At Ten Chimneys: My Week as a Lunt-Fontanne Fellow

I’ve spent so much time dreaming of my ideal actor’s world, largely constructed from the most enviable elements of the theater of the past: After proving myself worthy, I’d be offered one wonderful play after another; I’d work with the greatest actors of the day, continually learning from them; and my colleagues and I would become a permanent community of kindred spirits, regularly gathering for food and talk and laughter long after our shows had closed.

And for one week in the summer of 2013, much of that dream world materialized.

It began, as so many of my happiest theatrical experiences have, with Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. In late 2012, Producing Director Christopher Wigle alerted me that the Huntington wanted to put my name forward as a potential Lunt-Fontanne Fellow. I had always been aware of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and their place as the premier acting couple in American theater history; but I hadn’t known about Ten Chimneys Foundation or the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program.

“Ten Chimneys” is the name the Lunts gave to their estate in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin — and yes, there are ten chimneys on the premises. Alfred, who had spent part of his childhood in the area, bought the land in 1915 and designed the house himself. From the 1920s onward, the Lunts retreated there between theatrical engagements and entertained a sparkling parade of guests including Noël Coward, Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, and Carol Channing.

The Lunts retired to Ten Chimneys full-time in 1960, and after Alfred died in 1977, Lynn lived on there until her death in 1983. The estate spent years in limbo, and was nearly destroyed by a developer in 1996. Joseph Garton — a Madison-area restaurateur, scholar, arts champion, and peace activist — came to the rescue. He acquired the estate, and in late 1997 he and other community leaders formed Ten Chimneys Foundation, with Mr. Garton becoming its first President. The Foundation bought the estate from Mr. Garton and began the monumental task of readying it for its role as “a world-class museum and national resource for theater and arts education.” Ten Chimneys opened to the public in May 2003, with visitors marveling at the loving restoration of the buildings, contents, and grounds — It was as though the Lunts had just stepped out for a bit, perhaps to fetch Coward or Olivier from the train station.

And since 2009, new guests have arrived for a stay each summer. A small number (usually ten — one for each chimney, perhaps?) of seasoned regional theater actors spend a week at Ten Chimneys as Lunt-Fontanne Fellows, soaking in the inspiring atmosphere and taking classes with a Master Teacher. Olympia Dukakis, Alfred Molina, and Lynn Redgrave are a few of the past Master Teachers.

Thanks to great good fortune and the Huntington Theatre Company, I was chosen to be part of the 2013 Fellowship Class, along with David Alan Anderson, from the Indiana Repertory Theatre; David Breitbarth, Asolo Repertory Theatre (Florida); Kandis Chappell, The Old Globe (CA); George Dvorsky, Paper Mill Playhouse (NJ); Robin Goodrin Nordli, Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Sharon Lawrence, The Pasadena Playhouse (CA); Kathleen McCall, Denver Center Theatre Company (CO); Mark Nelson, Cleveland Playhouse (OH); and Andrew Philpot, PCPA Theaterfest (CA). Our Master Teacher would be none other than beloved actor/writer/director/educator/communicator Alan Alda.

Upon my Sunday arrival in Milwaukee, I was warmly greeted by then-Vice President of Theatre Programs Kristine Weir-Martell, who would be our guiding spirit throughout the week. Still, I was nervous; my default setting is “I’m not going to be good enough,” and this fellowship was a big deal.

Kristine drove me the half hour to the Fellows’ lodgings at the gorgeous Delafield Hotel. After settling in, my classmates and I boarded the Ten Chimneys shuttle for the fifteen-minute ride to the Lunts’ estate in Genesee Depot.

The estate is nestled in a grove, surrounded by sixty acres of land. Even on first sight, Ten Chimneys offers a theatrical kind of enchantment: I felt as though I were looking at a painted backdrop from a particularly romantic play of the last century. The white, green-shuttered Main House is an enormously appealing jumble, the result of many additions over the years. Among the outbuildings is a red-and-white-striped poolhouse topped with a copper mermaid designed by the Lunts’ friend Cecil Beaton.

Adding to the magic of the stage picture are white birch trees, which were a gift from writer and radio personality — and model for acerbic houseguest Sheridan Whiteside in Kaufman and Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner” — Alexander Woollcott.

