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Noel Coward’s provocative comedy, DESIGN FOR LIVING Feb. 6-24 at the Rollins Theater from Austin Shakespeare, professional award-winning theater.

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As Austin Shakespeare goes into its final week of production of Noel Coward’s witty comedy Design for Living, we thought it would be fun to take a second look at the characters from lead Helen Merino’s perspective.  In her interview with Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella, Helen gives us her thoughts on the show

What makes Noel Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING appealing?

Well, it’s an attractive world to start. It draws you into its serious ideas via sex, period clothing, enchanting music, and dazzling wordplay. It is a provocative, substantial, sometimes even painful journey but always in the close company of something sparkling, fun and beautiful. My only regret about being in it is that I can’t be in the audience to have that happen to me.

Why did you want to act in DESIGN FOR LIVING?

It was a combination of the script and knowing I would be working on it with Ann (Ciccolella, director). In general, I find it hard to turn Austin Shakespeare down. The experience is always the way I fantasize I’ll be treated as an actor in other companies but rarely ever am. There seems to be – not
just in Ann, but in the staff as well – a sincere, intelligent interest in what actors actually DO, so the odds of being able to DO it goes way up. I’m hired as a real colleague, employed and encouraged to do my best. They are the most satisfying company to work with because of it.

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Also, I fell in love with Coward’s three main characters. He manages to be frankly critical of them without ever losing the thread of what makes them beautiful. In the end it’s their beauty, their shameless, authentic devotion that carries them to their final convictions. They all have smallness in them that they fight against or give into throughout the show, each of them following the wrong solutions to what they need to be.  But I love that when they do the final math, they look simply to the truth. Coward lets real love and honor be the thing that carries them toward survival, not fear or whim. I think that’s what separates them from some of his more cynical, sexually addicted characters. I honestly don’t know how other people will take them, but I like them all very much.

What surprised you about Noel Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING?

Hands down, it’s the level of difficulty. It’s not just the language – which is some of the most difficult I’ve ever done, and absolutely the most difficult not written by Shakespeare. It’s the show’s hybrid style. Coward, sort of brilliantly, tells us the impossible story of helpless

21906_10151301655818253_1075770236_nlove for two people by using two different styles of drama; it’s part “Private Lives,” part “Brief Encounter.”  And he, like his characters, seems frankly, blindly in love with both methods of communication – it’s all hot and cold speech; each scene seems to exist simultaneously on two planets. The method of conveyance is sometimes a swift, cool, calculated bubble, then switches immediately into a savage, indecent, humiliating openness. It makes one feel a constant sense of, “what’s happening? is this right?”  It’s very hard to modulate, alternate, and find the right place to be, but when you do, you feel like the best of bareback riders.

For more information and Tickets to Design for Living at The Long Center.

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Editor’s Note: Long Center Resident Company Austin Shakespeare, a professional, award-winning theatre company, presents Noel’s Coward provocative comedy, Design For Living, February 6-24 in the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theater.

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It’s difficult for us to realize the extent of the daring nature of Design for Living. Premiering in 1933, its treatment of sexuality in loving relationships was provocative for the time. Using a three-way love affair as the core of the plot, much of the play would still be considered eyebrow-raising today. Michael Miller plays the lead role of “Leo” in the production, and he also starred as “Mr. Darcy” in Austin Shakespeare’s recent production of Pride & Prejudice.

Ann Ciccolella: What does Noel Coward’s Design for Living say to you about relationships?

The play presents an aspect of human relationships that isn’t often discussed and may not be fully understood but, for all that, is similar to the situations in which many people do find themselves. Though our society values and presents coupling as the dominant and only acceptable mode of romantic relationship, Design For Living asks, “What do you do when you love more than one person at once?” But then, going further, it asks, “What happens when the people you love return your love but also love each other?” You might have stumbled on similar stories on Jerry Springer or Maury Povich, but I guarantee, the participants there didn’t explore their situation with nearly the amount of wit, intelligence, honesty (& healthy teeth) as these characters.

Why did you want to act in this play?

noel cowardI was excited to do the show because I’ve loved Noel Coward for years. I had the best time years ago doing two different productions of his Hay Fever in which I played the same character both times. I love his wit, language, music, elan and the fact that he was obviously, if not openly, gay (and therefore a kind of role model for me). And then there was the chance to work with Ann Ciccolella, Helen Merino & Michael Dalmon again. And although he signed on after I was cast, the addition of Martin Burke took that ‘triple treat’ and made it a treat to the fourth power.

What surprised you about the work?

designforlivingWhat has surprised me is the depth of the play. I think the common conception of Coward (definitely what comes to my mind, at least) is that of the urbane, quick-witted sophisticate. And there is that – the language is unlike any other writer’s and the humor singularly Coward’s. However, this can make him seem a little “too cute for school.” But the play is rife with honestly presented conflict and searing heartbreak. And then he gives the audience this challenge  – Design For Living starts where many plays, movies, TV shows, etc. end. In other words, without giving away too much, the first act ends where most other dramas end, but Coward keeps drilling deeper as he lets the characters continue to explore just how far their love for each other can go. And therefore, this play is far more surprising and courageous, I think, than most any other you could see.

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