An Unexpected Audience with Sir Noël

posted by Craig Slaight, A.C.T. Young Conservatory Director

In February, Craig Slaight—A.C.T. associate artist and director of the Young Conservatory (YC)—traveled to England to conduct research for the original Noël Coward revue he is creating for the YC. Performances of Bright Young People will be presented May 8–23, 2009 at Zeum Theater. Slaight reflects on his recent foray into the vast literary legacy of the master British dramatist:

It is an overcast English day, the kind the Brits like to call “glum,” and I’m riding a spiffy Virgin train from London to Birmingham. I knew that Virgin flew planes and sold all things media, but never realized that they also were big in train travel. But the sleek body of this train, the modern brightly colored paint, and this comfortable lower-class car prove that they do it very well. I’m on my way to Birmingham and the special collections department of the University of Birmingham Library. I have an appointment there to liberally examine the Noël Coward archives. Let me just say, for a die-hard theater man like me, the opportunity to dig through the pounds and pounds of Sir Noël’s legacy is just about as exciting as it gets.

You see, this all came about when the Noël Coward estate approached A.C.T. to produce a Coward play in the spring of 2009 as part of a celebration of the man and his work—uniquely connected to a special exhibit opening at the Museum of Performance and Design in San Francisco. Carey Perloff had already set the full A.C.T. mainstage season months before, however, and there wasn’t room to wedge in anything else. In her own wonderful Yenta kind of way—a way that no one can ever say no to—Carey suggested that perhaps the Young Conservatory might do a special Noël Coward project in our spring musical slot. When this idea came to my desk, I was excited but hesitant. I’ve seen plenty of bad professional Coward onstage and even more wince-inducing efforts by young people. Given our history here of doing new and unusual musical productions, I felt that the existing revues available for production were just not right for us. But when I met with the people from Coward’s estate, they were very interested in a new revue, especially one designed to be done for and with young people, which is very much a part of their mission. Thus began my journey into the world of the great master, eventually leading me to this train trip to Birmingham.

Prior to this trip, I’d done my homework. Starting in November I began to read all things Coward—over 40 plays, the collected letters, the diaries, hundreds of pieces of sheet music—in an attempt to absorb the voice, the style and the energy (and it is palpable!) of the genius. In my reading, I made note of the youthful characters and scenes that featured them, but I also highlighted scenes that were ageless, in spite of the age of the characters as they appeared in the particular play. I alternated between listening to available recordings and reading yet another play. I admit that when one immerses oneself in this much Noël Coward, one must lock up the gin bottle. The dry wit and the mention of martinis throughout the Coward canon lead one to longing for that cool libation upon finishing reading. I quit smoking over 20 years ago, but was I tempted? Who other than Noël Coward could make the cigarette look so sexy and inviting? Well, I decided that I could easily manage cutting the smoking from our collage, but somehow the sip here and there just had to be a part.

Armed with a very fat folder of cuttings, a handful of books that simply couldn’t be left home— they had become too much a part of my life—I headed over the Big Pond for the last but most important phase of my preparation, the invitation to examine the archives!

Now, lest one think that the A.C.T. budget is filled with pockets of cash to fly the likes of me around the world willy-nilly, I was gifted the airplane ticket by special angels and invited to stay with dear friends, Sharman Macdonald and Will Knightley (she the wonderful playwright, he the actor, and the two of them the parents of the astonishing Keira Knightley). Sharman had written a play for the Young Conservatory (Broken Hallelujah) and was very excited about my trip to Cowardland. The Macdonald/Knightleys live just outside London, and it was easy rail service to the City, where I had several revelatory days pawing through all the Coward materials in the office of Alan Brodie, the head of the Coward estate. They set me up in a conference room with stacks of published Coward volumes, biographies, and recordings. From time to time someone would come in with a folder and say, “Oh, this might be interesting to you. It is a one-act play that has never been produced or published.” Interesting? I began my first gingerly question, “Could I get a copy of this?” I was never denied. While at Brodie’s office I was able to look through the catalogue for the archives. This proved very helpful in preparing for the trip to Birmingham. I went knowing exactly what I was looking for. Without this preparation it would have been days going through everything available. I knew that Sir Noël had been amazingly prolific, but to the extent represented by this voluminous catalogue, I was truly astounded.

Now with an even fatter folder, still that cache of books, and a light lunch, I boarded the sleek Virgin train at Euston Station and was on my way. I had never been to a special collections department before, so I was giddy with excitement about what it would all be like. After landing in Birmingham, it was a short taxi ride to the University, where I was delighted to find that “I was expected.” I was escorted to the lower level of the library and to a small office for special collections. There I was instructed to deposit my “things” in a locker, and could only take my briefcase and a pencil into the reading room. Before that happened, however, I needed to sign several forms, promising in long legal terms that I’d not abuse the rights being offered. Then the charming Lisa, who had been assigned to me, led me to the reading room, where there were four large library tables and a few chairs. At the head of the room sat a librarian. Lisa had a small desk near one of the tables, where I made myself comfortable. Only two other people were working in the reading room, one poring over ancient volumes, the other taking digital photographs of large illustrated books. From the archive catalogue I would select an item and note the box in which it was contained, and like magic Lisa would retrieve the box, setting it before me on the table. That was all it took. I lifted the lid off a box and there before me was the original typed script of, say, Blithe Spirit, or a short story, or the original pages of the score for a song. The feeling was one of both euphoria and awe. I’ve spent nearly 40 years studying and working in the theater. I began reading Coward as a teen. Now, in front of me, in my hands, were original manuscripts, letters, songs, correspondence.

As I worked my way through the boxes, time was lost. I would find a piece that was interesting and dear Lisa would whisk it away and make a copy. When finally I had finished and turned in my last request, I returned to the office and was handed a neat stack of copies. The staff reminded me that my identification card (which had been issued when I signed in) was good for life. I said, “Really?” How wonderful to think that at some dull moment in my life, I might take that lovely train to Birmingham and “have a look” at the Noël Coward Collection! Leaving the library, my fat stack of treasures firmly in hand, I felt like I’d somehow had audience with Sir Noël himself. I was struck with a sense of privilege and honor—and trust. It certainly made me determined to make this new musical revue something truly remarkable and unique. I had, after all, been trusted to do this and had been given the keys to the full breadth of the Master’s world.

Once back in San Francisco, I sat down to the desk with all that I’d absorbed: snippings of scenes, copies of music, recordings, letters, diaries, and began knitting. Little by little the piece began to take shape but it wasn’t really until I’d had the very first reading of the revue with my cast of ten bright teens that I realized that this was going to be the most fulfilling, rewarding, and exciting journey any of us had ever taken. Bright Young People now exists, where it never existed before.

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