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The gift of time and trust: top actors hone their accomplishments in the haven of Ten Chimneys.

NAOMI JACOBSON IS SURROUNDED BY A CLUSTER of fellow actors as she performs a soliloquy from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. "The crown o' the earth doth melt ..." she laments with deep bin stately sadness. As the monologue ends Jacobson breaks character takes a deep breath and entertains a suggestion from a colleague: What if someone were trying to keep Cleopatra away from Antony's body? A silent actor joins the scene and it begins again. This time the deep longing turns frantic as Jacobson's Cleopatra struggles physically to get to the side of her beloved. The physical tension unleashes breathtaking reserves of emotion and when the scene ends Jacobson's colleagues burst into heartfelt applause.

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So do 300 others seated in the audience at the Lunt-Fontanne Program Center in southeastern Wisconsin observers of a moment that has gone far beyond the typical acting-class exercise. The actors who have assembled here during this July week--including Jacobson a regular at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. and her silent scene partner Step-penwolf Theatre Company of Chicago's Francis Guinan--are among the most respected performers in America. On stage with them is British acting legend Lynn Redgrave who has spent the past week gently encouraging exactly this kind of gutsy exploration of well-trod Shakespearean roles and speeches.

The event is a showcase for the first Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship a new initiative by the 13-year-old Ten Chimneys Foundation created so that experienced actors from around the country can share their craft and explore their ideas without the typical constrictions of rehearsal and production schedules. As the program looks ahead to its second year it's clear the fellowship has meshed confidently with the spirit of its namesakes Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne the pioneering creators of the lavishly designed and meticulously restored Ten Chimneys Estate in Genesee Depot Wise.

"I'll never forget this experience" enthuses Redgrave taking a break from the Shakespeare workshops that formed the backbone of the week. "These are all actors of great accomplishment. It's unheard of for such a group to all be together." The selection process began with a group of 10 regional theatres from around the country. Each theatre nominated three actors and the foundation selected one. Next year 10 different theatres will get the nod and a new cadre of actors will be selected in early spring 2010. It was recently announced that Redgrave will return as master teacher.

This year's fellows echoed Redgrave's enthusiasm particularly for the unique freedom of the work environment. Here was a week in which a group of actors could become selfishly devoted to themselves--stretch into roles and speeches they've always wanted to try ask to play a scene again without fear of a director's wrath or simply step back from a competitive and stressful work schedule to reflect upon their careers and their art. Participant Lee Ernst nominated by Milwaukee Repertory Theater says the greatest gift of the week was the message it sent: In a culture that all too often treats the arts and artists as expendable or interchangeable he says the fellowship was a gesture that proclaimed loudly "We deserve this."

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YOU MIGHT SAY IT WAS A PROGRAM eight decades in the making. It was in 1924 that the Lunts made their landmark decision to sign with the Theatre Guild the pioneering New York company that brought a model of European art theatres to the U.S. In doing so America's two leading stage actors separated themselves from commercial Broadway (and from Hollywood as well--their film appearances were rare) and committed themselves to a life of serious sometimes experimental theatre--and much lower wages. They also signed on to a lifetime of unemployed summers since the Guild's season ran from September to .May. Years earlier an inheritance from Lunt's father had enabled him to purchase 60 acres of land in Genesee Depot a small town 30 miles west of Milwaukee where he'd built a house for his mother and sisters. Now Alfred and Lynn began to visit more often staying on the grounds in a converted chicken coop. Eventually they turned the property into a summer retreat meticulously reworking the main house and adding a Swedish-style log cabin that would become a studio and gathering place. By the mid-1930s Ten Chimneys (yes you can count them) became a sort of off-season sanctuary for both the Lunts and for luminaries of the theatre world: Alexander Woollcott Laurence Olivier Noel Coward Uta Hagen and Helen Hayes were among the regulars.

After the couple's deaths (he in 1977 she in 1983) the estate fell into disrepair and almost fell victim to the developer's wrecking ball. But in 1996 a Madison entrepreneur and arts advocate Joe Garton stepped in to stage a dramatic Belasco-style rescue. In a few short years the Ten Chimneys Foundation had raised $12.5 million to completely restore the property and open it (in 2003) to the public. More than a museum the Lunt-Fontanne Program Center offers facilities to host conferences and workshops.

At one such event--a 2006 gathering of Wisconsin-based actors--Laura Gordon a Ten Chimneys board member and longtime member of Milwaukee "Rep's resident acting company asked a simple question: "Where do the mentors go to be mentored?" For foundation president Sean Malone that query became the seed of the organization's most ambitious and nationally visible program.

"The program developed organically" notes Malone pointing to the foundation's focus on mentorship from its beginnings. That after all is the role the Lunts played in the life of such actors as Olivier and Montgomery Clift. Like the informal summer gatherings readings and dinners that had echoed through the estate in decades past the fellowship would provide time and space for growth and rejuvenation for what Malone calls "the best of the best" of American theatre practitioners.

It is an idea the actors in the program will tell you whose time has come. While retreats and workshops for writers composers and visual artists are mainstays of the arts landscape such opportunities for mid-career actors are rare. "We talked about models for the fellowship when we first got together" says Jacobson during a break following her Cleopatra scene "and there was nothing. There really is nothing like it."

Surprising but true. While opportunities for actor training are ubiquitous in America there seems to be an assumption that mid-career actors keep their art alive and their faculties tuned through work alone--the rehearsals and performances that constitute their professional life. But a retreat like this offers the chance to be free from the pressure of "going on with the show." And for these experienced actors it offers the luxury of working with peers of equal skill and accomplishment. "Here there's no way to hide behind a booming voice or pull out your bag of tricks" confesses Dan Donohue a longtime company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival of Ashland. "I knew that all of these actors would see that and know the difference--so I had to go to a place of honesty."

