Favorite Memories of Josefina Niggli

Josefina NiggliJosefina Niggli left indelible impressions on so many of us. I was so blessed to attend Western Carolina University at a time when she taught there and when so many truly brilliant students had converged there: Steve Carlisle, Karen Furno, Bobby Funk, Nancy Hammel, Mary Buker, Catherine Dixon, Jesse Phelps-West, Dennis West, the list goes on and on of my fellow students that I, to this day, remain in total awe of. We were very special young people in a very special time and we were inspired by this amazing and very special woman. I live in thanksgiving.

- Br. Ron Fender

I only met Josephine twice, but I remember visiting at her house one time. She was in her bed with pink satin sheets and many, many pink satin pillows all around her. Her little Yorkshire terriers leapt on and off the bed repeatedly, licking her face and generally showing affection. Somehow, the topic of fishing came up. Josephine said with great enthusiasm that she loved to fish (as a girl in Mexico)… and then described how a servant would set up a little stool for her close to the water and get her set up with food, drink, etc. Then she would watch the servant fish. Fishing Josephine style!

- Karen Y. Lunnen, Associate Professor, Head of the Department of Physical Therapy, Western Carolina University

Tyson StephensonIt is an honor and privilege to share my love and admiration for the Matriarch of the Western Carolina University Theatre, Ms.Josefina Niggli.  After all the years that I looked upon her with respect as my teacher and mentor, I feel now more like I can think about her as though she is my friend.  Josefina had a way about her that spoke to you, as an actor, without the need to use words.  Her honesty and directness about what was necessary to bring life to the stage, even for a young and inexperienced actor, was so full of love and authority that it left no doubt about where it came from.  It came from the heart because she had so much respect for the theatre and for her students.  I will never forget something she told me once, a statement that was so difficult to grasp at the time but a “theatrical truth” that has become the very core of my work as a performer.  She said “the words don’t matter” in performance.  It is not something that I understood right away but she told me that I would in time and, when I did get it, it would change my life as an actor.  I thought, at the time, if I am supposed to deliver a performance, how can the words not matter?  Because I wanted so badly to be an actor, I intently listened and watched everything Josefina said or did in class and tried to do anything she asked of me.  A few weeks later and after class one day, I asked her what I could do to become better as an actor.  Her response changed my life completely.  She said “stop worrying about what other people think.”  I didn’t immediately get it because I didn’t want to accept that I was self-conscious or vain. After doing a scene in class one day a week or so later, she critiqued me favorably but I felt that she was not giving me the whole scoop so, after class, I asked her to be more specific and not sugar-coat anything.  She paused in thought and then said “Tyson, the more you try to protect yourself from failure, the more likely you are to fail.”  We talked about that and I realized that she wanted me to take risks and stop playing it safe.  That was 37 years ago and my acting career has taken me across the country, to Europe and has now led me to a successful directing career, where I continue to take risks and reap the rewards that have come from the success I have achieved, all because Josefina believed in me and made me work hard because, taking the easy way was not the Niggli way.  I truly believe that Josefina is sitting in her director’s chair in heaven, enjoying the success she helped to bring those of us who she would consider her disciples.  It is my hope that her light continues to shine on the program that she created at WCU and this celebration will certainly be a spark that will help to illuminate the portrait of her life as the exceptional educator and mentor that she was.  

- Tyson Stephenson

I believe this quote from Ms. Niggli’s book Mexican Village sums up her feelings for theatre and what she tried to instill in us as her students.  In the book, itinerant actors have come to the village to present a play.  As a traveling vagabond company, each member must fulfill all roles including setting up the staging.  The quote is:

“…The actors banged their hammers and wondered what it would be like to be tied to a village with a family and a little farm perhaps, and no worry over tonight’s bed or tomorrow’s meal.  For a moment they realized that such life would never include the nervous pricklings of stage fright, nor the smell of grease paint, nor the sound of beautiful words that followed each other like notes in music, and the two men felt very sorry for the village people who would never know the beauty and mystery of that strange thing called THEATRE.”

