Our second week in the USA and our first residency brought us to beautiful Utah where we’ve been spending time with Brigham Young University. This week, I chatted to Kaffe Keating and Grace Andrews about our time in Provo; the workshops with students, the shows and the landscape!
Hello there! Welcome to the AFTLS blog 2023. I’m Jonathan and I’m very excited to be bringing you updates about our tour, travels, adventures and mishaps for Romeo and Juliet. As well as some pictures and some words, I’m going to be bringing together a few audio snap-shots of our experiences, so you’ll be able to hear from myself, and the other actors, all about the trip.
Kicking off our first blog entry you’ll hear from two cast members, Hillary and Thomas, who will be chatting about our very first week in the USA: rehearsals in South Bend, the campus of Notre Dame and our weekend trip to Chicago!
I’d intended last week’s blog to be the last, and to leave it lost in Barry Manilow’s Bermuda Triangle. But having had a couple of days rest I found myself scribbling this, which I hope you’ll take as a light-hearted farewell from my angle. Mr Tucker was our taxi driver for most of the last week. Thanks for reading.
Mr Tucker took us wide eyed from St George’s through Tucker’s Town and Devon to Fourways, Georgia heavy on our suitcase minds Mr Tucker took us
Mr Tucker took us bleary eyed to prison, wide Sargasso Sea behind the walls where the waiting young perform the beach scene in their minds Mr Tucker took us
Through Somerset and Southampton to Dockyard, big ships sailing in, grabbing rum and shorts and out again, filling Horseshoe bay like ducks on a hurricane Mr Tucker took us
Mr Tucker took us back to school, learning Shakespeare’s new minted words: baseless, barefaced, bump countless, critic, swagger Knock, knock – who’s there?
Mr Tucker took us to the stage and back shouting in the evening over tree frog chorus, lamentings heard i’ th’ air where Mr Tucker took us
To a Bermuda beach breaking our toes in electric blue washing our wounds in pink sand, the gift of the parrot fish and the weight of the road Mr Tucker took us home –
Indiana, Texas and North Carolina, Hawai’i, California, Florida and Georgia, from the Swizzle Inn where we swaggered out again to Canada Water, Mr Tucker took us.
Here in Georgia, on the Golden Isles, Storm Nicole has skirted passed and today’s classes were all cancelled as a precaution. Storm Ian threatened us in North Carolina a few weeks back, now Nicole, and our thoughts are once again with the people of Florida affected.
On a less serious level it’s a shame, as I was looking forward to seeing which icons my students studying Cultural Power were going to chuck into the boiling pot, in the class I had planned. I had money on the Sony Walkman and the Cornhole sack replacing our fillet of a fenny snake, but that’ll have to wait for another time. We’ve had a really warm welcome from the College of Coastal Georgia this week, particularly from Professor Rob Bleil, who among other brilliant qualities wears a different bow tie for every teaching day of each semester. The class cancellation has meant a bow-less day for Rob, perhaps, and allowed us pause for thought; and so as we near the end of our American adventure I’m glad to have a moment to reflect on some highlights.
We’ve travelled around 20,000 miles and explored eight very different states, collecting tales and encounters that I’m sure we’ll carry with us for years. We’ve met many wonderful, characterful, people – take a bow Fonzo, Hartley, Huk, Dye, Sununu, Panek, Jose, Altmeyer, Kwasny et al. – while performing and working with students on eight university campuses from Hawai’i in the west (or the east depending which way you go) to Georgia in the east. The journey’s not over yet. We’ve a treat next week as we head further east out into the ocean. But frankly, it’s been a blast!
Macbeth has been one of my favourite Shakespeares for a long time (for me only pipped, I think, by Twelfth Night and King Lear) for its urgency and its welcome of the bizarre; and after performing in this production I like it even more. It never fails to grab me and drag me with its kicking and screaming. I’ve done two previous Macbeths, one of them in China so it’s been great to consider these two experiences alongside each other (like a cold war in kilts!) For those not entirely fed up with my musings you can read about my time in China in this piece for The Observer.
In those previous productions I often felt for the actor playing Macduff. A difficult part, perhaps often forgotten, he doesn’t appear until late in act two and almost immediately has to deal with horror, horror, horror. He doesn’t get to be a ghost; has to do a big fight; and most of all, has to receive the most terrible, personal news. I’d never really fancied playing the part, probably because I didn’t think I was up to it, and couldn’t imagine anyone casting me as him anyhow.
