Spencer Tracy said the key to great acting is "know your lines and don't bump into the furniture." But he never played the lead in The Miracle Worker.
Dallas actress Pam Covington, 15, is doing that right now at Dallas Children's Theater in a lovely, sprawling production of William Gibson's well-known play. In the role of 7-year-old blind and deaf Helen Keller, Pam doesn't have any lines to learn and she bumps into plenty of furniture during the two hours she spends onstage. Flailing wildly across the set, Pam crashes into chairs, tables, doors, walls, staircases, other actors and whatever else gets in her way. There's also that famous 12-minute breakfast table fight scene between the girl and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, played by Equity performer Trisha Miller-Smith.
Helen Keller is a part a young actress can really, um, throw herself into.
"I have a lot of bruises," Pam says in an after-school phone chat. "I do wear kneepads during the show, but my shins and elbows are pretty banged up." (She alternates performances as Helen with actress Audrey Gieseman.)
Pam is a Hockaday ninth-grader who has been acting since she was 5. The Miracle Worker is her sixth show at DCT, where she's also played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, completing the trifecta of great characters for young-looking teenage stage actresses. "I loved acting from the first time I was onstage," says Pam, who, at 4-foot-11, is often cast in roles years younger than she is.
The Miracle Worker, she says, is the most demanding show she's ever done. Set in 1887, it depicts the first few weeks in the relationship between Helen and Annie. The teacher is determined to make wild-child Helen learn sign language, despite Helen's parents' doubts that she's capable of learning anything. To prepare, Pam read biographies of Helen Keller and watched the 1962 film, based on the play, starring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft (who both won Oscars for their performances). And she did her own version of method acting, plugging her ears and wearing a blindfold at home and during meals. "It was harder than I thought it would be. I got lost a few times. I misjudged spaces and bumped into chairs. I found myself smelling things a lot more. It was really interesting. I got bored easier because I only had smell and touch and taste to entertain me."
In rehearsals with DCT director Robyn Flatt, Pam worked with a fight choreographer and a "groan coach" to get Helen's guttural vocalizations right. "I learned you have to breathe really deep and open your throat and let it come out," says Pam.
Already a stage veteran with a decade of roles behind her, Pam says she hopes to study theater at an "artsy college" and pursue acting as a career. Her parents -- Dick, a lawyer, and Mary, a stay-at-home mom -- see every performance of every show she's in. Opening night of The Miracle Worker, says Pam, was "one of the few times I'd ever seen my dad cry."
He wasn't the only one. By the time Helen and Annie got to the climactic scene at the water pump -- where Helen finally connects Annie's sign for "water" to "wawa," the only word she remembers from before a fever robbed her of sight and sound -- most of the audience in DCT's Baker Theater was teary-eyed and sniffle-y. That includes this hard-hearted critic, who gave Pam and her co-stars a rave review in the paper version of Unfair Park this week.
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"The best thing you can have is an audience that laughs or gasps in the right places," says Pam Covington. "The audience is one of the greatest parts about acting."
What about getting paid? "Oh, I don't get paid! The adult actors do, but I don't. That's OK with me. I love what I'm doing."
This girl needs an agent. --Elaine Liner
-- Elaine Liner