Arlene Clement: The Exit of a Great Lady
by Anthony Chase
The Buffalo theater community was saddened and frankly a bit stunned by the death of actress Arlene Clement on October 15. Word went out a few weeks ago that she was failing, but news of her death from cancer still came as a shock and a blow. True to form, Arlene hadn’t made a huge fuss. She simply removed herself from view, and quietly went away—forever.
A gifted character actress with a deeply resonant voice, Arlene was consummately professional and reliable. She was also one of the nicest people anyone could ever hope to meet. The worst you could say is that her remarkable talent and seemingly effortless ability to morph into a huge range of characters inspired a certain degree of jealousy and competitiveness among her peers—and she could hardly be faulted for that!
Clement came to acting later in life, after a long career as a legal secretary. She seemed to arrive on the scene out of nowhere. My earliest memories of her are from two 1990 productions: the Amherst Players staging of A. R. Gurney’s The Dining Room, in which she played a rapid succession of contrasting characters; and in the role of an Italian-American mother living on Buffalo’s West Side in Joe Agro’s play, The Ditch Diggers, at the old B.E.T. upstairs in the Jackson Building—the show that won the very first Artie award for new play. Arlene made a vivid impression in each.
Roger Paolini, who directed The Dining Room, remembers working with her. “She nailed all the roles she portrayed in that play,” says Paolini, “from a 12-year-old who didn’t want to go to dancing school, to a bored, middle-aged housewife having an affair with her husband’s best friend. When I’d give her a particular piece of direction, she’d give me a smile and say ‘You’re the boss.’ She was a classy pro and I loved her—on and off stage. I am deeply saddened by her passing.”
Actress Lisa Ludwig, now managing director of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, was also in that production of The Dining Room.
“I had just moved back to Buffalo and my daughter, Cydney, was only a few months old,” recalls Ludwig. “That’s where I first met Arlene, and she was amazing. She was a welcoming joy to work with! I particularly loved one scene in which she played the little girl and I was the mother. And she was also wonderful when I would bring the baby in for visits at rehearsals. Years later, when Cydney was 10 years old, Arlene worked with her at Theatre of Youth in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and she would tell Cydney stories about when she met her as a baby. I personally had many other opportunities to work with Arlene over the years, and I always enjoyed sharing the stage with her. Her talent, kindness, and professionalism were always apparent.”
Arlene often worked for audiences of children at Theatre of Youth.
“I think Arlene performed with us at least a dozen times,” recalls TOY artistic director, Meg Quinn. “She was always willing to play even the most outrageous characters. She had such a great presence and that distinctive voice! I used to tell her that with that voice, she could easily play a judge on Law & Order!”
“I remember well TOY’s The Secret Garden at the Franklin Street Theater—now the Chop House,” offers actor David Oliver. “Arlene played the housekeeper. It was a great pleasure to work with someone as supportive and professional as she, who had such a wonderfully dry sense of humor. I also remember her brief but very effective appearance in Good at the Irish Classical Theatre. I remember at the time thinking, ‘Wow, that Arlene Clement is really good!’ Bless her for being such a hardworking and trusted colleague all these years.”
Many remember Arlene for her spark of theatrical daring, whether it was wearing an outrageous costume or taking on a provocative script. Actress Josephine Hogan recalls, in particular, working with her in Same Old Moon. Arlene played a woman so repressed that she wore her nightgown over her clothes.
“Arlene was hilarious,” recalls Hogan. “She had to perform a scene of getting ready for bed to striptease music. In the final moment, she jumps into bed and, to the music, pretends to drop her teeth in a glass! We couldn’t believe she could do it without breaking out in laughter! We were hysterical! She also played Bessie Burgess in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars for us, and won the Artie for it. I also worked with her doing some readings for a play being developed by Anna Kaye France. She was sweet, and kind, and upbeat, and easy to work with.”
