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‘Queen Harlene,’ influential drama professor, dies at age 76

‘Queen Harlene,’ influential drama professor, dies at age 76

Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell ’84 is not sure where the nickname “Queen Harlene” originated, but when it came to Professor Emerita of Drama Harlene Marley, it always just seemed to fit. Marley, who was the first tenured woman in Kenyon’s faculty, died on Thursday, Feb. 16 in her home in Mesa, Ariz. at the age of 76. At Kenyon, people knew her not only as a regal character with an intense personality, but also as a generous teacher — and according to Tazewell, 11 years after her retirement from Kenyon’s drama program in 2005, her legacy here still thrives.

Marley became the first female tenure- track member of Kenyon’s faculty in 1969, the same year the first female students matriculated to the Coordinate College, the original women’s college at Kenyon. College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Tom Stamp ’73, who was a first year at that time, remembers Marley as witty, smart and engaged, with a reputation for sometimes brusque mannerisms and an infectious laugh.

“The College recognized that it was going to need to have women in the faculty if it had women in the student body,” Stamp said.

Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod ’81 said Marley always treated her students with respect. Both Tazewell and MacLeod took classes with Marley as Kenyon students.

“She was tough,” MacLeod said, “but she was, in her way, very supportive.”

Tazewell and MacLeod readily recall her more particular rituals. For instance, there was the way she ended every class by saying, “Everything clear? Now go away!” Then there was her habit of smoking while she taught. MacLeod can still picture the red lipstick on the end of Marley’s cigarette butt and the indent of her fingers that remained on it when she left it in the ashtray. Tazewell best remembers the ash that always seemed to hang onto the end of her cigarette.

“She never flicked it,” Tazewell said. “It just sort of hung there — hung there forever.” Mostly, though, Tazewell remembers Marley’s skill as a professor. He took “Introduction to the Theater” with Professor Marley, a class he now teaches. He also took her directing classes. When Marley directed, he said, she never stood near the stage. Instead, she walked around the back of the theater, trying to see the action from the audience’s perspective.
“She was not at all about a kind of glorification of herself and her vision, or anything like that,” Tazewell said. “She didn’t need to be up there on the stage. Her vision did not need to be seen.”

In fact, Marley believed that if the audience saw her vision — if the production drew their attention away from the story in any way — then she hadn’t done her job well. This philosophy extended to her teaching. “Don’t get caught acting,” she told her students. Those acting too dramatically were not fully inhabiting their characters, in Marley’s view. Tazewell still uses this piece of advice.

MacLeod said Marley also served as a role model for female students, particularly at a time when most women in the theater world were tracked into acting or costume design. Marley always encouraged MacLeod to pursue directing instead.

“I don’t think I realized how significant it was until I went to Yale, where I did not have any woman professors,” MacLeod said.

Marley remained a lifelong supporter of her students; on two occasions, she traveled across the country to see productions of plays MacLeod had written. She was also instrumental in bringing Tazewell and MacLeod back to campus as professors.

“She’s the one who called me up — she knew I was just finishing Yale — and offered me the job,” MacLeod said.

In 1987, when Tazewell worked for Admissions, he starred in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf alongside Marley. This experience working with his mentor, he said, motivated him to pursue theater professionally.

By the time she left Kenyon, Marley had become the first woman to receive tenure, serve as a department chair and attain full professorship. She leaves a legacy of prominent students, including Allison Janney ’82 and Josh Radnor ’96.

Many people who studied with Marley have passed down her method of storytelling, Tazewell said. “That’s so much a part of this department, it’s so hard to separate it.”

There will be no services, at Marley’s request. She will be buried following cremation alongside family in her hometown of Helena, Oklahoma.

Grace Richards contributed reporting.


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