“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #9

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

I’ll level with you- there’s one worry that won’t go away when it comes to writing these blogs. Despite the wildly diverse places we’re visiting and the people we’re meeting, there’s a kind of similarity about the weeks on tour: we teach some classes, we do some shows, people are lovely to us, we do some tourism. The thing to avoid is writing a column which, with the odd change of nouns, could apply to any week or anywhere.

That’s not going to be a problem this week. The problem this week is going to be to find words to do justice to how overwhelming an experience our visit to the Limestone Correctional Facility was.

The kind of Shakespeare performances we’re used to giving back home usually take place in front of a pre-existing audience for Shakespeare plays. Audiences don’t generally take their seats wondering what is going to happen in this story about someone called King Lear, they sit down thinking ‘I wonder what they’ll do with the storm and the blinding’.

To have the privilege of presenting this play to an audience containing a number of people who had never seen a play at all, let alone the biggest of the lot, was unforgettable. We’ve never done the show to such a rapt, responsive audience. The generosity of their reaction during and after the show was truly humbling.

Lines took on new meanings, or deepened their original ones. Richard’s line in the very first scene, ‘Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here’ rang around the room. The references to justice, and to injustice, to power and punishment, became even more live and more urgent. Tricia’s line about a magistrate and a petty criminal (‘Change places- handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?’) resonated even more in a room where we could identify inmates by their uniforms and students by their mufti.

Fred, as poor Tom, has a line about how he is ‘stock-punished and imprisoned’. The next, unconnected, line, is ‘Shhh- peace’. But this audience connected the ‘shhh’ to the ‘imprisoned’- a kind of ‘don’t mention where we are!’- and it got the biggest, and only, laugh that line will ever get. Fffion’s Fool was a particular favourite of this audience, and how could it not be, when the character spends so much time challenging authority?

It was a day that meant something, and our hearts were pretty full by the end. Fred delivered his narration of Gloucester’s death with tears streaming down his face, and for once I didn’t have to reach for my reply ‘I am almost ready to dissolve, hearing of this’.

On the outside, Florence, Alabama charmed and surprised us. On the surface it’s exactly as we foreigners might have imagined a small town in the South to be- neat and pretty and courteous. But it’s also a town with a rebel heart. Some of the greatest music ever made was cut in its two iconic recording studios. Turn a corner in a suburban neighborhood and you might find yourself in front of a stunning Usonian house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, or the wooden cabin where W.C Handy, the Father Of The Blues, lived.

And yes, we taught some classes, we did some shows, and people were lovely to us (huge thanks to Cynthia Burkhead for getting us here, and to Stephen Melvin, Jay and Candice for showing us round). The theatre at UNA was pretty much perfect for our show and the students were especially enthusiastic both in their response to the show and in the foyer afterwards.

But my abiding memory of this week, among many extraordinary ones, will be walking past the fences and the barbed wire, hearing the doors shut behind us, breathing in the air and looking at the limitless expanse of land and sky, thinking about the people on the other side of those gates and how we had told them a story.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #8

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

I’m maybe not the best person to write this week’s blog, and nor would Fred have been: this was the week we both received what I shall officially call conjugal visits. Our other halves flew in from London to San Francisco to spend the week with us and they were a very, very welcome sight.

But you, dear reader, don’t want to read about our dears. I could bore you with talk of romantic meals for two at the chef’s table, cosy getaway nights in a hotel downtown, how wonderful it feels to wake up next to the person you married after you’ve spent six weeks apart, but it’s really none of your business.

Instead, let’s talk about how we were seduced by San Francisco. It’s a gentler, less in-your-face city than its frenemy down the coast. LA shouts “look at me, aren’t I cool?” while SF quietly waits for you to notice how surpassingly beautiful it is.

I love cities when you cross a street and in all four directions there’s a view down a long, straight road, and San Francisco does this to you on every crosswalk- with the added bonus of its crazy, vertiginous hills. The drivers in our company became very adept at hill starts (Richard: “I wouldn’t like to do this in a manual!”) and there were a few terrifying, Grand Theft Auto-style journeys up and down streets that were pretty much vertical, but the fear was beautifully assuaged by the stunning, colourful architecture and the gorgeous views over the bay.