- Luther Jones, Technical Director for Stage & Screen and former student of Niggli, Western Carolina University 

I’ve been asked what Ms. Niggli was like as a teacher. She was, above all, interesting: the content of her teaching was absorbing and the occasional revelations about her life outside teaching were fascinating. The students’ attention heightened when she injected comments about celebrities into her lectures: Marilyn Monroe, she said, contrary to popular opinion, was a great actress. Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, we heard, were two of Hollywood’s most handsome men.

I have vivid memories of Ms. Niggli sitting at her desk, smoking, and tapping the ashes of her cigarette into the trash can, which was strategically placed to the right-hand side of her desk. …..

……Well, Ms. Niggli, thank you.  You will always be my favorite teacher at Western, and I will always cherish being your oldest boy.

Read the rest of the memory

- Dr. Gurney Chambers, retired WCU professor and former student of Ms. Niggli 

While Ms. Niggli had already retired from teaching by the time I came to be a student at WCU, I did have an opportunity to meet her and spend a small amount of time with her.  I originally met her in the Hinds Student Center while she was having lunch one day.  My mother and I were also there having lunch and I had just finished a show in the Niggli Theatre the weekend before.  Two elderly ladies at the table next to mine happened to stop on their way out, and gushingly asked for my autograph.  While I found it pretty funny—I mean, who the hell was I??—my mother, on the other hand, puffed up with pride and leaned over to Ms. Niggli who was seated at a table on the other side of my mother and said to her, "That’s my daughter, you know. She’s an actress."  Ms. Niggli, ever the consummate performer, stubbed out her cigarette and played along with it, leaned back to my mother with a copy of her menu and said "Oh really?  Please do get her autograph for me, too. I’d hate to miss out on meeting someone really important!"   The few times I saw Ms. Niggli after that day were spent in trying to live that ‘autograph’ down.  She never let me forget it.  To this day, the fact that she played along still makes me smile.  Still, I know in my heart that she got some sense of perverse pleasure in making me relive the embarrassment every time I ran into her after that!

- Phoebe Hall, Associate Professor & Director of Theatre, Performing and Fine Arts Department, Fayetteville State University 

My wife and I are both graduates of WCU.  While we both had courses under Niggli, it was my wife who was the theater major.  [We] took teaching jobs in rural South Carolina (Marion). Neither of us had teacher certificates, but it was South Carolina's first year of total integration, so teachers were needed.  Soon after, Susan was given the chance to develop a theater course for our rural high school. No such programs existed in our area.  Over her 30 year career, Susan developed a program that became a model for other small high schools.  From one class offering, the curriculum expanded to include courses in introductory drama, advanced drama, and honors drama.  Susan was most interested in acting, but soon became an accomplished director.  Many of her techniques were derived from Ms. Niggli or modified versions of her teaching to fit our unique situation. In addition, her drama students increased their reading and writing skills for other courses due to Susan's dedication to making the drama experience equal parts academic and entertainment.  Some of her students have gone on to careers in teaching drama, acting, producing, directing, costume design, and drama critics.  Many of their skills were first uncovered and encouraged in Susan's drama class.  She retired in 2000 and now tutors 3rd graders who struggle with reading.  Marion High School's drama program once produced more scholarship dollars for students than did the entire athletic department for a five-year period.  In addition, her students won well over 150 awards from performance, all star cast recognition, ensemble acting, play writing, costuming, and technical production.  Her students were often the envy of the other schools at the annual South Carolina High School Drama Festival held at Winthrop University.  Her students performed on a par or above the performances of students from the SC School for the Arts and the heralded program at Heathwood Hall in Columbia.  Susan has credited Ms. Niggli repeatedly for any success she has achieved personally.   

Thank you for giving Ms. Niggli her well-deserved kudos.  I probably shouldn't trumpet the successes of my own wife, but her career exemplifies the impact a single, powerful, and inspiring educator can have over the lives of others.  She is a part of Ms. Niggli's legacy at Western Carolina.   

- Ted Whisnant (about his wife,  Susan Magness Whisnant, 1970)

Those who knew Ms. Niggli are invited to please share a memory. We would be thrilled and honored to include the voice of many alums. Email or call Glenda Hensley in the Office for Undergraduate Studies at  ghensley@email.wcu.edu  / (828) 227-2786.


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