Los Angeles, California

By Chris Donnelly

The transition from Santa Monica to downtown L.A. constituted the shortest travel journey we could possibly undergo. Even taking into account the big city’s legendary traffic, the eleven miles were done in less than thirty minutes…what a delight!

However, that delight paled into insignificance in relation to the delight we all felt when we saw our residence for the week – the Westin Bonaventura Hotel…







…in all its glory!









Which we, of course fitted right into…









Well, for the most part, at least….!









And if you have been following this blog from our arrival six weeks ago (it’s going so fast!!) please note the sublime weather!!!















Being a preferred guest rather suited our sensibilities! And our rooms…









…correction, suites – were nothing short of palatial!

They were even kind enough to provide a welcome gift….







Another benefit of attending the conference was that we were able to reunite with our lovely producers, who run the programme from Notre Dame. Here is Scott Jackson pictured with the cast minus yours truly.







From left to right, Carl Prekupp (Petruchio & Curtis), Tom Kanji (Lucenetio, Gremio, Vincentio, Gabriel, Walter and other servants and Troilus (a dog!), Lizzie Hopley (Katarina, Biondello, Pedant), Scott (the boss man) and Evvy (Tranio, Bianca, Nathaniel, Peter and other servants)!







And here is the rest of the team with Lizzie. The new recruit as Audience Development Manager, Jason Comerford, and our chief point of contact and general manager, the quite wonderful Deb Gasper.

The work itself….

Our working week was an exception to the norm, being as we were here to run three workshops and perform our production twice, at the Shakespeare Association of America’s (SAA) annual conference, which was to take place in the hotel itself.

Unlike the combined Prison association and Shakespeare Theatre Association (STA) conferences that I was fortunate enough to be privy to on my last tour with AFTLS two years ago which was hosted at Notre Dame, this was apparently to be much more based in academia.

Coming from a purely practical actor’s approach in taking text from the page onto the stage, as twere, we were not certain of how our workshops and indeed the show itself, would be received. However, I think we were all very pleasantly surprised.

All five of us were required to attend all the workshops. Tom led the first, which focused chiefly on the language of the play, Evvy led the final workshop, which explored the main themes of the play, especially with regard to the gender issues and how the play might be perceived by a modern audience. Both were terrific to be a part of and indeed to observe with a view to abject plagiarism and basic theft of ideas to use oneself in subsequent workshops!

The main thrust of my workshop was to give the delegates a taste of our rehearsal process. That is to say, splitting them into groups of five, giving them each a line of parts and without the aid of a director, their brief was to put their scene on its feet, taking special attention to keep the storytelling clear whilst transitioning from one character to another. At the end of which, they all watched each other’s work in chronological order of the play. As the following couple of pictures testify – in all three of our workshops – the attendees really threw themselves into it with alacrity and the feedback was extremely positive, as these pictures testify!













Below is a particular favourite of mine, whereby a delegate decided to differentiate between two of her characters, by utilising a glass tea-pot with mints in it as a hat! Health and safety aside, a work of genius!









The shows…

Our two shows were rather interesting affairs. The performance space was a large conference room in the hotel and therefore, no lighting whatsoever and only a slightly raised platform to play on.

Like Santa Monica the week previous, we arranged the room in a thrust configuration, so that there would be as much intimacy as we could possibly generate in a space with little or no atmosphere.

Also, there was the factor of the audience themselves. What would it be like just five actors with multi-roles, playing to an ostensibly academic audience?

As it happened, the first performance was well supported and much to our surprise and joy, we received a standing ovation. This was followed by some delightful comments in the elegant (until we arrived, at least!) lobby bar afterwards.

Our second show the following evening was the last presentation of the conference and sadly, by this stage, the majority of the delegates had seemingly either departed already or were fatigued from the previous three days activity. Whatever the reason, it was rather disappointing to play to a rather meagre and restrained house for our final show in L.A. However, the feedback was again extremely positive.

The place itself…

The nature of the conference meant that we had rather more time off than we are accustomed to and we utilised this to full effect.

