'The Idiots Karamazov'

Ralph Redpath and Meryl Streep in a scene from Christopher Durang and Albert Innauarato's spoof, "The Idiots Karamazov" at Yale in 1974. (William Baker / Yale Repertory Theatre)

Mention the Yale School of Drama in conversation and see how quickly the name of its most esteemed alumna comes up: Meryl Streep.

Nearly 40 years after her graduation from the three-year graduate acting program, Streep is the gold standard for talent and career for many theatrical aspirants.

"I had a ball, but it was really hard,'' she told The Courant in an interview in the late 1990s.

She attended the three-year program on scholarship out of Vassar and graduated in 1975. She first lived in a basement apartment in the back of the Henry Austin House on 584 Chapel St. on Wooster Square.

She had a break-in her first day, she says. But she was too busy to get freaked out. Much too busy.

"It was a small [acting school] and there were only about five women in my class. Each director would be able to pick his cast and they sort of had carte blanche. There was no sort of equality. There was a nod in that direction, but basically if this was a director's big project for his thesis, he could have whoever he wanted.''

And they all wanted Streep, who became famous for folding herself into her character so well that it became a kind of acting origami. She performed in more than 40 stage productions while she was at Yale with a stellar group of actors in overlapping classes that included Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Durang, Ted Tally, Wendy Wasserstein, Christine Estabrook, William Ivey Long, Walt Jones, Joe Grifasi and John Shea.

"She was fantastic,'' says Michael Yeargan, who was resident designer when Streep was at Yale. He remembers her as never being a diva and having a great sense of humor.

Most of all, he remembers her performances in such shows as "The Idiots Karamazov,'' "The Possessed,'' "The Father'' with Rip Torn and when she sang in "Happy End,'' performances that became legendary.

"But I didn't think she would necessarily be the break-out actress of the group because she was so quirky, but that's what made her so special. Her talent was just so special, so versatile.''

Streep also had a stint at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford in 1975, acting in five plays over six weeks. The center will honor Streep at a fundraiser in New York in April, celebrating its 50th anniversary.