“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #3

By Michael Wagg

So foul and.. foul.. a day I have not seen.

Last night during the fight at the end of our play a sword snapped in half. Roger and I battled on as best we could. The swords we use reflect the style of this work and are perhaps slightly less dangerous than the real thing, but still it was a shock and I’m pretty sure I’ve been holding my breath ever since. At least until I plunged into the hot tub this morning. Everything’s fine and we’ll have new swords soon, but it was hard not to see the mishap as a sign of the coming storm.

A hurricane, ridiculously named Ian, has caused devastation in Florida over the past 24 hours, and our thoughts have been with those affected there. We’ve had it a lot less harsh here, but heavy rain, high winds, and wise caution meant that our show was cancelled this evening. We were disappointed, particularly for the students we’ve been working with throughout the week who were due to come and see the show in the intimate Black Box Theatre. Even beyond Shakespeare, we’re told that for many of these students our performance would be their first experience of live theatre, so as much as the cancellation is put into perspective by the hardship and loss in Florida, we still felt the disappointment.

So, sitting here in the shelter of the hotel lobby in Charlotte, North Carolina, we’ve pause for thought, before we head back to base next week for our residency at Notre Dame. I thought I’d take the opportunity to do what I probably should have done long before blog three, and tell you who we are, and what the hell we’re doing here. Some of you reading may have a working knowledge of the AFTLS (Actors From The London Stage) experience, but even so its particular peculiarity is worth remembering; and for those who don’t know here’s, I think, what we’re up to!

Twice a year AFTLS, in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana (Shakespeare at ND) put five UK-based actors in a room in south London for five weeks and hope they’ll neither murder each other nor fail to make a production of a Shakespeare play. The play is decided in advance: in our case, The Tragedy of Macbeth. There’s a playful feeling of being locked in and left to get on with it, like kids in a rather wordy candy store, but the truth is there is great support from the extended company alumni, and particularly now from the magnificent Jennifer Higham.

There is no director in the room; no designer, musical director or stage management. It’s just the five of us left to thrash it out before flying off with what we’ve got to our university venues – in this case a mouthwatering list of nine places. In addition the five, who also control the show budget, can choose to briefly bring in an outside specialist, and we opted for the fight director Philip d’Orléans – a lovely man who appears a sort of Zen-like personification of war and peace.

Beyond that the five of us are the director, designer etc. But rather than thinking of the scenario as having five different directors (which has, let’s be honest, nightmare written all over it) I prefer to think of it as one director split into five complementary parts. And as much as the work is highly collaborative in this way, I think it’s also a lot more than that.

Once the fretful five have finished the five weeks of making, we’re off on the road and in the air, with all the ups and downs that may bring. The need to look after, and out for, each other is absolutely to the fore. I make no apology for quoting Sister Sledge in suggesting that at its best we are (a strange Shakespearian) family! At its worst too, I’m sure. But I feel very lucky to report that I’ve felt fully supported by the other four from the off, and I hope I’m providing the same. I also know that we’re very proud of the show we’ve made. But enough of the niceness; who are these losers?!

There are 31 named characters in Macbeth, plus messengers, soldiers etc, and while we’ve cut a few of them, that means an awful lot of hat-switching, so bear with me:

Roger May plays Macbeth, the bloody Sergeant, Old Man and a messenger, as well as taking the off-stage role of education co-ordinator (in our world, Thane of Education). Claire Redcliffe plays Lady Macbeth, Donalbain, Ross, Fleance, Second Witch, Young Siward and a messenger, and is our Thane of Travel. Annabelle Terry is Banquo, Lennox, the Porter, the Doctor, Son, Menteith, Siward and Hecate, and Thane of Tech. And Anne Odeke takes on Malcolm, Lady Macduff, First Witch, First Murderer, Caithness, the Gentlewoman and a messenger, is Thane of Tech (2) and looks after our hectic social life! Finally, I’m Duncan, Macduff, Third Witch, Second Murderer, Angus and Seyton, while also keeping an eye on Covid guidelines and scribbling here. I also do a lot of swimming… But hang on a minute!

Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my …

I was about to introduce you to our brilliant colleagues at Notre Dame, tell you a bit about the style of these productions and about the other significant part of our work, as the play is just the half of it – but that’ll have to wait for another blog. We’ve just been plunged into darkness, scuppering a competitive game of Exploding Kittens. Power cut. Storm Ian really has got the better of us.

Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood …

I’ll see you in South Bend. All being well.

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #2

By Michael Wagg

Everything this week has come in the shape of the state of Texas. On Tuesday morning at the breakfast bar my waffle was the shape of Texas. I was seduced into thinking this was a treat just for me, but it turns out all waffles here are the shape of Texas. The crisps (chips) we shared before dinner were each the shape of Texas. The shadows cast by the pecan trees, I’m sure are the shape of Texas. I expect if I spill my coffee it will form into… you get the idea. Texas is all around us; and Texas is big.

Over dinner on Monday evening, after we’d arrived from Chicago and our lazy swims in Lake Michigan, our host casually mentioned that Texas is about the size of France. I nearly choked on my Alamo Golden Ale. (Lake Michigan, by the way, is about twice the size of Belgium). I realise I’m experiencing what all comers to America feel at some point, but the sheer scale of this state takes some getting your head around. I’ve been thinking a lot about scale ever since, as my barbecued brain, I’m sure, morphs into the shape of …

Here in San Antonio the sky is huge, the roads even huger, the waffles substantial, and even the poor toad I nearly trod on was a big guy. The welcome we’ve received from everyone we’ve met, on campus and beyond, has also been wholly big-spirited and satisfyingly complete with ‘Howdy y’alls.’ I won’t mention the woman at the chicken shop who shouted at me for approaching the counter, sacrilegiously, on foot! (Car is king here.) The theatre where we opened our show on Wednesday night is sizable too; a recital hall with a generous pipe organ providing our backdrop. This first stab at the show on the tour proper went well. The only mishap was my knocking over a bottle of water, which trickled onto the smooth stage to form a puddle in the shape of …

At this first stop I’ve also been pondering the scale of our journey ahead. We’ll be taking this Scottish story to seven states, plus the bonus of Bermuda; across five times zones, covering something like 21,000 miles (don’t ask me to verify this, it’s a very rough estimate, and all I know is it’s an awful lot of Belgiums)!

The scale of our tale is significant too. It begins on a blasted heath, takes us to the battlefield and from there, deep into the darkest recesses of the mind. At the brutal end of it, as our heroes take their separate tragic roads (colossal freeways) an army of ten thousand moves a forest from one country to another. The fact that there are only four of us to do this makes the task even bigger.

But despite all this, despite the scale of everything, I’ve found it’s the smallness that sticks too. I’m thinking of fleeting moments of, sometimes surprising, contact: the man from Florida who has stopped each of us individually to tell us that many years ago he lived in Ipswich and still remembers snippets of conversation in the local shop. The woman who stopped her car to offer to take a photo of us beside a buffalo-shaped barbecue. The man at reception who has asked all of us if we know Wendy from England?

In the university context too, we’ve all brought back stories of small moments of meeting and response which grow far beyond themselves: this week the five of us have led workshops at the UTSA campus on a wide variety of subjects. Our job is to share our experience of Shakespeare and theatre-making across disciplines, which has led Anne to work with music students on composing in response to Shakespeare’s rhythms; Annabelle to explore Dante’s Divine Comedy; Claire to work on staging with opera singers; and Roger to tackle the art of persuasion, leading to one student improvising the line ‘Hey buddy, I really need your pants!’

I ran a workshop with art students and I’ll treasure the moment I turned round to see a group of three sporting tin hats for a slapstick reading of the weird sisters. The professor wrote to me afterwards that ‘your pleasure in seeing the results of our foolishness, gave us permission to blindly and fearlessly jump right in.’ After the show last night I overheard an opera student who Claire had worked with thanking her with shy sincerity. ‘I will use the exercises you taught me before every performance I do for the rest of my life,’ she said.

I was also lucky enough to have my birthday here in San Antonio (amongst other things, the birthplace of the modern nacho!) and thanks to Claire, Roger, Anne, and Annabelle, as well as Tom Jones visiting from Leicester and the marvelous Prof. Kimberly Fonzo and her husband, it was made extra special. Treated royally to a BBQ by the pool, the things I’ll carry along the road with me, as we head on to North Carolina next week, are these fleeting moments, seemingly small but bigger than the sum of their parts: enthusiasm, openness, kindness. The thoughtfulness of a packet of silly stickers and an oversize cookie. In the shape of … well … a cookie. From big hearts, Texas-shaped.

