Karaoke and other “dark entertainments” | AFTLS at Valpo

Venue No.3 on our tour is back in Indiana, at Valparaiso University —about an hour west of Notre Dame. The vagaries of the timeline system here means that we are now six hours behind the UK, not five. Valparaiso, in Porter County, is a town of about 30,000 people and about 4,000 students (3,000 of them undergraduates) and the name apparently means “Vale of Paradise” in Spanish, so named after David Porter (founder of Porter County), who fought in the 1812 Battle of Valparaiso in Chile. It’s not where the overture comes from, but it obviously meant enough to Mr. Porter. To my mind, it has more echoes of Milton Keynes: it has a roundabout (a great rarity so far on our travels and one that bemused the locals when it was first put in); it has a stillness to it.

Borders, an acclaimed sculpture installation by the noted contemporary Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir

The university has a number of statues around the campus, Antony Gormley-like silver and bronze figures that remind me of Milton Keynes’ finest cows as you enter the town. Learn more about the installation at Valparaiso University’s Brauer Museum of Art.

Valparaiso is a regular stop for AFTLS tours, so you can imagine the welcome we got. They were ready for us too, having 35 classes lined up, on subjects ranging from macro-economics to the parables (I knew that hotel Gideon Bible would come in useful one day), from Antigone to community workshops, from nursing to the theological imagination. And yet, to be honest, it’s often the unusual subjects like these that produce surprisingly rewarding results. Jack gave a class to economics students and, immediately realizing that his lesson plan would be difficult to make work in the circumstances, he cleverly came up with a whole new idea on the spot, getting the students to work together to put forward a pitch for their own theatre company, how they would make it work financially and what would be its USP (unique selling proposition), etc.

“…this practical approach to stories and to text often helps the students to look at these works in a new and enlightening way, and it highlights the value of drama and play that goes way beyond only the interests of a theatre major.” — Roger May

When I did my class on the parables, acting out our version of The Prodigal Son, we improvised the story and set it on a present-day ranch. When the younger son left the ranch, taking his share of the family money, his first temptation was, apparently, to head straight for Disney World. Then Epcot. Then, when he was lured to some bars by people interested only in his money, I tried to lead the students to ‘darker entertainments.’ “What could they be?” I asked them. A small group shouted back “Karaoke”! Not exactly what I meant…

By the time we got to the end of the story, we had put flesh on the bare bones of the story in the Bible (albeit with some slight twists) and taken time to examine the characters’ feelings and motivations. And, at the end of the class, a theology major came up to me and said “You know, I’d never stopped to think about how the son felt when he returned home. And it’s made me look at this parable and other parables, in a new way today. Thank you for that.” I say this not to blow my own trumpet (or those in Jericho) but to blow the trumpet of this company; this practical approach to stories and to text often helps the students to look at these works in a new and enlightening way, and it highlights the value of drama and play that goes way beyond only the interests of a theatre major. Funny, though, how often these improvisations seem to lead to Disney, or to Jedi Knights, or to the Kardashians…

There remains, on our travels, a feeling that we are definitely Brits abroad. I am still struggling with the restrooms here. For a start, I was dumbfounded the other day to find a TV in the restroom – previously the only safe haven, pretty much, that I had managed to find in public spaces in America. And then, of course, those automatic flushing toilets. The other night I was sitting down in my cubicle when my phone slid out of my trousers onto the floor. I leant forward to pick it up and, no sooner had I done so than the toilet assumed I had vanished and flushed away. Well, that’s the closest I’ve come to a bidet on my travels, that’s for sure…

The British accent, too, still leads to odd situations. The other day, no sooner had we opened our mouths but the taxi driver said “So, you met the Queen?” And I swear Will was presented with a take-away cup of coffee with a curtsey the other day…

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with “How’s it going?” It took me a while to realise that Americans don’t want an answer to this – it’s really just another way of saying “Hi.” I, of course, take a perverse pleasure in answering as if they genuinely want to know how my life is going. When a hotel desk clerk in Valpo, already in the middle of a conversation with another guest, greeted my return at the front door with “How’s it going?”, I couldn’t resist taking the perverse pleasure of replying. “Not bad, thanks. I’ve just given a class on theological imagination with particular reference to the dead letter. How about you?”. There followed a confused stand-off as nobody quite knew with which conversation to resume.

