Yes, Tina Fey was my first director at Summer Stage.
“Wow, you know Tina Fey!?!?!”
Er, um, I was 13 at the time, but technically yes, I suppose I know her . . . .
“That is SO awesome! Did you see when she had that pizza from some place in Upper Darby?”
Yep. I eat there all the time. It’s Pica’s. Delicious.
“Can you believe she came from Upper Darby?”
Yes, it is a cool place with a fascinating history and Summer Stage.
“Was Tina cool? You know, like, cool?”
Yeah! She was a good director, I remember having a good time. The show was Hans Christian Andersen.
“Oh really? Is that a kids’ show?”
Well, yes, it was Children’s Theater.
“Did you have a part?”
Yes. I did. Tina Fey casted me as the “ugly duckling” in Hans Christian Andersen in 1992.
I enjoyed my time in Apprentices. And now, it was time for Children’s Theater (No Rising Stars yet back then).
I had a bald cap.
I had nine lines.
And I was thrilled.
I can recall how auditions were done back then – Every member of Children’s Theater would audition for all of the directors for the shows at one time, in the auditorium. It looked like auditions for American Idol. But we didn’t care. It was just fun. I remember my turn – I sang in front of all the kids in the program, from center stage, and the staff was sitting in or around row G or H of the Orchestra section. (Ms. Fey might remember – she worked in the Box Office as well. I did too, in the summer of 2001). I sang a part of Yankee Doodle Boy by George M. Cohan. I think I even used my arms! And – as was the tradition – all the kids cheered. For everybody. (That kind of sums up the Summer Stage spirit). I like that a lot. A crowd cheering can boost a little guy’s spirits in an instant.
The rest is a blur, but I can recall getting a script. We were all in the Reading Room (a great rehearsal space, since replaced by offices). The Reading Room had windows that looked into the Courtyard, right where the tree is with the Stone Table to this day. It was sunny, and I heard my name. “Brian Dietzler – Lars Holm”. I stood up to go over and get the script, and I recall being told something about “DO NOT LOSE IT!” and “ONLY USE PENCIL”. The cover was a pale green, and the font was very typewriter-like (According to my iMac here, it looked like HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN. Font: Well well well. American Typewriter).
I remember Tina blocking the town scene. (I think many Summer Stage shows have to have some kind of town or village scene. I don’t think you ever really were in Summer Stage until you were improvising the bartering of foam fruit saying “peas and carrots, peas and carrots”.) We were in the Reading Room, and I was standing dutifully next to the pretty girl who was playing my mother. I remember she seemed so old. She was 16. She was very nice. She was also a featured dancer, a role I never have had. Also, I had a father. He was the editor of the newspaper. I recall that the guy playing him only cared about the girl playing my mother. She was pretty. I don’t think she was that into him, though. Anyway, we walked around the village, dutifully improvising “peas and carrots”.
“OK, we’ll run the scene again – After we make fun of that couple making out.”
Our cast was very chatty. At one point, Tina was talking to us about maintaining focus, and how important it was to listen to our instructors. She was talking about how serious it was to get the story right . . . when suddenly, that now world-famous smirk appeared on her face. She was looking out the windows behind us, into the courtyard, and there was a couple kissing on the benches just outside. The couple had no idea we were there. Tina said, as only Tina Fey can: “OK, we’ll run the scene again – After we make fun of that couple making out.” We all ran to the windows, opened them, and began jeering, yelling, and laughing at the guy and gal on the bench, who, needless to say, were quite surprised, grinning and blushing.
Tina Fey, ladies and gentlemen. A celebrity, yes, but I can tell you she is just as funny and down to earth in person.
My character was Lars Holm. He gets made fun of a lot by the other village children at school. (How many of us can relate to that!? No Method acting needed for me at the time!). Lars was bald, and it is implied that he suffered some kind if disease or affliction, and lost his hair as a result. He wore a cap at all times. In the scene, the kids roughed me up, and took my cap and threw it, and laughed.
At the time, I knew enough that the baldness was not Lars’ fault. One might associate such complete baldness with treatment of cancer. I know now it was probably caused by a severe fever and illness in his young life. The character’s plight was still similar to that of young children suffering from cancer, so I did take my character seriously. Lars was a survivor of some kind. Because of the gravity of his challenges, I had some kind of idea that I had to play the young man truthfully.
So I did. After the kids threw my cap, I cried. Hans enters and sees me crying, and sings a song by Frank Loesser entitled “The Ugly Duckling”. Hans was played by a girl, and her name was Tracy, I believe . . . (my memory is not serving me. I am sure Professor Cate Paxson, Master Historian of Summer Stage could find out her full name.) Well, as per the magic of theatre, Lars feels as beautiful as a swan at the end of the song.
While the magical instantaneous healing that takes place onstage rarely occurs in real life, the power and potential of stories – both fictional and non- fiction – can bring about great change, and inspire us. (Thinking of you, Terrance Calvert. Dance it up, buddy.)
The story of the Ugly Duckling is rather clever, as are so many of Andersen’s works. The story is simply that of a swan egg that rolled into a duck nest, and thus led to a lot of confusion, and also a thinly veiled and compelling examination of society’s treatment of those who are different. The poor little swan is shunned and abused by animals exhibiting discrimination; the little guy believes himself to be “ugly”; and then, discovers the truth – he is a beautiful and perfect swan.
Interestingly enough, in reviewing “Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life” by biographer Jens Andersen, British journalist Anne Chisholm writes “Andersen himself was a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet, and when he grew up with a beautiful singing voice and a passion for the theater he was cruelly teased and mocked by other children”. Once, Andersen was asked when he would write an autobiography. Andersen replied that he already had, and it was called “The Ugly Duckling”.
At some point in life, we are all treated as the Ugly Duckling. Growing up can be a difficult, and, it seems, a sometimes treacherous experience. What this beautiful tale reminds us is that, deep down, we are all beautiful. No one type of person or people hold the precise definition of beautiful. Many will try to label you, but you must discover your inner swan. It’s there!
This magical experience called Summer Stage is a program that prides itself on giving every young person the opportunity to make new friends, grow, and have fun in a safe, nurturing, and welcoming environment.
As an educator, I see the great efforts that so many fellow teachers and schools put into trying to create environments of warmth, encouragement and safety. I believe there is success on the part of so many schools and programs; however, Summer Stage is truly a place where everyone belongs. We cheer for each other – always. We fill the world with love, and do so proudly, with great effort, through the magic of live performance and chatty casts and crews.