Much Ado Actor Blog: Austin Power

The campus at UT Austin is pretty vast so we were assigned volunteers to help us get around. They were wonderfully helpful, to the extent that it felt disingenuous to be independent. I ended up one morning going in to town to buy cowboy boots, and a Stetson, supervised by a relative stranger. Thankfully I think her taste was good, and I now have a full on cowboy disguise. With flames on the boots. Until I open my mouth I am mistaken for being Texan. I expect I’ll be wearing them a lot when I get back to London.

By now we have found confidence with the teaching aspect of the job, helping them gain understanding and confidence and challenging them within that. Perhaps the most heartening thing is that the show itself still feels very much alive. Still, most nights, something new is offered in the moment which makes sense. That the five of us, who have been living in each other’s pockets for such a long time now, can still surprise each other and positively play with each other is a wonderful thing. Much as the small community can cause tempers to fray, we have really had a chance to get to know one another, and learn how to serve one another best in the context of the show.

A vindication of that took place on Saturday night, when we drove to Winedale to put the show on right there, in the barn. Since the seventies there have been young Americans spending their summers doing Shakespeare in a lovely little converted barn in the middle of the Texan countryside. Shakespeare has seeped into the wood. There is a community of alumni that stretches through the generations, and they meet and make lifelong friends over nine hot weeks of hard bard in a warm barn. For us it was a totally different space, with stairs and multiple entrances, with the audience right on top of us, and no time to think about it. And it was lovely. Because we know each other.

Now we are approaching the end of the tour, I’m more aware of how intensive it has been, being in such a small and diverse community for such a length of time, and working so openly and hard with one another. The fact that we still seek each other’s company in the downtime is testament to the fact that, even though we are really different, we are connected by our passion for the work we do. We have just arrived in Denton, and for the first time since Notre Dame we all taught a class together. And it was fun, and not restricted. Here’s to a great last week in North Texas.

Much Ado Actor Blog: Week Off

A whole week in Austin and no work. Some of us took the chance to zip off to Georgia or New Orleans to see friends, but some of us succumbed to the twofold temptation of not getting on a plane, and of hanging out in this reportedly great town a few more days.

I can confirm that Austin rocks. Not least because we have English summertime weather here right now. And that’s English summertime without the constant rain, bouts of plummeting temperature, wind, hail, snow, frogs etc. And it’s English summertime with air conditioning. Everywhere. There’s air con in the garden. Probably.

First night out we hit sixth street, and found a bar with music. Which is a little like looking for a straw in a haystack. The band we found felt like a working man’s band, and one that’d been together for years. I fantasised about their day jobs. The bassist drives the schoolbus. The lead rhythm is a cop. The frontman works reception in a bank. The music was great. Committed, skilled and persistent. Nothing like an old band.

We managed a good few day trips. First to Mount Bonnell. Mount Bonnell is a pimple. “Things are big in Texas” is a mantra I have known since my childhood. Mount Bonnell is the exception that proves the rule. We wanted a walk so ended up going up and down a couple of times. The peak, though, shows the span and size of the flat country around it.

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Hamilton Pond was our next destination. Long before we got there in the car, with our trunks in the back, we had seen fleeting signs about bacterial,contamination. We partly ignored them because we were more concerned about finding somewhere that sold cans of beer, and partly because we didn’t want to see them. We clambered down the path to the spring, a longer walk than Mount Bonnell. At the bottom we are met by Dan. Dan works at the pond. “Ha!” he says, as we contemplate a puddle of brown swamp. “I bet you got taken in by all those photoshopped pics of azure water. You can’t swim in this. It’s full of cow poo.” It’s a beautiful place though. A hymn to erosion and the passage of time. With a soupçon of bovine effluent.

Not to be outdone we took our swimming trunks to Barton Springs instead. And there, we lay on the landscaped grass in the evening sun, occasionally jumping in, and periodically being tempted to throw Claire Redcliffe in for being such a wuss. By the time the short guy kicked us out for drinking beer we were perfectly satisfied.

