the transformative power of live theater


An Academy Salute To Noël Coward – Huzzah!

Last year A2, The Antaeus Academy,  presented a wonderful weekend celebrating Noël Coward thanks to the generous grant awarded by  The Noël Coward Society .  The Young Idea played to audiences of all ages and immersed A2 into the world of “The Master.”  This year, we had the great honor to find out about An Academy Salute to Noël Coward before tickets were sold out.

Yes, Noël Coward still sells out the houses.  Stephen Fry hosting the whole evening didn’t hurt, either.

Star Quality: The World of Noël Coward was an extensive collection of well-known photographs and unique souvenirs: night slippers embroidered with Noël Coward across them, and a green carnation from an opening night, for instance.  Probably the most extraordinary items were found directly on the walls- they showed home movies from the late 20’s and 30’s of Coward’s stage plays.  This was obviously well before union regulations of such things!  I stood for about five minutes with a friendly gent as we tried to guess which play we were watching.

I met a few members of The Noël Coward Society, lead a few of the Antaeus group to our seats (wonderfully reserved by the West Coast Liason of The NCS and all-around wonderful friend, Kathy Williams).  Then–Stephen Fry!  What an amazing host.  He set a beautiful tone of happiness at the night ahead.  He also took us down a reverent and funny path, with quips like: “I discovered him [Coward] when I was about ten in the attic.”  There were too many of those funny lines for me to remember, but they were incredibly entertaining.

Then L.A. Theatre Works presented two short Coward pieces directed by Antaeus regular Brendon Fox: Design For Rehearsing (a sketch based on the Lunts’ inability to leave their on-stage life on the stage, and Age Cannot Wither.  As is LATW’s niche, they recorded the performances for the radio and posterity, complete with foley sound effects.  Stephen Fry offered the inside track, though; he told the audience to laugh hysterically at an in appropriate place and we can secure posterity in this recording for the rest of our lives.  (“Hey, Mom!  That’s my obnoxious laugh!”)

A special treat for the Coward crowd — Juliet Mills, goddaughter of Coward and daughter of Coward collaborator John Mills.  Her father was the first to call Coward “The Master”.  It turns out that Juliet’s screen debut was as a baby in In Which We Serve, which received waves of approval and laughter from the audience.  You may also know her sister, Hayley Mills.

Of course the shows were great fun, as they always are, in no short way because of Antaeus Company member Susan SullivanJoBeth Williams and Juliet Mills’ performances.

Then a rare treat: a filmed interview between Stephen Fry and Ronald Neame, who will turn 100 next week.  It was incredibly fun, and revealed some new stories that had the audience rolling.  Neame explained how David Lean, known for his directing, was also in the wardrobe department.

FRY: “Oh, really?  He was in wardro-”

NEAME: “Fired.”

FRY: (stifling a laugh without knowing the punch line) “Oh?”

NEAME: “Wrong trousers.”

I have no idea why that was so funny to us at the time, but all of us in the audience just about died.

And I hope the Academy shows that video again, because Stephen Fry did the most amazing impersonation of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, a tragically optimistic story in the history of tragic stories.

Then we settled in for the main attraction: a restored film of  Calvacade.  When produced on-stage, Noël Coward directed 400 actors! Plus the main characters alone total at least twenty.  No wonder no one can recall seeing the play in an age where five characters cost a theater too much to produce; not Antaeus though-see our website for more details on our ensemble-driven productions.

The movie was just fascinating. As a history nerd, I completely indulged in how major historical events and technological advances changed people’s ways of life, and changed people.  I marveled once again at how  relevant Coward’s material is.  For all the foils, victories and defeats of the British Empire, America could stand to learn from the past.  One line stands out from the entire movie, when the father consoles his wife about his going to the Boer Wars: “We have to have wars now and then to prove we’re the top dog.”

Altogether, a wonderful evening, both entertaining and emotionally devastating during the movie.  I never spoke to so many strangers in one evening before that night; it was sure nice to be around friendly people just looking to have a fun time!

This exhibit will be closed by the time you read this blog post, but The Young Idea returns this summer as part of ClassicsFest 2010!  Stay tuned.

More about The Young Idea can be found by following the blog tags attached to this article.

Cindy Marie Jenkins was a producer on the 2009 weekend The Young Idea and recently directed A2 in their March late-night.

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