Blizzards, blobs, and beer | Ursinus welcomes AFTLS

And so we reach our final week, heading for Collegeville, Pennsylvania and Ursinus College. The college, pronounced Yer-sigh’-nus, was founded in 1869 and is located 30 miles from Philadelphia. It’s the first time we have even got near to a coast – unless you count Lake Michigan, which does indeed look like an ocean. It’s a bit of a shock, this two-flight journey, as we go from 25 degrees Celsius to -4 (77 to 25F). The frisbee will not be coming out again. Actually we get here just in time; by Monday evening Winter Storm Stella has arrived, bringing with it 18 inches of snow. We were warned about this and there was a quick panic-buy trip to the supermarket when we arrived. Beer, cereal, crisps, all those essentials, you understand…

It also means I’m back in electric shock land. I’m not quite sure why, but Will and I seem to be more susceptible to the shocks, in colder weather, from light switches, from door handles, from each other sometimes. A couple of days ago Jas looked accusingly at me after I had made her jump, as if I was suddenly Marvel’s new creation of Electric Shock Man and doing it just for my own amusement. I’m getting scared to turn the light off at bedtime…

The Kaleidoscope, home of Ursinus College’s departments of Theater and Dance.

Tuesday saw a late start because of the snow, and Sarah and I had to dig the car out of the hotel car park to make it to the first class. We were asked to go in a directors’ class and do a couple of mock auditions for them. So Sarah went in as Nervous-Auditioner, stumbling and drying [click HERE to learn all about “drying”] her way through a speech, and I followed that with Mr. Know-It-All, who refused to redo his speech when asked to try it more melodramatically. “You don’t understand,” I spat back, “I’ve just played this part at the Royal Shakespeare Company!” Thankfully, Sarah and I got a chance to go back in (this time as Ms. Couldn’t-Care-Less and Mr. Couldn’t-Care-More) and make them realize that we weren’t really like that. Honest.

Meanwhile, on Friday, after we had done our first show the previous evening, Will went in to do his class and was promptly asked four times, by different people, to give a rendition of one of our songs in the round, “Rose, Rose, Rose, Red” – I think, having agreed to sing it the first time, it was hard to get out of it after that. Arise Jukebox Willy. Interesting how popular the use of song in the show has been over here.

As for outings this week, the weather put paid to the first half of the week, and I’m afraid none of us made it to the Liberty Bell – the closest I got, in fact, was a full-size replica back in Houston. Interesting that it and the original were both made in London. Sarah and Waggy (her husband, who came out to join us this week, along with Jas’ boyfriend Kieran) did get to Philadelphia on Friday and visited such oddities as the Mütter Museum (shown on the right), a collection of medical artefacts and brains and colons, apparently. I think I might have been even more scared to turn the light off after that…

I did make it as far as Phoenixville, a small town nearby, which has a peaceful charm about it, a few streets of Victorian wooden-slatted houses made all the more picturesque by the snow and the clear blue skies. I stopped to help a man in a very little car get out of a very lot of snow and just enjoyed the chance to wander and take in the numerous iconic yellow school buses dotted about the place, all ready to chug into action. It was less peaceful downtown, where Molly Maguire’s was already doing a roaring trade at 3pm on St. Patrick’s Day. I squeezed my way in past the kilts, the bagpipes, the fiddlers and the sea of green that covered all three floors, and sipped a little Guinness. One has to fit in, don’t you know…

One oddity about Phoenixville: it has a cinema there, the Colonial, where a famous scene from The Blob, a horror B-movie starring Steve McQueen, took place. Apparently in June they hold a BlobFest every year, where they recreate that scene. Look, I’ve told you, I’m scared enough about turning the light out as it is…

There’s been a bit of reminiscing in the hotel bar this week. The line dancing, the snow, Mission Control, Indian Forest Mountain, the Hancock Tower, skimming stones on Lake Michigan; all in all we feel pretty lucky. Not only that, but I it’s been a rewarding challenge, both in the classrooms and out. We seem to be in a time, on both sides of the Atlantic, of Arts funding cuts and pushing the money into more quantifiable, more headline-grabbing areas. All I would say is that I know, by seeing it on students’ faces and from feedback from them and their professors, that we have made a difference here – for some of them, a tangible and long-lasting difference. That is the joy of this job, and long may it continue. I know, by seeing it on students’ faces and from feedback from them and their professors, that we have made a difference here – for some of them, a tangible and long-lasting difference. That is the joy of this job, and long may it continue.

So tomorrow the adventure comes to an end. Well, sort of; we will be doing two performances of the show in London on April 2nd (5pm) and April 3rd (7.30pm), so please do come to the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone if you can. We’d love to see you.