The estate's legacy as an energizing retreat is not lost on the fellows. "It's like being in an environment where stepping back from the work is actually part of the work itself" Donohue reasons. "It's an inspiring place that somehow reverberates with the intention of the people who lived there before. They used that place in the same way we do--to refuel to be inspired to become rejuvenated."

As a Wisconsin-based actor Milwaukee Rep's Ernst has lived close to the Lunt legacy and sensed the connection even before he arrived. Prior to his 17 seasons at the Rep Ernst worked with American Players Theatre in Spring Green Wise. The Lunts were profound influences on APT's founders and its artistic director Randall Duk Kim who embraced the meticulous naturalism and attention to detail--overlapping dialogue and all--that the Lunts cultivated.

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Even more important to Ernst and his colleagues the actor says was the famous couple's "passion for theatre."

"They could be extremely selfless at times" Ernst points out summarizing some of the reading he did before arriving at Ten Chimneys. "But they also would stand fast and be adamant about their philosophies--that's what led to their 'seclusion' and their commitment to the stage rather than film."

Lynn Redgrave was a perfect fit to lead the first fellowship workshop. While her name and professional reputation might tend to be a little intimidating her easy manner with the actors created an environment suited to honest work and collaboration. She also has an interesting connection to Ten Chimneys. When her parents Michael and Lady Redgrave were living in London during World War II Fontanne called to invite them to stay at Ten Chimneys as a refuge from the Blitz. Lady Redgrave declined the offer even though she was pregnant. But in honor of Fontanne's generosity she named her daughter Lynn.

Today Lynn Redgrave is able to point to the exact chair in the corner of the Ten Chimneys library where Fontanne sat when she called Lady Redgrave with the wartime offer. "I have a history here" the actress says with a smile.

Despite her years of experience Redgrave's approach to performance is more intuitive than scholarly. "I've no formal academic training in Shakespeare" she admits of her chosen material for the workshop "but I grew up hearing it. I grew up seeing great actors do it and I've done some myself. And in my years of teaching I found that I have the lucky quirk of being able to somehow unlock a little door for actors.

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"I don't have a preconceived idea of how a role should be played" she goes on to say. "I just want to see what they do and as I'm watching ideas come: What if you were to do this? Or fight against this? Sometimes it's a physical thing. The physicality of what you do--how you do it--does affect how you speak."

IT SOUNDS SIMPLE AND MODEST but watching Redgrave's "quirk" in action is a remarkable experience. On a bright Thursday morning during the July retreat arrayed against a huge window overlooking the wooded grounds a group of fellows works on some of the monologues they have selected.

Jack Willis a company member at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater who professes little experience with Shakespeare erupts into a passage from Romeo and Juliet right from the chair where he's quietly observed the work so far. As Capulet he warns Juliet about the risks of her budding outlaw romance and directs his lines without warning to fellow Suzanne Bouchard (representing Seattle Repertory Theatre) who deftly picks up the cues and listens in character.

"Your wrath is so appalling" Redgrave observes after Willis finishes. "We laugh out of nervousness." The scene leads to a conversation about parent-child relationships. Ernst tells a story about his own daughter and the conversation coalesces into a question that becomes the essence of the speech: "When do you let a child go?"

Mary Beth Fisher a Chicago-based actor representing the Goodman Theatre is up next with Gertrude's speech from Hamlet describing Ophelia's death. Questions pop back and forth between segments of the passage: "I've often thought" Redgrave wonders "why didn't Gertrude intervene? It's odd that she describes how Ophelia died in so much detail." Others discuss the character's interior battle between self-control and overwhelming grief. Finally Redgrave describes her memory of calling friends to tell them about the recent death of her niece Natasha Richardson. "I tried to talk about the accident in the most ordinary terms" she tells the actors. "And then emotion would break in--I couldn't help it. When you're talking about something really terrible perhaps you try to tell it in an ordinary voice but the emotion is going to break out at some point." She looks at Fisher with a quiet smile: "But I wouldn't dream of suggesting where that might be."

Reflecting on these sessions the group of 10 inaugural fellows--which also includes Jon Gentry (nominated by Arizona Theatre Company) Donald Griffin (Atlanta's Alliance Theatre) and Kim Staunton (Denver Center Theatre Company)--speak of the acuity of Redgrave's comments and the excellence of their peers. But most of all they speak of the great luxuries of the fellowship: time and trust.

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"Sometimes I could sense people expanding right before my eyes" says Jacobson. "People went out on limbs and watched others go out on limbs and they weren't shy about the confrontation. It was mesmerizing to watch."

"By day three some of the most extraordinary work started happening" confirms Donohue. "We all had a certain amount of fear in anticipation of what it would be like to step up in front of these people. Fear can be your friend because it can launch you into something brave but it can also get in the way. All the best kind of work comes from a place of fearlessness."

Indeed moments of fearlessness erupted again and again in the intimacy of the Ten Chimneys rehearsal rooms. Jacobson's Cleopatra moment in front of that lucky audience of 300 was only one of many tightrope-walking moments over the course of the week.

"I had no idea what it was going to be like" Jacobson recalls of that particular scene a few weeks after the fellowship. "I just let myself be raw and vulnerable and uncertain. And when they added the actor [to restrain Cleopatra] it was wonderful. He was holding me and it felt like he was not going to let me fall. That's what the whole week felt like--these people are not going to let me fall."

Paul Kosidowski is an arts writer and critic based in Milwaukee.
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Title Annotation:CURRENTS; Ten Chimneys Foundation
Author:Kosidowski, Paul
Publication:American Theatre
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
Words:2275
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