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PROFILE OF CAROL MAYO JENKINS By Kay Anderson
There's one very important character in Fame who we haven't told you very much about yet, and that's Carol Mayo Jenkins, who play the English teacher, Elizabeth Sherwood. All the pupils at the School of the Arts respect her for being an excellent teacher - and many of them have also discovered that, beneath the slightly strict exterior, she harbours a heart of pure gold and is always ready to help anyone out with their problems. I went down to the set and chatted with Carol, and one of the first things I discovered was that she has strong connections with Britain!
Carol had just arrived to start filming, and was sitting in one of the tall, folding chairs while Jack Wilson did her make-up. Maybe in this case it would be more accurate to say she was being made down, not made up! The script called for Miss Sherwood to be involved with some evening meetings of a teachers' committee on top of her daytime classroom work, and jack had been busy creating shadows under her eyes and smudging a few tiredness lines onto her face.
"Did you know that I went to drama school in England for six years?" she asked as Jack dabbed at her features. "I loved it. I felt more at home there than I have ever felt anywhere. I went to England to find out if I could be an actress," she informed me. "I actually started out to be a dancer, and I studied dance for years before I finally realised that it was just not meant to be, for me. While I was in college I had also taken drama classes and appeared in plays, and acting also attracted me. But after I gave up my dance studies, I wasn't sure I was right for acting, either."
Carol knew that the British drama schools provide the finest stage acting training in the world, and that they are swamped by applicants. If a person can pass the audition and be accepted at one of these drama schools, that person must have genuine talent. She applied to the Central School for Speech and Drama in London, auditioned, and was accepted. She was then eighteen years old, on her own for the first time in a city that seemed light-years away from her home town of Knoxville, Tennessee.
"I had this deep-South accent no-one could understand, and I couldn't make out the British accents around me at first," she laughed. "But by the time I came back to America after six years, I spoke with a standard English accent, with a slight touch of Manchester because most of my friends were from the North. I had been touring with an acting company we formed - I had left the Central School after three years and was a founding member of what is now the Drama Centre, near Hampstead - and nobody knew I wasn't English."
Once she got back to America, in fact, she had to work hard to lose some of her English accent so that she could play American characters again.
She also decided to use her full name for acting purposes, and this, too caused a few problems! "When I joined the acting unions in this country and decided to use all three of my names professionally, the registrars asked me if I wanted to hyphenate it and if I was Miss Jenkins or Miss Mayo-Jenkins," she told me. She certainly didn't want a double-barrelled name. As she explained: "Mayo is just my middle name, my family name. My background is entirely Irish and Welsh."
All actors (these days the term 'actress' is going out of style and, after all, nobody calls female directors 'directresses'!) are a little different from the characters they portray. As themselves, they stand, walk and talk a particular way, but their characters may well have a different posture, way of moving, and accent, speech pattern or voice timbre. If you know an actor well, it's quite spooky to watch him or her go into character before stepping out on stage, or in front of the camera. The change is very subtle, but you are aware that something has altered and another personality has replaced the one you know.
Carol's own voice is softer than Miss Sherwood's and she speaks more slowly, with a hint of the gentle Southern accent of her growing-up years. She is warm and friendly, with the same genuine kindness and interest in others that Miss Sherwood displays. Miss Sherwood is often harried by her heavy workload and frustrated by , having to teach the value of English literature to students who find the casting columns of "Variety" much more important.
She speaks of Miss Sherwood as "Elizabeth", using the half-admiring, half-exasperated tones of affection reserved for a good friend.
"I love Elizabeth," she says, "because she's NOT perfect. She's a real, complete person. She's insecure and she has a terrible temper and she gets all mixed up. She often thinks she's the only sane person in this crazy school. The students and most of the other teachers are artists, so she often feels that they don't communicate at all. But she loves it so much that I'm convinced that, if Elizabeth couldn't teach at this school, she wouldn't teach at all."
With the make-up work finished, and her dark blonde hair smoothed down with a squirt of hairspray by Fame's hairdresser, Gloria Montemayor, we moved to the English classroom set. One of the wardrobe people brought Carol a heather-coloured shawl to complete her outfit for the next scene. Among the props on Miss Sherwood's desk were several volumes of modem poetry, and Carol flipped through one as we talked.
"I believe so strongly in poetry and music and reaching into other disciplines to feed your craft," she remarked. "One of the things I learned in my English drama school is that no-one can sit down and teach someone how to act. What you do is teach someone how to live a life in the theatre, how to keep training themselves and feeding their own creativity, being alive to the world around them so that they can become truly reflective artists."
"If you were speaking as Miss Sherwood, what advice would you give to kids who want to go into the arts?" I asked.
"That you have to read and read and read, whether you do it in school, or on your own," she replied emphatically. "Read history, read poetry, read novels, because the creative mind has to have material. If you can't read, you can't create. "Whether you want to be a dancer, or play an instrument, or act, you have to be able to reach into the minds of other people and touch their dreams, which are different from your own. By reading, you can expand your boundaries and understand others, but without reading you will never become a truly creative artist."
With the passion for learning and the respect for teaching that Carol brings to her portrayal 'of Miss Sherwood, it isn't surprising to learn that she actually has taught classes.
"I teach Shakespeare to actors," she explained. "I deal with the verse, the language, and the scansion of the plays. Shakespeare was an actor, and if you know how to read the text of his plays correctly, you know how to play the roles and how he wanted them staged. It's like a wonderful mystery tour through the text to find out what it is that he wanted."
She has taken Shakespeare into schools many times, both doing bits of the plays and explaining the text, and performing in complete plays. "When I do it for high school or junior high students, I think that this must have been what Shakespeare's theatre was like," she observed. "In his day, there were people eating and drinking during the play, and if things got dull and the players lost the attention of the audience, the crowd would begin talking or shuffling around. But if you do the plays properly, if you move fast enough, you capture the audience just as they did when the plays were first performed so long ago.
"Many times, our audience in schools has never seen Shakespeare before, and they come in noisy. By the end of the play I have seen the same audiences on their feet, yelling and crying and cheering because they loved it so much. That, to me, is really thrilling."
Carol is primarily a stage actor, with an enviable list of credits including "The Three Sisters" and "First Monday In October" (in which she worked with Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander), and the off-Broadway production of "Zinnia" which brought her the Drama Desk Award.
"I've done plays that I'm proud of," she said, "and I've worked in companies that I loved, but somehow working here on Fame is the most special of all. This show has it all . . . singing, dancing, acting, the beautifully-crafted characterisations, the lovely stories, the wonderfully talented people I'm working with. Fame has been the richest experience in my life, rivalled only by my years in England. I feel such a similarity between the two experiences that I think I bring a lot of the memory of those years to this show."
She has never been back to England since she returned to the United States after getting her drama training in London. Wouldn't it be nice to combine her two loves, Fame and England, by going over with one of the tours, I suggested, just as an assistant director came to call her for a scene.
Her smile lit up the room. "Oh, wouldn't it be ideal!" she exclaimed happily. Let's hope her wish can come true very soon!
This interview was provided to me by Stuart Farrell.
The article above is from the Official Fame Magazines from 1983. The OFFICIAL FAME MAGAZINE was published by Beat Publications Ltd. and the interviews are copyright MGM/UA Entertainment Co.