Memories of WCTC’s feline director of all things theaterWritten by Gary Carden
Back in the days when WCU was WCTC (Western Carolina Teachers’ College), I was one of a few kids that hung around “the little theatre” with Mabel Crum, the Chair of the English Department (circa 1950’s). In the absence of a “professional director,” Mabel (we never called her “Dr. Crum” when we talked about her) volunteered for the job and immediately announced an impressive schedule of productions.
Nothing daunted Mabel; she was perfectly willing to take on Shakespeare (“A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”) Arthur Miller (“The Crucible”) and Sophocles (“Oedipus Rex”). We had a great time. It didn’t matter that we were mostly mountain kids with pronounced nasal twangs. After all, the audience was mostly our peers and no one seemed to notice ... Well, except for the Dr. Hayes, a recently-arrived Rhodes scholar, who stood during the intermission of “A Merchant of Venice” and announced, “Sounds as though the Avon has mingled with the Tuckaseigee.” (Mabel had to explain to the cast that Dr. Hayes was talking about our dialect.)
There were other embarrassing incidents, of course. When I did Tieresias, the blind prophet wrapped in a bed sheet, my eyes taped shut and blacked out with shoe polish (Mabel’s idea), the audience laughed the first night when I delivered all of my lines to back wall. The Western Carolinian mistakenly reported that the current production at the Little Theatre was “Oedipus Wrecks.” Mabel was philosophical about that. “Well, he does, you know ... wreck, I mean.”
And so we bungled on. In “The Crucible,” the half-crazed minister, Rev. Hale, rushed on stage and managed to loudly mispronounced a crucial word, substituting “crouch” for “crops,” as in “the stench of burning crouch hangs everywhere.” In “Sabrina Fair,” the lighted ships that sailed serenely across the bay (on a painted backdrop with movable vessels) began to fall, fluttering to the floor like fat fireflies during Sabrina’s love scene. In “Twelfth Night,” Sir Toby Belch rushed on stage five scenes before his appointed entrance to discover that he was among strangers. After delivering a few lines he bowed and announced, “I will have more to say about this later!” and promptly departed. I envied him his skillful recovery. We sped recklessly on through “Bus Stop,” “The Rainmaker” and “Antigone,” never dreaming that our unbridled fun was about to come to an end.
When, Josefina Niggli arrived, Mabel called a meeting in the WCU “Little Theatre,” and told her little rustic band of thespians that “theatre” was about to become a serious affair. While Mabel struggled through the highlights of Josefina’s astonishing career prior to coming to Cullowhee (two Book-of-the-Month Club novels, an illustrious career in Hollywood, movie and television scripts, etc.), we looked at the large woman who sat like a sleepy Cheshire cat down stage center in an ornate chair (from “Sabrina Fair”) and staring at us (we were in the audience, of course). She was alternating sips of coffee with puffs from a cigarette.
When she finally spoke in a deep Tahullah Bankhead contralto, she said, “Darlings, I’m so gratified to see you.”
We were charmed in the true meaning of that word. We sat like a hapless flock of birds, mouths agape, gawking at this feline woman who spoke in a voice that both whispered and thundered. She talked about her life in Mexico, told anecdotes of famous movie stars (she called Henry Fonda “Hank” and Lawrence Oliver “Larry”). Although we immediately became Niggli disciples, it soon became obvious that our feelings were not reciprocal.
All of us gamely registered for Acting 101 and found ourselves reading nursery rhymes aloud on the stage while Ms. Niggli drank coffee from a thermos and occasionally said, “Read it again, dear. This time pronounce ALL of the syllables.” At the end of the class, she smiled serenely and said, “Darlings, when you speak, I positively shudder.”
She then delivered a long diatribe on how communication was essential to get on in the world, and we appeared to be unable to do so. “How can you teach or work in any jobs that require communication?” When we ventured to ask about the next play, she said, “Darlings, you are a long way from being in any play that I would direct.” Then, she rose and floated slowly up the aisle, leaving us alone on a brightly lighted stage.
