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Women’s History Month: Samoiloff brings theatre to Winchester | Winchester

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WINCHESTER—As World Theatre Day (March 27) is celebrated during Women’s History Month, credit for outstanding accomplishment is due to Winchester native Carlene Murphy Samoiloff, the first and only American to travel with Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater, the first to teach an American university acting course given for credit, and the founder of an immensely popular children’s theater school in Winchester.

“I loved the theater,” she told an interviewer in 1980. “I was taken to see Maud Adams in Peter Pan at age 7 or 9 years old, and my brother and I spent hours jumping off the top of our grand piano trying to fly but we couldn’t make it.”

She was taken many times to the Castle Theatre in Boston and danced in Mary Kellogg’s aesthetic dance spectacles at the Sanborn House staged to benefit Winchester Hospital in 1911 and 1912.

What more natural than that directly after the second Sanborn fête, at age 12, she should form the Helping Hand Company with some playmates to afford children opportunities to assist good causes by their own efforts. The first beneficiaries were the Boston Floating Hospital and the Animal Rescue League ($7 each!).

Samoiloff wrote (or co-wrote) at least three playlets for the group. The first, “A Fight for Love,” about a prince defying his father’s wishes, was staged at the Murphy estate on Highland Avenue in July 1912 on a program with dances in costume and tricks performed by the family sheepdog.

The next playlet, also followed by dances, was produced three months later behind the Murphy home at the edge of the Fells. Short on dialogue and heavy on action, “The Rescue” was a wild-west story about cowboys rescuing a visiting Chinese princess when her stagecoach was set upon by “Indians.”

A year later her playlet “The Birthright” (whose plot has been lost) was presented on the Murphy lawn. In addition to the accompanying “fancy dances,” there was a drawing for a “suffragette kitten” and a sale of souvenirs and place cards. (The charitable contributions rose to $12 each!)

In 1914, the year Samoiloff graduated from the Wadleigh Grammar School, and in 1915 members of Helping Hand presented artistic dances at the May Festival sponsored by the Civics Committee of The Fortnightly (woman’s club).

All this might not be so remarkable–children are fond of play-acting and have often organized entertainments–but in this case it was the start of a professional career in theatre and the early work of a helping hand which encouraged the creativity of hundreds of Winchester children.

Samoiloff directed Helping Hand performances through May 1915, but they came to an abrupt end when her parents, Herman Dudley and Caroline Bowles Murphy, divorced. That July, she and her brother moved to California with their mother.

Career

Samoiloff studied dance in California with Ruth St. Denis and in New York where she also studied production at the Neighborhood Playhouse. She spent four years at the American Laboratory Theatre doing scenery, costuming, and acting. As a senior in high school, she became intrigued with Russian theater. While in Europe several years later, she arranged to travel with Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater, becoming the first and only American to tour with that group.

During their world tour of 1922, she appeared on stage in Boston and there met a young Russian, Alexander Samoiloff (1902-1977), who was acting as an extra while working on an engineering degree at Harvard University. They married in 1928 and raised two sons in the Murphy home on Highland Avenue.

The theater never lost its hold on Samoiloff’s imagination and energies.

”I taught the first acting course that was ever given for credit at any university in this country, at Tufts College, in 1940-41, around there.”

In 1949-50, the Harvard Dramatic Club sponsored an acting class under her direction. Later, she taught acting at the Boston and Cambridge Centers for Adult Education and lectured on theater at various colleges and universities.

She also returned to theatrical production, for 20 years producing children’s theatricals and directing a children’s theater school.

Children’s Theatre

“The theater,” Samoiloff said, “is a part of civilization. It deals with human relationships. Acting is the expression of people’s art of communicating one with another or many, expressing emotions and ideas, and relationships.”

This she felt was invaluable for youth.

The 1956, The Winchester Star announced that for years Samoiloff had been planning a new community theater group. With a comprehensive plan worked out, she formed the Winchester Community Theatre (WCT), enlisted board members, and began advertising a 12-week course for children. Although an adult program was also begun, it did not survive a second year, but the children’s theater and training program were a roaring success.

That spring, “Eleven hundred strong, the children surged into the new High School Auditorium to see ‘Peter Pan’.…The enthusiastic audience clapped and laughed and gasped with delight as the 42 child actors performed and capered in charming and ingenuous fashion,” the Star reported.

The second production, “Snow White,” was performed not only locally but also in Arlington and Medford. In the fall, scenes from “Peter Pan” were given at the 1956 National Children’s Theatre Conference at Tufts College.

In 1957, the program director at WGBH-TV having heard of their artistic success, invited the WCT to participate in an episode of the educational program “Laboratory.” “The Telecast” demonstrated how a live telecast is prepared and presented, including the set-up and parts of rehearsal. The final 20 minutes were devoted to the finished production of “The Stolen Prince.”

Four Boston newspapers carried reviews, The Boston Globe headlining its report, “Winchester Youngsters Captivating on Ch. 2”

After an unequivocally successful beginning, Samoiloff continued year after year welcoming children to her studio home for the 12-week course, where they designed and created costumes and scenery, were taught to act and dance, and learned casting by voting on the cast of characters after watching one another.

“Whatever the children do with the training they get here, they will, I think, have learned loyalty to whatever task in which they are engaged. They will have developed a greater feeling for the beautiful and lasting things or life and art, of the mind and spirit. This is, perhaps, the ultimate joy of working with them,” Samoiloff said.

Samoiloff also directed plays for Lexington and Arlington groups. She directed Concord’s Hawthorne school to two first-place awards in 1963. She seemed to have endless energy for the theater

However, during the last seven years of the WCT, she hired directors to take her place, though she always watched. A report in May 1975 of the group’s upcoming performance stated quietly, “Mrs. Samoiloff says this is her final production.”

As a child and as an adult guiding children, Samoiloff’s work pointed up the power of the theater to uncover and develop creativity, imagination, concentration, industry, self-expression, and the ability to love the art rather than oneself in art.

As she once said, “a child is learning more than how to act; I think she’s learning a little how to live, too.”



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