By the way, for those of you who read last week’s blog, I’m convinced that Timmy has followed us. Not only did I fall through my bed as all the slats fell out but decided against changing rooms when I discovered that Jack’s tap water ran red and Jas and Sarah were sharing their rooms with stink bugs. Thanks Timmy.

The Romeo and Juliet cast with Danny, Valparaiso University Stage Manager

And so to the show. The theatre was very well-equipped and the tech was led by Eric and Danny. Danny, an acting student new to his stage management duties, could not have been more helpful and worked hard to look after us. And the audience were very appreciative—apparently they get professional productions here only rarely and the show was very well-attended.

And it’s a treat to meet some of the audience afterwards. They often come up with the most specific thoughts; on Saturday someone came up and said “I liked the way you paused in the middle of Mercutio’s ‘love was blind’ line; I’ve not seen that before”. It’s impressive when they pick up on details like that. Of course, I’m fully aware that, by talking about it, that moment is now never going to work again. It’s rather like when someone says how well the timing works with a funny line in a play; once thought about, it’s never quite the same…!

Roger May, Sarah Finigan, Jasmeen James, and Jack Whitam catch some sun on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Sorry to be very British here, but we’ve been so lucky with the mild weather, and our day off after Valpo was no different. (I don’t think Punxsutawney Phil knew what he was talking about a couple of weeks back when he predicted another six weeks of winter.) We headed for the Indiana Dunes on the edge of Lake Michigan and stood by the endlessly impressive lake, skimming stones and soaking in the sheer expanse of it all – the northern end of the lake is over 300 miles away. Our skimmers didn’t quite get to the other side.

Next up, Nashville and Vanderbilt University. (Timmy, you’re not invited.)

—Roger May (Wednesday, February 22, 2017)


Berea via Chicago | AFTLS on Tour

Berea College in Kentucky

And so on to our next stop – to Kentucky, to Berea College. Well, not quite.

First we were treated to a weekend stop in Chicago, where the time was our own until Monday. After the Friday night show at Notre Dame, we piled up our suitcases (into a stretch limo, obviously – we’re getting used to this) and headed for our downtown Chicago hotel. The view from the 14th floor (or 16th if you’re Sarah – she has contacts everywhere) was fabulous, looking down over the river and a huge neon-assisted sign of “Chicago,” in case you were still in any doubt.

While there, Sarah and I delighted in surely one of the best museums in the world, the Art Institute of Chicago. The breadth of the collection is quite staggering, particularly from the Impressionists onwards; I felt drowned in so much craft and imagination. While I was taking in Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” a young American student was slowly formulating an opinion. Eventually he turned away, with the words, “it just seems like a lot of dots to me.” Hard to argue with that.

Will and I went ice skating in the shadows of the giant Anish Kapoor silver bean; we watched the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history (still wanted the Falcons to win); we sipped Manhattans and Long Island Ice Teas high up in the Hancock Tower, with a twilit view of this metropolis, and we walked along the Navy Pier and took in the ludicrous expanse of Lake Michigan. What a treat.

But time now for Berea. A very big change from Chicago – and from Notre Dame. A much smaller place (about 1,600 students here), Berea College is a liberal arts college in Madison County, Kentucky. No, I didn’t see any bridges. All students here have to take a job while they study, and you see them in the cafes and shops, and even working the looms and potter’s wheels in the craft shop. In return, their tuition is paid for. Incoming students “have financial need,” and it must be a great relief to get through four years of college without a huge debt pushing down on their shoulders.

“Our generous TUITION PROMISE SCHOLARSHIP makes it possible for you to graduate debt-free…We sometimes call Berea ‘the best education money can’t buy.’”

It has a quiet charm to the place, this Daniel Boone pioneer country, and three times I went hiking up the Indian Fort Mountain to take in the view of the Appalachians in the distance. In fact, the first time, I was on my own and managed to get lost. I tried retracing my steps but to no avail, and I was left wondering which route down took me back to the car. Luckily, I came across a woman walking her dog. “Sorry to bother you,” I said, “but can you tell me which way to go to get down to the parking area?”. “Furshra” she replied. “I beg your pardon?”. “Furshra”. I felt like Hugh Grant, the Englishman who came up a hill and couldn’t get down the mountain – it was as much as I could do to stop myself from fluttering my eyelids and quoting David Cassidy. “Take the Furshra and go straight down”, the woman continued. “Oh, great, first right, yes, of course…thank you.” I stumbled away as fast as affected nonchalance would allow.

