Local actress 24 characters in one play

BY NINA EARNEST | APRIL 19, 2011 7:20 AM

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A backdrop of whitewashed, crisscrossing branches cast dissecting shadows on the Riverside Theatre stage. A lone swing, hanging from the low ceiling, is the only prop in sight. Standing at center stage, Saffron Henke ran through some of her lines, warming up for the play scheduled to begin in fewer than 45 minutes.

But unlike most actors, Henke didn't memorize lines for just one character.

Instead, for the drama The Syringa Tree, she plays 24 alternating characters. She takes on the roles of men, women, adults, and children — each played with the varying dialects necessary to tell the story of apartheid in South Africa.

"All 24 of them are on stage," the 37-year-old said. "But some of them have better nights than others."

One moment, she could be the 6-year-old main character, Elizabeth Gray. The next, an African man.

The recent run at Riverside Theater marks the second time Henke has taken on The Syringa Tree, Pamela Gien's play about the many people affected by South African apartheid.

Jody Hovland, the artistic director of Riverside Theatre, noted Henke's courage to take on these roles.

"It's both daunting and absolutely exhilarating to take on a work like this," Hovland said.

And this project is just one of many facets of Henke's life — one dedicated to acting.

Henke was raised in South English, Iowa, on a self-sufficient organic farm operated by her parents. Her family moved to Iowa City when she was a freshman in high school. While attending City High, she was active in theater and at one point had the lead role of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.

She attended DePaul University in Chicago for two years before transferring to the University of Iowa to finish her undergraduate degree in theater in 1996.

She moved to the West Coast to complete a master's degree in acting at the University of Washington in 1998. After working with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the largest theater companies in the nation, Henke moved to California. She first worked in the Sacramento Theater Company, then moved to Los Angeles.

Even when she was acting, she was teaching. When she arrived in Los Angeles, she found a teaching position at the University of Southern California.

"It's a very difficult business to make a living in exclusively," she said.

But Henke said her knack for accents and unique features — an adaptable face and ebony black hair — enabled her to work for a long time playing several ethnicities.

In May 2009, she moved back to Iowa City.

"Leaving USC was hard," Henke said. "Leaving LA was not."

She now works at the UI as the associate director for the arts initiative at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and remains active in local theater.

Eric Forsythe, a UI professor of theater, has worked with Henke as both a teacher and an actor. He called her dynamic and precise.

"She loves to inhabit the world of different plays," he said.

And plays — above other forms of production — are her favorite.

"I put out so much energy and get back energy from the audience," Henke said. "In plays, I look forward to engaging in that exchange."

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