BY ROBERT NEAL
I am walking along the wooded path that leads from the Visitor Center, where we hold class, to the farm called Ten Chimneys, built by theatre greats Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Through the lush foliage, I can just see the white of the main house. The woods are so dense the horizon doesn’t exist. I pick a wild blackberry and pop it in my mouth. A Mourning Dove coos from somewhere. This path feels familiar.
Past the house is a rustically elegant compound surrounding an L-shaped swimming pool, the first of its kind in Wisconsin, a pool house and a Norwegian style log studio for rehearsing. It seems anachronistic alongside the stable barn, corn crib, creamery greenhouse, pig barn, chicken coop, and the rusted, horse drawn machinery that reminds me of my father’s childhood farm back in Indiana. Laundry hangs from the clothes line, as it would have in the 1930’s. In the wilds of Wisconsin, it’s hard to imagine this was once the gathering place of theatre royalty.
The main house is a maze of doorways that open dramatically into stately rooms, each unique with finely, hand painted walls and trim. One room in the house is the Olivier bedroom, reserved for Vivian Leigh and Sir Laurence, with a small single bed that was originally the Lunt’s bridal bed when they were struggling actors in New York. What did they care about its size, they were “young and thin and in love.” In another is the Noel Coward bedroom, which afforded the best cross breeze in the humid Wisconsin summers. In the large living room is the piano where he entertained. Still another room offers David Belasco’s original, and literal, “casting couch” that the Lunt’s bought from his office after he died. Everything in the house touches theatre immortals; Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, Uta Hagen, Julie Harris, Alexander Woollcott, who famously tagged the theatre as “the fabulous invalid,” and Indiana’s Booth Tarkington. And on and on and on. I ask myself, “What am I doing here?”
Back in the rehearsal room, ten of us, Lunt-Fontanne Fellows of the Class of 2017, are hanging on every word from our Master Teacher, Alfred Molina, whose work on stage and on film I’ve admired since I was in drama school. We all agree how lucky we are to work with Fred. We Fellows are from theatres spanning the country: Indianapolis, Seattle, Los Angles, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Sarasota, Delaware, and New York City. We are doing warm ups, theatre games, exercises, and scene work just like we did when we were starting out all those years ago, but now, its richer, deeper, distilled over many seasons of life in the theatre. Here, we are afforded the freedom to explore character in a way we seldom have the time for in production rehearsal. There is no opening night to push toward. It’s elemental stuff. We’re trying to get to the heart of what makes these characters, and we actors, tick. Looking into my Fellows’ eyes, I trust they are here now, in the moment, committed fully to the given circumstances and to each other. And highly skilled. Fred is one of us. As he says while we’re working, “What do I know, I’m just an actor.” So are we all, actors, our tribe, as Fred calls us, honored to gather here at Ten Chimneys to explore craft, recharge spirits, and carry on in the Lunt’s spirit of blending life and art. We laugh a lot. On the shuttle going to and from the four-star Delafield Hotel to the Visitor Center in Genesee Depot we tell stories from years in the trenches. Fred quotes Helen Mirren, “Laughter is the grease that makes the machine go.” We bond quickly and with great respect for each other’s artistry and humanity. We’re a good group. Among the most dedicated and talented actors I’ve met. It dawns on me that, because of this one week, we’ll be inextricably linked to one another for the rest of our lives.
Fred Molina is a master teacher. His passion is unbounded, stopping sometimes in the middle of exercises or scenes to gush about the power of theatre to change people’s lives. We furiously write down pearls of wisdom he shares, affirmations of life in the theatre, but too numerous to remember in the heat of the moment. Some, he’s heard or read:
“My only obligation is to give you my best—tonight.” Frank Langella
“Nothing human disgusts me.” Tennessee Williams from Night of the Iguana
Others burst from him in the moment:
“Be specific. Don’t just get on the train of beautiful language.”
“In the sanctity of this space—no apologies.”
“Don’t confuse speed with pace.”
“We’re privileged to let go. It’s freedom.”
“What do you NEED!”
“Understand the character and their place in the plot.”
“You are given permission not to perform.”
“Stay wide open.”
This last one is why he is such a great actor and teacher. He is huge hearted, gregarious, funny, intense, intelligent, genuinely interested in what others have to offer, and perhaps the best story teller I’ve ever heard. While the work in the rehearsal room is important, the community we build over lunch and dinner and after hours at the bar is just as meaningful, the two, symbiotic. This is evident on the last working day in the room when we share what the week has meant to us. Through emotion, we speak of love and gratitude for each other and of a personal rebirth as we head back to our respective theatres and lives.
This brings me back to why the Lunt’s built Ten Chimneys in the first place. After a long season on stage in New York or on the road (the Lunt’s brought theatre to the rest of country before regional theatre existed) they would retreat to Ten Chimneys to work in the garden, tend the chickens, cook, sew, recharge and just breathe. Alfred would busy himself cooking and building onto the estate, Lynn would sew, and sit in the garden patio for hours, happily unobserved after months of being observed.
The President and CEO of Ten Chimneys, Randy Bryant, greeted us our first night by saying, “America’s regional theatre IS our national theatre and we must fight for it.” This answers my question, “Why am I here?” I know why this wooded path to Ten Chimneys is so familiar. My Midwestern sensibility, our universal human sensibility, is what nourishes our need to create theatre; to tell stories that enlarge and enlighten what it means to be human, no matter where you live. I’m living proof that you can have a life in the theatre west of the Hudson River. This is my path.
Words are what actors traffic in, but I have none that do justice to my deep gratitude to Janet Allen for nominating me for this honor, to Randy Bryant and Ten Chimneys for selecting me and creating this wonderful program for regional theatre actors, and to Master Teacher Alfred Molina and my 2017 Lunt-Fontanne Fellows colleagues, Hugo Armstrong, Cherise Boothe, Denise Cormier, Bethany Anne Lind, Zonya Love, Daniel Pearce, Stephen Pelinski, Keith Randolph Smith, and Michael Winters for making the experience one I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.
To view more photos of the Lunt-Fontanne estate visit bizjournals.com.
*Unless noted, all photos by Robert Neal.
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