It’s always a slightly strange experience, having a five-day gap before returning to the stage. The play seems familiar and yet oddly distant, and we have to recalibrate and make sure we are still being faithful to the story every time we return to it, while also accommodating a different playing space – Berea’s Jelkyl Theater is a wide but intimate space, seating about 250 and it gave us the chance to really use the corners, play ‘upstage’ and engage with the wider space.

And, in the meantime, we have classes to give. This week, the students in one class reimagined the opening stand-off between the two opposing factions not as Montagues and Capulets, but as the Empire (Star Wars) against the Kardashians. They improvised away, with threats of bling and light sabres and various hair flicks. Good fun. Of course, the parting shot from one of the students was still, in a slight Southern lilt, “oh go on, please can you say pip, pip, cheerio for me? I just love that accent”…

We’ve been staying in the historic Boone Tavern. According to YouTube, the hotel is haunted. Well, I don’t know if it was ghosts that took me from room 232 (TV not working) to room 217 (window wouldn’t open) to room 312, but the other members of the company kindly let me know that one of the rooms is haunted by a boy called Timmy, whose cackle of laughter has been heard by various visitors. Yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s room 312. And, sure enough, the next night I was woken by a whispering wailing sound. Eventually I had to turn the lights on to investigate, only to find that the window had slipped, leaving only a sliver of air that whistled through the tiny crack. Dear dear Timmy.

Other than that, the hospitality here has been wonderful. Shan Ayers‘ care for us was way beyond duty, and Tia Davis and family today treated three of us to a wonderful American brunch – thank you, Hassan, for the delicious fare on offer, and to you all for your kind hospitality. It was a treat to be out of a hotel and in such a warm domestic environment …and away from Timmy, obviously.

Next stop Valparaiso, University…in Indiana, not Chile. Time to pack, to try and remember phone charger etc (this time) and all set for a 9.30 start. So long Timmy – and pip pip cheerio, obviously.

William, Jack, and Sarah meet their doppelgängers in the hills of Kentucky. Playing multiple roles takes its toll on our psyche.

Welcome to America | Bubbles, Bowling, and Buñuel

The Lab Theatre in the University of Notre Dame’s Washington Hall

So. Two weeks done in the US of A. We spent most of week one on the second floor of a campus building, a ‘theater lab’ that acts as our rehearsal space. Occasionally we would wander out to ‘The Huddle,’ a building opposite that houses various eateries and drinkeries that cater for our lunchtime needs. And in the evening, we would wander out to a local bar and chew the cud. But truthfully, we were in a kind of bubble, an other-world consisting of five British actors, a suitcase of props and costumes, and lots of bottles of water. And yet we are still not immune to the spiraling tornado that is emanating from the White House. The TV is awash with experts and questions and rants and fears. And honestly, I’m scared of where this all may lead. Arrests made at JFK Airport, protests, executive orders, closing borders. Strange times.

One of the classes I was asked to teach on was on the subject of rhetoric and great speeches, so I thought I’d work with them on the Mark Antony “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Reading over it, this section hit me between the eyes:

“O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.”

Even in our iambic bubble, you can never hide away too far…

Ground transportation is Will Donaldson approved.

In fact, to highlight the surreal in all this we were greeted at Chicago airport, when we landed, with a stretch limousine. “Why?” my daughter demanded jealously when I told her. Well, apparently it was the cheaper option. All I know is that, since Chicago is an hour behind South Bend, Indiana, there was a time when I, sitting at the front and Jack, sitting right at the back, were in different time zones.

Indiana is southeast from Chicago and Lake Michigan. South Bend, the local town, is a low sprawl of highways and chain stores, much like many an American town – with so much space to play with, the architecture is generally low and wide. It’s also pretty featureless.

The University of Notre Dame, meanwhile, is a mix of impressive buildings that seem to be, in a uniformly sand-blasted way, gothic-influenced and money-influenced. For the 8,500 students here, the facilities are palatial. Apparently, many students get scholarships, which is a good job as the annual fee is apparently $61,000. The mind boggles. (You sure you want to take away the cap on the £9,000 annual fee in the UK?) The university has its own fire station, its own police force, its own zip code, and even its own power plant.

