August 27, 2009

Seacoast Online

Good times ahead

Resident actress/director, screenwriter to share working knowledge with their new community



When Bill Svanoe and Joan Darling begin teaching their Stage and Screen workshops at River Tree Arts next week they won’t have a long commute.

This talented couple made their fame and fortune in New York and Hollywood, but these self-described “north easterners” now happily call Kennebunkport home. Darling, an award-winning actress and director, is originally from Brookline, Mass., and Svanoe, an award-winning screenwriter and playwright, spent childhood summers in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

While this is the first full summer the couple has spent in their home on Ocean Avenue, they have been exploring southern and coastal Maine for many years.

“We were living in L.A. for years, seeking our fame and fortune, and while that part turned out well, we didn’t particularly like the southern California lifestyle,” Svanoe said. “So we would get out as often as work would allow and come to New England.”

They stayed in many different towns in southern and coastal Maine over the years, and have a particular fondness for Bar Harbor and the Boothbay region. In the summer of 2004 the couple, along with Bill’s sister, attended piano camp in Lubec and stopped off for a night’s stay at The Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport on their way home to North Carolina. They walked around that evening and Bill told Joan he thought they were going to live here.

“I’ve lived with him long enough to know I should start packing,” Darling said. They bought their house in Kennebunkport in 2005 but were both still teaching at the University of North Carolina and only spent a few weeks here until this summer. Now, free from the schedule of college courses, the couple is content to spend the summer sitting on their expansive porch, playing a little tennis, or walking to the beach. Balance, Svanoe and Darling say, is something they have worked hard to achieve in their lives.

“We’ve been married for 43 years, and we’ve always been ambitious and successful, and success is very time-consuming,” Darling said. “But our priority has always been our relationship. We started living away from Hollywood. Bill kept dragging us out of Hollywood and we would commute to work.

“And because of this I think we have an incredible balance of enjoying being alive and living in Maine, and eating ice cream at Big D’s,” she said.

Darling started out as an actress in New York after graduating from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon). She met Svanoe in New York and the couple was married in 1964. Svanoe was a member of the popular ‘60’s musical group The Rooftop Singers. He wrote the huge hit “Walk Right In,” which went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1962, eventually knocked from the top spot by The Beatles. The Rooftop Singers recording of “Walk Right In” with Svanoe on vocals is featured in the movie Forrest Gump.

Svanoe, a self-taught writer, began writing plays while he was on the road touring as a musician. When the group disbanded to pursue other interests in 1969, his career turned toward playwriting and screenwriting. The couple moved to California where Darling worked as an actress in a television series called “Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law,” but soon found her calling as a director.

Producer Norman Lear convinced her to try her hand at directing, something she was reluctant to do.

“I told him, I'm not a director. And he said ‘But I really think that's what you are.’ So he gave me a show, ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,’ and that’s the first thing I directed.”

Then producer Grant Tinker hired her to direct a season of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

“I only took it for a year,” Darling said. “I was going to be an actress; this was just to make the statement that a woman could direct. I felt a responsibility toward it, and I knew I could do it. I didn’t know if I would be any good at it, but it turns out I was good.”

Darling started winning awards, and 15 years later she was still directing. She was the first woman to be nominated as a director for an Emmy for an episode of “Mary Tyler Moore,” and won an Emmy and a Director's Guild Award for the 1984 ABC special “Mom’s on Strike.” Other credits include shows like “M*A*S*H,” “Magnum PI,” and Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories.”

Svanoe’s screenwriting credits include Returning Home with Tom Selleck, Terror on the Beach starring Dennis Weaver, Waltz Across Texas with Ann Archer, and Fatal Beauty starring Whoopie Goldberg. He is also a prolific playwright, and many of his plays have been published and performed in theaters across the country.

Svanoe and Darling, along with a collection of their talented friends from all over the country, will host a week of intensive workshops on acting, directing, writing, auditioning and producing. River Tree Arts will host the workshops Aug. 28 through Sept. 4. This format was born at a similar arts center, Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, in Mineral Point, Wisc., and the couple says they are thrilled to be bringing it to Kennebunkport for the first time this year.

“It’s something that we like to do,” Darling said. “It’s so rewarding because we have so much fun, and we make sure that everyone has a good time. We want to be a part of the community with whatever it is that we can contribute.”

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