Alma Becker, Beloved Skidmire College Theater Professor. Home Made Theater director, dies
June 6, 2013
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY — Alma Becker, a former Skidmore College theater professor, often stood thoughtfully with one hand to her mouth, pausing before she would speak. Her thoughts and her carefully chosen words shaped the lives of her family, colleagues, students and friends, who are now mourning her death while celebrating her memory.
Becker, 67, died Sunday.
“Alma was, and still is, the most important presence in my life,” said her husband, Steve Coats, whose relationship with her lasted 33 years. “She was my exact soul mate.
Stacie Mayette Barnes, Home Made Theater’s general manager, knew Becker as a driving force on HMT’s Artistic Advisory Board. Becker began at HMT in 1994 and directed 11 shows there.
“Alma was an amazing woman,” Barnes said. “She was an insightful, funny, wise and generous person. She put a lot of thought into things. When I first worked with Alma — I was her stage manager on ‘Steel Magnolias’ — I remember being initially confused by her long pauses. I came to learn and appreciate what a thoughtful person Alma was. It’s a quality that I have tried to emulate. I have learned so much from her.”
Becker was a resident director at Eureka Theater in San Francisco, Bay Area Playwrights Festival in California and New Dramatist in New York. Her New York career involved diverse directing and work with women’s theater.
As a Skidmore professor, Becker taught a variety of acting and directing courses.
“She was a wonderful, visionary director,” said Carolyn Anderson, a theater professor at the college who enjoyed working with Becker and getting to know her as a friend. Becker was in charge of the directing program and helped formalize it and make it notable, Anderson said.
Anderson recalled Becker’s direction of “The Servant of Two Masters” in particular. She called it rich and full of ebullient good humor. Becker found a way to include more students in the play by casting a second company of actors that performed in the lobby.
Barnes’ favorite Becker play was “Our Town,” which Barnes called “quintessential Alma.” The production was beautiful in its simplicity, moving from one scene to the next, creating stage pictures.
“Alma pulled out emotions,” Barnes said. “I was completely lost in that play.”
Anderson said, “Alma studied deeply and gave students a tremendous opportunity to connect with the work. I think she got the most satisfaction out of watching her students grow and go on into professional life.”
Jonathan Whitton, a former student of Becker’s who also sat on the HMT Artistic Advisory Board with her, said her acting classes guided his work and he considers her a mentor. Today, he is the assistant general manager of Second Stage Theater off Broadway in Manhattan. He also acts and sings.
“She was thoughtful, responsive and imaginative,” Whitton said. “She gave you a brand-new way of looking at the world.”
Coats said Becker was taken from the world too soon.
“Her illness deprived us of her wisdom and grace and humor far too swiftly,” he said. “But these last months of taking care of her, I had the opportunity to have a long loving look at her life and to use it as a beacon for my own. I will miss her terribly.”
Like Barnes, Whitton remembered the way Becker paused before talking. He said he felt nervous watching his professor think.
“In class, when Alma was directing, she’d go into deep thought, a hand at her mouth, and stare at you for two minutes,” he said, laughing. “Then, she’d move along, and you’d wonder whether you’d done something really good or something really bad. I’m beyond grateful for her.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS - Alma Becker, nationally recognized theater director, beloved wife and friend and influential senior artist-in-residence in Skidmore College's Department of Theater for 26 years, died Sunday night, June 2, 2013, at her home in Saratoga Springs after a long illness.
As a professional director, Alma specialized in the development of new plays, and her commitment to American playwriting was the main focus of her career for many years. She was the resident director at New Dramatists in New York City, where she received the National Endowment for The Arts Directing Fellowship and Jerome Foundation Directing Grant. She was resident director with Bay Area Playwrights Festival in California and guest artist with Minnesota Playwrights Center and Midwest Playlets. Among the writers she collaborated with during that time were August Wilson, Mac Wellman, John Patrick Shanley, Sherry Kramer and Steve Carter.
Locally, she was a highly regarded teacher at Skidmore College.
Alma served on the Artistic Board of Home Made Theater at the Spa Little Theater. She was actively involved in SaratogaArtsFest since its inception.
