Blithe Spirit and the Spirits

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly on the Spiritualist movement and the origin of the word “ghost.”

Melissa Smith as Mrs.Bradman, Anthony Fusco as Charles Condomine, Domenique Lozano as Madame Arcati, René Augesen as Ruth Condomine, and Kevin Rolston as Dr. Bradman; photo by Kevin Berne.

From left: Melissa Smith as Mrs.Bradman, Anthony Fusco (partially obscured) as Charles Condomine, Domenique Lozano as Madame Arcati, René Augesen as Ruth Condomine, and Kevin Rolston as Dr. Bradman; photo by Kevin Berne.

Where did Coward get his interest in Spiritualism? Most importantly (and this information is supplied by Cal Shakes’ own Robin Dolan), Coward had a housekeeper who was a Spiritualist. She would “find” items all over Coward’s house that had been left or moved by the spirits. And, perhaps apocryphally, Coward also owed his interest in Spiritualism to his mother, Violet, who is said to have consulted a medium in 1910. Violet was thrilled to be told by a medium that her son was going to have a “wonderful career.” And in a broader context, Spiritualism had crossed the Atlantic from America at the turn of the century. By the 1940s it was a voguish mark of pleasurable upper middle-class eccentricity. Hence in Blithe Spirit we see Charles Condamine organizing a séance, on the pretext of his upcoming novel, as a bit of informative fun. But, as we find out, “fun” in this play turns out to be an ambiguous concept…

While on the subject of ghosts, you may like to know the origin of the word. Originating from the words, “gast” and “geist” (breath, spirit), ghosts beckon from the afterlife, alluding to unfinished business left on earth. In the 16th century “gast” became semiotically entwined with “ghastly,” while our contemporary “ghosts” commonly inhabit not only the physical space of figures who slip unseen between walls and onto stages, but also the lexical space of the psychological.

Blithe Spirit, on our stage now through September 2, 2012.


Blithe Spirit Grove Talk

Click on the arrow below to listen to a podcast of a pre-performance Blithe Spirit Grove Talk, presented by Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Podcast produced by Will McCandless. Blithe Spirit runs through September 2, 2012.


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]


Igniting a Spark

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly offers more contextual information on the writing of Blithe Spirit, on our stage now through September 2, 2012.

Noel Coward visits the orphanage

Coward visiting the Actors Orphanage, Chertsey, Surrey, where he was president, 1939. He arranged for all the children to be evacuated to New York the following year for the remainder of the war.

Despite its having nothing to do with war, Noël Coward very much saw Blithe Spirit as a war effort, designed to lift the spirits of the London public. By 1941, he had been intensely involved with the war effort for the whole of the previous two years (thus spending two entire years away from his typewriter). He had been excused from most of World War I on medical grounds, and had gladly pursued his professional and social ambitions, ending that war as London’s darling. But by the time of World War II he had grown up, and had a real sense of patriotism. He served for a brief time as a secret agent in Paris and entertained the allied troops in Europe, Africa, and the Far East, often covering his travel expenses himself; he also made trips to America, to try to persuade the Americans to join the war. Soon after staging Blithe Spirit, he would go on to write This Happy Breed, a play explicitly imbued with nationalist fervor.

By the time he sat down to write Blithe Spirit, Coward was in a whirl of creativity— he wrote it within five days! He set the play back in the 1930s, in Kent, where he himself had a house. During the war period Kent was actually deeply immersed in the war effort, with planes flying constantly overhead and inducing evacuations of women and children to safer parts of England. But in the ’30s, due to a massive renovation of England’s public rail system, Kent had been prized as an upper-middle-class urban idyll, pleasurably removed from the noise and bustle of London and yet easily accessible to it by rail for reasons of work, theater, and upmarket shopping.

After writing Blithe Spirit, Coward sat back and said “This is the best comedy I’ve ever written.” He changed only two lines of the initial draft before the play hit the boards on July 2, 1941. It opened to 1997 consecutive performances, breaking West End box office records.

Read the Blithe Spirit program and many more articles about our Main Stage productions at



Blithely Run: Blithe Spirit Rehearsal Blog August 2

The following was written by Marketing & PR Manager Marilyn Langbehn. Stay tuned for more dispatches from inside rehearsals.