Wandering around L.A. in the glorious sunshine, I realised I had no real frame of reference to the place, other than a vague image of one huge smog-filled traffic queue. Therefore, I could not be anything but impressed with how delightful much of the historical part of the downtown was and how verdant and relaxed.

Here are just a few pictures I took as I meandered…





















And the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra!








And here, one of the decks of the hotel, by night…








There was even the time for Evvy and I to head back to the beach at Santa Monica.







And here the sunset that came soon after….







Touring doesn’t get much better than this! Further proof of this statement, if it were needed, I will again leave to the pictures to show for themselves.

Tom, Evvy and I took the trip to the Huntington museum on our final day in L.A. and it was hard to say which was more delightful; the Japanese gardens….









Or the Chinese gardens….







And to top it off, an Easter bunny on Easter Sunday!







And so concluded our week in L.A…. On, on, you noble English….to New York state. And Vassar!

Santa Monica, California

By Chris Donnelly

Having crossed from Eastern to Pacific time and added three hours to our travel day, therein, we arrived in Los Angeles airport, LAX…






I was compelled to take a picture of our hire car number plate; perhaps because the California signature seemed so iconic to me, or perhaps it was that I was overtaken with such euphoria because we felt warmth for what seemed the first time in years!

We were met by our delightful administrator, Gordon Dossett, who led us to our hotel on Pico Boulevard, with its beautifully quaint courtyard…







…which we put to good use throughout the week!

The hotel was conveniently located for our week’s residency at Santa Monica College, which we all agreed was a lovely campus…













Often, after a very early start and a long day of travel, there is a great desire to unpack and simply acclimatize to the new surroundings.  However, there is the obligatory faculty meeting to discuss the week’s workshops to attend first, and on this occasion, it was a lovely experience. There was a great energy and enthusiasm from the lecturers in the room and the meeting done, we were treated to a very fine Mexican meal at a restaurant across the road from our hotel.

On Tuesday the workshops began. The college does not offer four-year degree courses, rather two-year study, similar I believe to the colleges of further education in England that have foundation courses and the like. Whatever the course, we were all impressed by how bright and proactive the students were. All five of us had great experiences with them and we were all thrilled that a good number of them came to see the show – sometimes more them once!
Indeed, to further emphasize the enthusiasm and passion the tutors had for all things Shakespeare, here is a picture of the English lecturer Jason Bostick, whom I ran two workshops for…









With regard to the shows themselves, we were playing their studio space which was in a thrust configuration. It was the first time we had played to anything other than proscenium arch, so there were various alterations that we had to adapt to in the staging of the show.
However, rather than it being inhibitive, it was actually very liberating and the proximity of the audience in this intimate space gave the performances an extremely interactive and playful feel; although in such intensity it was rather hot on stage and it felt like there was a distinct lack of oxygen!

There was a Q&A after the second performance, which was extremely well attended and almost inevitably the majority of the debate centered on Katherine and Petruchio’s relationship, his treatment of her and of course, that climactic speech at the end of the play.
Aside from the wonderful working side of the week, we were all delighted with the warmer climate and Santa Monica in general (although there were still a couple of days of rain!) and we certainly made the most of it…

Here’s Carl and Evvy, just chillin’…









And this is the view of Santa Monica from the rather swish Huntley Hotel cocktail bar…







Here is a picture of the team, with addition of the founder of the feast, Gordon and minus myself, for obvious reasons…







(There is an ongoing joke between the cast that whatever and wherever the picture, Tom always looks photoshopped in!)

And here is Venice beach in all its beauty…







In general, the response was overwhelmingly positive and Gordon and his fellow lecturer, Perviz Sawoski, emphasized this by taking us out for another meal on the Friday evening! They could not have been more gracious and generous hosts and they stressed severally how keen they were to have AFTLS back again as soon as they possibly can.
So we must have been doing something right!









And so, in good heart, good cheer, and warmth, we intrepid Shakespearian warriors sally forth to downtown L.A and the Shakespeare Association of America annual conference…. huzzah!

