About aaronnichols

Audience Development Manager for Shakespeare at Notre Dame

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)

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.]

‘Trevor Nunn’ is a Verb | Romeo and Juliet in Rehearsal

Whatever your political take, it feels like a strangely apt time to be doing a tour of Romeo and Juliet, a play about divisiveness and intolerance.

With that said, it’s time to pack. We line up our props of flowers and sticks and torches and bowls and curtains and sheets and, looking over them, we can see a representation of the collective maelstrom of our ideas that have bounced off these rehearsal room walls over the last few weeks. To be honest, this way of working (without a director) is an exhausting but invigorating process – if those are not too contradictory words.

William Donaldson (dead) and Jack Whitam fail to ‘Trevor Nunn’ while rehearsing Romeo and Juliet.

We have built up a strange company linguistic shorthand over the last few weeks. For some reason we ‘concur’ a lot, rather than agreeing (think Catch Me If You Can), and ‘Trevor Nunn’ (the name of a prominent theatre director in the UK) seems to be another form of agreement we use – not sure of the derivation of that! But it’s a relief that we ‘concur’ and ‘Trevor Nunn’ pretty frequently through our working day.

We still have some more rehearsal time in Indiana, but yesterday we showed our work (in the form of a run of the whole play) to some of the Associate Directors of the Company. Their feedback was very positive and also gave us some pointers to work on next week.

It’s only by doing a run of the play that you start to get an idea of each actor’s ‘track’ through the play. I think of the term ‘track’ as being from the musicals world, really, (I guess stemming from the fact that, in that world, you often have to understudy a number of other parts to cover for sickness etc, and so you need to learn the track of each one – in other words, the various entrances and exits, as well as your offstage journey to each one, and where you might be in a dancing formation etc. Anyway, it seems an apt word for us here, where we are playing many parts and needing to find out when we enter where, with what prop and as which character. As you can imagine, it’s a confusing route for all of us. This is made harder by the fact that no actor ever exits the stage; if you do leave the scene, you sit on the chairs upstage, as you may (and often will) be needed to contribute sounds or voices to scenes you are not otherwise involved in.

The five member Romeo and Juliet cast walks their tracks.

At the moment, this all seems insurmountable – so far I have 36 different items on my track list – but I’m sure that running the play a few times will make things clearer. So, it’s time to print up travel details, weigh bags, and hopefully all meet on Sunday at Heathrow airport. The journey begins.

Roger May (January 20, 2017 | Brixton)

[Update: our Actors From The London Stage are safe and sound at their American home, Shakespeare at Notre Dame. Their first public performances will be February 1-3. Click HERE for tickets.]

Romeo and Rum Cake: Creating Verona in South London

[The first in a series of blog posts from the spring 2017 Actors From The London Stage tour of Romeo and Juliet. Written by AFTLS actor and tour veteran, Roger May]

So, the journey begins. On many levels. One of which is that I’m a middle-aged blog virgin, so please be gentle with me and join us on a journey of discovery, travel, and adventure as Romeo and Juliet takes five people to new places, real and imaginary.

Jack Whitam, Sarah Finigan, Jasmeen ‘Jas’ James, Will Donaldson, and I were cast together for this play a couple of months ago after an audition and a recall, or call-back, as I think they are called in the States — in fact, let me say now that I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings between the languages of American English and British English. It wouldn’t be the first time. (Note to self, it’s called an eraser over there, an eraser…) Jack is doing his third tour with this company, and I am doing my second (although that was 17 years ago). However, there is no hierarchy within this company. Everyone has different strengths in this group, and not having a director allows us the chance to explore all of these.

Anyway, we had a read-through of the play a few weeks back, and, just before Christmas, we began the process by sitting down together with a blank canvas, a blank rehearsal room and a blank schedule. Only twelve days later, it seems like we’ve known each other a long while already and have built up a very good way of working with each other and explored a lot of different avenues around Verona (“where we lay our scene”).

