Two Weeks in Texas – Part One: Austin

Austin PostcardMy small and charming creature of delight,
We are alone; you need not look so flush
About your ears. For under pale moonlight,
We can afford to breathe and not to rush.

There is time yet to tell me how you feel,
To see if you can match the things I’ve said,
Inform me how your injuries I heal
But, silly friend, you opt to swim instead.

University of Texas Austin campus at sunset-dusk - aerial view

I sigh and lightly nap till your return,
Your neck stretched out to steal a furtive kiss.
My eyes blink open, and your red ears burn.
You tuck your head away in bashful bliss.

But even when you hide, I know you well:
My green and pretty turtle in his shell.

– UT Austin student, Austin Hanna

Greetings from Austin! We’ve had a fabulous week here. It’s been extremely busy but that is to be expected; The University of Texas in Austin has approximately 50,000 students. Twenty(!) of these students volunteered to help us actors get around campus. Austin Hanna was Chris’ guide and he wrote the sonnet above. I mentioned to him that I had seen a turtle for the first time and he recited this. The guides, all UT students, have extraordinary talents and have been invaluable sources of local knowledge. My guides – Amanda Rodriguez, Bryson Kisner, Jonathan Vineyard, and Drew Orland – introduced me to the delights of Texan-style queso and the traditional Texan Barbecue, a culinary experience I shall never forget.

Student Drew Orland at the top of the UT-Austin Bell Tower

Drew at the top of the UT-Austin Bell Tower

We were all extremely fortunate to be invited by Drew to the top of the bell tower of the main building where he is one of a handful of people granted access because he plays the bells. He played the British national anthem in our honour.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a very handsome woman called Liz Fisher who got us to the hotel where we met Alan Friedman and David Kornhaber. They presented us with an enormous goody bag full of food. Austin is a foodie city and Liz knows the best spots. She showed us where to get all the best nosh over the week. Alan is the professor who invited us and made us feel very welcome. He had organized a performance of Pyramus and Thisbie by the students on the evening we arrived after which we met all the professors that we would be working with over the week. Between the five of us we did a number of varying classes from Jane Austen to public speaking for chemical engineers as well as going off campus into local high schools and elementary schools. We did have our work cut out, but we worked hard and played hard and ate really well.

The Winedale stage

On the final day of our residency, we drove an hour and a half outside the city to a barn in the middle of nowhere called Winedale; it was a magical place. It’s dedicated to performing Shakespeare plays and there are summer schools held there every year. We arrived in the day and re-rehearsed the show to allow for entrances and exits and exploring the new levels which was great fun. Then from 6pm people started arriving in their cars with picnics. Earlier in the week, we had great audiences at the massive B. Iden Payne Theatre on campus at UT. Winedale is much more intimate with only 200 seats or so; therefore, the relationship between the actors and audience can be closer too.

Chris Donnelly and Sam Collings walking into the Sunset at Barton Springs

Chris Donnelly and Sam Collings walking into the sunset at Barton Springs

After such a busy week with the fantastic climax at Winedale we felt we’d earned a good rest, so we spent Sunday in the sun at Barton Springs, just delightful!

San Antonio next…

All’s Well in Wellesley

Aerial photo of Wellesley College
“Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.” – Hillary Clinton

There is no fear that the women of Wellesley College (Hillary Clinton’s alma mater) will fail to make their mark in the world. Nora HusseyWellesley College Theatre Director, invited us to Wellesley and she runs a wonderful department with the help of the exquisite Charlotte Peed, a flame haired, feisty southerner with alabaster skin, looking after us. Aside from the incredible women in the department we also met so many students who are most certainly going to be the future leaders of this country. The students are all women of course, as this a single-sex college, but please let us not forget the wonderful men that have also helped us hugely. David TowlunTheatre Production Manager, has been wonderful on the technical side. Given this was our first week performing in a theatre, that help was invaluable. Besides the great company, we also had beautiful surroundings. Lake Waban at Wellesley CollegeWellesley must be one of the most beautiful settings for an educational institution. Lake Waban is surrounded by the Wellesley campus and is spectacular in the autumn with the changing leaves and chipmunks running around.

This week we settled into what will be the normal stride of the tour. It felt like we were a big family this week as we were staying in a big house near the Campus rather than a hotel. We made friends with our neighbor, Sherry, who also happens to be a golf professor and she very kindly gave us all a golf lesson. Patrick seems to be a natural golfer while Sam struggles not to turn the golf club into a baseball bat. Fun was had by all, and we now know much more about golf.