We also boggle at adverts and billboards that are so wonderfully unenglish. So far we’ve been enticed by various stores and messages: “Let’s Spoon,” “Femme Fatale” (a gun store), “Don’t Get Caught Dirty,” and a TV advert that promises to “lubricate itself right in the package.” As you can imagine, we play up the stereotype and react in a suitably Downton Abbey manner.

One big highlight this week has been to watch a live ice hockey match – a first for me. At the beginning, Will, Sarah, and I stared incomprehensibly at the high-speed mayhem but, with the help of some hockey moms cheering on their high school kids, by the end of it we were cheering and nodding knowingly at the two-minute penalties and the nuances of stick and puck. Great fun. For the record, Newtrier beat St.Joseph’s 8-2.

The boys have also ventured out to the local bowling alley. It seemed such an unprepossessing place as we drove up to Chippewa Bowl. But inside, an astonishing tardis of striking and unsparing proportions (see what I did there?). Seventy lanes. SEVENTY lanes. I ask you. Probably a good thing, as it meant no-one noticed the spirited but average fare from lane 52…

It’s surprisingly mild for the time of year but finally, in the last few days, the snow has come in. Not a staggering amount, but enough to impress five Brits and give us an excuse to finally unpack those extra Michelin-sponsored layers. Jas’ roller blades will have to wait though. In the meantime, we get our exercise in the hotel gym. I think we all know it won’t last, but we’re pretty keen cyclists, runners, and cross-trainers for this week at least.

Looking out from the stage of Washington Hall.

In the meantime, we rehearsed. Getting into the theatre was a good shock to the system; the space is a lovely two-tiered and quite intimate space (about 500 seats), but it requires a fair amount of work vocally – especially on the consonants – and is quite wide too and a challenge to play to all areas. For English readers, it’s rather like the Rose Theatre, Kingston, or Chichester (before the make-over).

Over the last few weeks, I’ve learnt two things about how to work with a company of five and no director. The first is that you have to try everything. Not only that, but you have to have time to work through each idea. It’s quite time-consuming, but even bad ideas are useful to explore, not only to be sure they don’t work, but also because they often lead to good ideas you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. And the second thing is that you need to be as sensitive as the most sensitive person in the room. Which is not always the same person. Again, this demands a patience and awareness, but that is a useful mindset to get into for an eight-week tour. And it’s turned us into a close-knit group.

The Romeo and Juliet cast (pictured L-R): Jasmeen James, Jack Whitam, Scott Jackson (Shakespeare at Notre Dame Executive Director), Sarah Finigan, Roger May, and William Donaldson.

And so to the show. Finally playing to an audience was just what we needed, and the reception was lovely. There really is a lot of humour in the first half, despite the family feud, and the audience was quick to pick up on that. The biggest challenge is to keep the freshness of a story that everyone knows and the ending that the prologue has forewarned you of (spoiler alert). Over the coming weeks that, I suspect, will be our biggest test.

Apart from taking a class on the acting styles used in the Buñuel film Los Olvidados, possibly. That was a challenge I wasn’t expecting on this tour. In the event, we had great fun with it, storyboarding the opening of Romeo and Juliet in the style of a Buñuel film. It’s important to understand that the students we teach are often not drama students (in this case they were studying Spanish), but their willingness to dive in and participate is both surprising and wonderful. Other classes covered in this first week of teaching have included Henry VIII, the speeches of Lady Macbeth, gang violence and poetry reading.

In my warm-up for a class on rhetoric the other day, I asked the students to face a wall and give only the volume needed for that distance, and then got them to increase tat distance bit by bit. “Do any speech you like”, I said, “or, if you don’t know one, then a poem or lyrics or anything you can repeat a few times”. “Anything?”, one student asked. “Yes, anything”, I confirmed. I think it was a great compliment to the establishment that, on walking round the classroom, I heard three “Hail Marys” and four or five “Lord’s Prayers”…

After the final sold-out show tonight, we head off to Chicago for the weekend, before our next stop at Berea College in Kentucky. I have to say that the hospitality and the generosity we’ve encountered has been terrific. Long may that last on this journey.

— Roger May (2/3/17)


[Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Shakespeare at Notre Dame or the University of Notre Dame.]