W.H. Auden and “Man of La Mancha”

ImageFun fact: Poet W.H. Auden was the original lyricist for Man of La Mancha.

So what happened? How did one of the 20th century’s greatest writer‘s end up losing his job to Joe Darion, a relative newcomer.

As La Mancha book writer Dale Wasserman recalls in his memoir The Impossible Musical, Auden’s original lyrics – though lovely on the page – were not stage-worthy.

“They were not lyrics,” Wasserman explained. “Some were poems. Some were diatribes, not against the world of Cervantes but the world of today. They made free use of anachronism, which tore the fabric of the play to shreds.”

For comparison’s sake, here’s the beginning of Auden’s “Song of the Quest:”

Once the voice has quietly spoken, every knight
Must ride alone
On the quest appointed him into the unknown.
One to seek the healing waters, one the dark
Tower to assail,
One to find the lost princess, one to find the grail.

Through the wood of evil counsel, through the
Desert of dismay,

Past the pools of pestilence he must find the way.
Hemmed between the haunted marshes and the
Mountains of the dead,

To the valley of regret and the bridge of dread.

What do you think? How do they stack up against Joe Darion’s now-famous lyrics for “The Impossible Dream:”

To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go;
To right the unrightable wrong.
To love, pure and chaste, from afar,
To try, when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star!

We’d love your thoughts. Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.


post by Communications and Education Director Bill D’Agostino

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Director’s Notes on Neil Simon’s HOTEL SUITE


Neil Simon

I caught the Neil Simon bug when I was 13 years old and saw a production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Eugene Jerome, the play’s lead character and narrator, is an adolescent navigating the peculiarities and awkwardness of entering his teens. I sat in the theatre riveted. I was going through all of the same things in my life at the time. I vividly remember laughing heartily and also tearing up, trying desperately to cover up my emotions as I sat next to my father.

After this, I became a student of Neil Simon and his works. As a 13-year-old boy, I didn’t realize and certainly wasn’t able to articulate why I identified with the show so much and why I wanted to familiarize myself with the rest of Simon’s plays.

However, in my preparations to direct Hotel Suite, it has become apparent to me why these plays keep me laughing and why they have such a profound impact on me. I’ve realized that Simon has a great compassion for his fellow human beings. He shows a preference for conventional moral behavior; however, he has great tolerance for moral fallibility. He suggests mutual concession in personal relationships; however, he never punishes those who persist in extreme modes of behavior. Simon captures the human condition in a palpable way unique from any other playwright I’ve read.

When asked how he comes up with the hilarious situations in his plays, Simon responded, “My view is, ‘How sad and funny life is.’ I can’t think of a humorous situation that does not involve some pain.  I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?’ Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?’”

Hotel Suite is the manifestation of Neil Simon’s quirks and strengths. This play pulls its scenes from his previous “Hotel plays:” Plaza Suite (1968), California Suite (1976), and London Suite (1994). It is the perfect mixture of bittersweet comedy and farce. Whether bodies are desperately flying around the stage or whether they’re seated on a sofa talking, we can’t help but see ourselves in them, and then laugh at them and ourselves.

When Director Mike Nichols saw the set that Oliver Smith had designed for the Broadway premiere of Simon’s Plaza Suite, he felt like something was missing. The set was a beautiful, classy, elegant hotel room that looked like a million bucks. Nichols praised the design for all of its grandeur and crispness; however, he thought that something was missing. He turned to Smith and said, “I think this hotel room needs a huge visible crack in one of the walls.” Smith looked at him in shock and said, “What?  A crack, are you crazy?” Nichols responded, “The room should have some sense of the human condition. Sure, everything looks all bright and shiny, but in actuality there is a blemish that we are constantly attempting to cover up.” Smith stared at Nichols for a few seconds and simply responded, “No chance in hell.” Neil Simon chimed in at this point, saying to the director of his show, “Sure Mike, we’ll put a big crack in the wall and then we’ll paint a big arrow pointing towards it with the words ‘this is a metaphor’ next to it.” The crack did not wind up making its way onto the set. Simon later acknowledged that while the crack seemed like it was overkill, he never forgot the idea behind it.

