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NanKnighton.com


Summer 2003

Part Two of Five. Back to Part One...

Nan in NIGHT MUST FALL at Bryn Mawr. At far right is David Schweizer, a well-known director.
 
VOICE: When did you begin to develop an interest in the theatre?

NAN: I actually began to fall in love with acting and the theatre at about the age of 11 or 12. Then, when I was 14, it really struck like lightning. Across the way from Bryn Mawr was a boys' school called Gilman, and the two schools would coordinate on plays. Doing a play at Gilman was one of the most exciting things that could happen to you because it meant you went over there to play practice three days a week. God, what fun. Anyway, I overcame the first hurdle when I auditioned to get into the Dramatic Club and I made it. I tried out for my first play when I was a freshman, and I was the only freshman to be cast- that was such a great day, seeing my name posted on that list- Wow. The play was called THE LATE CHRISTOPHER BEAN and I got the part of the funny sister.

VOICE: Did that first play bring you a greater love for the theatre and for acting?

NAN: Oh, yeah. That was it. By the time I finished that play, it was pure undying passion. The first time I went out on stage and heard that laughter, knew I could make people laugh- that was just the most amazing experience. It really changed my life. During that first play, all the clichés were racing around in my head- the costumes, the lights, the smell of the make-up, all of it! It was the doing of it that I loved. I always loved watching plays, but I realized my passion for acting was a hundredfold more than my passion for watching.

GRACIE: Arf! Arf! Arf!

VOICE: I think Gracie is excited about your first play also! Did your teachers recognize and encourage your talent for writing?

NAN: There were several who did and others who didn't. The same teacher who frowned on The Catcher in the Rye -another time, she gave a writing assignment to "describe a room in your house." So I chose our laundry room, which was just this ridiculous spot with cat scratch boxes and clothes lines and God knows what all, and it was really a pretty funny piece of writing, but she handed it back to me with a "C" and a comment saying, "A living room or a den would have been a more appropriate choice." There were teachers like that who were not encouraging, but there were others with senses of humor who liked what I did. It was actually my classmates who were most encouraging. They were always telling me they knew I was going to be a writer. At our pre-Commencement Class Day, it was traditional for the seniors to sing songs to all the teachers- you know, funny songs written to established melodies. I think I wrote most of those lyrics. I guess, actually, those were the first lyrics I ever did.

VOICE: Where did you attend college?

Opening night for Nan's first play at Sarah Lawrence, MY DEAR, WE'RE ALL SAVAGES. Nan is on right. Dorothy Lyman, a successful actress, is on left. Paul Katula, beloved by all, was killed a year later in Vietnam.
 
NAN: I was the first ever graduate of Bryn Mawr to go to Sarah Lawrence, which was and is a fairly artsy college. I don't think anybody on the faculty was surprised that I chose to go there. I loved Sarah Lawrence from the first moment I set foot on the campus- there was just this warmth about it. Most of the girls were like me- wanting to focus on something in the arts. I mean, I knew it would be a waste of time for me to go to a college where I had to take Math and Science. And I felt I'd gotten a fantastic basic education at Bryn Mawr. At Sarah Lawrence, I knew I'd be able to spend the majority of my time in writing, theatre and music. In my sophomore year, I wrote and directed my first play called MY DEAR, WE'RE ALL SAVAGES. It was a comedy based on an experience I'd had with a boy who tried to seduce me over spring vacation and, Saints be praised, it was a success. People laughed all through- they loved it and that was one of those ecstatic moments, those moments when the world sort of bursts open. The next play I wrote and directed was a bomb. It was a farce called BLASTING IN THE BUD- a Shakespeare quote. Everybody laughed and laughed, and then walked out saying, "What in the hell was that?" But I was lucky. My playwriting teacher, Wil Leach, allowed me lots of free rein to experiment and find out what worked and what didn't. Wil later went on to direct THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD on Broadway.

VOICE: Did you act in any of your own plays during your years at Sarah Lawrence?

Nan playing the old lady in THE CHALK GARDEN at Sarah Lawrence
 
NAN: I didn't act in any of the plays I had written, but I did act in others. I was very much torn at that point between being an actress or a writer. I loved acting. I just always adored it. I was never the heroine; I usually played the funny role or the character role. In THE CHALK GARDEN, I played a fearsome old lady, quite a serious role. In THE TURN OF THE SCREW, I played the role of Flora, the little girl, because I was so tiny, and I still remember walking down this spooky stage staircase with a candle in front of my face. I also directed plays other than the ones I wrote- I directed a Noel Coward and a Shaw one-act. I just loved all of it.

VOICE: It sounds like your time at Sarah Lawrence was amazing! You must have wished you could stay there forever.

