Saturday, March 15, 2014

Geneva, Me, and the Berners-Lees

That's me in red at the goodbye party for The Little Theater of Geneva. Reg Bird is on my right; I could remember all the names if you gave me time. It was a very special place and time.
In the early 1980s I lived in Geneva, Switzerland, where my husband was Director of Public Affairs and Advertising for Du Pont Europe. It was a dream gig, and I found many projects for my own time. First off, I became very active in Geneva's American Women's Club, and, through them I started a little American theatre project that swelled to become a full-fledged production company presenting American plays to the people of Geneva and Switzerland.

There was a large expat-American group in Geneva and some of us, although we loved being in Switzerland and having access to all of Europe, missed the kind of American activities we had grown to love. We started modestly enough, reading American plays in the AWC clubrooms on Monday evenings, and at the end of two years we had produced several full-length plays in assorted venues from school auditoriums to actual theaters. There was an English amateur group in town that boasted a sizable audience and some longevity. The trouble was, the Brits didn't know all that much about the American theatre, and most were not all that impressed with what they did know.

In American tradition we were the brash new kids with a separate agenda and mission. My background had been in journalism and public relations, but what I had originally wanted to be was an actress. My skills at writing and working with journalists and printers served our company well. Most of the Little Theatre members had little or no experience in theatre, even on an amateur level, so part of my work was to teach them the basics and find people who could do the technical tasks about which I knew nothing.

It was a little miracle that the group was as successful as it was. It attracted a large number of Swiss and people from the International organizations that flesh out Geneva's busy life, both in the audience and working with us. I was the center of the universe for a time, and my obsession with my project paid off handsomely. Everything fell into place. I felt I had found my calling.

Basically we did three comedies a year and one more serious piece. We started with the old chestnut, Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came To Dinner, with a slightly updated script and a cast which included most of the well-known Americans in Geneva. We followed that with The Little Foxes and Forty Carats. It was a bit helter-skelter, but we were having a good time and over the four years we did some good theatre and more than a few lives were changed forever.

My swansong was the role of Evy in Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady, directed by Reg Bird,

Evy in The Gingerbread Lady
abetted by our mutual buddy Julian Finn. As I was leaving Geneva, the group threw a big going-away event (pictured above) in the hall of the American Church. The Little Theater of Geneva continued for some ten years, absorbing more and more from the English group as time went by and no longer defining itself as an American Community Theatre, but as an
avant-garde, or at least offbeat, off-Broadway type company.
A few years after I left, however, Reg sent me a copy of a letter from the new Chairman of the Board, an American named Nancy Berners-Lee, written to the membership. She was very respectful of me, and mentioned my name in her exhortation to members to stay true to my original mission of presenting American plays of the highest caliber. I had left tons of documents defining the group and expressing my own obsession with its American-ness and its commitment to continue to draw from the American community and provide them with happy, familiar (and family-oriented) material. I sent a letter of thanks to Nancy Berners-Lee, but I never received a response.

Her husband was, of course, Tim Berners-Lee, employed at CERN and preoccupied with other things. But he must have had some participation with the Little Theater of Geneva, even while he was inventing the World Wide Web, which would soon change life on this planet. I've read that they are divorced now, and I never met either one of them, but as I write this blog I owe a great deal to them both. To Nancy, thanks for taking the reins of my hobby horse for a while, and to Tim for giving me a place to shout my thoughts and memories to the world.

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