But thank you AFTLS & Shakespeare at ND: I’ve surprised myself in loving the challenge of having a go at dear Duff, and others, and in such supportive company too, thanks to Anne, Annabelle, Claire and Roger. I’ve learnt what I probably knew already in theory, but not always in practice, that with such material there is nowhere to hide. The job, as with the travel too I’ve come to know, is about leaving yourself alone and being there. In the end, about trust. The part, in its all too humanness, remains a challenge each time I have a go, and for that I am grateful. And no-one said it was easy!
The other clear highlight of the tour for me – beyond swimming off an Hawai’ian beach, sipping beer in South Bend Brew Werks, and Mavis Staples! – has been the work we’re asked to do in the classrooms. It’s a significant part of our week, the heart of it, and if it’s been anywhere near as fun and rewarding for the students as it has been for me, then we’re on to a winner! I’ve led workshops, most often using the Macbeth text as a springboard, with classes on visual art, architecture, psychology, commedia, literature, theatre, among other studies, and have loved the way the students (for the most part!) are willing to dive into, sometimes scary, waters and have a go. I’m really proud of responses like ‘you gave us the permission to be silly,’ and that which Anne and I got after our recent joint session with acting students at San José: ‘it was a class delivered with love.’
Last night as the storm gathered I offered my other four intrepid actors the chance to chip in with some of their own highlights and, eventually, the floodgates opened! Talking of the show Roger remembered the quality of focus from the audience for our first performance, at Westville prison; while Claire talked of her surprise and delight at being presented with a garland of fresh flowers after our first Hawai’i show. In terms of teaching Claire went on to remember her work with opera students and how one student in particular was committed to continuing the work they’d started together. And Roger will never forget the moment, previously mentioned, when an improvising student said ‘hey buddy, I need your pants.’
We all agreed that the experiences we’ve had as a result of the incredible travel we’ve been afforded are too many to mention. Cherished memories behind every spreadsheet itinerary, hard to single down. But Anne finally landed on her favourite thing: the architecture boat tour along the Chicago River. For ‘the colours, the styles, the history – a day of reflecting on what we’d been doing and on all that was to come – and with a cocktail in hand!’ Claire chipped in, quite rightly, with ‘walking into the most incredible hotel room in Hawai’i and seeing there was loads of free stuff!’
And then Annabelle brought us back to something I think we all agree on wholeheartedly: ‘It has to be the wildlife and all the different micro climates in each state. From turkey vultures in their hundreds in Indiana, to dolphins in Georgia; manta rays, parrots and turtles in Hawai’i; butterflies and aligators in Florida. The list goes on. David Attenborough would be having a field day!’
I don’t know if Sir David is available for the next AFTLS tour; but in any case let’s hope the storms have all passed now as we start to prepare to head back to London Town and the Canada Water Theatre. I’ve a feeling there’s a bit more fun – and rum – to be had before we get there though, as we stop off in a tantalising place on the way; the inspiration for another of Shakespeare’s tales, which starts with a Tempest. Our story starts with thunder too, and When shall we three meet again…
Soon our American connection will cease, cell phones and all, and so if you never hear from us again then we’re probably somewhere near a small island in the Atlantic, between Georgia and Land’s End. In a mythical place, with three angles and three sides. Swimming, no doubt.
I’m writing this in Bo Diddley Plaza, downtown Gainesville. The great blues man spent his last thirteen years just a few miles out of town. Later I’ll stroll to The Bash, an annual music festival in tribute to the musician Tom Petty, who was born and grew up here in Gainesville. He worked briefly as a grounds keeper at the university where we’ve been resident all week – and where a lime tree he’s said to have planted is these days known as the Tom Petty Tree. Coming to Florida this week, I’d expected sunshine, water and perhaps the odd alligator, but what the week has really brought, in abundance, is music.
I’ve been drenched in it, like the downpour on Wednesday night that turned the humid heat dry; and seem to have found sounds round every corner of this relatively small but very buzzy northern Florida city. It’s been a rock ‘n’ roll week.
As I mentioned in the previous entry the driver who picked us up at Gainesville airport was a renowned reggae singer and songwriter who treated us to a beautiful private concert before we’d even set foot in town. Moments later I started to spot, among the Halloweeners, another species – the punk rocker – as spent revellers started to stagger back to our hotel from Fest, a huge punk festival here in town which sadly we just missed.
