Remembering Delia Salvi

The first thing I did after I saw Whiplash was to look up the IMDb entry to see if the writer, Damien Chazelle, had been a theater or film student at UCLA. (He hadn’t.) I’m sure I’m not alone.

Mild praise was her ultimate crushing dismissal. (Photo of Delia Salvia via themayorsblog.com)

Her name was Delia Salvi, and I think of her as a cross between J.K. Simmons’s Fletcher and Maggie Smith’s Miss Brodie. The only difference was that Delia never actually hit us or sent us off to war.

When you see the work of graduates who attended the famed school of theater and film at UCLA between 1969 and 2011, odds are they have come through her classroom. All have Delia stories that put her somewhere on the spectrum between Satan and savior; many of us have plenty of both kinds.

Some of my fellow alumni might not be applauding my harsh words for a woman who died recently, but they also have to understand that I don’t regret sitting in her classes for one minute.

She should have been a contender

She wasn’t a happy woman. It was obvious that her life’s expectations didn’t involve nursing others to some starring platform. Whatever she may have looked like when she was young, she did not age into an attractive woman, especially in Los Angeles, a city harsh enough about the aging of any performer, let alone the character actor with strident features and bulging eyes.

But Delia carried herself as if she should have been a contender, and she dressed with the flair of a star. She was a tall woman who always wore large pieces of jewelry as art to match every sweeping skirt and great black cape. She oozed an East Coast theater sophistication that simultaneously communicated her bitterness for the status eluding her in Hollywood. So she found a new persona, demigod.

She was a force of nature, a category five hurricane. Some days you were in the halcyon eye of the storm, and many days you were in her howling, and I mean howling, winds.

No half measures

If Elia Kazan was the king of the directing school of cruelty, Delia was his crown princess. She suffered no half measures. If you stood before her without the guts of a character, let alone the guts to bear her scrutiny, there was no mercy. She had obvious favorites, sometimes changing them like charged lightning. And yes, it really, really helped if you were a good-looking guy.

She was the stereotypical teacher of Lee Strasberg’s interpretation of Stanislavsky’s work. You needed to feel, and if you didn’t she would throw you off of an emotional cliff until you did. Some of my classmates burned at her methods, which were like touching the walls in hell. I did too, but she made me a better actress. I know that in that black-box theater she unleashed new understanding of power and honesty in my work that I still strive for every day, because once you feel that depth of uninhibited control over a character, you can never settle for less as an actor, director, writer, or teacher.

Acting isn’t for the weak-kneed or weakhearted. It is a tough life at almost every level. There is no trophy for twelfth place or even second. You either get the part and win, or, no matter how many callbacks, you don’t get it and lose.

And then you do it all over again tomorrow and the next day after that. If you survived Delia's class, you might survive the business.

Learning about teaching

I also learned more about teaching from Delia than anyone: what I wanted to be, and what I didn’t; how to push hard, so a student is never complacent. One thing she failed to do for many of us was celebrate each level of success; students need to learn not only the power of their own talent, but also to be secure in it.

In our new world of client/students who write evaluations of every teacher in every class, it’s sometimes hard to push students past a comfort zone. Comments on Rate My Professor, Facebook, Yik Yak, and Twitter lack a sense of perspective of the challenges in a class. A bad test or class result is now the teacher’s fault. If everyone gets a crown of acclaim, how much is it worth? Delia knew that there was no runner-up at an audition, or at a performance, or at life.

The greatest insult she ever hurled was indifference. I watched her incite, berate, provoke, and inspire, but gentle praise denoted she didn’t care. “That worked” or “You might try this” — to say nothing of the dreaded “that was better” — meant that that was all you had and you weren’t gonna get much better. Mild praise was her ultimate crushing dismissal.

I remember teachers who were nice to me; I even remember teachers who were forgettable. But I revered the teachers who never made a day easy, who challenged me and made me stand up for myself and my art. Delia, powerful Delia — in the end you achieved a goal greater than you ever imagined: You had a live audience enthralled for over 40 years. Not many actors can say that.

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