We also played Peter Pan Mini Golf, where they don’t kick you out for having beer. They encourage it. And I was glad of it as it made me overexcited. Beer makes things fun. Then for the nature lovers, millions of bats emerging at dusk from Congress Bridge. We watched from above in case they shat on us. In retrospect we would have had a better view from below, despite a higher chance of fecal impact. We thought about biting the head off one, as a sure fire way of gaining international fame, but in the end made do with chickensteak – (essentially kentucky fried beef). A better meal was to be had the next day. They do good beef in Texas. Cows are important. The college team here is The Longhorns, and their image is everywhere. After enjoying eating them so much, we thought it only right to go to one of their matches and cheer them on.

I think I understand American football a little now. It’s much smarter than I thought. These big guys are fast and they hurt each other. And the quarterback is an amazing responsibility. And usually called Tyrone, Trevor or some combination of the two, as far as I can tell.

Obviously the whole time we were drinking beer, swimming, watching games, stuffing our faces, walking, dancing, jumping, laughing, shouting “bats”, driving, and talking we were also working very very hard on our lesson plans for this week, and deepening our thoughts about the play. Obviously.

We are now at UT Austin. Four shows this week, starting October 22nd, Wednesday to Friday at 7.30 in the B Iden Payne Theatre on campus, and then Saturday 25th at 7.00 in the Windedale Theatre Barn. I’m looking forward to getting properly stuck in again.

Much Ado Actor Blog: Wellesley College

In the grounds of Wellesley College, Hilary Clinton’s alma-mater, there is a wooden replica of Shakespeare’s birth place. It is the home of The Shakespeare Society. It stands incongruous, a mock Tudor sanctuary surrounded by stone colleges and sorority houses. A short walk from there and you find the alumni hall, the two tiered college theatre, haunted by the lazy ghost of “Top hat man”. The Shakespeare Society provides a twofold service for the Actors From The London Stage. It provides a buffer zone of enthusiastic audience members at the front of the stalls cheerleading for the actors, and it provides an equally enthusiastic stopping place for the tired actors when the show is done. The company has been coming for nine years now, and the routine is well established. “The Shakespeare Society traditionally kidnaps the actors on Friday, but I’m sure they’d welcome you every night if you have nowhere else to go.” So I am informed on the Thursday by Elena our stage manager, (herself a member.) And it does indeed. Although going there carries a burden, as you will end up staying up all night talking about verse plays and poetry and acting and theatre.
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So by Saturday night the need to wind down after the show was taking precedence over the desire to see the dawn, no matter how much I love to geek out. But it’s a lovely little bubble, and I know I would have been a member had I been a student there. It felt very familiar from my student drama society days, right down to the fact that there were no men involved. I was very excited to see that they had some huge working log fire places but “They were last lit in the ’20s. Someone almost burnt the place down.” I know for certain that had I been a member I would have been expelled from the society for lighting them with smokeless fuel and getting caught.

Wellesley itself is a dry town close enough to Boston for it to be easy to visit. I wanted to get a lobster and clam chowder, and Georgina had been tipped off as to where to go. We really felt the “New England” vibe when a bearded man in a cap growled “f*ing tourists” at us as we finished our meal. Aside from the fact I was on the receiving end, it made me feel right at home. And it was clear proof that we had come to the right place, as had we been in the equivalent of an Angus Steak House there would have been nothing but tourists for miles, and nobody to growl at us.

New England is familiar. I got my first Flat White in America, a bacon sandwich, cheddar cheese. I also had to wear my coat and jumper. The people drive like lunatics on bad roads, they randomly insult tourists, the portions are normal sized, people don’t do their utmost to make your life pleasant, it rains. I could live in Boston and not feel too homesick. And as per my previous post, the colours are astonishing in The Fall.

Now we are in Austin Texas, again. Chasing the tail of summer. I just walked into the most beautiful hotel room. Life is excellent.

Much Ado Actor Blog: An Autumnal Diversion

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.

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It feels right that, shifting into my forties, I should walk through the New England Fall and think of Robert Frost and Shakespeare. Still the soldier, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth. But seeing some around me shift to magistrate. This fall is deep and bright. Wild and sharp. And I am aware how fortunate I am to be here, and to have had a snapshot of the diversity in climate and flavour of this land.

Let me tell you a story.

