Throwing Kisses, Throwing Pies
It all began in the dorm—Kober House, to be precise—when tall, slightly awkward transfer student Tina Howe ’59 met Jane Quigley Alexander ’61, a budding actor with chestnut hair down to her waist.
“I will never forget that first impression,” recalls Howe, a prizewinning playwright. “She was demure, but with all the fire of the world inside her.”
“That ‘fire’—it’s called ‘being a showoff,’” counters Alexander, who has won just about every major award for acting.
They had immediate insights into each other, which only deepened at Sarah Lawrence, where they began brilliant careers as well as a 50-year friendship. Through it all, their vibrant personal and professional voices have been tightly interwoven.
In fact, Howe credits Alexander with the birth of her playwriting career. She wrote her first play, Closing Time, for a senior-year writing class. The production featured a chorus of pigeons on stepladders and a plot concerning the end of the world. At that point, student plays weren’t generally produced at the College, but Howe showed it to Alexander, and the actor fell for it. “It was highly imaginative, unlike anything I’d ever read,” Alexander says.
“Jane is a frisky soul with a heart, and she told me, ‘I think I want to direct your play,” Howe recalls. “The powers that be heard ‘Jane,’ ‘direct,’ and ‘play’ and said, ‘Do it, do it, do it.’” Then one of the leads became ill; Alexander stepped in to play the part, and the fate of Closing Time was assured. “It turned out to be a screaming, howling triumph, with cries of ‘Author! Author!’” Howe says. “I ran onto the stage to throw kisses. I thought to myself, ‘Ah, this is what I’m supposed to do.’”
Alexander didn’t always feel so clear about her own future. “I was as intense and confused as any undergraduate who ever entered a college,” she says. “And I stayed that way, right through the better part of my twenties, flailing and wondering and searching for where I fit in.”
After Howe’s graduation, the young women sailed together for Europe. While studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, Howe “had her socks knocked off” by a performance of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and wrote her first full-length play. Alexander went to Scotland, partly to develop a career Plan B (she studied mathematics and computer science). She also kept acting and garnered attention for her work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Howe and Alexander were separated then, and for the next, critical stages in their lives. But they stayed fast friends with each other, and with some of their SLC classmates, including Jane Milliken-Roberts ’59, Susan Kinney Griffiths ’60, Susan Sollins ’61, and Hope Cooke ’62.
When Alexander returned to America her career really began to blossom. She gained national fame for her Tony-winning performance in the 1969 Broadway play The Great White Hope and won an Oscar nomination for the same role in 1970. She made the first two of three award-winning appearances as Eleanor Roosevelt in the films Eleanor and Franklin (1976) and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977). (Nearly three decades later, she won an Emmy for portraying FDR’s mother.) She won the first of several Emmys for her supporting appearance in 1981’s Playing for Time and Oscar nominations for All the President’s Men (1976), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), and Testament (1983).
Meanwhile, Howe moved back to the US, married, and did a stint as a high school teacher, all the while continuing to work on her playwriting. Her first professionally produced play—The Nest (1969), featuring Jill Clayburgh ’66 stepping nude into a cake—was poorly received, but Museum (1976) and The Art of Dining (1979) attracted a more positive response. She fully hit her stride with Painting Churches (1983) and Coastal Disturbances (1986). Howe won an Obie Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the former, and the latter was nominated for a Tony as Best Play.
By the 1990s, Howe and Alexander were at the peak of their professions. Alexander, who was well on her way to performing more than 100 roles for the stage, had earned multiple Tony Award nominations, and in 1993 was appointed chairperson of the beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts. Howe started teaching playwriting at Hunter College (which she still does) and was a Pulitzer finalist a second time for Pride’s Crossing (1997).
Along the way, Howe developed a voice that has been variously described as farcical and absurd, impressionistic and airy, graceful and perceptive, lyric and literate, vivid and language-driven, whimsical and demented. Odd things happen in the face of the recognizable: Trees grow up inside and through a New York State farmhouse (One Shoe Off); Shakespeare’s Ophelia arises from a whirlpool bath in a health club (Water Music); the painter Rembrandt appears in a Soho loft (Rembrandt’s Gift).
“Tina’s voice takes you places you don’t usually go,” Alexander explains. “I’m the best audience for Tina. I love her plays because of the flights of fantasy. She invariably goes into what’s reality, and what isn’t. I just love her work.”
While it’s clear how a writer’s voice affects her plays, describing an actor’s voice requires a little pondering. “What does it mean for an actor to have a voice? I don’t know how fully to answer that, because we’re interpretive artists,” Alexander says. “Yet I bring so much of myself, who I am, to my performing. You can give a script to three different actors in three different rooms, and they’ll interpret it differently, so there must be a singular voice that we each have.
“Perhaps it’s not so much finding our own voice as feeling comfortable with it. An agent once said to me, ‘If you just fixed your nose, you’d be like every other starlet in Hollywood.’ But why would I want to?! I want to have my own voice—and my own nose.”
The two women worked together professionally for the first time in 1989, when Alexander had a leading role in Howe’s play Approaching Zanzibar. The challenges of interpreting a friend’s voice were not lost on Alexander, who spoke recently of “the fear that you could lose your friend … You worry that you’re not going to meet her expectations.” For Howe, that was an impossibility. “It’s a total glory, never a strain,” she says of working with Alexander. “I mean, just look at her! Jane is the best.”
In Howe’s most recent play, Chasing Manet, two nursing-home residents plot their escape to Paris on the QE2. Howe asked Alexander to star in the play—which had a limited off-Broadway run in the spring—and the actor jumped at the chance. The part of Catherine was, she says, “right up there with some of the greatest roles I’ve ever played.”
Looking back at her body of work, Howe notes “most of it is about a kind of Tina character, trying to figure out the meaning of it all. I’m more interested in my own personal coming of age than I am in a societal one.” And this jibes more with Alexander’s view of the way to perform Howe’s plays. “I think I always approach things from a very real place. Even in Tina’s fantasy world, you don’t play her characters as fey. Her world is as real as any dream can be.”
For her part, Howe describes Alexander’s voice without hesitation, although describing her own takes more thought. “Jane’s is effortless and true, and mine is … mine is … willfully whimsical and a touch mannered,” says Howe. She cites the Marx Brothers and Ionesco as influences. “There’s something about unbridled chaos that I just find exhilarating.” She compares herself to a clown throwing pies—“pies that Jane would make without any fuss or yelling or hemming or hawing. And I’m like the clown—except I’m throwing the pies at myself.”
Ever the muse, Alexander concurs. “I love to observe chaos more than be a part of it. But I am a risk taker in most areas of my life. I am an inveterate mischief maker when the chance arises, even as I seek a path of truth.”
Their appreciation and support for each other has only deepened over the years. “Jane really has a gift for friendship,” Howe says. “She keeps this hard-core group of us Sarah Lawrence women together. Every year she holds a Labor Day party at her house, and we’ve kept up with children, weddings, anniversaries, divorces—she wouldn’t let us go and has kept us tightly bound. She’s a very stable beacon for us.”
Half a century of chaos, brilliance, mischief, awards— and an intense, loving friendship that has inflected their professional choices even as it enriched their lives.