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Streep’s Star Turn Wows Campus

Acclaimed Actress Raises $230,000 for Scholarships

UMass Lowell students Janice Lane and Maddie Koufogazos with Meryl Streep
UMass Lowell students Janice Lane and Maddie Koufogazos met with Meryl Streep, prior to her sell-out appearance at the Tsongas Center.

By Jill Gambon

She answered questions, reflected on her storied career, offered advice for breaking into films, posed for countless photos, pulled an April Fools’ prank before a crowd of 3,600 and raised more than $230,000 for scholarships. That’s all in a day’s visit to UMass Lowell for actress Meryl Streep.

The three-time Academy Award-winner held court before a capacity crowd at the Tsongas Center in an event billed as “A Conversation with Meryl Streep” that was moderated by Assoc. Prof. Andre Dubus III.  Earlier in the day, she held an hourlong question-and-answer session with 100 English and Theater Arts students at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, touching on subjects from how she prepares for roles to how she got her start as an actress.

By turns witty, thoughtful and quick, she held her audience rapt as she discussed her career. Dubus, a New York Times bestselling author, wanted to know how she is able to disappear into her roles. 

“Acting is a very mysterious craft,” Streep said. “The (actors) I admire, I have no idea how they achieve what they do. When you are working with them there’s a seamless exchange of thought, emotion and physicality. You can’t parse it when you are in the moment.”

Streep’s visit was the latest installment of the Chancellor’s Speaker Series, which was established in 2012 with author Stephen King as the initial guest. Her appearance was co-sponsored by the UMass Lowell English Department’s Theatre Arts Program and the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. The presenting sponsor was the D’Agostino Family, who used the opportunity to encourage organ and tissue donor registration.

“Having Meryl Streep speak on our campus was undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our students, faculty, staff and the community,” said UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan. “We greatly appreciate her generosity, both for sharing her time and experiences with us and for establishing two new scholarship funds for UMass Lowell students.”

All proceeds from the Tsongas Center event are being used to establish the Meryl Streep Endowed Scholarship, which will assist outstanding UMass Lowell English majors, and the Joan Hertzberg Endowed Scholarship, which will support students who excel in math as did the fund’s namesake, a former classmate of Streep’s. The actress also autographed a director’s chair that was raffled off at the end of the night. (Another chair with her signature is being raffled online).

“It says a lot about a school that it can attract people like Meryl Streep,” said Joshua Beverage, a junior English major who aspires to a career as a screenwriter. Beverage attended both events with the actress and felt like he gained insight into how actors channel emotion into their roles.
“It’s a good time to be an English major at UMass Lowell,” he said.

“I am so proud of the students. They asked really thoughtful questions,” said Assoc. Prof. Bridget Marshall, interim chair of the English Department. “It’s really inspiring for them hearing from someone like Meryl Streep. And with her generous scholarship donation, they know they have her support.”

“This is a splendid opportunity for our students to hear a master performer. They are the envy of students nationwide,” said Assoc. Prof. Jeannie Sargent Judge of the English Department.

Looking back on her career, Streep said the “quiet, held-in” characters she portrayed earlier in her career in films like the “Deer Hunter” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” were products of their time when most movies were written, produced and directed by men.

“It would be hard to create those characters in today’s world. Girls are way more out there,” she said. Her approach to work has evolved, she said.

“I feel like I ingest characters in a different way. I feel like I know more about the bumps of life.”

When asked why she gravitated toward movies over theater roles, Streep said it was simply a matter of film schedules being more accommodating to her family life.

“Film work is a very kind profession for a mother,” said Streep, who has four grown children with her husband, sculptor Don Gummer. 

In attendance at the Tsongas Center was Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper and his wife, Marianne Leone Cooper, great friends of Streep who are residents of Kingston. Backstage before the event, Cooper recounted the family atmosphere Streep created on the set of the 2013 film “August: Osage County.”

“She’s a great woman and a great host. We were always at her place for potluck dinners, that’s kind of unusual,” Cooper said.

And, Cooper added, she keeps other actors on their toes.

Streep started the night by keeping the Tsongas Center crowd on its toes. When Dubus introduced the actress, a dark-haired stand-in emerged from backstage. After a moment, Streep emerged to a cry of “April Fools’!” as the crowd jumped to its feet and roared.