by Carole Verona
In the Allens Lane Art Center’s upcoming play, “Lettice and Lovage,” written by Peter Shaffer (author of “Amadeus” and “Equus”), the principal character Lettice Dougget is a docent at Fustian House, a 16th-century hall in Wiltshire, England. To jolt tourists out of their boredom, Lettice (which is pronounced like the vegetable) embellishes the history of the house with tales that become more and more outrageous as time goes on.
Lotte Schoen, who works in the personnel office at the Preservation Trust, eventually fires her. The play was written specifically for Dame Maggie Smith, who originated the title role of Lettice in both the English and American runs of the production in 1987 and 1990, respectively.
Noelle Nettl, the play’s director, draws on her real life experiences as a docent at the Woodmere Art Museum, a 19th-century stone Victorian mansion in Chestnut Hill. She has been a docent for fours years and is currently head of the Docents Council. Nettl, who is known as Noël Butcher Hanley in the non-theatrical world, is also Woodmere’s music event coordinator. Nettl explained that a docent is a guide. The word is derived from the Latin word, docere, meaning “to teach.”
“At Woodmere,” she said, “there’s a bonus to being a docent because you can talk about the history of this beautiful, huge, fabulous house, about Charles Knox Smith, who started the collection, and about the individual pieces and objects of art. Here, you’re literally guiding people through an experience.
“A lot of people who go into a museum or a historic house are very careful about how they travel through the space. It’s almost like they are entering a library where they feel they have to be quiet. When you’re a docent, you can generate excitement about the building, the collector or a piece of art. It’s wonderful to see people’s interest in these things come to life.”
Docents at Woodmere and other museums go through an extensive, ongoing training program. Sarah Mitchell, associate curator of education training at Woodmere, noted that individuals who are interested in becoming docents participate in an intensive interviewing process. After they are accepted, they complete up to two years of comprehensive training before they are qualified to give tours and presentations to adults and children.
“There’s a strong similarity in my mind between being a docent and being a theater director, in the sense that you have to adapt in both cases,” said Nettl. “As much as you plan ahead, you have to adapt to each audience that you get. Otherwise, you’re going to lose them. Similarly, as a theater director I have a grand scheme in mind, but I want to be open to what the actors bring to the table.”
Has she ever been tempted to embellish the facts? “No, not embellish,” she replied, “but there are certain objects in the museum that lend themselves more to fantasy and supposition about what’s going on.” Referring to Frederick James’ painting of a colonial wedding, Nettl said people wonder why well-wishers are tossing shoes at the newly married couple.
“We may not know why, but docents have a good time trying to explain it. Like Lettice, if I see that the people I’m dealing with are snoozing a little, I try to figure out ways to perk them up.” She relates to Lettice in other ways, too. “She has an incredible joie de vivre. She does not embrace the ordinary. She tries to find a richer life for everything. She’s outrageous but not in a nasty way.”
Peter Shaffer, the author of the play, described it as a “very English piece as far as its humor and references.” So, how can today’s audiences relate to it? Nettl said, “Architecture isn’t the main thrust of the play. It’s the vehicle through which the characters can be revealed. This is a story about two women, Lettice and Lotte, who becomes her partner in crime. They discover things about themselves, and they bring out qualities in each other. My argument is that everyone who meets Lettice becomes affected by her. We all have people in our lives, I hope, who have an impact on us. A lot of people will respond and will see a little bit of themselves in the characters.”
In this production at Allens Lane, Donna McFadden, who plays Lettice, lives in Havertown, and Claire Drake, who plays Lotte, lives in Erdenheim. Nettl, who lives in Bryn Mawr, began acting in high school and never thought of it as a professional option. At Dickinson College she majored in English and Fine Arts. She then pursued a career in the visual arts, eventually owning and directing two galleries. She continued acting in local regional theater and did television and film work. Her film credits include “Philadelphia” and “The Age of Innocence,” and on TV she appeared in “All My Children.” She has acted locally on the stages at Villanova University, Hedgerow Theatre, Plays & Players and the Walnut Street Theatre. She has also directed plays at Villanova and Allens Lane.
In 2002, Nettl, now 60, began to experience what she calls “the aging actress syndrome,” when the parts are not coming as fast as they used to. She applied to Villanova University, where she was accepted and offered a full scholarship. She received a Master of Arts Degree in Theatre-Directing from Villanova in 2004. Today, in addition to being an actress and a director, Nettl is a producer and an acting coach. She is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Actors’ Equity Association.
And exactly what is the “lovage” referred to in the title? You’ll have to see the play to find out!
“Lettice and Lovage” runs from March 7 to 22 at the Allens Lane Art Center, 601 West Allens Lane, in Mt. Airy. For more information, call 215-248-0546 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.