Phil Dona-who?


Local director spotlights Dayton’s Phil Donahue in The Human Animal musical

By Morgan Laurens

Photo: Director Ian Turner hones in on the life of Phil Donahue, above in an interview on Democracy Now!, through musical

Ian Turner glances at his watch. Just under an hour ago, he was leaning against the wall of a tiny backstage room, enjoying a mid-day libation (mineral water, if you must know) and waving away a cloud of blue smoke, courtesy of a gaggle of would-be cast members.

Soon, most of the crowd drifts away, finishing their cigarettes and thumbing through highlighted scripts, leaving Turner behind with an actor in a faded green Habitat for Humanity T-shirt. “I love your script man—it’s so Kafkaesque,” this young man with saucer eyes stammers, staring a hole into Turner’s black sweater.

Having captured the attention of the lanky director, he rattles on about how a schizoid personality drove Kafka to incessant womanizing and multiple affairs, drove him to anorexia, drove him to suicidal behavior. The remaining actors back out of the room. A young woman pops her head in on the scene and quickly ducks out again. Turner listens politely, grimacing slightly in embarrassment. Finally, he excuses himself, waiting until his back is turned before muttering, “The last thing I need right now is a freshman lecture on how crazy
Kafka was.”

But auditions are starting up again, and nothing can distract Turner from getting them underway. He heads back to the stage, where he’s joined by longtime assistant, Angela Tallis, who whispers confidentially is his ear every few minutes. “We’re almost done here,” he says, crossing off a few names in his overstuffed notebook. “We’ve got one more day of auditions, and then it’s rehearsals for the next six weeks.”

At 6-foot-4, the 35-year-old Turner towers above most of the actors on stage, but you’d never know it from where he sits in the darkened auditorium of Dayton’s recently renovated Factory Theatre, where audiences will soon get a glimpse of his latest play. The Human Animal, which credits Turner as both writer and director, is a lavish six-act musical about the intricacies of human sexuality, based on the 1986 Phil Donahue book of the same name.

“I know it’s long,” Turner muses, tucking a red pencil behind his ear. “But when you think about it, we know so little about [Donahue]. Who is he, really? What are his thoughts, his dreams, his beliefs? What gets him up in the morning? I know he had that talk show for a while, and I guess we could just ask him, but writing a six-act musical seemed like a better way to answer those questions. I’m hoping that this play will give everyone some insight into who he is as a person.”

Best known for hosting The Phil Donahue Show, which enjoyed a 29-year run—26 of those in syndication—Donahue, like Turner, is a Dayton native. “I’ve adapted the works of other celebrities before,” Turner says. “I moved to New York and got away from my roots for a bit… this time, I wanted to focus on someone from Dayton.”

Turner quickly gained a reputation as the enfant terrible of the New York theatre scene when his adaption of Steve Harvey’s dating advice book, “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” debuted on Broadway to mixed reviews. Some critics thought it pretentious; others called him a genius.

“‘Act Like a Lady’ was my first play. It was a lot of fun, but I always knew I wanted to do something with Phil Donahue. His thoughts on human sexuality and gender… I mean, they’re right up there with Carl Sagan’s, in my book. He basically came up with the concept of the double standard,” Turner deadpans.

With auditions over for the day, we leave the theatre through a side door emptying into an alleyway, and head down to Turner’s favorite local haunt, The Calico Diner. “This woman, the owner, named it after her cats, I think,” Turner says, crossing the street against the light and sucking down a cigarette at warp speed. “She took them everywhere. Used to let them run around the kitchen. Now we’ve got cat cafes. You can’t smoke in there anymore, so I gotta finish this before we go in in,” he says with a fraction of a smile, gesturing at me with his cigarette.

We grab a booth in the back and Turner orders a milkshake (hold the cherry), a tuna salad sandwich (extra mayo), and a coffee (black). In between bites, he fills me in on the details.

“I don’t want to reveal too much.” He pauses for suspense. “The songs were all written in minor key. I think [Donahue] is really a sad person deep down. I don’t have any proof of that; I just feel it to be true in my heart.”

Chapters from Donahue’s book inspire the musical numbers in The Human Animal. Songs like “Why Are We the Sexiest Animal?” “The First Primates Were Not So Loveable,” and “Hooray for Healthy Sex,” ask pertinent question about man’s evolving sexuality. Though Turner’s lips are at least partially sealed, “Somewhere Between an Elephant Seal and a Monkey” is rumored to include a simulated mating scene. Despite the risqué subject matter, he isn’t the least bit worried.

“People are always in an uproar about something,” he says, slurping down the last of his milkshake and shrugging. “We wanted to stay as true as we could to the book, keeping the integrity of the original material intact, and that means keeping the nasty bits, too. Like, I wrote the birth scene into the script. I bet no one’s ever seen a woman do that on stage before.”

I certainly haven’t.

The Human Animal takes the stage Friday, Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 31 at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Factory Theatre, 742 Evergreen Terrace in downtown Dayton. For more information, please think more critically about what you read.


Tags: ,

Reach DCP freelance writer Morgan Laurens at

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Got an Opinion?


We are interested to hear what you think.  Please send us a message. [contact-form 4 “Opinion”]  

Springfield’s hidden gem


Referred to as an American Folk Art site, I didn’t know what I expected on my journey to Springfield’s Hartman […]

Debate 7/17: Flag on the Play


Q: Should persons with certain known behavioral tendencies such as suicide or violence be prohibited from owning guns? Legislatures across […]

Conspiracy Theorist 7/17: Hooray for Domino’s

Year after year, the same roads are torn up and road crews patch them. But they never really repair them. […]

On Your Marc 7/17: Good any day

First, a funny story. Larry Lee, the big tackle from Roth High School, for a number of reasons decided he […]

The Cult, Stone Temple Pilots, and Bush at Rose

CULT 2016 Tim Cadiente-2

“Rock and roll never forgets,” the classic rock song goes, and Billy Duffy, guitarist and founding member of the British […]