Arlene received several Artie nods for her work, and flirted with the award for a while before she actually won: The Ditch Diggers in 1990-1991; Eleemosynary in 1993-1994; and Same Old Moon in 1994-1995. Finally, she got it into her head that she would never win, and when she was nominated again in 1995-1996 for The Plough and the Stars, she didn’t go to the ceremonies. That night when she received the “You just won! Where are you?” call from a friend, she immediately hopped into the car and drove down to the Tralf to make her belated entrance, wearing an elegant cream-colored slack-suit, and beaming that unforgettable Arlene Clement smile to a tumultuous ovation.
“She was that grounded spark in every production,” recalls Richard Lambert, executive director of the New Phoenix Theatre. “Sweet, girlish, shy inside. Outside, that wonderful barrel voice that could stop traffic. She made me proud to direct her with her impeccable comic timing. I love Arlene Clement.”
Robert Waterhouse, artistic director at the New Phoenix, recalls, “Most of the work Arlene and I did together was in the BET’s old space on the sixth floor of the Jackson Building—now the Hampton Inn. Conditions up there were not great: poor and raw and a bit seat-of-your-pants, but Arlene was a great sport and a center of dignity, patience, humor, and professionalism. Her wife to Brian LaTulip’s husband/father in A Voyage Round My Father was a masterpiece of interiority and quiet humor. There were other shows, too; with Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, we spread wings to the Pfeifer, and Arlene was characteristically marvelous. She was a warm and wise and lovely lady.”
“Arlene is a woman I admired so very much,” says Constance Caldwell, director of communications and community relations for the Theater Alliance of Buffalo. “There are many, but the two shows I did with Arlene that I’ll never forget are Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba with BUA, in which she played Bernarda, and Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars for the Irish Classical Theatre. She was a wonderful actress and a good woman to just be with. I was always happy to hang with Arlene at shows, in shows, after shows, and whenever else our paths crossed.”
BUA founder and artistic director Javier Bustillos, who directed Arlene as Bernarda Alba, remembers her for her sparkling wit, for her soulful nature, and as an insightful creative collaborator.
“Arlene was such a loving and decent person,” recalls Bustillos. “Bernarda Alba is a woman who tyrannizes her five daughters, but during rehearsal, Arlene’s own loving nature kept coming through. I told her, ‘Arlene, this woman is a monster,’ and she listened, but it did not ring true for her. But Arlene was also a wonderfully intelligent actress who could analyze a script and take direction brilliantly. There is a scene in which Angustias, the character Connie played, confides in her mother that she thinks her fiancé is hiding something from her. Bernarda is always severe, and instructs the girl never to ask Pepe what he is hiding, only to speak when he speaks, only to look at him when he looks at her. Then she notices that Angustias is crying and scolds, very coldly, ‘above all, don’t let him ever see you cry.’ Seeing Arlene play that scene and fight that moment brought an epiphany. ‘Arlene,’ I said, ‘wipe away her tears!’ Arlene knew exactly what I meant. She read the line without pity, but she did it with a loving gesture, wiping away her daughter’s tears. That was the key she was looking for. She was willing to play a monster, but she needed Bernarda’s cruelty to be fully-dimensioned and motivated. That was my favorite moment of her performance.”
Arlene also played the imperious grandmother in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour for BUA, as well as a variety of roles in their production of The Laramie Project, the play by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project about the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard. Among her roles in that show were comically contrasting old women, one prejudiced, one surprisingly liberated, and “Shadow,” the DJ. She returned in 2009 to perform with the company in The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.
Also in 2009, she appeared in Honus and Me for Theatre of Youth.
“Honus and Me was her last show with us,” sayss Meg Quinn, “but I have so many memories of her, happily getting into outrageous costumes and doing anything we asked. Arlene was a great lady. She was down-to-earth, sweet, and sensitive. I am blessed to have known her.”
All of us who knew Arlene were blessed, and audiences were blessed to see her work. She is greatly missed.
Arlene Clement is survived by Gerald Clement, her husband of 45 years; her daughter, Lydia; and her sister, Barbara Colpoys.
Many thanks to Theater of Youth Company for assembling several of the remembrances for this tribute to Arlene.
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