NAN: Sadly, I left Sarah Lawrence all too soon at the end of my junior year to marry my high school sweetheart. I had just turned 21, which was obviously way too young to be getting married. Since my husband was going to begin his first year at Harvard Medical School, I applied to Harvard to spend my senior year there as a special student. This would allow me to still be able to receive my degree from Sarah Lawrence, which was what I wanted. But I've always regretted that decision to leave Sarah Lawrence. Harvard was so impersonal, and they let you get away with murder. It was the only place I ever got straight A's. At Sarah Lawrence, they pushed you much harder, and there were only about 500 students. Classes typically were no more than 15 students, and you got to know all your teachers. At Harvard, the classes were huge and the only time I went to visit one of my teachers in his office, you would have thought a volcano erupted. I mean- clearly he was not used to students dropping in, but he was delighted, pulled up a chair for me, and then had no idea what to say to me. As far as writing at Harvard, I mostly did short stories, and with acting, I was only in the chorus of a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's RUDDIGORE. It just wasn't the same when I returned to Sarah Lawrence for graduation. I was a married woman, and I had grown apart from my friends. After graduation, I taught English and Drama at The Pingree School for Girls in Massachusetts.

VOICE: At what point did you decide to pursue writing full time?

NAN: I returned to school to get my Master's in Creative Writing at Boston University. I was a teaching fellow, which helped my medical student husband and me with the income. And the Creative Writing program was terrific. I studied with the novelist John Barth, and Anne Sexton, the poet. They both had a profound effect on my writing. My poetry and short story writing improved so much during that time. Simultaneously, my daughter Eliza was born, so things were very busy and constantly changing. I still loved both acting and writing, but finally I had to make the choice. I auditioned for a big improvisational group in the Boston area, and I was called back, but I didn't make the final cut. After that, I just instinctively knew I didn't want to live that way, the whole cattle call anxiety. And since I loved writing just as much as acting, that was it: writing.

VOICE: This experience must have given you a good understanding of what actors go through as they continue to audition time and time again.

NAN: I love actors and have the greatest admiration for them. When I see what they go through, the constant rejections, just horrible. Thank God they're all brave and dedicated enough to keep doing it. I especially admire the actors who work in New York. They're doing it because they love the theatre, clearly not for the money, and they spend half their lives getting rejected. There is so much talent in this city- just not enough roles. I do love auditions- being behind the table, waiting for the next surprise to walk through the door- but I hate the part of it where you have to take a photo and toss it onto the "no" pile.

VOICE: It takes a certain kind of person to be an actor- always waiting to be discovered. When did you get your first break as a writer?

NAN: My first professional job as a writer was for television. I worked for the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting for two years and wrote for a show called "Consumer Survival Kit," a variety show with skits and songs. Each week I was given information about a different topic- anything from mental health to weddings to insurance- and I would read through a huge stack of research and then I'd write a script. There were constant script meetings, revisions and I loved the tape nights. I always wrote funny songs, and those were the first songs I ever had produced because this was a nationally televised show. I think I had three or four of my songs on that show.

VOICE: Your job with the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting sounds like it was so much fun.

NAN: I really loved it, but I got married again- to John- when my daughter, Eliza, was four years old, and we moved to New York, because that was where John was based. It was a big move, and one that was much harder on Eliza than me, because I had always loved the City. When I was a kid, my father used to take us to New York once a year, and those were the most exciting weekends. We'd stay at the Pierre and he'd let my brother and me order cokes and pretzels from room service. We'd go out for dinner and a show, and my father always told the cab driver to drive us through Times Square. I remember looking at all the lights and watching the Camel sign puffing smoke. Then, years later, during PIMPERNEL, it was almost surreal to stand on the roof top of The Minskoff, having a cigarette with one of the actors- there I was looking down on that same Times Square while my show was playing in the theatre beneath. Incredible.

VOICE: What was your first job after moving to New York?

NAN: I spent my first year in New York copywriting for Columbia Records, but I was not happy. They wanted me to write ads for rock albums and I was terrible at it. I don't think I was hip enough. I ended up writing all the ads for their classical and musical theatre departments. It was very frustrating, and I hated it because I wanted to be writing my own stuff. I couldn't take it for more than a year, so I left. Then I became pregnant with my second daughter, Nola. I didn't have a job but I was still working. I'd written tons of poems about the experience of pregnancy with my first daughter, so, during and after the second pregnancy, I worked on the poems- just a montage of all the wildly different moods and feelings that hit you during pregnancy. I had a photographer friend, Linda Ferrer, who had similarly taken pictures of herself during her pregnancy. We put it all together into a book, called it Nomads, and tried to sell it.

VOICE: Was the book ever published?

NAN: No. The photographs were too expensive to reproduce. Then Matthew Diamond, the choreographer/director, approached me about turning it into a musical. So we worked on that for a year or two, at which point it was called PRIMAPARA and then LULLABY, but by then BABY had opened on Broadway, so everybody said, "It's been done."

VOICE: What was your next job after the birth of your second child?

NAN: Right after Nola was born, I went to work at Radio City Music Hall. I wrote a song called "My First Real Christmas" for the Scrooge scene, and it stayed in their Christmas Show for twelve years. It was a song sung by Scrooge as he was dancing around on Christmas morning after he'd seen the light. It was just an awful song with lyrics like "I've never danced with a turkey before." After that I co-wrote an entire show for Radio City called MANHATTAN SHOWBOAT, a huge vaudeville extravaganza. I loved working at Radio City- it's an extraordinary place.

VOICE: We agree! Radio City is magical.

GRACIE: ARF! ARF! ARF!

VOICE: Gracie agrees too!

On to Part Three...
 
 

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