Many moons ago, in the far away time, Deer crossed the rainbow bridge into the land of the sky. But Bear, in his pride, disliked that Deer had gone alone across the rainbow bridge and up, up and again up into the sky. He flung his great weight on the rainbow bridge, and across it he bounded, up, up and again up and into the sky land. There he found Deer, jumping and dancing and free, like a bright golden cloud in the summer. “How dare you come here alone, to the sky. How dare you leave us on the land, and ignore us.” growled Bear. But Deer had his horns, and his pride, and although Bear was strong, he was not Wolf. He had no authority here. “Bear, you are strong, but I have my horns. Too long have you thrown your great weight into things that should not concern you.” And with that Deer tossed his head, and pawed his great hooves, and his flanks shook as he lowered his antlers to charge. But Bear was not afraid. With a great roar like a crack of thunder, he rose on his hind legs, and he met the charge with his fearsome claws. The fight was a long and a fierce one. The sound of the struggle was great, and the sparks from the horns and the claws in the sky land were seen by the animals below. At last Wolf decided to act, and he leapt and he pawed up, up and again up into the sky land and he howled them to stop.

All animals must obey Wolf, and so it was at the sound of the howl Bear and Deer fled across the paths of the sky. And as they fled the blood from their wounds scattered and fell from the sky and down, down and again down. And it landed and spread on the leaves of the trees. And so they fled across the sky land and all the land below them was stained red and orange, and umber and brown from the wounds of the Deer and the Bear. And this is why the Deer and the Bear are no longer friends. And every year, at time of their conflict, the sky land remembers their fight, and the trees stain again with their blood.

Much Ado Actor Blog: San Antonio

Around the shows in San Antonio we had a little time for tourism. The Alamo was first on the list. I never really understood what it was or why we are exhorted to “remember” it. It’s a mission where Davy Crockett and a small group of tough men fought off a ridiculously large opposing force while waiting for reinforcements that never came. Their sacrifice later ensured that it was retaken, but too late for the men who held out. So we remember them. There’s a terrifically gutsy letter stating their intent to hold out till the last man. The gift shop houses a beautiful model of the conflict as imagined. I found it the best means on site to picture the true circumstances of the siege and fall. As with so many of these places it is hard to make sense of the moment or period that made them famous against the backdrop of nattering tourists. I found myself suffering from the eternal tourist hypocrisy “I wish there weren’t so many bloody tourists around so I could take this place in properly.”

Outside of The Alamo, the thing that is mentioned most frequently in San Antonio is The River walk. It’s a landscaping feat, a deliberate spend with an eye to earning. They’ve made the urban river scape very attractive and arty, and inevitably the chain restaurants have started to shoulder in to the more central parts, filling the banks with Mariachi bands that come and bother you at your table, and smiling maître d’hôtels waiting outside restaurants attempting to lure you inside with their shiny shiny teeth. Further out of town the places come fewer and further between and grow more beautiful and unique. The fear is, of course, that the sprawl of commercialism will slowly creep up the river and homogenise it as it goes. But for now it is quirky and attractive and I would gladly spend time there, even in the central bit, which put me in mind of parts of The South Bank on a London summer.
Claire on the river walk

We also got taken to The Oldest Dance Hall in Texas. Finished as long ago as 1878… The town where it sits, New Braunfels, was abandoned for a while and then recolonised, so the architecture, preserved now, is familiar to anyone who has watched a film about the old west. And in culture it’s very Germanic. Something I had not anticipated is how Germanised this whole region of Texas is. There are loads of places to buy Bratwurst which pleased me having spent so much of my childhood in The Graubünden. It being October, the Oktoberfest is being celebrated in much of Texas, which makes it quite hard not to drink beer. We certainly had no trouble doing so in the dance hall, before dancing like lunatics for hours. The five of us definitely know how to smash a good dance night. Although considering it was our night off, we all slightly regretted running around like hyperactive children for four hours when we could have lain in bed with a cup of tea.