This shows the beauty of working on or watching a Neil Simon play, most especially Hotel Suite: amidst the laughs and crazy circumstances that he creates, at the heart lies a little crack that each one of us recognizes and covers up on a daily basis. This is why we have laughed, do laugh, and will continue to laugh at his plays.

Hotel Suite Director Matt Silva

Neil Simon’s Hotel Suite plays Feb. 18-March 16, 2014 at Act II Playhouse in Ambler
Learn more at www.act2.org.

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Tony Braithwaite on directing “The Twelve Dates of Christmas”

ImageArtistic Director Tony Braithwaite is familiar to Act II audiences for his on-stage performances in My Fair Lady, Didn’t Your Father Have This Talk With You?, Lend Me a Tenor and many other hit shows. For The Twelve Dates of Christmas, which plays Dec. 10 through 29 at Act II, Tony steps backstage into the role of director. We asked Tony a few questions about the play, about directing, and about the show’s star Maggie Lakis.

Why did you want to direct this play?
Twelve Dates is a one-person show, and I have some experience with being in one-person shows as an actor. I’ve also directed a few. Plus, the play contains a lot of direct address and comedic monologues, and my original background is as a stand up comic, which is another skill set I can hopefully draw on for this project. As such, I am hoping I can shed some light for our amazing actress Maggie Lakis. I also wanted to direct the play because it’s super funny. 


Maggie Lakis

What makes Maggie so special for the role?
Maggie has a wealth of experience: comedic, dramatic, musical, puppetry even. She’s as good as it gets. She blew us away at auditions, and “got it” immediately. As director I suspect I may have to do very little except have to play traffic cop. Maggie’s just terrific.

Why will people enjoy it?
It’s funny, festive, candid, disarming, and good light fare for around the holidays, but it also has just a little bit of an edge that makes it even more fun.
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The Elements of Ghostly Style

by Bill D’Agostino, production dramaturg

ImageTo prepare for writing her novella, The Woman in Black, Susan Hill read “a lot of ghost stories to see if I could find common elements,” she told Act II Playhouse in a recent e-mail.

The novelist made a list of the ingredients she discovered, among them:

  • A reason for the ghost to be haunting the place;
  • A narrator who doesn’t believe in ghosts; and
  • A mixture of the familiar, ordinary and everyday – but distorted or made strange.

The Woman in Black was published in 1983, but it wasn’t until it was turned into  a play in 1987 by the late Stephen Mallatratt that it gained fame. Mallatratt was looking for something to adapt as a Christmas show for a theatre in Scarborough, where he was then writer-in-residence. He read Hill’s novella, and had the brilliant idea of transforming it into a play-within-a-play for two actors.

“I thought he was mad,” Hill recalled. “I was wrong.”

Hill had no input on the adaptation “other than to encourage.”  The play is, 25 years later, still running on the West End, making it the second-longest running show in London history (after The Mousetrap). Last year, the novella was turned into a successful movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe (best known for playing Harry Potter).

When asked what she thinks accounts for the story’s continued success, Hill demurred.  “I wish I knew and I`d bottle it,” she wrote. “Dramatic tension and atmosphere I think are key.”

Hill has a new novella, Printer’s Devil Yard, that was just published on Oct. 17. The supernatural is still haunting her.

“It’s a ghost story set in the old Fleet Street area of London – more than that, I won’t say.”

The Woman in Black plays at Act II Playhouse in Ambler from Oct. 29-Nov. 24, 2013. For tickets and information, visit http://www.act2.org or call 215-654-0200.

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“The Woman in Black” – insights from director James J. Christy

Jim Christy

“I’ve never done a ghost story before. It’s an intriguing form because it plays with latent fears in our imagination and gives us the opportunity to explore what these unknown things are that scare us in our nights and in our nightmares, but knowing that we’re going to get off free because it’s just a story.”