And now it really is time to turn the light off. Thank you America. Good night and good luck.

— Roger May (March 19, 2017)

Houston…we have Shakespeare | AFTLS lands in Texas

Week seven is the “hot stop” of the tour, down in Houston. For weeks now, we have been imagining ourselves down here, in Hawaiian shirts and shorts and playing frisbee on the beach, margarita in hand… Hmm. Houston, we have a problem. But hey, warm winds and warm rain aren’t so bad – unless you forget where you parked the car in the parking lot, that is. Then you can get pretty wet, as a couple of us found out to our cost.

The University of Houston Clear Lake is made up of about eight and a half thousand students, on a sprawling campus that includes alligators and deer and armadillos. But Jas had watched a TV programme about how to escape from an alligator, so we felt quite safe. “So what do you have to do then, Jas?”. She replied: “Run”. None of them made it to a class, although an armadillo popped by the stage door after the show to say hello. No, I’m not joking.

Elizabeth Klett did a fine job of marshalling the troupe from airport to faculty meeting (where we discuss the classes to come with the teachers), and we had an eclectic mix of classes lined up for us this week: from Digital Photography to Creative Writing, from Public Speaking to Antigone (Sarah has become our Greek expert on this tour), from British Romantic Poets to Educational Psychology.

I must confess, I had had a few sleepless nights working out how best to do a class on “Manfred” by Byron, but actually it was a real pleasure. It’s an epic poem (also called a closet drama) and concerns a man seeking forgetfulness or forgiveness after he (it is implied) sleeps with his sister who then kills herself. We read the scene where he meets the spirit of his sister and explored the idea of status and eye contact and what clues there are in the text as to how the speech could be played. I then split the students into twos and had them improvise a situation where one person was seeking forgiveness from the other, looking to see if there was anything useful we could find from this exercise for the poem. One of them began with “I’m sorry I ate your grandmother’s sandwich. How was I to know it would be the last one she ever made for you…” Sometimes I love this job.

TV in Houston offers the NASA channel and a Russian channel; we soon discovered why. By the first evening we had met Vladimir and Yuri in the hot tub (Vladimir even came to see one of the performances). And we even got the chance, on Friday, to go and visit the Johnson Space Center – the highlight being the chance to go into Mission Control pictured below). It’s amazing to think what was accomplished from here. And all, we were told, using five IBM Supercomputers with the same memory as we use now for a couple of photos on our smartphone.

So yes, they can fly people to the moon and back but, as we would mutter more than once on this tour, “Why can’t they build any pavements?” [translation: sidewalks] We still skip our way around various obstacles to get to a local bar at least once a week, or to the local bowling alley – this week, with the help of NASA’s flight path technology (or maybe with the help of the local bar), brought the highest score of our tour. More importantly, Sarah got two strikes, the first being greeted with arms aloft and a bellowed “International Women’s Day!!” Never has lane 16 been that animated. Or lane 17 that bemused…

The shows went well here and built up through the week. On Saturday, remarkably, another Wyoming student turned up to see it (see Nashville blog), along with aforementioned armadillo. Thank you Kat. And, earlier that day, Will led a terrific community workshop that brought a good turnout, none more enthusiastic than six year-old Harper. It’s always difficult, without an outside eye, to know how the show is evolving, but feedback seems to be very positive – even from Harper, and we were treated to a hug and a drawing.

Saturday night, after the show, we promised to be reasonably abstemious, as we were booked in to the Houston Rodeo on the Sunday. But, Texan hospitality being what it is, and daiquiris being what they are, only Sarah and I saddled up on Sunday morning for the trip. Well, neither of us knew quite what to expect, really, but the whole thing was massive in size and massive in spectacle: a huge fun park outside, a vast livestock show, a horse show and a packed 70,000-seater stadium that hosted the Super Bowl a few weeks back. It was all quite ridiculously wonderful.

Once we got into the stadium – standing tickets only – Sarah and I had a ruse prepared. We sat ourselves down in two empty seats and, if approached by the actual seat holders, would explain that we were from the British Seat-Warming Society, hired by the event to warm initial impact – “and the best thing is, there’s no charge for this service. But feel free to tip.” We thought we might make a few bucks along the way, jumping from seat to seat, but actually the ticket holders only turned up just as we were leaving. We tried to be interested in The Chainsmokers’ concert that followed the rodeo but, by then, we were too soaked to the brim of our Texan hats with what had gone before: pig racing, steer wrestling, bull riding, lassoing, calf scrambling, mutton busting…the list goes on, as do the memories.

Thank you Houston. No problem after all.

