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Raw materials: Jane Bernhardt
 
Bernhardt grew up in a suburb of New York City. Her greatest material success came early in her career, as an actor in national TV commercials. Here, she talks about how she got into the business. 
 

I was really interested in theatre by the time I finished high school. I had been writing in high school, I was on the literary magazine staff. But I was interested in drama school, so I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. 

I loved acting. Love acting. And got an agent by the second year, a good agent. They would send you up for things. 

A bitter experience that I had, took me out of that loop for a while. 

The guy who I married when I was 20, a fellow acting student, had also a terrific agent. My bitter experience got me out of the business for a while. But then when I was pregnant with my eldest, his agency said, 'Would Jane want to go out? They want a pregnant person for this diaper commercial.' And I got it! So that was the beginning of that. 

I found that I was very good in TV commercials. I could do what they wanted me to do. I could shave off a half second of copy, I could hold the product so the glare of the light didn't hit it. So I did very well in commercials. So I got back into acting through commercials. 

I was also being sent up for auditions for major motion pictures, and I was doing a little bit of TV.


Were you trying out for theatre as well?

I was auditioning for theatre. I did a couple of things, but I wasn't doing theatre in Manhattan, I was doing theatre in Stamford, Connecticut. Pretty big theatre. And another town nearby. And I was enjoying that very much. But the income was coming from commercials. 

I knew that I wanted to do theatre, that was much more interesting. Actually, I wanted to do movies, and I came close to doing a couple. I auditioned for "Saturday Night Fever," for the loose girl in the back seat of the car. And I auditioned for something with Henry Winkler; Sally Field got hte part, but I was the one they liked on the East Coast. So I came close to some things, and I still have a dormant SAG membership. 

But you were a big success in commercials. What were some of the products you advertised? 

I did -- I'm trying to think which ones ran the most. I did Wet Ones, Clearasil, Luvs Diapers, Johnson & Johnson Disposable DIapers, Ultra-Brite toothpaste, Stroh's beer, Dentyne, Thom McAn Shoes, McDonald's. Couldn't do laundry detergent at that time, because people with dark hair were not sent up for laundry detergent. They wanted blondes. 

Prell, did I say? I actually did that one with Pam Dawber, who later became Mindy on Mork and Mindy. 


When we talked on the phone, you said you had an All-American look that appealed to a lot of advertisers. 

The interesting thing was, when I had my bangs, I could be 16, but I could also be a young mother. I could be a counter girl at McDonald's but speak well. 

I remember I had several auditions one day,a nd I called the McDonald's people and said I was going to be really late. And they said, 'We'll stay here for you. Because if you can talk, you have the part!' [laugh] They were getting people who just couldn't handle the language. 

I remember the first time when I was really going up for these things, there were times when I thought to myself -- I did floor products, too -- I said to myself, "How can I do this with a whole heart?" 

The very first one that I got, I was actually pregnant, and I actually imagined how exciting it wuold be to have a baby shower! The line was, "Oh, a shower for my baby!'"  And I said it just like that. And then talked about the nice diapers that I got. 

But hten I had to get excited about shoes, and McDonald's, and that's when the fakeness came in. I remember saying to an older friend who was very successful at commercials, "How do you do this?" She said, "When you get hungry enough, you'll figure it out!" 


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Eventually, she decided to leave New York City and the lucrative but unfulfilling world of acting in TV ads. Since then, she has worked in a wide range of creative endeavors -- acting, art, writing -- but always on her own terms, and tackling subjects and ideas she felt compelled to explore. 

Here, she talks about some of those endeavors. 


  The first writing [of my own] that I performed was a series of poetic vignettes of encounters with Jesus in the New Testament. I've always been fascinated by entering into the stories experientially. What was it like for the woman taken in adultery? What was it like for Peter the fisherman, after a long day with no catch, when Jesus says, "Throw your net out there again." Peter says, "You're crazy, nothing's biting today." Throws out his net, and there are so many fish it almost sinks the boat! And then Jesus says, "From now on you'll be fishing for men." And you'll have your hands full there, too. [laugh] 


Biblical stories are so familiar, that their power is often stripped out.

What I did was I entered into these experiences. The first one, and it's probaby the most moving, is a long poem that I created out of the experience of the madman who was chained to the tombs. People were terrified of him because he was screaming among the rocks. And Jesus came, and his demons were cast out into herds of swine who then jumped over the cliff. And the demoniac just kneels in absolute -- I mean, I can't imagine anyone whose heart would be more humbled, more open, before this presence. Then he says, "Take me with you. I'm going to follow you anywhere." 

