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Conversation at Dartmouth College

May 18, 2000 | Dartmouth College

Meryl Streep, who spent a term at Dartmouth through the 12-college exchange while a student at Vassar College, visited Dartmouth College to talk about her life as a student in Dartmouth and her career as an actress.

As one of the first women ever to attend Dartmouth while the school was still all male, Streep and around 60 other coeds came to campus for what would surely be an interesting adventure. She came to Dartmouth during the fall of her senior year at Vassar after hearing about the reputation of the College’s drama department. “I heard of [former drama professor and department chair] Rod Alexander,” she said. “I met some kids from Dartmouth who came to Vassar, and they seemed pretty cool.” But the prospect of good academics and fun people was not all that drew the drama major to the College. “Part of the lure of Dartmouth was that I could take a full course of study and have three and a half weeks vacations,” she said, referring to the D-plan’s variance from a normal semester college system.

I remembered thinking, at Vassar, people would sit quietly and answer questions with judicial, thoughtful, ruminative answers. But, at Dartmouth, it was different. Before the professor finished the question, there were five people standing up, words coming out of their mouths but they had no idea what the answer was. It was very inspiring; it was something I didn’t have in me. The climate and the expectation were playing to the proactive. My teachers [back at Vassar] would start questions and I would get up before they were done and say, ‘I don’t even think that question is valid!’ even though I really had no idea what the question was.

At Dartmouth, she took a playwrighting class with legendary drama professor Errol Hill, was the only woman in her dance class, and compiled a “thesis project of drawings” for her costume design class. She recalled sitting on the floor of Cohen dormitory in the Choates, which was linoleum at the time, drawing for hours. “Every week we studied a different period of drama history and designed countless numbers of costumes for each one,” she said. “It was one of my favorite courses.” But Streep did not spend all of her time with her schoolbooks. Her observations of the social life at the College during the tumultous Vietnam War era – “an exciting time” – made an impact on her. “Everybody had hair to their shoulders,” she said. “It looked like Vassar from behind.” She recalled a visibly polarized campus in which the “fraternity people tended to be one sort and the counter-culture announced who they were by the way they looked and, like any category, that didn’t begin to explain who they were.”

When asked about the plays she was in, Meryl said she did not remember being in one while she was at the College. When reminded that she, in fact, performed in two plays at Dartmouth, she said, with a laugh, “I have very little memory of it – like none.” However, she said, “I remember the one I didn’t get!” Streep auditioned for the lone female role in the mainstage production that fall but lost out to a friend of hers. Later, she would garner roles in two student-written Frost Playwrighting competition plays, but they were less than memorable. After graduating from Vassar in the spring of 1971, Streep returned to the Upper Valley to be with her boyfriend at the time, who was starting at the Dartmouth Medical School. She lived in Norwich, Vt. for the next year, acting with the Green Mountain Guild in Quechee, Vt. She waited tables at the Hanover Inn to augment the low pay of the theater business. The following summer, while continuing to act and wait tables, she applied to the Yale University School of Drama. She received a scholarship to attend and enrolled that fall.