This week saw us doing individual workshops with the incredibly bright students at Wellesley. Our job in the workshops is to offer an alternative approach to learning rather than simply the cerebral academic approach. The workshops on the whole focus on an actor’s approach to Shakespeare, and in particular A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but we do get invited to some more unusual workshops too. Claire took a workshop with a group of students doing scenic design, while I joined class entitled ‘Spirit of Spain in the middle ages’ – this is a class in Spanish, which I do not speak. When I first read Shakespeare it may as well have been another language but working on text practically can really enhance the understanding of it.

Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre at Wellesley College

Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre at Wellesley College

We had three performances in a row, which was great as we haven’t had many bashes at the show as yet. The audiences were fabulous! There was a particularly lively crowd there on Friday night and we were extremely heartened by their vocal response.

Our hosts spoilt us rotten and we had invitations to dinners and drinks most nights after the show. One night we were invited to Shakespeare House which the Shakespeare Society use for plays. They are about to put on Twelfth Night, so, if you are in the area, do try and check it out.

Sam in BostonWe did have some spare time too. Sam and I went to Boston, just 40 minutes east of Wellesley, MA.

Onwards to Texas…our next two residencies will be back-to-back weeks at The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Texas at San Antonio.

Prisoners “Dream” with AFTLS


Our merry 'Midsummer' band at the Westville Correctional Facility, pictured with Shakespeare at Notre Dame Executive Director Scott Jackson (second from right)

Our merry ‘Midsummer’ cast at the Westville Correctional Facility, pictured with Shakespeare at Notre Dame Executive Director Scott Jackson (second from right).

I have never been into a prison before. Apprehensive does not come close to describing my feelings about it. From the stipulations about my underwear to the sign saying that carrying a cell phone into the prison is classified as a felony, all the rules and responsibilities, the dos and don’ts, made the anticipation of Sunday’s two-hour workshop at Indiana’s Westville Correctional Facility palpable.

Getting into Westville is a similar experience to going through airport security. We showed our ID, took off our shoes, went through a metal detector, and finally got patted down by a guard. This is where the experience began to differ from the airport; rather than being released to fly off to a sunny beach, we were held in a Sally Port. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, this is a holding area with two heavy metal mesh doors – only one opening at any one time. Finally, you are escorted in a van to the designated cellblock.

As we arrived in A3 and were led down the corridors, we felt the prisoners watching us. The initial meeting was awkward, no one knowing what the exchange was going to be. This awkwardness was eased through playing theatre games. I don’t know much about the prison system or the lives of the men incarcerated there, but I’d guess that play is not a huge part of life at Westville. We taught them our games and they taught us ones that they had done with Scott. (On Sunday I won ‘Zip, Zap, Zoom,’ a very proud moment!)

Inmates learn through Shakespeare's text at Westville Correctional Facility

Inmates learn through Shakespeare’s text at Westville Correctional Facility

Samuel Collings led us all in the click game. This is where a click is passed around the circle as if it is a ball. In our production the click represents the flower ‘love in idleness.’ After the initial games, we played with the text of The Tempest. We created a storm using our hands, the floor, plastic chairs, the walls, our voices and breath – anything we could bang and make a racket with – and what a wonderful racket we made. (The guards commented on it.) Kyle, a man covered in tattoos with a neck the size of my thigh and a voice that would give Barry White a run for his money, volunteered himself for the part of Ariel, the very airy spirit. He had us in stitches and his enthusiasm was infectious. As we moved through the edited version of The Tempest, we got to know this group very well.

On Friday, when we came back to perform the play, an inmate told me that the prisoners had reprised Wednesday’s click game and had the entire block playing it. So, when Patrick came on as Puck carrying the flower, a ripple of excitement swept across the watching audience, knowing exactly how Puck was going to pass the flower to Oberon.

AFTLS actors Samuel Collings (standing as Oberon) and Claire Redcliffe (on floor as Titania) perform a scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Westville Correctional Facility

AFTLS actors Samuel Collings (standing as Oberon) and Claire Redcliffe (on floor as Titania) perform a scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Westville Correctional Facility

The Westville shows were our first public performances of the Dream, and we couldn’t have asked for a better response. I speak for all of us when I say it was extremely rewarding and an experience we will never forget. By Friday, we had met, worked with, and become invested in many of the inmates; it was sad to leave.

Thank you Scott Jackson for organizing our week at Westville.

— Actress and Midsummer blogger, Ffion Jolly

(Note: The AFTLS Midsummer cast will return to Notre Dame in 2016 to perform and discuss their Shakespeare in prison experience at the Shakespeare in Prisons: In Practice conference January 25-27.)