UTSA Texas San Antonio was good to us. The faculty were fun and did their utmost to keep us occupied, and entertained when we were not occupied. The shows themselves were in a functional and eccentric theatre, well received by the audiences which grew nightly, and sparky and fulfilling as ever to perform. And the acoustic in the theatre was pindrop, which meant we could pull back and really listen. Wellesley College now in Massachusetts. A bigger, older space to play. And an almost entirely female audience to play to…

Much Ado Actor Blog: Talking to Strangers

San Antonio Texas. Big America. The South West, close to the border with Mexico. The heat hits us like a warm cherry pie as we exit the plane. I regret not owning any shorts, and precious few summer shirts. I packed for Autumn. And Claire? Claire is clutching her hand luggage, which has been ferried down the plane to her by a collection of large Texan men. “What y’all got in there?” “Oh, I don’t know. Loads of stuff.” 1 million cardigans and a toothbrush.

In Texas, we drive. You wanna go to the shop? Drive. You wanna go to the bar? Drive. You wanna go to the bathroom? Drive. We are shuttled 100 metres from the airport to the car hire. In the car hire, Paul meets a lovely lady called Carolyn. “The lovely lady that works in the parking lot, she wants to come and see the show!” he beams. How delightful.

Disgorged into a hotel room that has the vague odour of death and grilled chicken, I hold my breath and plan my lessons. Then,escaping the room, I explore the local area. There’s a bar that looks good, and a place that sells actual salad. Sure they give you bread, lard, refined sugar, and a whole cow if you ask. But you don’t have to ask. And the salad is salady. It consists of leaves and healthy things. Yum. Then, returning to the hotel the back way, I find the hotel pool.
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Two days later, Georgina and I are still sitting by the pool. It is clean and so hot it’s a miracle it hasn’t evaporated. It has a great view of a parking lot. I have occasionally taken time off the pool to go into the college and run a class. But for the most part, the pool. Although we do manage to pull ourselves away from it to do our first show. About 230 in the house. A little emptier than Utah. But it goes well. And one of the audience is lovely Carolyn, from the car hire. After the show, she has invited herself to come sit with us. By the pool.

“If I’d known you were coming back here, I’d have taken you to a real house. With food. I’d have cooked you kidneys, so you’d feel right at home. That’s what you guys eat, huh? Kidneys? And sh*t like that?” opens lovely Carolyn. “Come on, what sort of sh*t DO you eat?” she continues, before ensuring that all of us feel bad about our diet. It’s alright though, because the diet in America is bad, she concedes, but there’s less protein. Which is why we’re all so thin.

Lovely Carolyn is curious. “Would you kill someone for money?” If we say no we are liars. She uses herself as an illustration. “You,” she smiles to Jack, “I’d kill you, for what you did tonight, playing a woman like that. I would actually shoot you. Shoot you dead.” Jack has based his Margaret on his scouse auntie. It’s familiar to me, and delightfully done. Lovely Carolyn thinks it isn’t womanly enough. I don’t think she means the threat but it hits us strangely. Then she thinks for a while. “This thing you do. This Shakespeare. You know, if one of my children wanted to do that crap, I would beat it out of them. MY CHILDREN? Oh I would beat them so hard. But you? You’ve all given your LIVES to it. Your LIVES.” We are silent, perhaps contemplating our own struggle with our parents, perhaps thinking what might be right to say, perhaps thinking about the truth in her words. Lovely Carolyn is concerned her point hasn’t landed. To be absolutely clear she repeats it. “Your lives. You’ve given your whole lives to that sh*t.”

The conversation drifts to prisons, “If they’re in there they should have NOTHING good. They need to be punished, and punished hard.” It covers a range of topics. Lovely Carolyn has something negative to say about all of them. She makes it clear she has enjoyed the play, though, and it appears she is unaware of how unfamiliar her provocative conversation is. We are rinsed, though, especially after the show. But too polite to ask her to stop bombarding us. So we all simultaneously (and honestly) apologise that we are tired and want to go to bed. Lovely Carolyn gets a photo taken with us, perhaps to stick on her hit list, apologises (“I don’t get out much.”) and vanishes into the night. We all separately and wordlessly collapse.

I love Texas. The food. The heat. The audience. The students. The pool. The next day, before class I am talking to Mark, the professor, and he says this to me: “I learnt a long time ago in this country not to talk to strangers.” You’d think being from London that we would know better. But we don’t. Perhaps we’ll never learn. And perhaps that’s for the best.