There are few names in the theater that carry the kind of resonance as the name Lunt-Fontanne. For those of us who work on the stage, the passion and devotion that Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne had for each other and their craft is the stuff of legend. So when I was asked to be the "Master Teacher" for the 2012 Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship program (following in the footsteps of folks like Lynn Redgrave, Barry Edelstein, and Olympia Dukakis) here at Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, I didn't have to think very hard before saying, "yes."
My first order of business after saying "yes" was to call my friend Rob Fisher, who is perhaps the most brilliant musical director on Broadway, to join me. Rob and I met years ago when we were doing an episode of "Prairie Home Companion" and we've since worked together on Chicago and Anything Goes. Rob said "yes" too. So off we went to Genesee Depot.
Each year the Fellowship program invites ten of the country's most accomplished theater actors from every corner of the United States to take part in an 8-day "immersion" at Ten Chimneys -- the magical and storied estate created by Alfred and Lynn. These actors are nominated by regional theaters and are hand selected by the Ten Chimneys Advisory Board. I'm lucky enough to be working with an amazing group of Fellows that includes E. Faye Butler (Arena Stage: Washington, D.C., Goodman Theatre: Chicago, IL), Christopher Block (Signature Theatre: Arlington, VA), Colman Domingo (TheatreWorks: Palo Alto, CA), Nick Gabriel (American Conservatory Theater: San Francisco, CA), Sarah Litzsinger (Milwaukee Repertory Theater: Milwaukee, WI), Susan Moniz (Chicago Shakespeare Theate: Chicago, IL), Martin Moran (La Jolla Playhouse: La Jolla, CA), Brad Oscar (Arena Stage: Washington, D.C.), Hollis Resnik (Goodman Theatre: Chicago, IL), and David St. Louis (Center Theatre Group: Los Angeles, CA).
We met for the first time on Sunday evening, and I was struck immediately by how palpable their love for the theater is. It is strange to be among such a dynamic and fiercely talented group of actors in the role of the "Master Teacher" -- I surely will be learning as much from them over the course of this program as they from me. But that is my role, and so I talked to them about how I became an actor (at the age of 9 in the 1941 Cleveland Playhouse production of On Borrowed Time), how much I still love being an actor all these years later, and a bit about the struggles I faced as a young actor desperate to be taken seriously before "breaking through" in Cabaret and finding success (and, of course, the inevitable-but-still-somehow-unexpected struggles that come along with that kind of success).
My idea was to have these actors work on roles and songs that they might not be considered for in the "real world," and use this program as a safe haven in which these actors can stretch their talents and hopefully learn something new about themselves. I am a firm believer that an artist is most present, most vital, when he or she is most challenged -- sometimes uncomfortably so. It's a very scary place to be, but it's also where the magic can happen. I have never, ever had a role in which I didn't have to venture out into a pretty scary place in order to find the character -- I seem to gravitate towards those roles (like a total masochist). It never gets less scary, but it's a necessary part of what it is we do.
I am so excited about what the next few days will bring, and what the twelve of us will discover about ourselves and each other. At the end of all of this we will put on a presentation/performance, but before then there is much work at hand. This work will be made possible with the help of the staff at Ten Chimneys, who are following in the grand Lunt-Fontanne tradition of creating a welcoming, homey, and generous place for actors to think, relax, and be honored. This tradition is the foundation that this estate was built upon, and its beneficiaries over the years have included the likes of Noël Coward, Helen Hayes, Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn, and so many more). In fact, the sense of tradition runs so deep that Sunday night we were invited to all dine on some of Alfred Lunt's favorite recipes at the very table where all those luminaries shared food and stories decades earlier. I feel so honored and lucky that this tradition continues.