We rehearse in Brixton, an area in south London that has made us very welcome. On our last rehearsal day before Christmas, there was a post-funeral wake downstairs (we rehearse in the large room upstairs) and, at lunchtime, we were invited to come down and join them for their meal. It was a feast, with some Jamaican specialties like fried plantain and curried goat. I was really moved by the whole thing. There seem to have been plenty of examples of the world closing in recently, becoming more insular, and here were people we didn’t even know inviting us down to eat with them. A Jamaican rum cake followed — I definitely tasted more rum than cake — followed by the rum bottle itself. I am still staggered by the warmth and generosity of that day.

Brixton shows a warm welcome to the cast of Romeo and Juliet: (pictured L-R) Jasmeen James, Sarah Finigan, William Donaldson, and Jack Whitam. Roger May is hiding behind the camera.

As I said earlier, we are now twelve days in – about half-way through our time in Brixton. We are still very much experimenting with different ways of conveying characters, building scenes and finding the through-line of the narrative, but already scenes are coming together, and yesterday we did a run of the play for the two Associate Directors who cast this play. Neither of them walked out.

One of the massive benefits of this way of working (with a cast of five) is that, in my experience, there has always been a clarity that shines out in performance, that helps the play to stand out and connect, and that is our aim here. Romeo and Juliet starts with an avalanche of characters in the first scene — Will is especially busy changing from one character to another (and another!) — and it has a couple of big set pieces. However, it also has a lot of two-hander scenes, so our challenge is to keep the focus clear, to tell the story and bring the audience with us.

On Monday we have a fight director, Philip D’Orleans, joining us. We think (although nothing is set in stone at this stage) that we’ll be using something to represent swords rather than swords themselves, making the trip through airport security a little simpler. We looked at hand-to-hand combat, but there are many references to rapiers and weapons in the script. Anyway, that’s today’s thinking. It all may change.

And, later in the week we have a woman called Donna Berlin coming in to help us with movement, both in terms of the ball scene and more general movement challenges in representing different characters — we have about four or five each to convey through the show. I think it’s fair to say that fitness levels will be tested in the coming weeks.

Busy week ahead. More to come…

Richard III | Mississippi River Run

Photo of St. Louis Skyline by Capt. Timothy Reinhart

AFTLS Quiz Time: I can’t believe this is our last week on the road with Richard III. So, all you Shakespeare pundits. I have a one question quiz for you. Where does this piece of Shakespeare text come from?

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear,
Till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,

But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep, great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
There’s the respect must give us pause:

Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take,

In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
In customary suits of solemn black,
But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,

Breathes forth contagion on the world,
And thus the native hue of resolution,
Like the poor cat i’ the adage, is sicklied o’er with care,
And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws,
But get thee to a nunnery—go!

You get two clues…

  1. When I first saw the mighty Mississippi, I laughed like a drain because it reminded me of this brain bender.
  2. It involves a King and a Duke.

Now on to our final two residency weeks, both spent at campuses on the banks of America’s mighty Mississippi River.

Last week, we performed and taught at the University of MissouriSt. Louis, affectionately referred to as UMSL (Um’-Suhl). We all had a blast in class. I taught “Acting for the Camera” to six lovely guys working on scripts written by the brilliant Dr. Niyi Coker Jr. – fantastic contemporary pieces that the young men acted really well. One of them, Dre, turned up in Jacqueline Thompson’s class the next day and knocked me out with his movement, physicalizing some knotty words from RIII.

lizumslI also taught an Honours group who were mostly biochemists, business majors, and athletes in Kim Baldus’s class. They were brave, committed, and lovely to teach. Both Jacqui and Kim did all the exercises along with their students – I do admire that.

hannahHannah went out to the Grand Center Arts Academy, a high school, and part of UMSL’s outreach programme and had a cracking class. We had a 10am matinee on the Friday which was a bit of a shock and had a good talkback after. All of Hannah’s students from the Academy were present and cheered to the rafters when she came out on stage for the talk – just LOVELY.