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, New Jersey

By Chris Donnelly

The subject of the weather was a rather prevalent feature in my blog about the previous leg of the tour, in Wisconsin.

Sadly, living up to the British stereotype of being obsessed with the subject, I apologise in advance that I am compelled to begin this blog with the same! Here is the view as we approached Newark International Airport.







And here is the view from my hotel window the next morning!







I promise to move on from this subject, after the following final (for the present) passage on the subject.

We are no strangers to adverse weather in the UK, as anyone who has stayed for any period of time there will surely testify. However, our rehearsal period, from mid-January to mid-February, seemed to be engulfed in one long rain cloud. It was wet and grey in the mornings and completely dark by the time our working day was done. So the torrential rain in South Bend, followed by the freezing conditions of Wisconsin and the fresh snow of New Jersey, were a constant test of our durability. But there is great solace in the fact that the final leg of the tour ends in Hawaii and that the two weeks following this present residency will be in LA!!

Having shed that skin, I am now free to ruminate on our week in Red Bank, NJ, in more detail.
The week was a slight departure from a normal residency in that we are not actually attached to any college or university, but rather to the Count Basie Theatre, where we performed two shows to schoolchildren and ran workshops for high school children as part of the theatre’s outreach program.

Amidst the various workshops, I had the fascinating experience of running a workshop for a special life skills class for students aged fourteen to fifteen. It was completely outside of my comfort zone, having never worked with such students before. I confess to being trepidatious, mainly because I didn’t feel that I had the very specific skill set required to do justice to them. Once again, it was to be a memorable experience.

To begin with, on reaching the high school, it was quite a culture shock to see private security guards at reception. Then, when the students came into the classroom, there was an announcement over the speaker system, following which everyone stood with one arm across their chest as they pledged allegiance to the American flag, which is something I had not witnessed before.

With regard to the pupils themselves, I was interested to see how broad a range of learning disabilities there were, from seemingly fully cognitive to fully autistic. As Mrs. Meyers put it, in our brief chat before the workshop…

“Some of them some days are totally connected; other days it’s like it fell out of their shoes.”

Having completed the workshop, I was left with two thoughts; firstly, how warm, friendly and desperate to please the vast majority of the students were and secondly, how amazingly patient, calm, caring and unerringly kind Mrs. Meyer and her teaching assistant, Mrs. Baeza, were. Not for the first time on this tour, I had had an extremely humbling experience. My colleague, Lizzie, had one similar later in the week.

And so to the theatre…

The Count Basie theatre holds over a thousand people when full. As the picture shows, it is a grand space:







Originally opened in 1926 as Reade’s Carlton Theater, it is apparently one of the nation’s most celebrated performing arts centres and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in America.

Art Garfunkel apparently once remarked, “This hall is to a singer what Steinway is to a pianist.”
I find it very impressive that the likes of Springsteen, Tony Bennett and the Beach Boys are amongst the thousands of known superstars have graced the stage in its ninety-year history. However, from my personal point of view, I am rather delighted that I can state with firm assurance, because Ringo Starr played there, that I have shared a stage with a Beatle….sort of!

The two shows themselves we performed to approximately three hundred and then seven hundred students respectively, and were well-received, especially the latter. I do believe that our decision to have a pre-show whereby we actors mingle and chat with the audience for twenty minutes or so before we actually begin actively adds to their enjoyment by breaking down the barrier between audience and performer.

I was extremely touched to see, as I mingled, the whole of my workshop class and I was presented with a folder of cards that the class had made for me…and a tray full of cookies. I am delighted to be dubbed Mr. Chris!
















The end of the shows heralded the end of our working week and the whole cast, at various times (and on various modes of transport), took the opportunity to enjoy Red Bank’s proximity to New York and a fine time was had on Saturday, the 17th – St. Patrick’s Day, in the Big Apple.

