David Hyde Pierce shares his theatrical experience and wisdom at Ten Chimneys

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Tony- and Emmy Award-winning actor David Hyde Pierce is coming to Ten Chimneys. — Photo: Ten Chimneys

Although he didn’t know it at the time, David Hyde Pierce’s path toward acting began when he was 6 or 7 years old and living in his hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York. 

It was a performance of George Balanchine’s ballet version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, danced to the music of Felix Mendelssohn, that captured the boy’s attention. The music, the movement and the characters — ranging from a wood nymph to a man transformed into a donkey — all captivated young Pierce.

“If there was an ‘aha’ moment that started it all, that was it,” says Pierce, now 55. “In fact, I just attended a New York City Ballet revival of the work for that reason.”

Since studying acting at Yale, Pierce’s acting career has flourished, with roles in film, television and onstage, including in his Tony Award-winning role in the Broadway musical detective comedy Curtains. Hyde has also been successful as a voice-over actor.

From July 13–20, Pierce will share his talents and experience with 10 fellow actors — top regional theater performers from nine different states — as master teacher for this year’s Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship program at Ten Chimneys, the former summer home of celebrated Broadway thespians Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Genesee Depot, just west of Waukesha.

“Why was I chosen as master teacher? Because everyone else was busy,” quips Pierce, best known as Dr. Niles Crane, the fidgety younger brother of Kelsey Grammer in the hit television comedy series Frasier. Pierce was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards for the role and won four.

“Seriously, (former Ten Chimneys president and CEO) Sean Malone and I had been talking about this for several years, but I was always booked. (Current president and CEO) Randy Bryant was persistent and convinced me this would be a good idea.”

From 1928 until their retirement in 1960, Lunt and Fontanne, known collectively as “the Lunts,” were Broadway’s reigning royalty. They counted among their closest friends the most influential luminaries of their era, including Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier and Helen Hayes, as well as playwrights Noel Coward and Robert Sherwood.

The Lunts’ career focused almost exclusively on the stage, and during the height of their fame, they only performed together. 

In 1913, Lunt received an inheritance that he used to purchase the Genesee Depot land on which his family formerly picnicked. There, he built Ten Chimneys. The estate consists of an 18-room main house, a cottage and a Swedish-style log cabin. The three buildings actually do have 10 chimneys among them.

From 1932 on, the Lunts spent their summers living and entertaining their famous friends in the main house, where impromptu actors’ workshops were part of the regular proceedings.

That legacy is carried over annually for the eight to 10 actors selected to participate in the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship, which this year includes the Milwaukee Rep’s Angela Iannone. The eight-day immersion program is built around two three-hour classes each day in various rooms on the estate and in the modern facilities of the program center.

Master teachers in the 6-year-old program have each focused on various acting techniques. Alan Alda’s 2013 focus was on improvisation, and Joel Grey’s 2012 emphasis was on musical theater. Pierce plans to have his students examine the legacy of the Lunts.

“I have been immersing myself in the Lunts and all the talented guests that at one time or other visited the estate,” Pierce says. “I want us to get in touch with the roots of all that and look at the plays for which the Lunts were famous or works written by their more literary guests. Call it ‘Six Degrees of Ten Chimneys.’”

Pierce can trace his own degree of separation from the Lunts. In 2001, he performed in a Los Angeles production of Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks opposite the late Uta Hagen, a Ten Chimneys regular who in some ways was discovered by the Lunts, Pierce says.

“Uta played Nina in the Lunts’ production of Chekov’s The Seagull, and they took her under their wing,” Pierce says. “Uta, in turn, absorbed the Lunts’ incredible work ethic and devotion to the theater. Because I got the chance to work with her, I benefited from that legacy.”

The Lunts perfected some of their own acting techniques at Ten Chimneys, including their habit of overlapping dialogue with each other — a technique unknown during their day but one that’s used commonly now to make performances feel more authentic. The technique is challenging. Its seeming effortlessness requires strict calibration in order to move the play forward in an orderly fashion.

There are other techniques that the pair developed when working together.

“In order to memorize lines, they would sit opposite each other in chairs, recite the play to each other and, when one blew a line, the other one would bang their knees together and make them start again,” Pierce says. “I don’t think I will be doing that, since it often resulted in black-and-blue knees, but it certainly is a jumping-off point to talk about memorization.”

The one thing Pierce says he doesn’t plan to do is play teacher to the attending fellow, many of whom have more than 20 years of theatrical experience.

“This is not meant to be work for the fellows,” Pierce says. “It’s meant to be a reward and a celebration for the work they have done. It’s a chance to learn from each and that applies to each of us equally.

“My approach has always been to put myself with the best people,” he adds. “Then, no matter what happens, I know it will have been worth the time.”

In person

Fans of David Hyde Pierce and local theater buffs will have the chance to hear him share stories of his life in the theater at 8 p.m. on July 18 at Ten Chimneys. Ticket prices range from $40 to $150. On the following evening — July 19 — Hyde Pierce and the 10 actors participating with him in this year’s Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship program at Ten Chimneys will take the stage to demonstrate some of the acting techniques explored during their week together at Ten Chimneys. Call 262-968-4110 for reservations. For more information, visit www.tenchimneys.org.

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