Actors Retreat To Shakespearean Haven

Deep in Wisconsin is a midsummer night's dream. The home of late theater legends now welcomes actors to refresh their art under the guidance of today's biggest Shakespearean stars. Guest host Jacki Lyden visits Ten Chimneys to watch the Bard reborn.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Before her death this past May at age 67, the actress Lynn Redgrave made a commitment: She'd return to southern Wisconsin, to Ten Chimneys, the home of two of America's greatest theater stars - Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. There she spent a week teacher a Shakespeare master class to regional actors chosen by companies from around the country. It would've been Redgrave's second time doing this at Ten Chimneys.

Mr. SHAWN MALONE (President, Ten Chimneys Foundation): So this is Barry Edelstein, who is our master teacher for the year. This is Jaclyn Williams...

LYDEN: On a bus bringing this year's nine acting fellows to Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, Shawn Malone, president of the Ten Chimneys Foundation, made introductions.

Stepping in after Lynn Redgrave's death is Barry Edelstein, one of the leading Shakespearians in the United States. He oversees Shakespeare in New York's Central Park and directs the Shakespeare program at the Public Theater.

Mr. BARRY EDELSTEIN (Actor): When I heard about this opportunity to work with really master actors - I mean, these are people who are playing the great Shakespearian roles in their cities - I thought, well, if I can get to know them and if I can hear what's on their mind and hear their concerns a little bit, you know, maybe facilitate some sort of think-tank about what it means to be doing Shakespeare in the American theater, then I'm not only making a contribution to the field but I'm enhancing my own work and the work of the public theater as well - and it's a nice place to hang out for a week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: And that's not so bad.

LYDEN: Ten Chimneys was created with love(ph), elegance and whimsy in the decades between the '20s and '40s. Fontanne was born in England, but Alfred Lunt was a local boy. Foundation President Shawn Malone explains what the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program is all about.

Mr. MALONE: Once you are at a certain level of experience, of craft, of work that you're doing, there are so few, if any, opportunities for retreat and rejuvenation and inspiration, and we wanted to provide that. I mean, that's what Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne provided for their pals - for Larry Olivier and Noel Coward and Helen Hayes and Kate Hepburn and Carol Channing. But that's what Ten Chimneys was created to be.

LYDEN: The beauty here is as simple as it is stunning. All the rooms of the great house are decorated with interior scenes. The out buildings are made of stone and timber - gardens abound. Andrew Long is a visiting actor from Washington's Shakespeare Theater Company.

Mr. ANDREW LONG (Actor): This is an amazing place and it's remarkable to me that this place managed to avoid the bulldozer. And we're being spoiled rotten and we're being given the time to kind of reflect in a way where there's no tick-tock of a clock that's kind of pressing us to a result.

LYDEN: You have some notes here. (Unintelligible) are you journaling this morning or what's going on?

Mr. LONG: Well, we were going to look at sonnets this afternoon, so I took notes about which ones are speaking to me in some way and I kind of settled on one and wanted to write it out freehand and write some of my own notes in the margins.

LYDEN: What have you chosen?

Mr. LONG: What number is it? Number 147. The first line is my love as a fever, which kind of stopped me. I just kind of kept looking at it.

LYDEN: What's the second line?

Mr. LONG: My love is as a fever longing still for that which longer nurseth a disease.

LYDEN: That afternoon in the drawing room of the main house, Edelstein gathered the nine actors to listen to their sonnets. Here's Larry Yando from Chicago's Shakespeare Theater Company with Sonnet 57.

Mr. LARRY YANDO (Actor: So truthful is love that in your will, though you do anything, he thinks no ill.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: OK. Great. All right. Now, here's what's interesting about that, right? So, a lot of subtext going on there...

LYDEN: Edelstein works with these actors on everything, from their phrasing to stressing Shakespeare's verbs(ph) to inhabiting the roles. He came out here from a busy summer in New York because his goal is to once again make Shakespeare an indispensable part of American culture.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: There was a period in American life - you know, De Tocqueville talks about traveling around the United States, and in every house - I can't remember the exact line - but it basically is something like from the most exalted mansion to the tiniest shack he found two books - a Bible and a complete works of Shakespeare. And that, I have to say with some regret, seems to have vanished a little bit from our society. The notion that you cannot be a civilized person without some kind of acquaintance with William Shakespeare and his works is not at the center of American life anymore.