“The book (by Susan Hill) is quite beautifully written. It’s got a lovely style that is a little late-19th century English, but relatively easy to read. She has descriptions of the landscape that are truly gorgeous and mysterious. It’s this marsh-like landscape that is foggy and beautiful. And then there’s this house standing out way out the other side of the water that is separated by a causeway that gets covered with water. So the whole thing is very beautiful and mysterious, but in a weird/scary/empty/wet/marshy kind of way. So it becomes very intriguing to your imagination.”

“One of the things I want to explore in the play is the hero’s attraction to that place. He goes to it just as to a job but something gets him about the place.  Even though he stays to do his job, it seems as if he wants to get to the heart of the thing. The idea of how we get into a fantasy of fear through a kind of attraction/repulsion really interests me a great deal. And there’s a lot of that in the piece.”

This is an angry ghost. This one feels like a pagan ghost who is going to do what she needs to do. She was done a terrible wrong; a terrible, terrible thing has been done to her. But she’s going to extract the maximum vengeance. It seems that her appetite for vengeance is insatiable. That feels like the Furies … once you have let a certain amount of energy out of the bag, it’s never going to give up.

“Her anger has become a part of the place’s ecology. If you live in that area, if you contact that area, her spirit will be there. And then if you see her, you’ve got problems.”

The Woman in Black plays at Act II Playhouse in Ambler from Oct. 29-Nov. 24, 2013. For tickets and information, visit http://www.act2.org or call 215-654-0200.

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New Act II Play is “Right On”

ted t (1)by Ted Taylor
Professor Business Communications, Chestnut Hill College
Act II Board Member
Author, The Glenside Kid 

Tony Braithwaite’s new play at Act II Didn’t Your Father Have This Talk with You? is right on the money. It is especially appropriate for anyone who ever stood in the front of a class and looked out on a sea of anxious, if sometimes clueless, faces.

Now in my fourth decade as an educator – classroom teacher for at least half of that – I understand the nuances and the innocence of students who are trying to make sense of their lives.

While I never taught religion and sex ed (I did teach phys ed for awhile) I get how the personal aspects of learning about sex could, of course, trump everything else. This would be especially true for young males.

In junior high we got our sex ed out of books – like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” for example. Handed around from guy-to-guy this book automatically flopped open to the good part (which ran just a few pages). “Peyton Place” was another sex ed vehicle, and it, too, explored the seamy side of sexuality. We wondered, was there another side? Kids in those days had a hard time picturing Mom and Dad “doing it.”

We had classes in health and hygiene and they were about as sanitary as could be. Sex? It never came up. I knew kids in their early teens who still believed in the stork.

Like Tony, I keep track of the goofy things that happen – student-to-teacher. A few would include a recent class where I had a student simply get up and leave, saying “I got to go.” When I asked them, the following week, why they hadn’t cleared the early departure with me before class the answer came, “Well, I was late so I couldn’t ask you.” So the excuse for leaving early was coming late. You can’t make this stuff up.

Opening day of classes in a three story building a new student approached me and wondered on what floor Room 304 would be found. I took a wild guess and said, “The third floor.” The kid smiled and thanked me.

A year ago we had to move my class from one building to another – for just one class – because of a heating problem. The sign on the door said, “For tonight only we’ll be in Room 311 in Martino Hall.”  For the next three weeks one student kept showing up at the Martino Hall location, hanging around for a half hour, then going home. He figured no one else was coming.

I had a student get up and walk out of class – I assumed he was going to the men’s room – and then return ten minutes later carrying a steaming bowl of chili. Stunned I asked, “What’s this all about?” he replied, “I was hungry.” He and the bowl of chili got exiled to the hallway.