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #1

By Michael Wagg

The only way I can make sense of this whirlwind of a week is to describe it backwards. We’ve arrived in Chicago, at a huge hotel in the thick of the city. Before checking in we stood on the DuSable Bridge, waving back to a wave of Mexican flags, accompanied by an orchestra of honking horns. It’s Mexican Independence Day and the joy is infectious. The horns show no sign of letting up as I head up to my room; the air sings with freedom. On a personal level, we’ve a free weekend ahead of us in this remarkable city, so perhaps we’re attuned to the mood. But the real sharpness of the taste comes from the day’s work just gone.

This morning we previewed our show at the Westville Correctional Facility, Indiana. Around 100 male prisoners gathered in the echoey auditorium to watch our performance of Macbeth. The focus of their listening and the warmth of their welcome was bolstering and humbling. Under shared light and in this shared space we began our bloody story. I’m sure none of the five of us on the concrete stage will ever forget the experience.

This play explores responsibility, fate, searing ambition, ruthless violence, loss and madness, and to play it in such a place, and with such a supportive audience was a profound privilege. This job, in all its various hats, has felt like a rare privilege from the off, but this first stab at it may remain the deepest. Lines rang true in ways that we always strive towards, but in this context were far harder edged. I’m sure we can’t really know the truth of it – but, for example, as our Macbeth cried ‘full of scorpions is my mind’ we noted one man nod in gentle agreement, as if Shakespeare’s words were describing something he felt all too acutely. And as we left the prison another man approached two of us and said quietly ‘thank you for the two hours freedom – the freedom here’ and gently tapped his head.

For most of this week we’ve been in a very different place, on the smartly manicured campus of the University of Notre Dame for our final rehearsal week, where chipmunks have cheered us on and the brilliant-red cardinal bird has showed us the way.

Steeped in the bloody business of Macbeth, for a good part of the week we’ve been trying to sort out the banquet scene. It’s a conundrum, and I’ve come to think of it as the AFTLS experience in a nutshell: There are six chairs. There are five actors. One of the actors never sits down. The other four actors are playing six characters, which means that while there are two empty chairs, in the world of the play those chairs aren’t empty at all, their occupiers kept alive by the deftest of turns. But in this case, one of the two is a vision, seen by the character standing but not by the five sitting. So one empty chair is not empty, while the other one is empty to some and not to others. I won’t blame you if you’re not following this – we too have often lost the thread – but add Banquo’s ghost to the mix and this is AFTLS… WRIT LARGE.

I might come back to the multi-rolling aspect of the work (otherwise known as ‘Annabelle Terry talks to herself’) in another blog, as in the coming weeks I hope to explore some of the particular aspects of this wonderfully peculiar and many-faceted job. One week I might look at the work we do with students; another week how our show is self-directed. I might explore the world of pretzel bites, or the opening hours of Taco Bell, or how to move a wood from one country to another… or beer… that’s very likely, Annabelle has already snapped me staring lovingly at a mash tun at the Crooked Ewe Brewery. So if you have suggestions for things you’d like covering, or you’d just like to stop me banging on about beer, then let me know (at the links below, or my twitter @michaelwagg). I will also introduce you to our cast and fantastic colleagues at Shakespeare at Notre Dame, but in the spirit of going backwards, I’ll leave that for later.

I hope there’ll be plenty of giggles along the way, and the truth is we’ve spent most of this first week with impossibly broad smiles on our faces, but as my head hits the pillow I think again of freedom and privilege. We are grateful to be taking this great play across America. The poetic worlds it opens up and the real world of travel across time zones is liberating. At the end of the play I, as Macduff announce ‘the time is free.’ It certainly feels like that as the honking horns continue to shout out over Lake Michigan. But our day’s work has shown us something else. Something stark and complex. That ‘two truths are told’ certainly – and many more.

“Much Ado About Nothing” Spring 2022 Tour: Entry #9

By Annabelle Terry
Sunday 20th February 2022

‘Contempt, farewell! And maiden pride, adieu!’ – Beatrice 3.1

Indiana round two.

This week the AFTLS tour was back in Indiana but this time by Winona Lake at Grace College. As soon as we arrived at our hotel (having been driven there in a limo, I should add!) we were taken to look around campus including the Little Theatre where we were due to perform later in the week. Though it be but little, it is fierce – a lovely intimate venue with about 100 seats for the audience – perfect for our show and Shakespeare shows in general, I think.