LYDEN: Over and over during the week, he had the actors read words of humiliation, pride, love and longing. Shakespeare, he says, puts people in impossible positions they cannot resolve.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: A sentence at a time - we'll hear a new voice at every sentence, OK?

Unidentified Man #1: Thy spirit within thee has been so at war...

Unidentified Woman #1: ...and thus has so bestirred thee in they sleep...

Unidentified Woman #2: ...the beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow...

Unidentified Man #2: ...like bubbles in a late disturbed stream.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: OK. What do you think?

LYDEN: I like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of water splashing)

LYDEN: The actors also relaxed. They play croquet. There was a lot of swimming naked in the pool. Noel Coward used to do that here - running in the buff all the way to the pool from the kitchen. A number of people did some skinny-dipping this year, but we won't name names - directly.

Unidentified Woman #3: Being at Ten Chimneys in this environment and learning about the Lunts and how they lived and loved, you know, it really reflects the life beyond just the work.

LYDEN: Celeste Ciulla was representing the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

Ms. CIULLA: It's the opulence here without being pretentious, without being -you know, it was for their friends. It was just so they would enjoy it. It's not pretension, its not, you know, it's just everything I respect and love and admire.

LYDEN: Yeah.

Ms. CIULLA: And I've learned that it was once possible and I can't help thinking that it is still possible.

LYDEN: Acting is art, part of life's beauty and redemption - so it's vital, says Edelstein, that actors remember that.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Actors rarely get the opportunity to step off the treadmill. They jump from one job to another. So many of the actors, for example, that are working in Shakespeare in the Park this year are on their Monday off in a studio recording a book on tape.

It's just a tough life to really put together until you're at that vaunted movie star level. But for the middle-class actor, as it were, it's a grind to make ends meet. And so the art itself is what often gets pushed out.

Im incredibly grateful that the Ten Chimneys Foundation has made this space. And seriously, it's the kind of thing that I think, well, if our American Shakespeare theater is going to have a future, it's got to have actors who are constantly recharging their batteries and working on their skills. Or, you know, 10 years from now who are we going to cast?

LYDEN: On the last night of the Ten Chimneys experience, Edelstein and the actors gave a public workshop for a live audience of patrons. Bob Davis from the Guthrie Theater read from "A Winter's Tale," along with Laura Gordon from the Milwaukee Rep.

Mr. BOB DAVIS (Actor): in whose easiest passage look for no less than death.

Ms. LAURA GORDON (Actor): Sir, spare your threats. The bug which you would fright me with I seek. To me can life be no commodity...

LYDEN: Larry Yando finished up with a scene from "The Merchant of Venice."

(Soundbite of play, "The Merchant of Venice")

Mr. LARRY YANDO (Actor): (as Shylock) Another time you called me dog, and for these courtesies Ill lend you thus much moneys?

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Good. Great.

(Soundbite of applause)

LYDEN: It seems likely that Lunt and Fontanne would have approved of these summer rebels. And there are stories that support this.

Last summer, one of the visiting actors, Mary Beth Fisher of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, waved farewell to the house as she drove away.

Ms. MARY BETH FISHER (Actor): And I rolled my window down and stuck my hand out of the car and waved and said, bye, Lynn. Bye, Alfred, I had a great time. And I literally saw the curtain pull back like that, like somebody had waved, and Shaun(ph) said there was no in the house. It had been locked up. And I really saw that.

LYDEN: But of course there is great presence at Ten Chimneys.

The actors scattered back to their bases across the country, and Barry Edelstein returned to New York to attend a performance by another of his actors. He coached Al Pacino for his role as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" this summer, by taking him to Brooklyn synagogues to hear the cadences of prayer and an American twist on Shylock's speech.

Mr. AL PACINO (Actor): And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

LYDEN: "The Merchant of Venice" will move to Broadway this fall. Next year, Olympia Dukakis will come to Ten Chimneys to do Chekhov for the Lunt Fontanne Fellowship Program. The idea is to keep the Lunts and their legacy in American theater alive. And in doing that, Ten Chimneys has established its own midsummer's dream.

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