Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008

Lee Ernst Awarded Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Earlier this week, the Milwaukee Rep announced that Rep resident acting company member had been selected as an inaugural Lunt-Fontanne Fellow by the Ten Chimneys Foundation. (The Ten Chimneys is, of course, the venerable estate built by Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the tiny, little Wisconsin town of Genesee Depot. An English major friend of mine from UWM circa ’99-2000 also served as an auto mechanic who grew-up in Genesee Depot. He once told the story of making a call from a telephone booth during a lightning storm in the rural town. He was on the phone when the line leading to it was hit by lightning, shooting through the phone and rushing through his body in an instant. Aside from briefly blacking out, losing the hearing in one of his ear and years later co-authoring a pleasantly distressing poem called The Messiah Battalion, the gentleman suffered no other ill-effects. This is significant only in that it has absolutely no connection with The Ten Chimneys Foundation, Alfred Lundt, Lynne Fontanne, or Lee Ernst.)

In addition to involving a cash sum and attempting to preserve the future of regional theatre, the Lynne-Fontanne Fellowship features an “intensive, week-long master class” at the Ten Chimneys with a respected master-level instructor. It would appear as though Ernst will have the honor of studying with seasoned British actress Lynn Redgrave. Redgrave, who has been performing since 1962, has a decade or two more stage experience than Ernst, but probably only roughly as much as other Rep Resident acting company members that Ernst has worked with more extensively—seasoned talents like Jim Baker and Jim and Rose Pickering. Nevertheless, it’s doubtlessly a great honor for Ernst to study under such a famed stage actress.   

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were at The Shed Bar and Grill in Spring Green. We were there in Spring Green for The American Players Theatre and had stopped off at the Shed for a meal. We sat at the bar. I’d overheard the Ernst was on the other end of the bar. My wife asked me if I wanted to go over and say something. Never one to know exactly what to say in such situations, I had no idea what to say to him, so I didn’t go over to introduce myself. Over the years I’ve loved quite a few of Ernst’s turns onstage . . . but not all of them. In retrospect, that’s the observation that I would’ve probably made to Ernst at the Shed that day: Ernst’s personality is so strong in any role that, for me, either he works in a role or he doesn’t—there isn’t a whole lot of middle ground with him the way there is with so many other actors. People have loved Ernst in roles that I felt his personality clashed with. The approachably affable side of the actor didn’t really sit well in Cyrano last year—not for me. Nor did his particular stage presence work terribly well with the kind of humor Larry Shue’s in the acclaimed ’03-’04  Rep production of The Foreigner. Earlier that same year, he was spectacularly dynamic in the title role of the Rep’s Richard III—a performance which still resonates with me as one of the best I’ve ever seen in a Rep show. In a completely different role, Lee lent a subtly clever dignity to the dim-witted Tom in The Norman Conquests this past season. One of the most iconic Milwaukee stage actors of his generation, Ernst has earned this fellowship in many, many years of service to the local stage. Congratulations to him and the Rep.  

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