Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine: La Femme La Mujer La Donna with Lia Beachy
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

october 2008

with Lia Beachy

Ain’t Nothing Like A Dame

The list of working veteran female British actresses I adore could fill this entire column. The noted few being Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Angela Lansbury (The first two honored as Dame Commander of the British Empire and the last two as Commander of the British Empire. You’ve got to love the British social order!).

But the Dame Commander I have a personal connection with is the always brilliant and somewhat underrated (in the U.S.) Maggie Smith.

In 1990, I was attending the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. As a drama major, I was allowed to choose from a list of professional acting studios in the city who were affiliated with the University to provide courses and training. I chose the Stella Adler Conservatory, believing it to be a close mirror to the more formal and structured approach to acting training that exists in Europe. There were voice classes that focused on phonetics, breathing and singing. There were dance and movement classes that taught stage combat, ballet, modern and classic ballroom. And there were acting classes that provided in-depth analysis and performance of Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen, O’Neill and many other great playwrights..  

The Stella Adler studio is located in Manhattan in a building on West 27th Street between Broadway and Avenue of the Americas. At the time I was there, there were other rooms in the building being used for various businesses and as rehearsal spaces for the Joffrey Ballet and I would often follow the music and sneak by to catch a peep of the dancers in action. The inhabitants all shared public restrooms that were located on some floors, but not all floors. The Adler studio was on a floor that had no bathroom so the students would have to travel downstairs for the nearest pee break.  

One late afternoon, while my class was on a 5-minute pause, I rushed downstairs to relieve my always full bladder and powder my always shiny face. The bathroom had two sinks and two or three stalls. As I went into one stall, there was a woman in the one next to it. While I was starting to get down to business, the woman next to me asked (in a proper British accent) if I had any toilet paper on my side and if I would be so kind as to give her some. I obliged her. Upon exiting my stall, the woman was already at one of the sinks washing her hands. I approached the counter, seeing her face in the mirror and the realization that it was Maggie Smith almost stopped me in my tracks.

I just gave Maggie Smith toilet paper under the stall! I moved up to the open sink, began to wash my hands and fumbled in my mind as to what I should say to her.

maggie_smith_young-crNot many people my age would necessarily have known who Maggie Smith was, but since I was born and bred by theatre folk, and I had a passion for everything Lord Laurence Olivier, I knew of her years on the British stage. I had seen her portrayal of Desdemona opposite Olivier in the 1965 film, Othello (in which they both had starred opposite each other on stage as well). And I had also watched her in some of my screen favorites such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Missionary, A Private Function, Lily in Love and A Room with a View. But I had never seen her on stage in the flesh or in person.

I mustered up the courage to speak.

“Excuse me,” I said, “But I can’t believe I just met Maggie Smith in the bathroom.”

She smiled and replied, “Well, this is as good a place as any.”

I told her I was a student at Stella Adler and that I was filled with a huge amount of respect and that I couldn’t believe I would be able to tell my friends I met her here.

She thanked me, wished me luck and reminded me that it’s no surprise to find that we are all the same as women. I shook her hand, we exchanged goodbyes and thank yous and we went our separate ways.

I walked out of that bathroom, up the stairs and in my starstruck stupor was giddy over Maggie Smith equating me as her equal in womanhood.  

I later learned that she was in the building rehearsing for the Peter Schaffer comedy, Lettice and Lovage. I saw her once more in the street, getting into a car, but I did not run into her up close again. I did however get the chance to see her on Broadway opposite the every bit as fabulous Margaret Tyzack in Lettice and Lovage, a play that gave them both a Tony Award.

Today, a new generation of people will know Maggie Smith from her work in the Harry Potter films. But for me, she will forever be Olivier’s Desdemona, Commander of the stage and screen and the very real woman who shared a moment with me in a bathroom on West 27th Street in New York City.


©2008 Lia Beachy
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine — Lia Beachy
Lia Beachy is a writer and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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