Every Cal Shakes play has benchmarks on its path to the finished production our audiences will see on the Bruns stage. Last night’s benchmark, the designer run, marks the end of a specific part of the rehearsal process; tomorrow the company decamps for the Bruns and the start of tech rehearsals.

For those of us who have not been a part of rehearsals, it’s a chance to see the journey the show has taken from the first benchmark—the Meet and Greet and first rehearsal only three short weeks ago. It’s thrilling to feel the energy in the room on designer run day.

When we arrive, the actors are congregated at the round table in the rehearsal hall, quietly reviewing their scripts, making notes, asking and answering questions of each other in that shorthand communication that develops over the course of weeks of rehearsal. “You know that moment in Act Two? I think I’ll…” “Yeah, let’s try that.”

Lighting designer York Kennedy, composer/sound designer Will McCandless, and costume designer Katherine Roth sit across the room, in front of the taped-out playing area, waiting for stage manager Corrie Bennett to call places for Act One. Although many of the designers have been around for the rehearsal process, this is the time when they will focus on how their respective work fits into the overall production. Where do the actors move during the show, and what kind of lighting is required? Does the sound cue in that spot need to be recorded or done live? Stuff to be figured out during the course of the next week; what sounds and looks good in the rehearsal hall may play quite differently when it’s outdoors at the theater.

Sometimes there’s a preamble to the run-through, a reminder of the rules of the room, but not today. Everyone knows why they’re there and are ready to begin. Corrie calls places, and we’re off.

It’s immediately apparent director Mark Rucker has cast a group of artists who are intimately comfortable with each other, the play, and the work they need to do. The story unfolds seamlessly and with the appropriate suspense, even for those of us who already know how it turns out. Noël Coward’s delicious laugh lines land and, even without the benefit of some of the ghostly tricks that will come to fruition during the tech rehearsals, it’s clear that Coward and this company are creating something magical.

Tomorrow begins the home stretch. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

Blithe Spirit begins previews Wednesday, August 8; stay tuned for more blogs from rehearsal. Tickets are available at or by calling 510.548.9666.


Ask Philippa: BLITHE SPIRIT Edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes and production dramaturg for Blithe Spirit, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. Blithe Spirit runs August 8–September 2, 2012.

Philippa Kelly

Photo of Philippa Kelly by Jay Yamada.

In 1941 Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit, his gift to the war effort. By setting the play in the 1930s, Coward wanted to take London audiences out of the horrors of the blitz, death and privation, and back to a time of upper-middle class contentment. This is the setting for Blithe Spirit—Kent, near London, where Charles Condomine, a mystery writer, and his wife, Ruth, are getting ready to hold an after-dinner séance as research for Charles’ start on a new novel. They expect it to be a hoot, and, indeed, it is—but not in the way they imagine!

Are you going to see our production of Blithe Spirit? Do you have questions or comments about the production’s music, cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.


Inside the Séance: Blithe Spirit Rehearsal Blog July 31

The following was written by Blithe Spirit Assistant Director Megan Sada. Stay tuned for more dispatches from inside the rehearsal room.


A traditional séance.

The production and artistic teams and cast are back from their break early in anticipation of today’s visitor to the rehearsal room. Much like the Bradmans and Condomines in Blithe Spirit, we are half skeptical, half wanting to believe. Unsure of what we should be doing, we stare quietly as the medium, Medusa, and her friend as they circle a table with 12 chairs around it, breathing heavily, almost running. Medusa swooshes the air in front of her every few steps, as if pushing something unseen forward and out of her way. The rest of us are in awe or just standing awkwardly, wondering what will come next.

We are in our third week of rehearsals for Blithe Spirit. Since a great deal of the play deals with the materialization of a ghost after a séance, we are all curious about what a real one looks and feels like.