We spent the week delivering various workshops with the students at Grace and enjoying the views around the Lake which, yes, was frozen! It seems to cold weather was following us again as we were due for another ice storm by the time opening night came around on Thursday. The snow came thick and fast but, thanks to the resilience of the English department, the show went on!

We played to sold out audiences all three nights we played and it was great to see the students we had met that week in the crowd – it was particularly rewarding for me to have the ‘Back in Five’ college improv troop watching, as I had led (and participated in) an improvisation workshop with them earlier that week. Between the 5 of them they had a great positive energy and playfulness which was infectious. It struck me how much AFTLS’ style of performance would appeal to those that also enjoy watching improv – yes, we have scripts that we follow, but we remain on stage throughout changing ‘hats’, as it were, at the drop of a hat to become the different characters; the same occurs in an improv show a lot of the time. With this being said, it came naturally to Back in Five when I handed them the Dogberry/Sexton scene in Much Ado and asked them to have a go at staging it themselves and play all 8 characters in the scene between them. They were naturals! And hopefully now more confident to have fun with Shakespearean texts.

It was great to have 3 consecutive shows this week. It meant we were able to find new moments within the show and now have the nerves throughout which often come when only doing one performance. The response was, again, wonderful. One student came and thanked us after one night saying “college kids are starved of romance!” and how they had enjoyed seeing this story of comedy, tragedy and love mixed into one. Others were surprised at how much they managed to follow and enjoy it, having never watched one of Shakespeare’s plays. I do think Much Ado is a special show and a crowd pleaser to perform – it has all the punchlines, quick wit and farcical possibilities followed by the most gut wrenching drama and emotional language. It remains one of my favourites and even more so after this tour.

Tomorrow we will be down south in Alabama and I’m looking forward to some slightly warmer weather and to visit UNA.

“Much Ado About Nothing” Spring 2022 Tour: Entry #8

By Annabelle Terry
Sunday 13th February 2022

‘Be vigilant, I beseech you’ – Dogberry 3.3

Let’s go, Falcons!

This week we were in residency at the prestigious USA Air Force Academy in Colorado. I’d heard many times before about Colorado’s beautiful landscape but there really is nothing like seeing it yourself. Snow topped mountains and ancient red rock are the beautiful backdrop of this state and one which, I imagine, never gets old for its residents.

Getting to be on base at the Air Force Academy was an experience I will never forget. When the cadets weren’t flying or jumping out of planes they were in workshops with us for the week! I was intrigued to see how they would take to learning and trying their hand at some Shakespeare and, unsurprisingly, they encountered the task with vigor and respect. It was a delight to see my workshop full of future military members and leaders performing the storm scene from The Tempest – zooming across the room in wheelie chairs as boats and banging on the walls to create thunder.

We were treated to a tour of the campus by 3 brilliant cadets and given a real insight into the rigorous training they undertake during their four years at base. There was a palpable sense of comradery and belonging, albeit intense, and us actors came away feeling very lucky to have the opportunity to be a part of it for a moment in time.

The theatre space we performed in on Thursday was HUGE. A five thousand seat venue with a massive stage, usually used for presentations and award ceremonies. Safe to say we felt a little daunted when putting our minimal props and set out, but after a tech rehearsal we quickly adjusted – after all, that’s the nature of touring; each venue is different from the last and you attune your performance accordingly to suit. And what a blast it was! Despite sitting in this massive venue, our audience still felt right there with us, listening to our show and responding generously. This really hit home for me that Shakespeare’s works are and should be for everyone, not just the choice few who can interpret it on a scholastic level. Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed in pubs, taverns and alehouses for everyone to hear and enjoy, and it’s only in our lifetime that it can often be made exclusive and reverential. I really enjoyed breaking down these barriers with the students in the workshops, topped off by the ultimately relatable Much Ado, I think was a great move. The faculty at USAFA were brilliant too and eager to learn how they can continue to get the cadets learning in a more active way in the classroom, which was really refreshing to hear.

A highlight of the week was watching the college ice hockey game on Friday night – it was brutal and passionate, but I was more impressed by the college’s brass band who played throughout the game. It was a great atmosphere. At the weekend there was so much to pack in and see. On Saturday we took the train up Pike’s Peak and stood at the summit taking in the unbelievable views, and on Sunday we went to the aptly named Garden of the Gods to look at the billion year old red rocks. It was truly unforgettable.

We are headed back to Indiana next for our next residency at Grace College by Winona Lake. We’re all very excited to be back in the state we started the tour and to see some familiar faces…