Once San Francisco gets under your skin, you realize why it was such torture for the inmates of Alcatraz to gaze out at the city, a mile and a lifetime away. Fred, Richard and I visited the prison and can now say we’ve made it to Broadway- the central aisle of the cell block was given that ironic name and leads to an intersection called Times Square.

Other highlights included theatre at the world-famous ACT, where Mfoniso Udofia’s HER PORTMANTEAU broke my heart and soothed it better. A visit to the Castro with my husband was hugely moving, paying tribute to the heroes whose sacrifices made our marriage possible. Fisherman’s Wharf fed us sourdough and chowder, Turtle Hill punished us with its relentless climb but rewarded us with spectacular views of the entire city, and the Golden Gate Bridge genuinely took our breath away: the way it hides from you as you walk through Presidio Park then suddenly appears from nowhere could only be greeted with a gasp.

Audiences at the Little Theatre at San Francisco State were warm and appreciative, and Kurt Daw welcomed us with great kindness and generosity.

I’m writing this in my hotel room at just before 9pm. My alarm is set for 3:30am so as to be on time for our 6am flight. We’re spanning timezones tomorrow, flying from California to Alabama. One day, one country, two very different places. We’re ready for the next hairpin turn in this tour of contrasts.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #7

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

Pro tip: if you’re an actor visiting Los Angeles for the first time, it really, really helps if you already have an acting job when you arrive.

Our status as actors has made us something of a novelty in several of the places we’ve visited, and has led to several delighted conversations. In LA? Not so much. The way to stand out in the home of the entertainment industry is probably to say you’re not an actor.

On touching down from Kansas (“I’ve got a feeling we’re not…” etc., etc.) the first, welcome change was the weather. I’ve tried not to spend too much time in these blogs moaning about being cold, but let’s be clear: we’ve been quite cold. The balmy, smoggy, scented air in LA gave a holiday feeling to our arrival, one which lasted despite our work schedule.

Classes at Occidental were a joy – really engaged, energetic students of both the undergraduate and the high-school variety, and mainly focused on acting and theatre, so although we didn’t have the usual variety of subject matter we were maybe able to feel a little more expert.

The Keck Theater was filled pretty much to capacity for our one performance, with one of the liveliest and most responsive audiences we’ve had on our travels. And because there was a reception laid on after the show with drinks and snacks (a delightful surprise to us when we emerged front of house after the show) we were able to meet and chat to some of the audience.

It was wonderful to get some direct and immediate feedback. And although that kind of feedback is necessarily going to veer towards the positive – it’s a brave, or a rude, person who would approach an actor as they grab a canapé after a three hour show to say ‘Boy, did you suck!’ – the show seemed to have touched people in just the way we’d hoped and we were all told some really lovely things.

And of course because we’re all actors, of all the places on our tour we were likely to have friends, LA was top of the list. I got to spend time with a friend of 27 years standing who I hadn’t seen since he felt the lure of Hollywood five years ago.

Fred caught up with his old Youth Theatre mentor, who is something of a Hollywood name himself, and Ffion and Tricia were also able to catch up with friends. When you’re away from home for a long time, old friends matter.

Four of us caught a match at LA Galaxy (complete with a surprise appearance by our compatriot David Beckham, who was being inducted into the club’s hall of fame), three of us were entertained at the Comedy Store, and two of us took a tour of the Hollywood Hills and found out that Britney Spears and Quentin Tarantino have both owned the same house. If those walls could talk…

And now we head to San Francisco, the shortest ‘commute’ of the tour so far. California has been a joy – it’s lovely to be spending another week here before we head back East.

Now if you’ll forgive me, I’m off to find some flowers to wear in my hair. And if you get that reference, you’re probably even older than I am.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #6

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

“Why, oh why, oh why, oh’ sing Ruth and Eileen in Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, ‘Why did we ever leave Ohio?’

Bernstein’s characters are lamenting their move from Ohio to New York- but maybe they just went to the wrong Manhattan? The Little Apple in Kansas has stolen a little piece of all our hearts this week after we made our own journey from Ohio.

The clear air and wide skies, the beautiful castle-style campus (visible from our hotel windows, the definition of an easy commute) the friendly welcome and the fantastic auditorium made our week in the middle of Middle America a highlight of the tour so far.

