Metcalf Cup and Prize Winner Judith Chaffee
Teaching acting students the language of the human body
In the video above, Judith Chaffee and her students practice commedia dell’arte, a type of improvisational comedy that began in Italy in the 16th century. Photos by Cydney Scott and Kalman Zabarsky
“We’re going on a truly imaginary journey today,” Judith Chaffee promises her freshman Movement class. Barefoot like their teacher on the dance floor, the dozen-plus aspiring actors, who appear to have been set in motion by Chaffee like some cosmic maestro directing a solar system, wander randomly about the practice studio at the College of Fine Arts. She proceeds to narrate a scenario for her wordless students to act out, using only body language, breathing, and facial expressions.
“You’ve landed on a new planet,” Chaffee intones. “You notice there’s not as much gravity. You can almost bounce.” Her students spring lightly, prancing antelope-like on the dance floor. She runs them through several minutes of emotions and interactions—smelling a familiar odor, feeling the hot sun on their bodies, crawling through a tunnel, encountering strange and fearsome creatures, and finally, meeting another person and walking into the studio’s steel-pipe scaffold, their pretend-spaceship back to Earth. Afterwards, she sits on the floor with the class to discuss their experience.
“I got to fully unleash my imagination,” says Francesca Blanchard (CFA’14). When Chaffee asked them to imagine a familiar odor, “The first smell that came was apple pie,” she recalls. “I have no idea where that came from.”
“Welcome to acting,” her teacher says, obviously satisfied by Blanchard’s stretching her imaginative muscles.
The human body is a universal language, and every student has some artistic potential to use that language. That is the associate professor of movement’s day-in, day-out operating philosophy at CFA’s School of Theatre, one she personally demonstrated this month by training for and winning a runner-up slot in the University’s Dancing with the Professors competition. (She won doing the swing.) Her charges confirm that they are able to realize their personal potential under her tutelage. Their written commendations marvel at what they’ve accomplished with her (“When are you going to teach us to fly?”) and even offer compensation recommendations (“She deserves a big raise!”).
Chaffee, winner of this year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, says being honored with BU’s highest teaching award has left her “overwhelmed and humbled, given the outstanding teachers I know at Boston University.”
“She challenges students, encourages them to explore, and gives them the courage to take risks,” reads her Metcalf citation.
The skills she teaches future thespians include acrobatics, dance, stage combat, and stretching and strengthening. Teaching movement obviously requires lots of it—Chaffee herself is reed-thin—and you know your lessons are sinking in by, well, reading students’ bodies. Their questions are important, she says, but in addition, “their facial expressions and especially their body language tell me how much and what they’re understanding. It is also watching them leave class with a big smile on their faces, or seeing them stunned to discover it is the end of a three-hour class, and they don’t want to leave.”
The ultimate proof, she says, is watching her students act on stage or receiving emails from former students “thanking me for teaching them to take care of their bodies.”
Chaffee arrived at BU in 1974 to be the dance director in the Department of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. From there she joined CFA and its Opera Institute as movement coordinator and choreographer. She has been a choreographer for the Huntington Theatre Company, Opera Boston, the Los Angeles Shakespeare Company, and the North Shore Music Theatre. Chaffee, who has acted on American and foreign stages, is a graduate of Skidmore, Smith, and the International School of the Comic Actor, in Reggio-Emilia, Italy.
The Metcalf awards date to 1973 and are funded by a gift from the late BU professor and Board of Trustees chairman emeritus Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74). The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000, the Metcalf Award winners $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on nominees’ statements of teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the teachers. The Metcalf honors are presented at Commencement.