The next evening, while the rest of my gang enjoyed karaoke elsewhere (including, I’m sure, their unforgettable rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody) I stumbled across an open mic night in a little pub called The Bull, where the quality of act was exceptional. I particularly enjoyed a young man who stepped up to do a 10-minute drum solo; and another who played Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up with Floridian vim and vigour. I love Rick and so do the good people of Gainesville.
Later an older man with a banjo sang a song about falling in love with a woman who lived many, many miles away and how he was going to put ‘one foot in front of the other’ and eventually reach her. Don’t be silly, she said, I’ll get on a plane and come to Florida! So the lyric changed to all the things they’d do together in Gainesville: We’re gonna walk in the woods, look at the trees; pick up rocks and cones and pine feathers… from bathrooms..!
The music of Gainesville, which has a sunshine smile on its face, hasn’t let up. Last night after our show I wandered into town for a quiet pint only to find about 200 students gathered outside in the market square for a band called The Picadillies – with banjo, cello, flute, bass ukulele, guitar and drums, they played raucous sea shanty rock as acorns pelted down from the oak trees above. And a few days ago it was a chance meeting in the thrift store, after I’d popped in to pick up some shorts, that led me to more music, when the woman at the till, unprompted and excitedly, told me that her friend went to school with Tom Petty and that The Bash, in his honour, was a must.
There’s music in the Gainesville waters as well as ‘gators, and we hope to have added a beat or two of our own. Supporting the music of Shakespeare’s verse, we’ve added music to our story of Macbeth. Annabelle opens the show singing and playing; while later we sing My Poor Bird in a round. We punctuate the action with buffalo drum, recorder, tambourine, wood block, bird whistle, thunder stick, and our (and particularly Annabelle’s) pride and joy, the autoharp. A small harp with buttons for its 21 chords, Annabelle found it after her previous AFTLS tour and liked it for its portability and as a theatre instrument she could master quickly. There are 36 strings and they’re temperamental, leading Annabelle on an adventure to track down a re-stringer, which led her to Goshen, Indiana and a man called Bill at Second Song Music who, like Annabelle could talk about autoharps all day! They would have done if she hadn’t needed to be back in time to sing Ae Fond Kiss at the top of our show. The autoharp is now as well travelled as we are and comes complete with stickers from our stops. It’s our spikey, moody, faithful old friend. Like Tom Petty’s lime tree.
Created as a nod to Tom, back at The Bash we’re treated to a wonderful, friendly, free festival. No fences or gates, just great bands on three stages and thousands of local people rocking up. I enjoy the rocky Morningbell and the bluesy folk of Wax Wings, before gathering at the main stage for Larkin Poe. Their singer introduces one song by describing her recent move from Georgia to Tennessee and (as if she’d read my previous blog!) the feeling of having one foot in the past of the previous place and one in the future of the next. The song is called Georgia off my mind.
But the best was yet to come: Enter Mavis Staples. The blues gospel singer and civil rights activist is 83 years old and, while understandably having the odd mid-set sit down, her voice and performance is astonishing; and her band just about the coolest middle-agers you could care to imagine. A singular treat to see Mavis, she leaves the stage powerfully, mid-song, having encouraged the gathered crowd to vote in the elections this week. I’m tired, she says. And the crowd laugh. But she goes on to describe the things she’s tired of in the society she sees around her and so the reasons to vote. A wise and powerful woman, long after Mavis has left the stage her crowd are still singing the refrain she started: we’ve got work to do.
Meanwhile back on campus I have a quick look for the Tom Petty Tree but fail to find it, like many before me. Google maps had told me there’s also a Tom Petty Road in Tennessee and Tom Petty Plumbing and Heating in Ilkley, Yorkshire. Whether they exist or not I don’t know, as like much of the music here, delivered with a wink and a sideways glance, it may all be part of the funky folklore. In a interview not long before he died Tom said he had no recollection of ever planting a tree on the University of Florida campus. Still, it makes for a good story, or a song. Something like The Lime Tree That Tom Petty Never Planted (Grows Old in Gainesville).
I’d try to write it myself if I had the time, but we’re moving on now to another tune: Georgia on my mind.