By Jennifer Morris
Barbara Elliot Miller, '42, cannot explain why she loves the stage. She cannot pin down what makes an actor good or why she felt called to the theater from the time of her adolescence. She can, however, offer a résumé abundant with years of experience in the theater.
Black-and-white photographs cover Miller's walls. She appears in performance, reciting lines from William Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and other theatrical greats. The framed repertoire of elaborate costumes and dramatic poses nearly rivals the collection on her bookshelves, crowded with theatrical how-to books and playwrights' masterworks. Her living room is filled with paintings by old friends and the cherished works of Homer and the Brontë sisters, while her television is most often tuned to Charlie Rose. But Miller, a petite 86-year-old with a lively demeanor, serves as her home's most distinctive element.
Miller now performs for Wilson Elementary fourth-graders and enjoys doing staged readings for her fellow Orchard Crest Retirement Community residents. She has performed in honor of veterans and even spoofed some of the classics, vocalizing comical 20th-century take-offs on "'Twas the Night before Christmas" and "My Favorite Things."
But breaking into the acting business a half-century ago was no easy task, for the challenges then were as frustrating as they are today. After taking the stage as Rosalind in Shakespeare's "As You Like It" during high school, Miller went on to act at Whitworth while earning her degree in English. She graduated, leaving behind McMillan Hall and her fellow Pirates, and joined her college roommate in New York. Once there, she soon found that acting outside the world of academia was easier said than done.
"It's difficult making rounds when nobody has seen your work," Miller says, in an exaggeratedly haggard voice. "I thought I was going to go neurotic as hell."
After toiling in the city, Miller finally made it to the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., where she performed a new play each week. This meant every week for 36 weeks she had to learn a new script. Each performance before an audience of 600 was wholly different from the last. Miller says she worked toward an understanding of the audience. Each reaction provided an entirely new learning experience.
"I was a character actress, meaning I got to play the old or weird or offbeat characters," Miller says. "It's much more fun to be the evil one than it is to be the straight, nice, 'Go ahead and get it done' one."
Still with a flair for the dramatic, Miller waved her hand through the air and gave her best salutation to those memorable roles.
The rare moments when every element fell into place were the best, Miller says. One such moment occurred at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, where Miller played the role of Serafina in "The Rose Tattoo." The play's famed author, Tennessee Williams, attended the program and was very complimentary to Miller backstage.
Many other memorable moments occurred during her work with the Spokane Civic Theatre, Miller says. She both directed and acted with the SCT, and she often threw parties for Broadway actors traveling through town.
"In the early fifties, the Fox Theatre was just a fabulous place," Miller says. "Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn and several Broadway names came through."
Aside from brushing shoulders with the industry's best, Miller also found she had skills behind the scenes. Having moved in 1986 to San Diego to retire from her day job as a librarian for General Dynamics, Miller joined the Actor's Alliance and directed both Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra" trilogy and George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman." The alliance provided classes and other services for area actors, directors and playwrights. There, theatric hopefuls were allowed to expand their networks and learn from the best.
Miller is still an active member of the Actors Equity Association and enjoys taking in the shows at the INB Performing Arts Center, ormerly known as the Spokane Opera House.
She laughs as she observes her photographic collage, calling it her "Ego Massage Wall." Miller then casually points out a picture of herself with Tennessee Williams at her side and another of her in full Queen Elizabeth I regalia. Although she still cannot explain her lifelong affinity for the stage, Miller says she is not ready to let it go.
"I'm still learning from it," Miller says. "It's not something you can stop."