com.