Dana Bauer
January 01, 2001

Daniel Magill may be the only Penn State graduate student to formally present his research wearing just a pair of underwear. He wore it on stage—in front of a boisterous audience —while acting in a show that he wrote, directed, and designed.

The subject he chose—the life of satirist and sexual connoisseur Joe Orton—had an edge that Magill was looking for as an actor. Orton, a significant contributor to British stage comedy in the 1960s, was the kind of man who stuffed the front of his shorts with gym socks before a photo shoot, and gathered material for his plays and stories by exploring subterranean life. Orton was anti-establishment, cruel in his humor, and flamboyantly gay. He relished making audiences both laugh and squirm, and his plays provided social commentary that set him apart from his peers.

"I wanted to get into Joe's skin," says Magill, who received his M.F.A. in theatre in May 2000. "He's very different from me, and I wanted the challenge."

black and white photo of two actors in two beds on stage

Magill's one-man show takes place in Orton's London apartment in 1967, on the night Orton is brutally murdered by his lover and mentor, Kenneth Halliwell. Magill plays both men, and employs a different British accent for each: Halliwell's is tight and refined, Orton's loose and working class. A flashing strobe light indicates when each character has "arrived" on stage. Orton appears wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, then over the course of the show removes all but his underpants. Halliwell wears a silk robe and stays wrapped in bedclothes during most of his scenes. Orton, fresh from a night of conquests, is jovial: he flirts with the audience, and his language drips with sexual innuendo. Halliwell, alternately speaking in a depressed monotone and screeching like a howler monkey, complains that Joe's new-found fame as a playwright is ruining their relationship.

"It was a very physical performance. Physically, I had to make the characters different," Magill says. The most demanding scene comes at the end, when Orton writhes beneath the hammer that Halliwell slams into his head nine times.

"I called my show Perspective because I was thinking about the two different perspectives on the night of the murder," Magill explains. "Then a professor said to me, ëIf your show has a life after Penn State you need to give it a new name. Perspective doesn't tell me anything, it could be a show of 18th-century art.' "So I've renamed it. It's now called What the Servant Saw—the title that Kenneth, in my reading, suggested for the play that became What the Butler Saw. Orton thought that Kenneth's title was almost perfect, but then he changed it."

The title seems to fit Orton and Halliwell's relationship as well. While Halliwell began as a mentor—educating and molding the working-class Orton—he quickly became little more than a maid as Orton's reputation grew. "Kenneth was basically Joe's servant," says Magill.

"Kenneth was basically like: 'You've got all the glory while I'm here washing out your underwear.'"

And Orton left a lot of underwear—the literary kind—for washing. "Joe allowed Kenneth to read his diaries—all his thoughts were available to Kenneth," said Magill. Orton's diaries included racy tales of sexual encounters and orgies, and scathing commentaries on everything from American society to religion to Halliwell's declining sex drive. Magill wrote Orton and Halliwell's lines based on the published diaries and from accounts that came from John Lahr, Orton's biographer.

Magill now lives on the same street in London where Orton got his start in theatre at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He has been working as the assistant fight choreographer for a new musical on the West End. "It's an epic tale about the rise and fall of Napoleon and his relationship with Josephine," he says. "The fighting scenes are abstract. It's a new way of looking at stage combat for me."

A double black belt in Tae Kwon Do, Magill often applies what he's learned in the martial arts to his work on stage. "When I got out of high school and thought about what I wanted to do with my life, I knew that I either wanted to do something with martial arts or become an actor," he says.

After the musical in London has run its course, Magill's next stop is Houston to be with his wife Jenny Tidwell, a dancer, and to look for acting work. He's heard that a theatre group at the University of Houston, where he received his undergraduate degree, will be staging What the Butler Saw. Magill is entertaining the idea of performing his one-man show there, to provide the theatre students with some background information on Orton.

And to give the show a life after Penn State.

Daniel Magill received his M.F.A. in theatre in May 2000; "Perspective" won third prize in the Performance Option of the 2000 Graduate Exhibition. Magill's adviser was Stephen Rothman, M.F.A., associate professor of theatre arts and producing director for Pennsylvania Center Stage, College of Arts and Architecture, 103 Arts Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-7587;

Last Updated January 01, 2001