For Philip Pearce, the road to this Sunday’s Christmas Jewels performance at the Monterey Museum of Art has been anything but linear. It began early on when, as a child of eight or nine, he remembers watching his father shave while reciting sundry soliloquies from the famous stage canon. “My dad loved acting,” says the now-senior Pearce. “He took me to see Leslie Howard in Hamlet in San Francisco,” he recalls as if it were yesterday. “All the slaughtering with swords, the ladies throwing flowers around the stage.”
Pearce came into this world in New Orleans where, before age four, his mother taught him the Anglican catechism. By the following year, he was in Palo Alto, in a house his father built in 1931. “Dad acted in about 35 shows there”—today’s Lucie Stern Theatre—“and Mother made costumes.” The allure of the theater has always been part of Pearce’s life. He made his acting debut at seven in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. He first tried his hand as a playwright around age 11. Theater and strict religion held equal sway at home, but with a “unitarian humanist” bent.
Pearce came to the Monterey Peninsula in 1988, following in the footsteps of his parents who had retired here decades earlier. Today, he is a respected participant in local theater, from The Western Stage to (the late and lamented) Magic Circle to the MPC Theatre Company, and others. (He recently played the title role in the Molière comedy The Miser, pictured, for The Listening Place.) When asked to take a part, he’s a moth to that flame.
During World War II, matters of national urgency weighed in. Pearce went into Naval training just as the war was ending. He completed his university studies at Stanford where he focused on creative writing and writing for the stage. He wrote a one-act play, Loophole, for Ram’s Head, a student drama group. “I had been continuity director at the student radio station,” he explains. “I wanted to be a writer for radio.” Searching for work, he eventually was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle as a copy boy—“I talked to the editor and he told me to show up the following morning”—then cub reporter, during the following three years. The Korean War called him to active duty where he served three years as a commissioned officer, in communications then operations, on board the USS Henderson.
Returning to civilian life he faced the inevitable decisions that would lay out his life’s path. A regular visitor to the family home in Menlo Park was an aggressive American-British monk, Karl Tiedemann, who spoke with an insinuating inflection, a la WC Fields, was “very literary” and dropped names of all the famous people he knew, among them Laurence Olivier. While those were Tiedemann’s talking points, he dropped the hint to Pearce, “when you attend seminary,” despite the young man’s protests that the idea held no allure for him. Tiedemann persisted until Pearce decided to take the bait at least enough to put his instilled religiosity to the test. At a retreat in Santa Barbara, he made his first confession. “I didn’t know where I was going,” he says. “I think [Tiedemann] must have seen some kind of calling in me.” A year later he was accepted into the Anglican seminary (now called Ripon College) at Cuddeson, Oxfordshire. “I enjoyed it,” he says, “but I was all alone, the visiting American, an outsider.” He was thinking of giving up this ‘outlier’ calling but, during prayers one evening, “I felt a feeling of utter joy, like God saying ‘stop worrying, you’re in the right place.’ It was a kind of radiance within me.” He stayed and the next year was elected president of the Common Room by his peers.
“At this point I had all this theatrical background and interest, but theater somehow wasn’t compatible with the church,” he says. “Then Geoffrey Brown, a fellow seminarian, who’d had a sketch in a London West End revue, started getting royalty checks, and cast me in the role of interrupting a show he’d put together with mock commercial announcements.” The resulting end-of-term entertainment at seminary turned into a grand spectacle, a far cry from the Medieval itinerant “mystery” plays that reenacted biblical stories, and, as it turned out, provided the rationale that would now reconcile church and theater.
In the later ‘50s when his courses ended, Pearce returned to California and was ordained an Episcopal priest at St. Matthew’s in San Mateo. There, he found more ways to apply his theater background to church activities. After three years, he returned to England to join the Community of the Resurrection largely on the strength of its “social consciousness” and a priest, Trevor Huddleston, who had written critically about South African apartheid. (While there, Pearce was commissioned to write a “religious farce,” Never Say Die, that enjoyed popularity among various parishes and turned out to be his most performed play.)
During his two decades with the Community of the Resurrection he went to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, for two years as chaplain of an all-black mission school. Like neighboring South Africa, apartheid was very much enforced, if not with as much brutality and violence. “There were about 500 senior students, with 5,000 living at the mission settlement,” he says. He taught English then took over as head of the school, extending his stay there to sixteen years. He learned Shona enough to say the Eucharist and for social conversation. “I loved teaching,” he says. His play, Generation Gap, “was done all over Africa.” It won a national prize and was staged at the University of Rhodesia. “It was the first time an all-black African cast appeared on stage since Ian Smith declared independence.”
In 1976, Pearce was called back to England, and spent a year as warden at the Hostel of the Resurrection. At that time, he wrote a one-man play about CS Lewis called Song of the Lion, which, directed by David William—later of the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival—enjoyed a four-month run in London and attracted positive reviews. But the handwriting was on the wall. The hostel closed and in 1984 Pearce asked to be released from his monastic vows and returned to California permanently.
In 1988, now caring for his aging parents, Pearce joined the local Ministerial Association which quickly found out that he had done a big “Stations of the Cross” on Good Friday in London. “They asked me to adapt it for use on Easter morning in place of the usual open air service at Lovers Point. We recruited actors and staff from churches all over town and it got a lot of press coverage.”
“When David Neri (rector of St James in Monterey) learned about my CS Lewis play, Song of the Lion, he had it staged at the church, with Henry Littlefield, then Headmaster of York School, as Lewis.” As a result of that meeting, Littlefield asked Pearce to become chaplain and English teacher at York, “where I worked with Roz Zanides, including a role as the Professor in a dramatization of Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Pearce’s first acting job “out in the Monterey community” was a supporting role in a 1994 production of Shadowlands directed by Nick Zanides at the MPC Theatre. “Two productions I really liked acting in at MPC were directed by Ramie Wikdahl,” he says. “In the first I played Father Jack in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa and second in Alan Ayckborn’s Mr Whatnot.” (Right, with Michael Lojkovic.) He also played Dr Kelekian in the Magic Circle’s 2003 production of Margaret Edson’s Wit. “I think my best performance might have been in Lughnasa, but Wit was maybe the show that I felt most proud of being part of.”
Pearce had four of his ten-minute plays produced in the Actor’s Theatre Santa Cruz’ 8 10s at 8 festival, and a one-act called Rewind by a theater in Hollywood. His full length play, Taking Care, was directed by Nick Hovick at Staff Players, Carmel, in 1999. “My most frequently produced play is the farce called Never Say Die, which was performed a number of times back in the UK and has had two U.S. productions, one in Baltimore and one at Canterbury Woods, Pacific Grove, in the early 1990s.”
Philip Pearce is Senior Theater Critic for PAMB and appears in two performances of Christmas Jewels (left with Susan Keenan) at the Monterey Museum of Art.