Students began to drop out of Acting 101, muttering that the fun seemed to have gone out of theatre. A stalwart handful persisted because they thought that perhaps Ms. Niggli was merely weeding out the “undesirables.” Eventually, Ms. Niggli directed “My Three Angels,” but ended up casting the primary roles from the English Department faculty. Many of us were banished from the theatre (I was among them), and we found ourselves reading one-acts and practicing diction. Ms. Niggli announced her resignation, saying that she found the challenge of molding us into thespians “too daunting.”
When we returned the following semester, a bright-eyed UNC graduate named Charles Barrett sat at the “Speech and Drama” table at registration. “Call me Chuck,” he said. The rumor spread that he had spent the summer as “Sir Walter Raleigh” in the outdoor drama, “Lost Colony.” He announced that he would be doing “Inherit The Wind,” and although the play had a large cast, the two major leads would be “experienced adults.” That meant the roles of Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryant) would be played by “Chuck” and a retired insurance salesman who lived off campus. The rest of us would have to be content with character roles and mob scenes.
I was in the Townhouse when I heard that Ms. Niggli was back. “That’s correct,” said Dr. Crum, “She arrived back on campus last night from Baylor. Said she would be content to teach Basic Speech 201 and Fundamentals of Grammar 101.” I got the definite impression that Mabel was as surprised as I was by the return of the Cheshire cat, but she noted that “considering her experience with theatre and film, we are lucky to have her.”
Poor Chuck. He was just beginning a career and had bought a house. He had cast “The Glass Menagerie,” and had a full teaching load ... but he was sharing the theatre with Ms. Niggli, who had decided to teach her classes there. Frequently, when he was directing students, he would turn to see Ms. Niggli, sitting silently in the darkness watching him. At first, he attempted to solicit Ms. Niggli’s opinion.
“Don’t you agree, Ms. Niggli?” he would chirrup, referring to a stage movement or a line interpretation he had just given a student.
“Chuck, darling, you are the director,” she would say and lapse into silence.
After Chuck resigned (he once said that sharing the theatre with Ms. Niggli was like living too close to the sun) and fled to Raleigh and a government job that required him to produce educational films for the state highway department, Ms. Niggli graciously agreed to once more become the head of the Speech and Theatre Department. She quietly moved into the vacant office and began directing again. In a few years, she became the campus celebrity and hundreds of students rushed to enroll in her classes. She often “held court” in her homes in the evenings where she sat in a great upholstered chair while the “Nigglites” sat on the floor around her, enraptured by her stories of James Dean, John Garfield and “Monty” Clift.
Many years later, when I returned to WCU to work on my masters, I dropped by Ms. Niggli’s office. By this time, she was something of a legend and a dozen students attended her every whim. Finding that we were alone for a few moments, I couldn’t resist broaching a question that had troubled me for years.
“Why did you come back?” I said. She laughed and said, “You mean when I renounced you all and fled to Baylor?” She drank her coffee and looked at me as though she were deciding just how much truth she wanted to tell.
“When I got to Baylor, I found a large theatre department filled with notables. They had playwrights and novelists that were far more significant than I! I was not ... unique. That is it, darling. I wanted to be honored and pampered, so I came back to this mountain college and all of these nasal twangs.”
So, there you have it. I guess I was a “Nigglite,” too, and I also sat on Josefina’s carpet, sipping coffee while I listened, enthralled by a magic world through which this remarkable woman moved with ease. She had known Thomas Wolfe, Paul Green and Tyrone Power! But yet, I will always remember Dr. Crum and the wonderful world of drama that existed “before Niggli.” When I grow sentimental about the past, it is usually for that innocent time when my heart quickened and I felt a pure joy at discovering something wonderful on a brightly lighted stage ... before it all became ... serious.