And Jesus says, "No. You need to stay here and tell peole about your experience." 

And that moment was what touched and inspired me. "No, you don't get to come with me the way Peter and James and John did. You have to stay here." And so the poem is written in his voice, and I perform it -- I have seven vignettes that I perform as these people. That's what's interesting to me. My god, what was that moment like? He says, "Of all men, I have been left to testify."  

He says, "God help me, I would not have left him bleeding on the cross." 

And it sort of just came out this way -- the passion of this man, who wanted to touch his garment, who wanted to eat with him as Lazarus did. 

And so I began to do performances and workshops around that. But sort of in the middle of that, I went to a weeklong silent retreat, and realized that the whole shift was moving from visual art to drama for a while. And what did that mean, and I'd love to perform my own words -- and then a woman I met at this retreat gave me a copy of "Love, Etty" -- that's the name of my play, "An Interrupted Life, the Diary of Etty Hillesum."   And over the course of a couple of years, I turned it into a viable 90-minute performance piece. 

Her journals in Amsterdam and her letters from the Westerbork camp from which she was taken east on the train to Auschwitz, where she died. And then over the course of almost 15 years I traveled and performed this piece. I performed over 50 times, including at Auschwitz for the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation, and in England and Holland and many parts of the US. I have a whole notebook of -- I met her friends, and was there for the commemoration of her bust in Washington. That was a big, big piece of my creative journey. 


I have more formal training in drama than I do in visual art, but the visual art also comes to me -- I'm a third-generation portrait artist. So it comes to me that way. 

And then the final project that has been launched has been the Hibakusha Peace Project. Collage portraits of Hiroshima survivors, the Hibakusha, their stories and poetry. And we also have a wonderful performance piece with Japanese dancer Minori Ishikawa and Greta Bro, who is a wonderful musician and creative partner for me, and a couple of other people who join us from time to time, dancers, musicians. 

And I also do [a one-woman show as] Julia Ward Howe, and that's a great privilege. That's grown over the years. And I got to know her great, great, great, great granddaughter Kate Stickley. So Kate sometimes comes with me when I perform Julia Ward Howe. I've performed at universities, peace centers, schools. 


Julia Ward Howe wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," but there was a whole lot more to her. She was a pacifist and women's suffragist. 

Exactly. 


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One of your artistic series came out of a trip to the Soviet Union. When was that?

I think it was '83. 


The Iron Curtain was still in place, and going to the USSR was an unusual thing to do. 

Actually, I had trouble getting support from my own church, because there was so much antagonism and fear. 


Which was the point: to bridge the gap, to overcome the antagonism and fear. 

Right. 


When you were in the Soviet Union, how did you make connections with people? 

Well, first I looked for a venue for the travel. And I found an organization called "Promoting Enduring Peace" which was at that time arranging such trips. And it was a Volga peace cruse. We flew into Moscow and then traveled down to the Volga River, and had lots of talks and conferences and so forth. Into Kiev, and back up to Leningrad, and then back to Moscow. It was three and a half weeks. So I had the organized trip. And as the cynic would note, of course I met the people I was supposed to meet. The party liners, if you will. 

But what I did was, I would take my sketchbook and walk out on the streets. A friend of mine and I, we had the name of some Jewish refuseniks, and we had a secret meeting with them, and then I also would just walk on the streets. An American sticks out like a sore thumb, and people would come up to me, and I was taken to -- through a series of back doors to people's apartments, because they could get in trouble. On one occasion they said no, it's too dangerous for us. 

But I remember meeting people in those odd, quirky ways. And then arranging other meetings. Sometimes it was arranged in a way that -- it was a little scary. But I felt very much carried in it. 

There was one point where I was kinda scared, actually. But the thing that frightened me the most was that I wouldn't be able to do good portraits. And once I had the portraits, I was scared to death that something would happen to them. I never let that portfolio out of my sight. 

But I really saw so much. The Russian bureaucracy was such and our scattered ways, those of us who decided not to do the organized trip -- which was mostly me -- how could a bumbling bureaucracy keep up with every random act that an individual was going to do? Yeah, certain phones might be bugged. But I came away with the impression that the Evil Empire was at least as scared as we were, if not much more so, because of their economic frailty. 

There were no signs of economic success that I could see. There were a lot of third-world things that I saw. And this was on the beaten path. 

 

 

 



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