Myself and Tom enjoyed the one-hour ferry ride…














Although, everyone had places to go, things to see, friends to meet…and beers to drink, obviously…I thought it was a lovely testament to the closeness of the group that the whole cast met up for a while in a friendly bar on West 46th and 8th Avenue…

However, the weekend reverie being done, it is time to move on to Santa Monica…and sunshine!


By Chris Donnelly

Perhaps because this was AFTLS’s first visit to the University of Wisconsin Green Bay (UWGB) and therefore we were something of an unknown quantity, the houses for our two shows were (relatively) small, but perfectly formed! Although by no means full in the lovely University theatre (sorry, theater – I’ve never gotten used to it!), there was a very positive response to the show and they certainly latched on to the comedic elements with alacrity. Similarly, we five could tangibly feel the atmosphere changing in the more serious moments, which told us that they were absolutely with us from beginning to end and that the storytelling in our production must therefore be clear. This was vindicated by the extremely positive feedback.

Our final performance on Saturday, the 10th, was at a different venue – the theatre (oops, did it again) within the Brown County library.

Our lovely residence organiser, Emily Ransom – who, incidentally, gained her Ph.D. at Notre Dame, which we were all very impressed with – voiced her slight concern with regard to whether there would be much uptake in the town, being relatively new to Green Bay herself and taking into account that only nine tickets had been sold in advance of the show.
This, potentially, could have been a slightly anticlimactic ending to what had proved to be a very lovely week. Nevertheless I feel that we approached it with our usual level of professionalism, as can be seen from the following footage taken backstage approximately forty minutes before curtain up!

However, we were delighted to find that there were well over a hundred in the audience and they were a wonderful house, including two of the lovely children who had attended a workshop with the cast that very morning! Which is a smooth segue into the other major aspect of our touring – the workshops.

As I started previously, the university was new to AFTLS and this can manifest itself in different ways. On this particular occasion, based on the assumption that the studentship hopefully might have an experience unlike anything they had formerly had at the university, but without knowing exactly in what way, the tutors took a leap of faith and there was a huge uptake – I believe we were virtually at the capacity that we were contractually allowed to do in a week. Indeed, there was a waiting list and the subject range was broad, ranging from the more standard exploration of scenes from Shrew for English and/or drama students, to course titles such as Real Estate Principals, International Finance and Business Management, Humans and Nature, and Politics and Sports!

Regarding the Humans and Nature class, this was a workshop Carl and I shared because there was a very large number of students assigned to the class. As is often the case with workshops with young adults who don’t necessarily have a background in drama, there was an initial reticence, but by the end of the class there were at least twenty of them standing on the desk bellowing King Lear’s famous lines when he is raging against the elements on the heath, whilst the rest of the group drummed on the desk to simulate the sound of the storm! The lovely lecturer was extremely pleased and stated the following:

“I’ve never seen this class so animated. They were standing on the desks. I was standing on the desk!”

The picture below bears witness to that fact!






My favourite workshop, however, was the Politics and Sports class, whereby the wonderful tutor, Katia, had suggested that I try and make something happen in the room, perhaps based around stage combat.

I decided to explore the scene from Troilus and Cressida, when Achilles and Hector confront one another. It is one of the most rewarding things imaginable to hear the students read aloud Shakespeare’s words, initially say that they couldn’t understand any of it, and then see them change when some context is added and the scene is then put up on its feet.

I had two friends from the basketball team play the two great opponents and when they grasped on to what was going on, they used the language so brilliantly and created such a palpable tension and antipathy between them, that the whole of the class, who were now on one side or the other, Greek or Trojan, were laughing, whooping, jeering and generally totally engrossed.

These are merely my memories and for each one I have, I know that all my fellow cast members have as many. I cannot convey how much it means to think that you have might have gone some way to breaking down a barrier between Shakespeare’s magnificent words and a class of students in 2018 in Wisconsin!

This feeling was created again on the Saturday morning, when the whole cast joined some young aspiring actors in a workshop run by Carl. They were a brave group anyway, but by the end of the session…well, I will let the video clip speak for itself…!