— Roger May (March 16, 2017)

Acting up in Iowa | AFTLS at St. Ambrose

Ambrose Hall at St. Ambrose University (Davenport, Iowa)

And so to Iowa. Very flat, Iowa, as Mr. Coward might have said. We were greeted by Lance Sadlek at the airport, a man who proved to be the most wonderful host to us, with his patience and his warmth and his infectious effervescence — thank you Lance. Indeed, Iowa seemed to open its arms to us at every turn, almost as if it knew that this was week six for us, that check-ins, repackings and hotel breakfasts had slightly lost their lustre.

Deb at Notre Dame also knew this, and consequently booked us into the Residence Inn for the week, and the addition of a kitchenette in the rooms was a real treat; we scampered to local delis and bought ginger and spice and all things nice — gluten-free, in my case — and said a temporary farewell to burgers and wings and ranch dressing. (Please don’t think of us as newly-converted yoga-crafted Puritans; the freezer section meant I could also stuff my face with Ben and Jerry’s…)

St. Ambrose University was founded under the auspices of the diocese of Davenport as a seminary and ‘school of commerce’ in 1882, first as an academy, then later a college, and only officially a university in 1987 (on Shakespeare’s birthday). In World War ll it was also used as a location for training officers for the US Navy. There are about three and a half thousand students here (none of them Navy officers, to my knowledge) in a concentrated campus, surrounded by wooden-slatted houses in muted Shaker colours. It makes for a pretty ‘frame’ to the place.

This week (unusually for me), I got to teach a couple of classes with theatre majors, and Corinne Johnson, their teacher here, seems to have built up a wonderful rapport with the students. In my first class, the Kardashians made a reappearance (see past weeks), but this time they had to face the US Army; they may at last have met their match. In the next class, I had the Costume Design students try to recreate the first scene in the AFTLS style, with all seven of them assigned at least two parts — and attempting to use basic costume and/or props to help keep the characters ‘alive’ during the numerous character changes. At one point, in exasperation, a student called Megan threw her script to the floor and cried, “How do you do this?” Yep, that’s pretty much how we felt on day one of rehearsal, too, Megan…

The Romeo and Juliet cast at St. Ambrose University with Nancy Hayes (center) and Lance Sadlek (upper right)

Later in the day, the charming chair of the St. Ambrose English Department, Nancy Hayes (who has helped to set up numerous Shakespeare-related events), was telling me that, in one of her classes, she thought that Sarah had brought something out of one of her students that she had never seen before, and that she thought would change her forever. Nancy claimed she had been changed too, grabbing the chance to be a waltzing fighter. “I’ve never waltzed before in my life!” She exclaimed. It took another ten seconds for her to add, “…or fought either, you understand”.

We were given the novel task this week (forgive the pun) of taking part in a project called Human Book Day, where we had to be a book — title previously provided by us — and be happy to take questions from any visitors to the library. So there were we five, pontificating on death and mutilation, ghosts and ghouls, diversity, cross-dressing and text exploration. Not your typical Wednesday afternoon.

We were also asked one evening to do a short presentation for some benefactors, where Jack acted as ringmaster and put us through our paces. “Show us how Lady Capulet sits, William”, “Do your northern accent, Jas”, “Now show us how quickly you can change from Paris to the Nurse, Sarah”. I feigned a huge interest in my shoes and hid among the vegetable dips…
When I first toured with this company 17 years ago, I bought a shot glass from every venue, as a memento, and I’ve kept up with the practice this time around. Sadly, St.Ambrose had none for sale, so I headed (with Sarah) down to the John Deere Pavilion. We are in big John Deere country here and big is, well, a big theme down there, with their big tractors and very big combine harvesters etc. So big that they too, don’t deal in anything as small as a shot glass. However, Sarah and I still stayed long enough to try out the simulator digger. Sarah caused less damage.

There was only one show this week, but very well-attended, with over 420 in the audience. And there was a real feeling that we wanted to give our kind hosts the best possible performance. People seemed pleased. One student even said to me afterwards: “I loved the Queen Mab speech. I was holding my girlfriend’s hand at the time but, right then, I was thinking that I could leave her for you.” Not sure that would work as advertising.

Other highlights of the week included a night out bowling, (where Scotty and Josh tried teaching us how to spin the ball), an evening out with Elaine and the local running club (first and last time I run over the Mississippi in the wind and snow) and an invitation to the Erotic Thigh – actually the Exotic Thai, but the neon sign wasn’t very clear…

Time for us to leave Davenport in one piece (which, apparently, is more than can be said for Cary Grant), proudly wearing our gifted John Deere baseball caps. Actually, that almost proved a problem late in the night on Saturday as they are forbidden in some bars, but I think peace was restored with some strawberry daiquiris. In shot glasses. Cheers. – Roger May (3/10/17)

AFTLS in Nashville | Visiting the House that Vander Built

The Cornelius Vanderbilt statue at the front entrance to Vanderbilt University. (Photo, Neil Brake)

Halfway through the tour. And so to the house that Vander built. Cornelius Vanderbilt, to be precise. He was a shipping and then rail magnate who donated $1 million to the college in 1873. From what I’ve heard, it was actually his wife who was the driving force behind the project, but he signed the cheques and took the acclaim and it’s his statue at the entrance. ‘Twas ever thus.

