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The Scarlet Pimpernel : Broadway's Most Intriguing Musical.

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Interview with Nan Knighton

What a thrill it was to meet Nan and talk to her. She was so generous in sharing her stories about Pimpernel - how it came to be and how it made history by being so totally and successfully redesigned during its run. It was all so fascinating that I didn't want to leave anything out, so this interview will be presented in two parts.

NR: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

NK: I grew up in Baltimore. In fact I lived there straight from age one to age eighteen and then I went off to college.

NR: When did you decide to write?

NK: I never made a decision. It just was always there. There was no choice about it whatsoever. I basically taught myself how to write because I had an older brother and I would be very jealous that he would come home from school with workbooks and all kinds of exciting sheets and things and little books and I really got jealous, that I just sat down with a little child's dictionary that would have a picture of a cat and the word C-A-T. I still have, because my mother saved them, stories and poems I started writing when I was about five and a half or six. I just always did it. There was never any moment when I thought, "Do I want to be a writer?" I remember by the time I was ten or eleven, my uncle gave me a book that had been written in England by a little ten year old girl and it was this phenomenon in England, and I remember immediately feeling the pressure of "Oh, God, I haven't written a book yet." There must have been something in me even then that was thinking maybe that's what I'm going to be. But, it was just what I always did. It was just always there.

NR: Was that your major in college? I believe you went to Harvard.

NK: First I went to Sarah Lawrence. I went there for three years. I actually have my diploma from Sarah Lawrence, but I got married right after my junior year at Sarah Lawrence to a Harvard medical student so I did a transfer to Harvard and finished my senior year up there as a special student and then came back to graduate and get my diploma from Sarah Lawrence.

My area of concentration was writing and theater. It was really theater more than writing in college. I took writing courses, but my obsession, my huge love by then had become theater, and primarily acting actually. I did a lot of acting through high school and all through college and then I wrote a one-act play in my freshman year. The drama department really liked it and they asked me if I wanted to put it on and direct it myself, so that was the first time I ever had a play done. That was the fall of my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence. I wrote and directed and just had a ball. It was so intoxicating and it continued. I acted, directed and wrote all through Sarah Lawrence. I knew I wanted to be in theater but I wasn't really sure how it was going to end up. Then I got married and finished at Harvard. I did a little acting at Harvard, but not as much. I was in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

NR: So, I guess you sing too.

NK: Yeah, I had a really nice singing voice back then. I don't have it anymore but I used to then. After I graduated I taught school for a year. I taught English and ran a drama department in a girls' school in Massachusetts. Then I went to graduate school and by that time I knew that I was going to go toward writing and not acting because I had done some auditions for things and I hated the audition process. I hated being on this end too by the way.

NR: Really?

NK: When I say "hated" I don't mean that I don't have fun while I'm doing it, because I do. Auditions are really fun especially when you're having a good day and you've seen one great audition after another, but they're also extraordinarily sad from my side of the table when you have to dismiss people. It's a horrible feeling and everybody kept telling me in the beginning, "Oh, you'll get used to it." I have never gotten used to it and I don't think I'll ever get used to it. It's just so awful to know that somebody's come in and they may have spent all week preparing, memorizing scenes and songs, and they're all dressed up and even some of the seasoned professionals are shaking. Typically there's a process where you communicate while they're singing, you communicate among one another whether you want to go on to hear them read or not. If you don't - if the music immediately does a "thumbs down" or you immediately know the look of the person is wrong, then as soon as they finish their song, you say, "Thank you very much" and they smile and you smile, and they have to gather their things and take the walk across the stage. I always want to just leap up and hug them and say, "But you were wonderful!" I remember at one audition, somebody was leaving and I said, "Thanks so much. It was great. It really was" and somebody turned to me afterwards and said, "Why are you saying that? We're dismissing him." I said, "Because I just feel so bad for them."

On the other side of it, being the auditioner back when I was in my early 20's, I just decided this was not a life that I was going to embrace. There was an improvisational theater group in Boston that I actually had callback after callback for and I thought I was going to make it and I didn't. I think it was at that point that I finally decided not to do that.


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Interview conducted and photographs by Nancy Rosati.




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