Checking in with Betsy Tucker


What were you doing when we called?
Looking for flights back from our impending 9-month stay in London. My husband has a Fulbright, and we’ll be in Leeds, England, until January and then we’re going to New Zealand until the end of April or May. He’s working on a book on charm, but he’s also teaching one course at Leeds University.

Director and UVA professor Betsy Tucker directs Six Degrees of Separation, playing at Live Arts through June 12.

What are you working on right now?
I’m directing Six Degrees of Separation at Live Arts. It is a play written in the 1990s about a real life incident, about a kid who talked his way into the homes of a lot of fancy rich people in New York, and convinced them that he was the son of Sidney Poitier. He didn’t steal anything, he just kind of hung out with the rich people until he was discovered. So that’s what the play is about—the rich people who have this experience.

Tell us about your day job.
My day job has been teaching at the University of Virginia. I’m about to finish teaching my last class after 37 years of teaching. I probably won’t stop teaching. I won’t stop directing. I’ll just do it less regularly and less formally. What I’m planning on doing, when I stop teaching, is a lot of visual art. I’m going to spend next year painting and drawing, and see how far I get with that.

Tell us about a work of art that you wish were in your private collection.
I would take almost any Matisse, almost any Matisse you could give me. That would be nice.

What is your first artistic memory from childhood?
I certainly remember my first public performances. “I’m a Little Teapot,” and I think I recited in a bunny costume, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I think that’s what happened. I think the poem was part of a school recital and I think the bunny costume was left over from Halloween.

Which of your works are you most proud of?
I’ve done a number of shows at Live Arts that I’m proud of. I like working there. I like working with good grown-up actors and mixing them with UVA students. I’ve got some really wonderful people in town who are young, just out of college, and are really terrific actors. I love that; it’s really fun. A huge cast is in this current show—18.

Who is your favorite artist outside of your medium?
I saw this Yugoslav woman [Marina Abramovic] at the MoMA in the fall. [Her show] “The Artist is Present” was an interesting thing. But I think some of her other works that were on exhibit there were very impressive. She scrubbed all of the flesh off of a pile of cow bones; I mean she spent months doing this, and absorbing that horrible stench and cleansing these bones. She does these very extreme physical gestures, and they’re very profound. Her commitment and her extremism is very challenging for artists. I also like political art and it’s hard not to see all of her work as political, so I find her work very challenging.

Locally, who would you like to collaborate with?
I think Steve Nachmanovitch and Will Kerner. Steve is an improvisational musician—he’s actually a very famous musician. He wrote a book called Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. He works sometimes with dancers on improvised performances, and I think that stuff is interesting. And Will Kerner is a photographer. He did the sets for Mapping the Dark at Live Arts and I think his graphic stuff is really wonderful and theatrical, so it would be wonderful to find a way to work with him.

If you could have dinner with any one person, living or dead, who would it be?
I first thought of Oscar Wilde, but that’s a performance really. Or maybe someone like Galileo—someone who was on the cutting edge of science or modernity in his or her time. I think that Elizabeth Cady Stanton would be a gas to talk to. She wrote the declaration of women’s rights. She drafted the bylaws for the first Seneca Falls convention. She was a great early American feminist and a theorist of women’s political rights. That whole crowd would be really fun.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
I don’t think I’m really afraid of anything at my age, and certainly not of failing. What have I got to lose?