Now, we had hoped the more southerly states would be warmer, but none of us (not even Nashvillians) expected, in February, temperatures in the mid 70s (about 23 degrees Celsius, for any Brits) to sigh pleasantly in our faces as we disembarked from the plane, in our four layers of Indiana protection. I should explain that there is a real art to packing for one of these tours. For a start, it’s wise to take as little as possible. 23 kilos is the maximum allowed but, since we are state-hopping every week, and since we are often given a wearable welcome gift on arrival, it’s wise to underpack.

We’ve all had different tactics. Jack, as the most recent tourer with AFTLS, has remembered to travel light. (Also, he’s from Liverpool, where long sleeves only make an appearance with snow apparently, so he doesn’t need much). Having toured with AFTLS 17 years ago, I have had time to forget the art of light packing, and so every Sunday night is a creative juggle between suitcase and rucksack, to avoid extra charges. Will’s tactic is to wear as much as possible on the travel day in an attempt to keep it out of his luggage, so Tennessee quickly produced a ‘Wilting Will’ this Monday. Sarah, meanwhile, is the Carousel Queen; you’ll never fail to miss that bright pink Barbie case at baggage reclaim. Jas’ case consists mainly of two roller blades, which have been very useful for about five minutes of the tour so far.

Despite all that, we made it safely to the Hampton Inn. Three of us in the company have called on reinforcements for the week: Jas has her friend Daniella, Jack has his girlfriend
Sara, and I have my wife and kids waiting in room 524.

There’s something psychological about this choice (half way through the tour) and there’s something practical about this choice (school half-term). Either way, Nashville is a lovely choice, with warm weather and a very friendly downtown, with open windows and open arms, as we bask in the world of country and bluegrass. It’s a tiny tourist area downtown, but we feel welcomed with bar after bar of musicians serenading us along our way. It makes for a warm and inviting atmosphere of bars full of bars, if you see what I mean.

And maybe it was this haze of good feeling that enticed many of us onto the dance floor for a spot of line dancing at the Wildhorse Saloon. That was a night that will live long in the memory.

I also took in some laser quest (Goofy Jr, in retrospect, is not a good fighting name), some margaritas (rude not to) and the opening game of the baseball season for Vanderbilt who, two years ago, won the College World Series. (I’m not sure The Vandy Boys is a great fighting name either, but they play very well and I’m now a committed fan.)

And, bizarrely, Nashville is home to the only full-size replica of the Parthenon. No. I wasn’t expecting that, either.

Aeriel view of Vanderbilt University
(Photo: Anne Rayner)

It’s a sizeable campus here, with a hospital in the middle of it, which attracts a lot of medical students and post grads – and green grass, the first such sighting on our travels. Medical or not, a number of students came to see the two shows on Saturday, and the feedback was very warm. Very different houses for the matinee and the evening – not better or worse than each other, but the afternoon was definitely a quieter house, perhaps less interested in the humour, but very quietly attentive as the tragedy unfolded in front of them. It’s part of the joy of a live medium, where audiences react in different ways and the actors, consciously or subconsciously, adapt to the change in atmosphere.

Come the evening, of course, my children were in, so I was expecting to get some notes.

There were two from Tasha, aged 11:

1) “You were really scary; I didn’t like it. I hope you don’t shout like that at me when I’m older.”
(as Capulet, to daughter Juliet)
2) ” I kept thinking, it must be weird for Sara to watch her boyfriend kissing another girl…”

Also in the audience this week was Hunter, a student whom I had directed in a five-person A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the University of Wyoming in Laramie a couple of years ago, in the AFTLS style. “You know what?” he said after the show. “Having been in one and now seeing one like this, I never want to see Shakespeare done any other way.” Praise indeed.

Apart from the oddity of teaching in Wilson Hall, (rumoured to have its basement taken over by monkeys), the classes passed by with good involvement but little incident. Will and Sarah did a couple of playwriting classes, which gave them the opportunity to be gods, 6-year olds, sci-fi robots, and internet daters. That must have kept them busy.

And to finish off this lovely week, I went dancing in La La Land…no, I mean dancing in the Moonlight…with Warren Beatty. As if I needed something else to remember this week by.

— Roger May (February 28, 2017)