We assembled in the living room of the estate’s red “Cottage,” which would be the Main House of most people’s dreams. The Cottage interior is adorned with Scandinavian folk art, including wall paintings done by Alfred Lunt himself — Alfred’s affinity for Scandinavia is evident throughout the architecture and decoration of the estate. We raised a glass of champagne, led by the evening’s gracious host Randy Bryant, the President and CEO of Ten Chimneys Foundation. Of course we were excited to be in the room with our teacher Alan and his wife, author and photographer Arlene Alda — and yes, they’re just as wonderful as you would expect.

We headed over to the Main House. A storm had set in, and just as we were starting our tour, the lights went out. We continued with the aid of phone flashlights, and the darkness added to the delectable feeling of stealing glimpses into past lives. Even the names of the rooms vibrate with glamour and romance and theatrical history: the Garden Terrace Room, the Flirtation Room, the Belasco Room, the Laurence Olivier Bedroom, and so on. A fully illuminated viewing would have to wait for another day, and soon dinner was ready. We gathered in the Lunts’ sumptuous dining room for a delicious candlelit dinner, featuring several courses including Alfred Lunt’s own cucumber-and-dill salad. In addition to being a hands-on gentleman farmer, Alfred was an accomplished cook who left behind a trove of recipes.

Kristine and Randy, along with the evening’s talented and resourceful chefs, were already giving us a taste of the impeccable hosting for which the Lunts were known. After one of his many sojourns at Ten Chimneys, Noel Coward wrote: “The week with Lynn and Alfred was, as expected, perfect. I was cosseted, tended and fussed over.”

We began class the next day in the Main House’s elegant-yet-whimsical drawing room, surrounded by brightly-colored biblical murals painted by scenic and costume designer Claggett Wilson.

The focus of our classes was going to be spontaneity and improvisation, and I was nervous — because frankly, I’m one who likes to plan her improvs. Clearly I needed this kind of work! And who better to lead us than Alan Alda? Early in his career, he was part of the pioneering American improv scene. He performed in “Compass at Hyannisport,” a cabaret show directed by David Shepherd, a founder of the Chicago-born Compass Players, which was the forerunner of The Second City. Alan later performed briefly with the early Second City, and participated in a months-long workshop led by Compass and Second City co-founder Paul Sills. A couple of the workshop sessions were run by Sills’s mother, the incalculably influential Viola Spolin, creator of Theater Games and author of Improvisation for the Theater. I could’ve easily felt intimidated by someone with Alan’s amazing history; but he was also so generous and funny, and seemed so genuinely interested in us all and so entertained by our playing. He and my talented, game, hilarious classmates had me laughing my head off in no time.

On Tuesday, the Fellows spent the afternoon on the grounds of the estate. Before our arrival, we’d been asked to find and bring along a few scenes, and now we worked on them in pairs while sitting on the porch of the Cottage, or lounging by the Lunts’ L- shaped in-ground pool. I worked on a scene as Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie,” with Andy Philpot as Tom; and a scene from Harley Granville-Barker’s 1916 “Farewell to the Theatre,” with Mark Nelson in the role of the lawyer/admirer of a late-career actress.

We also enjoyed this chance to take in more of our surroundings. We admired the chickens who live, as their fowl forebears did in the Lunts’ day, in a stone “coop” which would inspire envy in many a New York City apartment-dweller. We lingered inside the hewn-log Studio building, where the Lunts rehearsed their roles before starting a new production. As I looked at the high ceiling, I imagined their voices floating upward as they tried this and that, made discoveries, and honed the byplay and overlapping dialogue that helped to make their performances so vital and fresh.

Being in that Studio where such devoted and inspired work had been done was a visceral experience for me — It felt as though the blood were moving through my limbs in an entirely different way than usual. This was how I used to feel when I crept into the dark, empty theater at college and did Shakespearean monologues on the stage, and it was a feeling I’d largely lost over the years. It would come back in flashes — sometimes when I stood backstage at a theater and looked up into the high darkness of the flies — but at Ten Chimneys, the feeling flowed through me every day.

I felt it when exploring the Main House — delighting in room upon historied room,with Claggett Wilson’s murals adding to the fanciful theatricality of most of the house. But I especially loved the more modest-looking oak-paneled library, which features the door to a secret passageway, a particularly beguiling painting of a young Lynn, and — poignantly — Alfred’s favorite chair, where Lynn would sit to feel close to him after he died.

But much of our time was spent in the modern Program Center, across the street from the estate. The Lunts’ artistry and glamour are alive here too, with an exhibit of a playful, very-scaled-down version of Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and several small toy theaters — Alfred was a toy-theater impresario as a child — with cardboard-cutout scenes from the Lunts’ famous productions. Even the ladies’ room is glamorous, with a lounging area featuring elegant chaises and wall photographs of Lynn in various dramatic hats.