Medusa introduces herself and asks us to all sit in the chairs. She tells us that we cannot get up or leave during the séance. She tells us that she doesn’t fake it, so that if the table is shaking, chances are it’s an earthquake. We take a deep breath and she begins to open a door to the “other side.” As most of us are unfamiliar, we do a great deal of wide-eyed looking at one another. Medusa is saying words I don’t recognize but which seems to be a call to the dead; when she does start speaking in English, she quite clearly says that those who only wish to do good or send a message for good are welcome in this space. She asks the volunteers—us—to say the names of their dead out loud. She then says that the group should repeat the name when she calls to them, as our energy will help them come forward.


Robert makes Medusa nauseous. He apparently doesn’t approve of this séance and leaves.


Margaret is full of love. She is happy. She sends her love and leaves…


Yondel needs something. He needs to be lead. Ah…he needs forgiveness to pass. Forgive him? Yes.


Harvey is laughing. Have a beer with Harvey? Yes. Harvey says firm love will help those who miss him.

“Anyone else? You sure? OK…you?”


Billy loves you and is proud of you. You’re fulfilling your dream.

“No one else?”

“Thank you to the dead, and please leave now.”

We all dispersed in an odd way—those who spoke to their dead mostly leaving without saying much of anything, the rest of us exchanging whispers as we departed.

The next day, we recounted our individual experiences, each admitting to moments of both questioning and believing. I think our experiences will inform the performance. It definitely helped Domenique Lozano (Madame Arcati) come up with some new ideas for the séance in Blithe Spirit. And, it gave her confidence in that some of her instincts were already spot on.

One fascinating thing that Medusa told us was that “after all, the dead aren’t necessarily enlightened.” That statement gave us all a good laugh. In one way or another, the séance did affect us all. I’m not sure if anyone has gone from being skeptical to being a believer, but we were certainly all moved by the experience.

Blithe Spirit begins previews next Wednesday, August 8; stay tuned for a blog from the designer run later this week. Tickets are available at or by calling 510.548.9666.


Séance Prep: Blithe Spirit Rehearsal Blog July 27

The following was written by Box Office Manager Robin Dolan. Stay tuned for weekly dispatches from the Blithe Spirit rehearsal room!

In Blithe Spirit, chaos ensues after a British couple hosts a séance in their home. I have a friend Medusa who leads séances, and has even created a beautiful Victorian parlor in her house for this purpose. While she and I were talking about the play, Medusa offered to do a séance for the actors. This is an introduction to that supernatural event.

Doing psychic work is demanding. Being attentive to what other people are feeling and being supportive of them are absolutely central to the process. You also have to set the space so that, hopefully, something magical will happen. Medusa came early to our offices in Berkeley and, while waiting, did a tarot reading in the office. We looked at it together, and all signs pointed to a meaningful experience. We then went into the rehearsal hall to speak with the stage manager about how to set up the room. We set up a small table with a circle of chairs around it; Medusa had brought her own tablecloth, a photo of her grandfather, some candles, and the charms she uses while reading. We set these up, and she did some deep breathing to get herself centered. While the artistic team sat quietly on the other side of the room (surely wondering what in goodness’ name was about to happen) Medusa took my hand, and we ran around the table three times in order to draw a circle around the space: One draws a circle to create a special space, so that when one steps into the circle, it is as if you are entering a different world. Then I quietly left the room, and they began.

We’ll be posting another entry soon from someone who took part in the séance. I’ve heard from several actors and the stage manager that it was both moving and interesting, and that it has influenced what they may do in the show. If you’d like to learn more about Medusa and her séances, she can be found online at


Food for Thought: Blithe Spirit Rehearsal Blog July 18

The following was written by Director of Marketing and Communications Janet Magleby, after sitting in on rehearsals this week. Stay tuned for weekly dispatches from the room!

Anthony Fusco as Charles, Jessica Kitchens as Elvira, and René Augesen as Ruth; photo by Kevin Berne.

Anthony Fusco as Charles, Jessica Kitchens as Elvira, and René Augesen as Ruth; photo by Kevin Berne.

As the Blithe Spirit rehearsal picks up after a ten-minute break in the Cal Shakes rehearsal hall, Stage Manager Corrie Bennett announces, “and we’re back.” Rebekah Brockman, playing Edith the maid, practices walking and balancing a silver tea set on a tray. “Let’s start with page 77 and the doorbell,” says Director Mark Rucker.  Composer/Sound Designer Will McCandless presses the magic button and the doorbell announces Madam Arcati (Domenique Lozano). She has come to visit Ruth Condomine*, at her request. René Augesen (Ruth) answers the door, invites her in, and instantly offers her some tea.