And now on to New Jersey!


By Chris Donnelly

Having said our farewells to friends and family, it was time to embark on this awfully big adventure. The cast were rather delighted to be chauffeured from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to South Bend in a limousine!







For me personally, it was my fourth trip to Notre Dame and, as ever, Scott, Deb, and the new recruit, Jason, made us all feel incredibly welcome, and we were wined and dined in great style…. several times, actually!







Amidst this wonderful socialising, there were various administrative duties and the final tweaking of rehearsals to complete, building up to the actual tour.

Coming to this stage, Lizzie (Katharina) especially was ever-more morphing into her character – she couldn’t even go to a restaurant without full costume!







We’d looked at the play from every angle…









And though there were times when it was almost too painful to continue…









We were almost ready to go!

Once again, I was extremely impressed by the campus and the iconic golden dome therein.









Although none of us were particularly impressed by the foul weather. Coming from England, we have quite enough rain!

However, it didn’t stop our enjoyment. One of the major highlights of our early time on tour was having the opportunity to watch Notre Dame’s ice hockey team play a competitive match in front of over five thousand spectators.


















Unfortunately, I think we proved to be something of a jinx, seeing as the team had been doing extremely well and were indeed at the top of their league. Additionally, their opponents, Michigan State University, were languishing at the bottom. Yet the result was a 4-3 loss. This in no way tarnished the experience, however. The levels of skill, the involvement of the crowd, the organ playing, the marching bands – such a wonderful experience!

However, we all wholeheartedly agreed that the most incredible experience of our time at Notre Dame was when we were fortunate enough to have our only preview of Shrew before approximately one hundred and sixty inmates at the Westville Correctional Facility.






It was, from first to last, a unique and most humbling experience and although I had been there two years previously, I was once again moved to tears as the play ended and the audience instantly rose as one to give us a standing ovation.

As we were packing our one suitcase of props and costumes, one of the chief administrators passed a message from the inmates saying that for a couple of hours, they had been transported in their imaginations out of their life circumstances, and into another world beyond their present confinement.







I remember these moments: the inmates’ total focus on the show, their absolute enjoyment of the comedy, their reaction to the more serious moments, their seeming understanding of the whole story throughout, the light in their eyes. As I remember the huge security and the bars sliding shut tight behind us and the fact that we had the absolute freedom to leave that place and go and enjoy a wonderful meal at our leisure, there is only one word I can think of to encapsulate the myriad of emotions it all elicits – humbling. It was a wholly humbling experience.

It was an experience that Evvy and I had the privilege of repeating the following Friday, when we ran a Shakespeare workshop for a small group of the inmates who are presently part of a college credit programme, instigated and run by Scott Jackson at Notre Dame, pictured with the cast above.

We saw them commit so truthfully their whole being to some seminal Shakespearian speeches. The three hours simply flew by. Then, at the end of the session, one of the inmates shared with us what he felt was so magical about seeing the preview of Shrew. It was the fact that a full range of human emotions were brought to them, many of which are lost in a prison wing.

“You operate with maybe two or three emotions to survive here. But you guys brought everything and that reminds us of what it is to be human and it gives you hope for the future.”

There is little you can say in response to this.

The majority of the second week was dedicated to our workshops for various departments at the university, which were great fun and building to the first three full performances in front of an audience at the Washington Hall theatre space – so wonderful to be performing there again.

As an ensemble, we felt that we didn’t want to shy away from the more difficult themes in the play, but to actively embrace the darker elements and play them to their maximum, be it uncomfortable for an audience or not. I do believe that this decision only serves (we hope) to enhance this fascinating piece of theatre and therefore give a fuller and richer experience to the viewer.

This decision was vindicated by the audience reaction to the shows. They were well received and still with lots of laughter at the high comedy in the play, especially on the final performance.

So, we have left the security of base camp at Notre Dame and are embarking on our travels. Next stop the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. Well, that is, after a weekend in Chicago, which I will share little about. But suffice it to say…







…this was the view from my hotel room!