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Actress Picks Parts Carefully

July 12, 2008

By Rodger L. Hardy Deseret News

PROVO — An actor may have stock rules on what he or she will or will not do in a film or play, but the message of the production and how it is done should play into whether the actor accepts the part, says veteran actress Barta Heiner.

A longtime actress and professor in the theater and media arts department at Brigham Young University, Heiner said that playing a dark character may get across a positive message. Whether to accept a role is a personal choice.

“For me there are prostitutes I would play and prostitutes I wouldn’t,” she said. “There’s a prostitute in ‘Man of LaMancha,’ (that I would play because it’s) a play with a positive message.”

Some graduates of the acting department have turned down roles because of their religion while others have left their religion behind, Heiner said.

“You have to be so good at what you do that (industry) people are willing to take you (despite) being a Latter-day Saint,” she said.

The department teaches an ethics class for would-be actors that looks at the spiritual side of acting. Students taking the class get to ask themselves why they want to be in the profession.

“I hope I’ve helped students not only learn their craft but to strive to be better people,” she said.

Among her better known graduates in the acting world are Aaron Eckhart, who plays District Attorney Harvey Dent in the new Batman movie, “The Dark Night,” in theaters next week, and Mirielle Enos, who was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Honey in the stage production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

“Barta’s acting has always had a simplicity and elegance that just draws an audience to her. She is honest and clear and giving as an actor. It was a privilege and a delight for me to be her sister Martha in BYU’s ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ two years ago. We had great fun chewing up the scenery together,” said Janet Swenson, a longtime friend and associate chairwoman of the theater and media arts department.

Heiner has just completed the filming of her script, “Diantha’s Crossing” a story set in 1858 in Salt Lake City sandwiched between the Mountain Meadows Massacre in southern Utah and the Utah War. Originally a one-person play Heiner wrote for her master’s project three decades ago, the film examines crossing not only the desert but crossing from this life to the next.

The production was a BYU student mentoring project, in which students did the work under the direction of professional mentors. It may be ready for screening this fall. Heiner expanded the script for the movie version.

“It is an exquisite performance and richly deserved to be captured and saved for many more audiences to see,” Swenson said.

Heiner’s acting, teaching and directing career since graduating from BYU in the early 1970s has taken her from southern California to San Francisco to Denver, with short stints of teaching part-time at BYU. One summer she and author Orson Scott Card put together a summer theater season in Provo with six shows at the Castle Amphitheater.

She received her master’s of fine arts in acting from the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and taught at the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver.

Twenty years ago she settled into a full-time teaching position at BYU and has been there since, taking only brief sabbaticals to perform, teach or direct outside of Utah. She usually directs a play or two yearly at BYU and every other year at the Castle.

As an actress in more than 100 productions, she has many favorite roles. Among them are Lettice in “Lettice of Lovage,” Eleanor in “The Lion in Winter,” and the title role in Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” as a female Lear in a post-apocalyptic society. She was hurting from a car crash during that time, said colleague Eric Samuelsen.

“I wasn’t sure she’d be able to perform. But she did, and used her own pain and suffering to create the deepest, most remarkable Lear I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Heiner and Eric Fielding, now a set designer at BYU, met 42 years ago when they were both in “The Trojan Woman,” BYU’s first summer high school theater workshop.

“I have been a huge fan and an admirer ever since,” he said. “I believe she is the finest LDS actress of her generation.”

E-mail: rodger@desnews.com

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