Higher education is the only commodity where you pay for something and then are thrilled when you don’t have to do it. A snow flurry in winter starts my phone ringing hours before class wondering if school is cancelled. When I tell them I have no clue, but I plan to be there unless there is a blizzard they are disappointed.

I give L’s for being late (you get 15 minutes) and O’s for failing to be prepared in class or fail to turn something in. If you get four or fewer during the semester your class participation grade is an A. A semester ago a kid got 36 of them; guess what their participation grade was?

One kid came in a half hour late for the second class – we had moved, permanently to a larger classroom. She said, “Am I gonna be marked late? Cuz if I am I’m leavin’.” When I said she got a pass for that night because of the change in rooms she decided to stay. I’m not so sure that was a good thing.

Being a teacher is no day in the park, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had. You get to work with people. You get to help them become more than they are. The rewards are many, but the best one comes when a successful student takes the time to thank you for being there for them.

Tony gets it in the play; teacher’s everywhere get it too.

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“A Little Bit of Everything” ~ Memories from Our Summer Intern

redcarpetMy name is Samantha and I had the wonderful experience of being an intern at Act II Playhouse this past summer. I am a rising sophomore at Northwestern University, majoring in Theatre and Political Science. Although I now go to school outside Chicago, I spent most of my life living in Ambler where I was lucky enough to have been able to attend a number of productions at Act II over the years. Thus when I decided to search for an internship for the summer, naturally I thought to check out the theater down the street where I had even grown to know and love some of the repeat performers (one being, of course, Tony Braithwaite, now Act II’s Artistic Director).

When I interviewed for the position, I was told that there wasn’t necessarily a precise job description — an intern here could be doing anything from researching the history of upcoming productions to taking calls in the Box Office. And that’s what I’ve done — a little bit of everything. I did research on Spanish puppetry, put together a glossary for next season’s Man of La Mancha, became a pro (or at least fairly competent) at selling tickets with Total Info, helped build a set, took notes on rehearsals, distributed marketing material to local businesses, observed meetings, and completed other odd jobs all in the name and spirit of theatre.

Act II Playhouse is like a child prodigy. (Bear with me.) It may be small and unintimidating upon first glance, but its inner workings are perpetually ablaze with wit and thoughtfulness and passion. Because the Playhouse is small inside and out, the staff is able to treat everybody — co-workers, theatergoers, cast members — with personal attention and care. Everyone is dedicated and creative and smart. During my first week here, I was invited to sit in on a staff meeting and a production meeting. It was incredibly exciting for me to experience these meetings at the professional level and to listen to seasoned professionals discuss professional matters. But rather than the strict, business-like environment that is often associated with the word “professional,” I was pleased to find myself in the friendly, familial atmosphere that was Act II Playhouse.

During my first couple weeks as an intern, Act II kicked off its “Summer Flings” with an improv show called Just Wingin’ It. I sat in on rehearsals for a few days before asking if I could be of any help to the stage manager, and consequently assisting her for the run of the show, as well as for the third production of the “Summer Flings” series. By not being assigned to one department as as intern, as I likely would be at a larger theater, I was given the invaluable opportunity to learn a little bit about what it’s like to work in a variety of positions. By being assigned to a wide array of tasks, I was able to get a feel for the myriad duties that a professional theater has and add several new skills to my arsenal.

At the end of my freshman year of college, I had been introduced to so many ideas about theatre and about how it exists in the world, as well as to other subjects unrelated to art that interested me, and I was truly feeling somewhat unsure of my choice to pursue a life in the theatre. I still felt the passion that had always driven me, but for some reason I found the light dimming, perhaps in the face of a number of new interests, or perhaps due to a general uncertain feeling that may accompany many students’ freshman years. Regardless of what it was, at the end of the summer, after being surrounded by adults who have dedicated much of their lives to theatre whose passion is still blindingly bright after so many years, it would have been hard to not be inspired by my time at Act II Playhouse.

Know a student or former student interested in interning with Act II Playhouse? We are now accepting resumes for our fall 2013 internship. Learn more.

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