Alma Becker was born in North Dakota but spent her childhood in Southern California, where she trained as an actress at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse. She apprenticed at summer stock theaters, including Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Conn. She studied with Lloyd Richards, Olympia Dukakis and Joseph Chaiken.
She and her first husband, Ed Weingold, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. In San Francisco, she discovered a blossoming theater community and became an integral part of it, combining her acting skills with a new passion for directing and earning numerous awards in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Her five-year association as resident director of the Eureka Theater, a company instrumental in the development of the acclaimed ""Angels in America,"" ended with her move to New York City in 1981.
In New York, Alma created productions of new plays and worked in regional theaters across the U.S.: The Women's Project, Theater for a New City, American Place Theater of New York; Portland Stage Co. of Portland, Maine; Bay Area Playwrights Festival of California; George Mason University in Virginia; and Festival des Ameriques in Montreal, Quebec.
She traveled extensively with her second husband, actor-director Steve Coats, working with theater companies in Nairobi, Kenya, and developing an ongoing relationship with the Moscow Arts Theater.
In 1987, Ms. Becker was invited to direct ""Light Up The Sky"" to open the new Janet Kinghorn Bernhard Theater on the Skidmore College campus. By 2012, she had directed dozens of productions for Skidmore's Theater Arts Department, including ""The Cherry Orchard,"" ""A Dream Play,"" ""American Notes,"" ""The Tempest,"" ""The House of Bernarda Alba"" and ""The Insect Play."" Saratoga audiences were also familiar with her work in productions for the Home Made Theater, where she served on the Artistic Board, ""Picasso at the Lapin Agile,"" ""Diary Of Anne Frank"" and ""Our Town,"" among many others.
Alma Becker is survived by her loving husband of 33 years and her nieces, Donna Jean Holmes of Washington and Elizabeth Dillon of Sharpsburg, Ga.; her nephews, James Schmitt of Kentucky, Jeff Schmitt of Port Townsend, Wash., and Joey Schmidtt of Sharpsburg, Ga., and their families. She also leaves behind an extraordinary legacy of mentoring, community service and a lifetime of devotion to the theater arts.
A memorial service and celebration of her life and work will be held Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, on the Skidmore College campus.
Further details will be forthcoming.
In lieu of gifts, donations made by made to Planned Parenthood Saratoga Springs Center, 236 Washington St., Saratoga Springs, NY 12866; to Doctors Without Borders, P.O. Box 5030, Hagerstown, MD 21741-5030 (www.doctorswithoutborders.org); or to any local arts organizations.
Arrangements are under the direction of William J. Burke & Sons/Bussing & Cunniff Funeral Homes, 628 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs.
Online remembrances may be made at www.burkefuneralhome.com.
From Skidmore College:
Introduction to Acting
Special Studies in Acting
Directing for the Theater
Alma Becker was a resident director at the Eureka Theater, San Francisco; Bay Area Playwrights Festival, California; and New Dramatist, New York. She is a member of The Women's Project and Productions, NYC, where she has directed productions of OLD WIVES TALE by Julie Jensen and CONSEQUENCES by Kat Smith, and directed developmental workshops of new plays by Sally Nemith, Laura Harrington, Carolyn Anderson, and Wilma Hall. Becker's other New York directing credits include productions at Primary Stages, Theater for a New City, South Street Theater, the Bitter End, West Bank Downstairs Theater Bar, and the American Place Theater. She has directed several contemporary living newspapers including BREAD AND FREEDOM, ONE THIRD OF A NATION, and FACES: A LIVING NEWSPAPER ON AIDS. For the Department of Theater at Skidmore College she has directed RED NOSES, THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, TONIGHT WE IMPROVISE, A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER, WALL OF WATER, THE SCARLET LETTER, and VINEGAR TOM. Becker's award-winning productions in San Francisco include DADDIES, LANDSCAPE OF THE BODY, and MOURNING PICTURES and award nominated productions include FEFU AND HER FRIENDS and MARATHON '33. Becker was a recipient of a NEA Directing Fellowship and a Jerome Foundation directing grant. She has studied with Olympia Dukakis, Lloyd Richards, and Joe Chaikin.