One of Evvy’s professors sent a message saying, “I’m on FIRE after my AFTLS class.” Not bad, eh?

It’s a strange thing to play just two or three shows a week especially when we all share so much text. We’ve actually only done around 22 performances. Normally, you’d play eight times a week, possibly in repertoire [multiple titles during the same week]. It makes me nervous usually for the first show in a new venue, but we have gradually all become more relaxed and the show has grown and become more textured and nuanced. I think our St. Louis performances were really enjoyed by us AND the audiences. Paul was incredible as he was under-the-weather but soldiered on magnificently. I think audiences are often surprised by how often “the show must go on” does literally happen.

umslmatinee

Our first evening show was interesting as all the motorways got closed down because Vice President Joe Biden was visiting St. Louis, supporting a Democratic senator, and his motorcade drove ALONE down the closed-off highways so many of our audience were stuck and we had to hold the curtain for 15 minutes. What a frightfully glamorous reason. We have been fascinated and often horrified by the lead up to the elections. My brother Nick, a BBC sports journalist did actually suggest that maybe I should have a blonde quaff [wig] as Richard – tempting, very tempting.

The 10-story slide at St. Louis's City Museum

The 10-storey slide at St. Louis’s City Museum

Apart from viewing the magnificent Mississippi, we all visited the St. Louis’s AMAZING City Museum, an adult and child playground (in an old shoe factory) where we all had the guts to brave the slightly hair raising slide and climb some of the contraptions hanging off the roof. Three of us got in those funny pods and went up the Arch, visited the gorgeous Forest Park and also went bowling. Evvy won and Alice got the most-stylish-throwing prize. We were invited to an evening of cocktails by UMSL’s Associate Professor of English (and the driving force of our being invited to UMSL) Kurt Schreyer: he and his wife Kim’s gingerbread house was lovely, and we were thrilled to go to someone’s HOME. A very good week. Read more in this from a post in the UMSL Daily.

My room with a (killer) view at Principia College

The view from our rooms at Principia College

As I write this (and before I tell you the answer to the quiz) I’m sitting in a charming room in Principia College (Elsah, Illinois): a Christian Science college just 45 minutes up the river from UMSL. Set in the most idyllic and peaceful surroundings, Principia has a thriving theatre department led by Jeff and Chrissy Steele who both studied and lived in Stratford on Avon for four years. I taught Jeff’s British Dramaturgy class earlier this week which was great fun and Alice, Hannah, Evvy, and Paul set the acting students alight in acting classes throughout the week. I managed to wangle my way into John O’Hagen’s dance class and Charleston-ed and shim-shammed for 90 minutes. Thanks for letting me join in, John; I just couldn’t resist it.

groupcropYesterday, our full group took full advantage of our surroundings and soared through the trees, reveling in the warmer-than-average autumn weather. Flying over 250′ above the ground, we added a new skill set to our CVs: zipline experts. Hannah outdid the rest of us by taking one run fast enough to flip over our instructor and into local legend.

We’re really looking forward to our last shows tonight and tomorrow where there’s a blinking HUGE church organ on the side of the stage which may HAVE to be used in the persuading of the citizens’ scene; it’s just CRYING out to be included. After this week’s workshops, the small but mighty campus is buzzing for our performances. Thanks Principia for being a brilliant final stop on our US tour.

We return to the UK next week and will perform Richard III in London later this month. See our final two performances at The Cockpit Sunday the 20th (5pm) and Monday the 21st (7:30pm). Tickets are available HERE.


I haven’t forgotten our quiz: the answer is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for that’s where the two fraudsters – the King and the Duke – decide to perform a night of Shakespeare. They also performed in a small American town on the banks of the Mississippi. Mangled bits of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III make up Twain’s hilarious mishmash of a speech. How wonderful that touring Shakespeare in the US is still such a delight 130 years after that novel was written.

— Liz Crowther (November 4, 2016)