A Grove Talk Speaker Is Born

Box Office Manager Robin Dolan blogs about doing her first-ever Grove Talk, for Blithe Spirit.

I’ve always wanted to do a grove talk: I’m one of those odd people who love public speaking; I also love an excuse to research and share knowledge. Last year I’d expressed this wish to Philippa Kelly, our resident dramaturg. When one of our speakers needed time off in August, Philippa offered me the opportunity for me to speak for Blithe Spirit. I was thrilled.

Noel Coward and friends

Coward on February 2, 1939, drinking a toast with famous friends on the liner Monterey, on which he sailed from Los Angeles harbor for Pago Pago. Left to right, Ray Bolger, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, Coward, and Michael Brooke, the Earl of Warwick.

I attended a family reunion in an English country manor in June—the perfect place to begin my research. I brought with me Clive Fisher’s bio Noël Coward, as well as Coward’s first autobiography, Present Indicative. I couldn’t finish the Fisher book, because it seemed obvious to me that he didn’t like Coward. He painted a picture of the writer as self-centered and fake. But then Coward’s autobiography seemed to reinforce that, being artfully written, but, well, focused on himself. I remembered I owned a collection of Coward’s letters; these opened the door to the real man. Coward’s letters are playful and engaging, and express a real connection to the people in his life. I was fascinated to learn that he corresponded with both George Bernard Shaw and Harold Pinter.

Back at the library, I found a CD of Coward singing some of his repertoire. His sweet, sincere voice won me over. I discovered The Noël Coward Collection on Netflix, where the first of seven DVDs has fantastic interviews with Coward, clips of his cabaret act in Las Vegas, and scholars talking about his life—a real treasure. I’m now reading Remembered Laughter: The Life of Noël Coward by Cole Lesley. Lesley worked as an assistant to Coward for three decades, and shares hilarious stories from around the home, all in a respectful, loving way. Like most theater people, Coward and the people in his life loved to quote lines from shows and to repeat amusing things said by friends. Being someone who knew everyone, his friends were especially funny, such as when he took a train ride with Gertrude Lawrence, Marlene Dietrich, and Katharine Hepburn. They all compared notes on who had gotten the biggest gift from a fan. (Lawrence won, having been given a yacht.)

Philippa asked me to do a practice talk with her, and we met out at the theater. Philippa was wonderfully encouraging, but suggested I emphasize a couple of facts. I also practiced at home, which must have been entertaining to my neighbors who could overhear me—there’s an Oakland School of the Arts theater student across the hall, so they’re probably used to it.

I did my first talk Wednesday, and I think it went well. People laughed at the Coward quotes I included, and I think I shared a lot of good information. On e thing I regret: I was embarrassed to not know the answer to a patron’s question, and have since found the answer and hope to avoid that recurrence. To answer Wednesday’s question, Coward directed the original West End production of Blithe Spirit, but never performed in the play on the London stage or Broadway. He played Charles Condomine in a 1942 English touring production. Additionally, he directed and performed in a 1956 TV film of the play, also starring Lauren Bacall and Claudette Colbert; the latter’s interpretation of Ruth drove Coward mad.

The note cards are written for the rest of my talks, but I continue to read Cole Lesley’s book because it’s so enjoyable. I also keep finding new fascinating facts about him. Come on out to listen at the Bruns on August 18, 22, and 28–30, and I’ll share some with you.

Listen to podcasts from previous Cal Shakes productions here. [link to http://www.calshakes.org/v4/info/discover_behindthescenes_podcasts.html]

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One Response to A Grove Talk Speaker Is Born

  1. philippa kelly says:

    Robin, I love this story! Hello from Australia…

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