It was the first time we’ve done King Lear on a thrust stage, which had its pros and cons. The massive plus was being so close to the audience- there’s an immediacy to the communication when you have so many people almost in arm’s reach. However, we’re also very accustomed to performing the show end-on.

Having people at our sides and behind us meant we had to spend a lot of time working out how to turn our straight lines into diagonals, so that our audiences got to see us acting rather than backting. Fights had to be rejigged, as well: suspension of disbelief is all very well, but when the audience can clearly see the weapon hitting midair rather than flesh, that’s probably taking it too far.

The Chapman Theater is very well-equipped technically, too, so we were able to get a bit arty when it comes to lighting effects. Richard has put together a brilliantly adaptable LX plot which will work on any rig, but it was fun to embellish it a bit. The Chapman has a lightable cyclorama which surrounds the audience, and giving it a cold blue for the storm scene and a blood red for the final battle really added to the atmosphere.

The shows sold really well, too, which always helps. There’s something about hearing the buzz of audience chatter over a show relay which really helps focus the mind and set the adrenalin going. And thanks to a generous post-show dinner invitation from Professor Don Hedrick, we got to chat with some of them ourselves, too.

As we found in South Bend, it really is a privilege to be invited into people’s homes- and it helps with homesickness, too. It’s lovely to stay in hotels, with all mod cons and someone to make your bed for you every day if you want it, but it’s also nice to spend time somewhere lived in. A full refrigerator. Bookshelves. A row of shoes by the door. Little details of everyday life to remind us that our current day-to-day existence is thrillingly out of the ordinary.

LA next! With impeccable timing, we arrive the day after the Oscars. After a month made up pretty much of snow, snow, sleet and snow, we’re all looking forward to digging the shorts and T-shirts our from the bottom of our suitcases. See you by the pool.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #5

by Jonathan Dryden Taylor

Well, we can add ‘pulled over by the police on the interstate’ to our list of life experiences. On the journey from South Bend to Cleveland, we found ourselves stationary by the side of the road as a very diligent Ohio State Trooper quizzed our driver on who we were and what we were doing there. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a stretch limo on a motorway either, so I guess I’d have been a little curious…

That moment aside, it made a nice change to move venues on a road rather than in the sky, not least because all our suitcases are hovering round the dangerous 50lbs mark and a certain amount of hurried repacking tends to happen at airports. The journey was only around four hours or so and once we’d picked up our rental cars for the week we were able to check into our hotel.

I became aware of some of my priorities in life when I first saw my hotel room. We’ve been in some truly luxurious digs on this tour but this was the first time the rooms had had a bath rather than just a shower, and, better still, they had a fully fitted kitchenette! Apparently it doesn’t take the lap of luxury to make me happy: a hob, a measuring jug and a few pans will do it.

Cooking is the way I de-stress and calm down, so not having picked up a wooden spoon for three weeks had probably left me quite tightly wound. As soon as was humanly possible I was happily browsing the aisles at Trader Joe’s, and not long after that I was blissfully stirring a beef stew that became the basis of most of the week’s meals.

So determined was I to get it right that I popped down to the minimart at the hotel reception to get some beer for a good ale gravy, not stopping to think that buying strong IPA in a hotel at 10am might not be the best piece of reputation management I’ve ever achieved.

The welcome at John Carroll University was as warm as we’ve come to expect, and the classes were particularly diverse this week. As well as the O’Malley building which houses the arts and humanities, we also worked with the scientists in the Dolan building, and in the Boler Business School. It was a busy week with a number of classes each, but we all had our highlights.

Taking her lead from Lear’s ‘Poor naked wretches’ speech, Tricia delivered classes on poverty, social inequality and ‘cli-fi’ (a genre new to most of us!). Ffion tackled the relationship between Shakespeare and popular culture- a relationship she embodies in the show with her performance-poet take on the Fool. Richard examined the Psychology of Autism, and Fred and I literally taught the same class to a different set of students back to back (although our versions of the class were apparently pretty divergent!)

The giant Kulas Auditorium was our home for the week and it was great to bring the show to a space which matches the dimensions of the play itself. Jean Feerick and her colleagues in the English faculty couldn’t have been more welcoming and after our Friday night show we were taken for a very generous meal, in a restaurant whose décor some of us couldn’t resist paying tribute to…