From Austin Texas, it is a long windy drive northwards to Denton. Early in the morning the five of us crawled stinking into a rented minivan and began to fight our way up. By the time we got to Waco it made perfect sense to stop for a Burger King, by which you can all imagine the sort of state we were in. But Denton was a long way and eventually we had consumed enough water to be vaguely human again, if a little sloshy and greasy. Mark Packer met us at the hotel. Mark is very enthusiastic and playful. He likes to talk. The five of us had been communicating monosyllabically over the course of the journey so his stream of consciousness as he drove us to campus was a new energy. His personality was gentle and amusing though, the exact opposite of his driving. By the time we got out of his van we were unsure whether to laugh or vomit, so did a little bit of both. To give you a sense of Mark, by the time we had left Denton he had burst into one of our classes dressed as a serial killer, he had expressed delight at driving us “off-road” on his golf buggy at 15mph, and he had become thoroughly overexcited at being given his first ever chai latte, which he was still clutching an hour later. He kept us laughing with his total abandonment. The man has two daughters. They must adore him. We did.
The English department, who were at the heart of the residency, were extremely helpful and generous throughout the time we were there. Sadly the theatre department were less involved with the project, and the theatre we were placed in featured a gargantuan unmovable organ between us and the audience. The stage was very high, but sight lines were still tricky over the organ. It’s very much a recital hall, or large lecture theatre, and lacks adequate lighting. So to compensate for that, they had brought in some floodlights and mounted them on the balcony. The effect of all these things together meant that we were totally blinded, vertiginous, and partially blocked from the distant audience. An attempt was made to win the space a little bit; “ah, the prince and Monsieur love, I will hide me behind the organ.” But playing the pit had to be limited as it is a long way down from the stage, and not lit. For the people that came, I feel we told the story as well as we could have done in the circumstances. But it was a shame, particularly after Winedale, to have such an enforced disconnect at the end of the US run. And doubly so when we taught one of our classes in a theatre that would have been perfect for our purposes, but sadly was being used for a student production those nights.
We did have time to kick back, and on Halloween some of us went to Dallas and inspected Dealey Plaza, where they have an X taped to the road where JFK was shot. And then we all dressed up and went out for a small town American Halloween. Here we all are.
We ended up at a house party right out of Superbad, with a crate of beer and a thumping sound system, surrounded by screaming jumping drunk American students dressed up as radios and kings and devils and princesses, dancing like maniacs and punching each other by mistake. When we finally left we all felt a little older than we did when we arrived, and entertained ourselves singing catches and old spirituals on a half an hour walk home through the arctic. Winter has caught up with us it seems, even in Texas.
The classes were a joy. The kids were bold and often outspoken, not seeking to get it “right”. The college’s request to always have multiple actors in class proved a lovely thing as we shared the burden and learnt from each other even as we taught. Having started this job concerned that I might dislike the whole teaching aspect, I have finished it surprised that I found it less tricky and more interesting than I could have imagined. Bernard Shaw has a lot to answer for in his famous encapsulation of the teaching stigma, (the whole ‘do’ ‘can’t do’ ‘teach’ thing that gets trotted out every five minutes) and as a practitioner I felt a twofold pressure. “I am not a teacher,” “I have nothing to teach.” Both of these things were wrong. Because I am so obsessive about my craft in practise, I always had ways to impart my understanding of it to young academics in a way they could process. And it helped that my own personal journey was to unlearn the academic understanding I had of text in order to approach the human.
This company is almost as old as I am, and over the years it must have been responsible for giving so much agency to so many actors. I will miss the work, and the little community we formed within that work. We have one more show in London, a celebration of our time together and the work we did. Coming on the back of Denton I expect we will all be hungering for a crowd of people that we know, people that we can actually see. The RADA Studios (The Drill Hall) at 7.30pm on 12th November. There’s your chance. Come!