We had several of our class sessions in the Program Center’s large gleaming main hall, with its maple floors, huge windows, and larger-than-life-sized photos of the Lunts in their great triumphs including Noël Coward’s Design for Living; the film version of The Guardsman — the stage version of the Ferenc Molnár play had marked the beginning of the Lunts’ reign as the preeminent couple of the American theater; and their acclaimed theatrical swan song, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s chilling tragicomedy The Visit, which was directed by the visionary Peter Brook.

Before our Wednesday session, Alan asked if we’d like to work on the scripts we’d read among ourselves on Tuesday, or if we’d rather continue with our games and improvisations for the rest of the week. We all happily agreed that we wanted to keep on with our Spolin exercises and improv work.
We played invisible volleyball, with the ball and net becoming real for us. We stood in a circle and each received an “object” from the person next to us, then played with the object until it transformed into something new to pass to the next person. We spoke to each other in gibberish as though it were natural speech, making ourselves understood through physicality and intention. We did scenes in which one player had to figure out who they were and how they were related to their scene partner, picking up clues from their fellow player without being explicitly “told” anything. A frequently-hilarious game involved one person sitting between two others and having to participate in two entirely different conversations. There were exercises in which one player would begin a task, such as building something, and others would join in one by one until we were all working together and functioning as one. We played lots of other games and scenes, often with that happy outcome of many-becoming-one.

I felt I took a step forward during a class near the end of the week, when the wonderful Sharon Lawrence and I improvised a playground scene in which she was a concerned therapist and I was a troubled child. My mind wasn’t running in my usual, frantic planning-my-next-moment mode, and I felt able to just play with Sharon and let things happen. Despite my longtime trepidation about doing improv and theater games, I had started to open up.

Much of that was attributable to the openness and enthusiasm of our leader Alan. He modestly brushed aside the idea of himself as a “Master Teacher,” but we certainly learned and absorbed so much from him….And what a privilege to spend time with someone of such strong and fruitful curiosity, and such drive to find creative ways of making people’s lives better.

On Friday night, Alan took the stage in the Program Hall for a “Conversation at Ten Chimneys,” and the Fellows joined a packed house as he told engaging stories from his childhood and career. I always love to hear actors’ accounts of how theater entered their souls, and Alan painted a vivid picture of his boyhood self standing in the wings of burlesque theaters watching his father, singer/dancer/actor Robert Alda, perform. After his talk, which was skillfully facilitated by Randy Bryant, Alan wittily and thoughtfully answered questions from the audience. Ten Chimneys draws its “Conversations” audience mainly from southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois — though some attendees travel farther — and from all walks of life. The people I talked to that night seemed to consider Ten Chimneys an important part of their lives, and to be very aware of how lucky they were to have this rich repository of theater history in the area.

It was the Fellows’ turn to take the Program Hall stage on Saturday night for the Concluding Presentation of the Fellowship week. The audiences for these yearly presentations include large numbers of theater professionals — playwrights, actors, educators, artistic directors, etc. — as well as avid theatergoers. We began the evening with warm-up games including invisible volleyball and imaginary tug-of-war, followed by our final round of improvised scenes. One highlight was a kind of rotating road trip, where a new person would get into a car and transform the story of the other occupants, with the situations getting wilder and woollier with each new passenger. My favorite scene of the night sprang from the assigned scenario “first date — in a graveyard”: David Alan Anderson was hilarious as a suitor demonstrating his premature commitment by showing his date the mutual grave he’s picked out. The audience gave us a warm response throughout, and we were relieved and grateful.

And on Sunday the Fellows said goodbye to each other, to Alan and Arlene, to Kristine, Randy, and the wonderful Ten Chimneys staff and volunteers. I’d wager I’m not the only one who never wanted to leave.

I realize that my ideal actor’s life, which Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne actually lived, may not even be possible anymore — I can’t expect to go from one wonderful play to another, or to spend entire days and weeks communing with my theater friends between engagements. But I’ll always have that Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship week of inspiration, learning, community, and feeling truly valued. The graceful celebration of actors at Ten Chimneys is an extraordinary restorative, and the soul expands in gratitude.

Dee Nelson has appeared on Broadway in “The Heiress,” off-Broadway in Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet,” and at many regional theaters in New England.

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Theaterhound

Theaterhound

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Website covering all aspects of theatre nationally and internationally.