Lisa Benson was 19 when she saw her grandmother play the role of Judith Bliss in Footlight Players 1975 production of Noel Coward's Hay Fever. Her grandmother, Fay Ball King, was a Footlight regular, performing in dozens of shows under the direction of Emmett Robinson and his assistant Dottie Donna. And with every play King was in, Benson's family would travel from Columbia to Charleston to see her grandmother steal the show. "It impressed me so much," says Benson. But, she confesses, while she loved watching King in Hay Fever, her own aspirations were to one day play the part of Judith's bored-with-life daughter Sorel, not the matronly-albeit-seductive grande dame.
"As much as I loved seeing her, my focus at the time, because I was a teenager, was always on the ingenue," says Benson.
The fates of the theater had other plans however, and on Fri. Oct. 16 Benson will play the role her grandmother played some 40 years ago. Timing may have robbed her of being the starlet, but it turns out age is a boon for Benson — the role of Judith Bliss is the ultimate character actor's character.
Judith, a former actress, is the over-the-top heart of the Bliss family in the 1925 comedy. We find the wealthy family — Judith's novelist husband David and their bohemian children Simon and Sorel — in their Berkshire by the River Thames home. The conflict? Each family member has invited a weekend guest (one more crazy than the next) without informing the others. Enter Judith's guest Sandy Tyrell, a young fan of the retired actress. Or as Judith describes him, "He's a perfect darling, and madly in love with me — at least, it isn't me really, it's my Celebrated Actress glamour — but it gives me a divinely cozy feeling."
You can almost feel the jazz hands in that line, and that, Benson says, is what makes Coward's productions not only a dream for actors but an auditory treat for audiences.
"The thing about Nöel Coward that I admire so tremendously is his beautiful use of words," says Benson. "His sentences have a structure that is pleasing to the ear. It's almost as though it's a song." One of Benson's favorite lines: "I wanted a nice restful weekend with moments of Sandy's ingenuous affection to warm the cockles of my heart."
Of course, such intricate language can be a bear to memorize. "On the flipside, the words are very difficult to learn and the sentence structure is very difficult," says Benson. "You do realize that no word is a throwaway."
Since she can't ad lib, Benson has come up with memorization tricks — word association and cast cues. "For instance, I have a line that says, 'It's so simple.' I know that three lines later I start another line with 'It's so.' I try to make associations. It's not about the line, but how the line is structured," Benson explains.
But learning the lines does not a character create. For that, Benson has taken the direction of Hay Fever director Don Brandenburg. His advice on playing Judith: "She's always 'on stage,' and when she's on stage, she's even more on stage." That's where Benson is taking a page from her grandmother.
"My grandmother in real life was fairly dramatic," says Benson. King, who grew up in Charleston, moved to New York City at age 17 to act professionally. "That was not at all the norm or particularly well thought of in those years for a girl from a 'fine' Charleston family," says Benson. But King loved acting. After marrying her diplomat husband, the couple moved extensively, but King continued to perform everywhere they went.
Although the acting bug skipped Benson's mother, she credits seeing her grandmother on stage with convincing her to attend the College of Charleston for theater. Benson even trained under her grandmother's friend, CofC professor Emmett Robinson. Clearly the thespian gene is strong in this family. And when Benson, clad in a 1920s gown, takes the spotlight as Judith Friday night and says, "I am much more dignified on the stage than I am in the country — It's my milieu. I have tried terribly hard to be 'landed gentry' but without any real success. I long for excitement and glamour," perhaps she'll be channelling a little of her grandmother's chutzpah, both in character and out.
You know what they say, every theater has a ghost. "Maybe there's something of her there," Benson says.