Born in Manhattan and raised in the city’s tenements near Chinatown and Little Italy, René attended New York University, where she received a bachelor’s in English, and Bard College, where she earned a master’s in writing. She has taught mime, improvisation, character work, movement, and T’ai Chi Ch’uan at a number of institutions, including H.B. Studio, Yale University, Sarah Lawrence College, Clark Center for the Performing Arts, Skidmore College, Harvard University, New York University, and Barnard College. She joined the Juilliard faculty in 2009 and teaches T’ai Chi Ch’uan to first-year drama students.
Who was the teacher or mentor who most inspired you when you were growing up and what did you learn from that person?
I’ve been incredibly lucky in teachers. My theater mentor was Tony Montanaro, who taught me that creativity was something that could flow limitlessly. Lou Kleinsmith, my T’ai Chi Ch’uan teacher, reinforced the joy of learning through movement. And I was fortunate enough to study with Professor Cheng Man-ching, a T’ai Chi Ch’uan grandmaster who provided a model for lifelong continuous learning and self-cultivation.
When did you first know you wanted to be a theater-related professional and how did you come to know it?
I have never thought in those terms. I began performing onstage, in professional settings, when I was 15 and simply continued my explorations and pursuits.
What theatrical performance have you attended that changed the way you think about theater?
Jerzy Grotowski’s Akropolis and Andrei Serban’s The Trojan Women showed me that it was possible to match powerful material with equally powerfully new ways of presenting the material. Pina Bausch’s Nefes ruptured the boundaries of content in contemporary dance. I was, by sheer coincidence, present for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s first performance in New York after his defection from the Soviet Union. The complete expressiveness of his dancing heightened, from then on, my standards as an audience member.
What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had as a performer?
Out of courtesy to the playwright, I would rather not mention the play by name. But I do remember sitting on stage, looking at my socks, and wondering how I’d gotten myself into such a dreadful situation.
If you could have your students visit any place in the world, where would it be, and why?
For an urban setting: Paris. Take a walk. Enjoy the city. See the art. Eat wonderful food. For a more rural experience: the Clava cairn in Scotland. Go in the morning, midday, and at night; it’s a lesson in the power of place.
What are your non-drama related interests or hobbies? What would people be surprised to know about you?
There is no such thing as non-drama related. I’m a writer (fiction and essays). I play tennis. I’m a baseball fan. If you’re ever lost in the woods with me, I know how to build a debris shelter.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
It’s a 24-hour improvisation, every day.
What book are you reading right now … and what can you tell us about it?
I’m reading Crisis in the Pacific. It feeds me some World War II research for a novel I’m working on.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
I like to think I’d be practicing the same things and pursuing the same principles, regardless of details of career or activity.
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would you want it to be?
I would want them to walk away with a healthy relationship toward learning; that’s something they could carry with them everywhere and apply to anything.