Ruth: “Would you like some tea, Madame Arcati?”

Madame Aracti: “Chinese or Indian? I never touch Indian—it upsets my vibrations.”

Ruth confirms it’s Chinese.

Madame Arcati:”What is in these sandwiches?”

Ruth: “Cucumber.”

Madame Arcati: “Couldn’t be better!” (She helps herself to one.)

This is when I knew that I’d better eat at the café at the Bruns before I sit down to enjoy this production … all this talk about food is definitely going to make me hungry!

Ruth then begins to describe what has happened to her husband and her home since the recent séance. Madame Arcati is thrilled when she realizes that she has accomplished something extraordinary, but apologizes to Ruth and asks how she can help.

Ruth: By zipping her (Elvira) back to wherever she came from!”

Blithe Spirit Aug 8-Sep 2, 2012

Blithe Spirit runs Aug 8-Sep 2, 2012 at Cal Shakes.

When Ruth insists that she go into a trance or “something” and take care of the ghostly issue at hand, Madame Arcati says it takes several days to prepare and she even has to watch what she eats. She then says, “I had Pigeon Pie yesterday.”

Q: What is Pigeon Pie?
A: Recipe here.

After Ruth infuriates and insults Madame Arcati, the medium she leaves in a huff, exclaiming, “You can stew in your own juice!” (For those of you playing at home, that’s food/drink reference number four.) Then, Elvira (Jessica Kitchens—yes, I realize the coincidence here) and Charles (Anthony Fusco) enter. Elvira announces that she’d like a cucumber sandwich, too … alas, she can’t eat in her ethereal state.

Scene Three

Ruth is visiting with Mrs. Bradman. Ruth offers Mrs. Bradman a cocktail: “Sherry, perhaps?” Dr. Bradman enters and Ruth offers him Sherry, too. Director Rucker makes several blocking adjustments to assure that they are bringing the action downstage. But for the most part he lets the scene run completely through, without stopping. I am stunned at how well the actors already know their lines and places. The emotion that René employs in playing Ruth is astounding.

A Few Glossary Words from Scene Three:
Fortnight: 14 nights or two weeks
Dotty: mentally unbalanced, crazy

Corrie announces we’re going back to page 92. Elvira and Charles start again with the line…”Oh, let her go, Charles,” referring to Ruth storming out of the room announcing she’ll have “dinner on a tray.” Anthony wonders how his character will pick up his cocktail with his injured arm.

Then a slight interruption as Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, who has just returned from Italy, unexpectedly drops in. Instant hugs and kisses all around. He is thrilled with the look of the furniture and wondered where we got it. Jon starts noshing on some of the snacks on the actors’ table (he knows the importance of a nice snack) and then is was off as quick as he came.

Everyone goes back to work … page 100. I’m headin’ to dinner.

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, directed by Mark Rucker, plays Aug 8-Sep 2, 2012 at Cal Shakes’ stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA. Get your tickets today!

*Dialect Coach Lynn Soffer has decided that the Condomines’ last name will be pronounced “Condo Mean.”



The BLITHE SPIRIT Cocktail Contest

Noel Coward with cocktail

No, it doesn't have to be a martini: Coward with cocktail.

“Anybody can write books, but it takes an artist to make a dry martini that’s dry enough.” — Blithe Spirit

As spirited comedies go, the work of Noël Coward tends to take the boozy cake. The current Cal Shakes script for Blithe Spirit, which will grace our stage August 8–September 2, contains seven uses of the word “martini” (all in speech), ten of the word “cocktail” (eight in stage directions, two in speech), and an intoxicating 18 uses of the word “drink” (nine in speech, nine in stage directions). So it is only proper that we expand our 2012 cocktail contest series beyond the borders of a single event for Blithe Spirit—this contest asks you to think outside of the martini glass and invent a sophisticated cocktail for a chance to see your recipe published in the show program.

Simply submit your Blithe-inspired alcoholic beverage no later than Tuesday, July 17 at 10am, one of these ways: