“Twelfth Night” Fall 2019 Tour: Entry #14

Week Fourteen: Grace College, Indiana
By Kaffe Keating

“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realising it!”
– Hebrews, 13:2 NLT (Printed on a small piece of card which was given to me after being read
out at the end of one of my classes.)

Our final week in Indiana, and the penultimate week of the tour is upon us. We’re at Grace College, an evangelical Christian college near the town of Warsaw, a place assumedly settled by some Polish people at some point in history. We’ve actually completed a long and elaborate loop on our journey, as we’re now only a forty-five minute drive from South Bend and our home base of the University of Notre Dame.

I’ve taken to not wearing my Notre Dame jumper out in public. Not out of shame, you understand, but out of personal safety. On a flight a couple of weeks ago, we had a crew who struck up a particularly boisterous relationship with the passengers, a member of which stopped at our row when making sure we all had our seatbelts done up.

“Now, can we make sure that someone has been assigned to help the Penn State guy with his oxygen mask?” he grins down at us. “And remember to fit your own mask first before you help him out.”

The guy on the other side of the aisle in the Penn State hoody is half smiling, just riding this
particular part of his day out until it’s over. I grin too, I have no idea what the joke is as the
intricacies of college football rivalries are lost on me, but these are the people in charge of giving out the pretzels and free wine.

“Now, of course I’d say the same thing about the Notre Dame guy,” he says, pointing at me in my comfy, anti-air-con jumper, my grin now becoming more nervous, “but that would mean I’d want him to survive.” Now, at no point did I actually feel like a member of the air crew was actively hoping for my demise based on my apparent college football loyalties, but I relegated the Notre Dame sweater to my hotel room all the same.

“Oh no, you’re fine here.” says Lauren Rich, Ph.D, Chair of the Department of Languages, Literature and Communication when I recount my tale. “Grace doesn’t have a football team, and Notre Dame isn’t very far from here.” We’re on home turf again, it seems, and it’s good to be back.

Lauren is responsible for bringing us to Grace and, following in the footsteps of many of the other wonderful and generous people we’ve been lucky enough to meet so far, will be taking care of us this week. She actually attended grad school at Notre Dame, and so can surely be counted on as an ally against any would-be jumper-shamers.

Grace is a small college; there are between 1,500 and 2,000 students here. Notre Dame, by
comparison, has about 8,000 students and UT-Austin dwarfs them both with over 50,000. So that gives you a bit of a clue. The auditorium where we’ll be performing the show is literally called ‘The Little Theatre’, and seats about 120 people. It’s perfect for our show. While we’ll happily rear up on our hind legs, and diaphragm our way through the bigger spaces, a smaller venue like this allows for an intimacy and closeness that is really special.

Not many shows left now… We’ve got three scheduled for this week, just the one next week in Colorado, and the two performances we’ll do in London after we get back for friends, family and agents. We’re really beginning to find things now. The very first performances, up the road in South Bend back in September, were just about getting through the thing. Surviving an entire performance without skipping a massive chunk or killing someone with a rogue umbrella. Later, once we had a real handle on it (the show, although handles falling off on stage has been a problem with the umbrellas), it became about keeping it alive, not allowing our new-found and hard-won ease lull us into switching on the autopilot. Now, as the sun starts to set on our time in America and Illyria, we’re really beginning to feel like we can play, to allow the scenes to breathe on their own, rather than having to breathe life into them ourselves or, as in some cases, administer full-on CPR.

It’s always the way. It’s often not until the week following a final performance of a show when I finally realise what a line really meant, or how a moment could have been played. It’s a good thing. It means that the work you’re doing isn’t ever really ‘finished’; there’s always more to do, and all you can do at the time is the best you can.

After our final show of the week, Lauren was kind enough to take us out to a Mexican restaurant that sold beer and was a short walk from our hotel, it being a rare treat not having to moot out a designated driver. At this point in the tour, I can safely say that I have stayed in enough hotels on the side of freeways to last me a lifetime – just saying.

Lauren brought her kids to the show, who apparently had a good time. Her son, Jonah, was playing around after they got home from the performance, and she was able to snap a photo of him holding up a hat, in true AFTLS style, to represent an invisible character in the story he was creating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ah, look out. He’s going to end up being an actor if you’re not careful,” we warn her. “Sorry if we’ve given him the bug…” Lauren assures us, however, that the condition was pre-existing, and that Jonah is already well into his theatre, poor lad. At least there’s no need for us to hold ourselves too responsible if his stageyness does end up developing into acute, full-blown thespianism. It’s often a hereditary affliction but it’s also highly contagious, so watch yourself.

On our day off Al, Katherine and I decided to take a trip to one of the Amish settlements which are scattered around this part of Indiana. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Amish are a group of people who have chosen to reject modern technology for religious reasons, and who live in their own sheltered societies which retain a much more traditional way of life. They grow their own food, and tend their own animals. They don’t drive cars, instead riding from place to place on horse-drawn buggies.

The men, once married, don’t shave their beards except for their top lip – a tradition which stems from a silent protest against the typically mustachioed German Army, who persecuted the Swiss-German Anabaptist ancestors of the Amish who live in America today. The women wear a bonnet on their head – all day, every day – which is coloured black when they’re unmarried and white once they tie the knot. Amish people don’t wear wedding rings, as jewelry is thought to be an unnecessary extravagance. Most surprising to me, is their complete rejection of electricity; no power lines will run into an Amish home.

To a Western, city-dwelling millennial like myself, a life without electricity is unthinkable. No laptops, phones, or TV. But also no electric light, certainly no air conditioning to ease the baking sun and no plug-in heater to warm a bitter, cold night. Al made the salient point that, if society as we know it does arrive at its oft-threatened conclusion, the Amish would be absolutely fine. They don’t need power, they grow their own food, and they keep their own goats. They plant flowers next to their vegetables to distract insects which act as a natural pesticide, and if a barn burns down, Amish men and women from all over the country will flock to the settlement to rebuild it in one day.

Saying this, we also learnt of a man who lost his wife to typhoid fever after she drank from an
unclean well. The man then remarried only to have his second wife die in the exact same way after drinking from the exact same well. So maybe some technology is good. The man in question lived to the ripe old age of 98, by the way, which begs the question: where was he getting his drinking water?

We didn’t actually meet any Amish people as, it being a Sunday, they would all be visiting friends or family to worship. Thus ended our final day off of the tour, with imagined apocalypses and ideas about a way of life starkly different to our own.

One more week to go, and one more blog after this. I’d like to thank you, dear reader, for sticking with me thus far. Especially you, Kathleen Glen of Corby. Your niece, Katherine (whom, by the way, I have failed thus far to credit for all of the fantastic photos I’ve been using on these), says hello!

Our tour of this vast and fascinating country will conclude in the picturesque Colorado Springs, nestled in the Rocky Mountains and home to the US Air Force Academy. After having such a great time with the Navy a few weeks ago, I’m very excited to see what’s coming our way.

“Twelfth Night” Fall 2019 Tour: Entry #13

Week Thirteen: DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana
By Kaffe Keating

“Would you have a love song, or a song of good life?”
– Feste, Act 2 Scene 3

Small town America. After the buzz and bustle of Silicon Valley, we couldn’t be somewhere more different. DePauw University is situated in the town of Greencastle, about a 45 minute drive from the state capital of Indianapolis. It’s small, and it’s very pretty – both the town and the college.

It’s getting to the point now where we all need haircuts. Al’s beard is now so long and thick that he’s had to go and buy some frankincense-infused beard oil. Jono, who’s let his hair grow out since day one of rehearsals (and who is capable of producing an enviable mane) went and got a trim on our first full day in Greencastle.

“You’ll never guess what his name was,” he grins from under his slightly neater but still sweeping fringe. “Sweeney. Frank Sweeney. He even used a cut-throat razor.”

I’ve been wanting a haircut for ages but just haven’t found the time. When my hair gets too long it starts to sprout out at the sides, rendering me with a look more befitting of Doc Brown than Orsino, Duke of Illyria. So the following day I head off into Greencastle to seek the services of the Demon Barber of Indianapolis Street myself.

The barbershop is a pretty simple affair, a line of mirrors down one side of the room with the classic revolving chairs, sat in one of which is a man in his late sixties or early seventies. There’s also a full-size canoe mounted on the wall.

“You need a haircut?” the man asks. I respond in the affirmative. “Well,” he says, lifting himself out of the seat and offering it to me, “we have them here.” I take my jacket off and sit down, and we get to chatting. His name is Wayne – Frank Sweeney isn’t working today (I’m oddly relieved) – and after hearing my accent he asks if I’m Australian, which is a mistake that occurs more often than you’d think. I reveal my English heritage and talk turns to visiting Europe. He tells me that he spent six months in Germany and Austria as part of the Marine Corps, and I tell him how we’d recently visited USNA in Annapolis.

“Ah, it’s pretty there.” He croons, over the chugging of a pair of clippers which I suspect have seen better days. It turns out that after his time in Europe, he was stationed in Vietnam for a year and a half. There’s a beat. I’m doing maths in my head.

“That must have been difficult.” He nods. He was there in 1968, during the Tet Offensive. I
remember learning about it in History GCSE. It was a series of surprise attacks by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese army on many cities, towns and villages in South Vietnam and is thought by many to be a turning point in the war. It must have been a horrific thing to experience. I don’t push Wayne any further on the subject.

“There’s a student who comes in here, Tan,” he says. “He’s from Vietnam. From Da Nang. Now I haven’t been there since 1968, and I was there for a different reason than cutting hair. But apparently it’s very different now. It’s like an American city, at least that’s what he says.” The irony hangs in the air.

The bell above the door rings in the entrance of another customer, I’m guessing in his fifties and powerfully built, after a haircut of his own. “Hello there, young man,” says Wayne. “This is Roy. He’s a good old boy, he’s an ex-marine too.”

The three of us talk for a while. Roy, after his time in the Marines then transferred to the Army. After learning of the bitter rivalry (at least when it comes to football) between the two services at the Naval Academy, I remark that that must have been an interesting change.

“Oh, we’re just the bastard son of the Navy,” says Wayne.

“They’re our taxi-cab!” adds Roy.

The three of us chat away over the buzz of Wayne’s clippers, (my previous concern completely evaporated; the man certainly knows how to cut a short back and sides) and I tell them about where we’ve been so far and where we’re going to. I’m told Colorado Springs is lovely, but apparently Denver has become a ‘pothead city’ since the state legalised cannabis. Wayne tells me of a friend of his who works in Silicon Valley and hates it. We talk about Austin, and what a great city it is. I also learn a surprising amount about carp fishing. Roy’s an avid carp fisherman, there are competitions apparently, and he thanks me on behalf of all Americans for the British system of fishing for carp by setting alarms and just waiting for them to go off. I know precisely nothing about fishing, but I accept his thanks on behalf of my people all the same.

Wayne’s taking off my apron. “That’s twelve bucks,” he says.

“Sure thing. Do you take card?” I ask, a Londoner through and through.

“No, we don’t have a card machine here.”

Ah. I’m concocting a plan wherein I can leave Wayne my phone or something as collateral while I run off into Greencastle to find an ATM, when Roy gets out of his chair.

“I’ve gotcha.” He says, smiling down at me as he pulls out his wallet.

I protest wildly, but Roy’s having none of it. He presses the notes into Wayne’s hand, who’s perfectly happy with the arrangement. “American hospitality.” I sense that any further argument from me would now become ingratitude, so I thank them both and retrieve my jacket from the hook.

I tell Roy that if I see him around, I’ll buy him a beer (“He’s a marine, he’ll hold you to that,” calls
Wayne) and I leave the barbershop. The kindness of strangers.

And that’s the story of how a Marine bought me a haircut. It’s not the only random act of kindness that occurred this week. Jono, an intrepid explorer to the end, after walking so far away from our hotel that he wouldn’t be able to get back in time before dark approached two strangers in a parking lot. They happened to be heading not only the same direction as him, but to the hotel itself and offered him a ride. Not only that, but once they got arrived, they insisted on buying him a beer.

People are just incredibly friendly in this state. We found this last time we were here at the very beginning of the tour but now, closer to the end, I have much more to compare it to. It’s completely lovely and something I will miss dearly upon my return to London; we Londoners pride ourselves on our devotion to the avoidance of human eye contact.

On Saturday night, after the week’s teaching and performing was done, we were treated to tickets to see Post Modern Jukebox who were passing through on their national tour. Post Modern Jukebox are a band (whose total membership boasts over fifty different musicians) who perform covers of well-known songs with a jazzy or bluesy twist. They’re excellent; have a gander on YouTube. Just stick it on in the background while you read this.

The first half is great. The band are clearly exceptional musicians and the each of the singers could melt chocolate by singing at it. While we’re waiting for the band to come back after their break, the lights in the auditorium in all go off at once and the interval music dies. We’re now sitting under the stark half-light of emergency lighting, powered by the back-up generator. People in black t-shirts and headsets start running around, always a sign that something’s gone wrong. Performances are like flights; you don’t need to worry until the crew starts to look worried.

We wait. The time when the show should have restarted comes and goes. People are moving things around on the stage. Are they packing up? Is that it? Are they going to tell us anything? It seems like the evening is over when the big electric piano the band was using is wheeled off. I guess they’re giving up the ghost, how can they continue while the power’s out?

But, hang on. They’re wheeling on a grand piano from the wings. An announcement is made, the band are going to perform an acoustic set for the second half. The singers are more than skilled enough to fill a room this size unamplified, especially as the band are trading their electric instruments for quieter, acoustic ones.

They finish off the set like this, a pared-down but no less spectacular version of their show bathed in the light from the phone torches held up by the audience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It makes me wonder what we’d do if that happened to us. Probably something similar, we’ve got a couple of torches in the show, we’re already contained in a square of fairy lights, we’d figure it out. As Post Modern Jukebox’s MC said as they began their unplanned unplugged second half: The show must go on.

And go on we do, three hours upstate to Grace College in Warsaw Indiana. Our penultimate week. The days of staring at my shoes on the tube, valiantly ignoring anyone I remotely come into contact with, are creeping ever closer…

“Twelfth Night” Fall 2019 Tour: Entry #12

 Week Twelve: San Jose State University, California
By Kaffe Keating

“And tell them, there thy fixéd foot shall grow till thou have audience.”
– Orsino, Act 1 Scene 4

The Hammer Theatre building, as it’s now known, in downtown San Jose used to be the home of the San Jose Rep. Founded in 1980, the San Jose Rep achieved international fame and produced many critically acclaimed productions. However, just like so many repertory theatres in the UK over the years, the company was no longer able to financially support itself and declared bankruptcy in 2014.

‘The Rep’ used to be everywhere in Britain. For many actors it was an alternative to classical training at drama school; you’d just learn on the job. You’d be performing one play in the evening and rehearsing the next one during the day, one company of actors all playing alongside each other in a wide range of parts. Some Repertory theatres still exist today but, with the advent of television and stories being brought into people’s living rooms, the model is no way near as sustainable as it once was.

After the San Jose Rep left, the building stayed empty for a year and a half. Someone would just come in every so often to make sure the toilets still flushed. Then, thankfully, San Jose State University won a bid to take the building over and give it a new life as The Hammer, named for former mayor Susan Hammer and her husband Phil who were both instrumental in the theatre being built in the first place. It’s on its way now to becoming a cultural hub in the heart of the city, bringing in both touring companies from around the world and also providing the students of San Jose State with a professional performance space.

At the heart of the project is Lisa Laymon, an ex-member of the Silicon Valley workforce who has now turned her talents to helping run a theatre. Her daughter is in the business too, currently living and working in Manhattan as a stage manager, so it’s clearly in the blood. O for a stage manager, that would ascend the brightest heaven of organisation…

We’re over the half-way point now and we’re feeling it. London and life after the tour is waiting
loudly around a corner towards which we’re now beginning to hurtle. The built-up fatigue is also starting to take its toll, it feels like we’ve finally learnt not to settle fully anywhere; our bodies now used to the idea that there’s no point gathering moss if the stone’s just going to start rolling along again any second. It makes the inevitable uprooting every Monday somewhat easier, but it also makes it difficult to ever fully rest.

Our classes this week are a slightly different affair than what we’re used to. Usually we’ve been brought in by an English Department, and a typical class involves sweeping the desks to the side of the room, getting everyone on their feet, and encouraging the students to read the text out loud and try to mean what they say; activating a part of their brains which is less analytical and more instinctive. They’re always good fun, but here we’ve been working with a lot more students who already have a grounding in performance. It’s been a fun change of pace, meaning we’ve been able to dust off a different set of exercises, and invent a few too.

The classes aren’t the only difference this week. We’re in a much more intimate performance space in the form of ‘Hammer 4’, the studio theatre at the top of the building. We’ve played a huge range of auditoria so far, from the more traditional in Notre Dame, Wellesley and USNA, to concert halls in Texas and a converted barn in Winedale, but this is the first time we’ve played in a smaller, black-box space.

Not only that, but we’ve got matinees! Two of them! One at 11am for local high school students (an ungodly hour to be performing anything, let alone Shakespeare…) and another at the more civilised time of 2pm on Saturday. This is also means we’ll have our first and only two-show day – standard fare on a regular job but not something we’ve had to do before.

The shows turn out to be great fun, the intimate space providing a whole new spin on the
performance. Although, by the end of the Saturday afternoon show, I for one am absolutely
knackered. We’ve done three shows in just over twenty-four hours, something that’s usually only topped by crazy Christmas panto schedules. Good fun though, and it’s always good to feel like you’ve worked hard.

After packing up the case after final show on Saturday afternoon, we head over to the University’s football stadium to cheer on the San Jose Spartans in a face off against the San Diego Aztecs. Lisa was kind enough to sort us out the tickets and we join her and her husband Alex in the stands.

“So I’m guessing there’s a big rivalry here then? San Jose and San Diego?” I presume.

“Not really…” says Alex, “San Diego’s about 600 miles away.”

Of course. This country is so massive, how am I still being surprised by that? That’s like thinking Bournemouth and Rangers are close enough to each other to have developed a local rivalry. And we get annoyed when everyone thinks we know the Queen…

The game, although small scale by national college football standards, is a feast of colour and sound. Between each stoppage of play (of which there are lots) the big brass band up in the stands starts playing, cheerleaders are thrown into the air in sequence, and we get to watch a slow motion replay of a young man in protective gear fall on his neck again and again. It was a brilliant experience and I’m finally starting to get a handle on the rules…

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Sunday, Lisa had offered to take us on a hike to see some of the famed Giant Redwoods. They are truly magnificent. I’m standing, goggling at a bunch of them all growing in a circle as Lisa gives us a bit more information.

“These aren’t even the big ones, you know.”

“What do you mean?” I gawp. These trees are taller than some blocks of flats I’ve lived in.

“These are what’s called ‘second growth’. They’re probably two or three-hundred years old. You see how they’re all growing in a circle? There would have been a much bigger tree in the centre which they would have all sprouted from.”

“What happened to it?” I ask, my mind boggling.

“Cut down. They used to be everywhere here, but they were cut down and used for timber to build San Francisco during the Gold Rush.” I can’t imagine what a forest of first growths must look like, the first Europeans to come across them must have lost their minds with wonder. Before, you know, proceeding to chop them all down of course.

There was, however, one surviving giant left. Named ‘Methuselah’, after the oldest man in the Bible, Lisa drove us up the hill to take a look. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Over fourteen feet in diameter, and over 1800 years old, it’s like discovering something straight out of a Tolkien novel. Here’s a picture of Al giving it a hug for scale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And just like that, as soon our roots get a solid grasp on the ground, it falls away beneath us once more. We’re heading East again (the weird direction for jet-lag), back to the familiarity of Indiana and DePauw University.

DePauw, which is situated in the small town of Greencastle, promises a somewhat slower pace than the rushing, traffic-laden Silicon Valley. After the intensity of the last few months, spending some time with Methuselah has helped me realise that a bit of peace and quiet may be just what we need…

“Twelfth Night” Fall 2019 Tour: Entry #11

Week Eleven: United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland
By Kaffe Keating

“What think you, sailors?”
– Viola, Act 1 Scene 2

“Before we get started, I’ve got a quick question for you…” I say, in the Irish lilt I use when I’m playing Feste. “How long have you been in the Navy?” I’m met with a wall of sound.

“All me bloomin’ life, sir! Me mother was a mermaid, me father was King Neptune. I was born on the crest of a wave and rocked in the cradle of the deep. Seaweed and barnacles are me clothes. Every tooth in me head is a marlinspike; the hair on me head is hemp. Every bone in me body is a spar, and when I spits, I spits tar! I’se hard, I is, I am, I are!” bellow the six-hundred midshipmen assembled in front of me. I actually steady myself, as if the noise alone would blow me over.

At least I was expecting it this time; the previous night’s audience caught me off guard when I opened the second half with “Anchors Away,” a song that all the Naval Officers learn when in training. Usually the site-specific second half opener garners a chuckle of recognition from the audience, with the bolder among them singing along a bit. Last night was something else entirely, as every sailor in the theatre blasted along with me, barrelling over the folky version of the song I’d worked out in my hotel room with the clear, invigorating original.

After the song last night, I was given a load of suggestions from both students and faculty about additional bits we could add into the show that would stir the Battalion into call and response. Hunter, a fourth year who’s been running our tech, was the one who told us to ask them all how long they’ve been in the Navy.

“They should all answer back with this thing we have to learn in Plebe Summer,” he says. “They make us learn a load of weird rhymes and songs, then they make us recite them while we’re doing loads of other complicated tasks and stuff. It’s to train our brains to be able to take on information quickly. I’d say there’s a strong eighty percent chance they’ll all do it.”

“What about the other twenty percent?”

“Oh, well they may just boo, you know? Depends.” God, I’m glad they didn’t – the chanting is scary enough.

I’m not sure exactly why the midshipmen have to learn a speech about being the spawn of a
mermaid, and why it’s in a cod (not sorry) British accent, but the pragmatic reasons for training them this way does make sense. There are lots of things that the Officers-to-be are made to do which seem bizarre and arbitrary at first, but soon reveal a practical root. My assumption was that everyone had to wear hats when outside just to look smart. But after hearing ‘No lid, no brain’ chanted jokingly by some students as they left one of my classes, a phrase that must have been drilled into them, the reason for forcing everyone into the habit of having their head covered when out in the open became abundantly clear.

The time when all the new midshipmen, or ‘Plebes’ as they’re not so affectionately referred to
(coming from the Latin ‘Plebians’, essentially the lowest of the low) learn all of these songs, rhymes and phrases is during the summer before they begin their training proper. It sounds intense. From what I could gather it’s weeks of no sleep, no free time, lots of Full Metal Jacket-style berating from superior officers and standing at attention learning poems and songs by rote from a tiny little book.

This all culminates in the observation of the terrifying tradition, featuring about a thousand plebes, all fighting to knock a dixie cap off the top of a monument in the centre of the USNA campus which has been coated in lard. This can take hours and apparently is televised every year. The first plebe to knock off the cap and replace it with a midshipman hat is said to be the first one in that year to become an admiral. It seems more likely they’ll be the first to receive a concussion.

“Oh yeah, you get a couple of broken arms every year. But it’s tradition, you know?” says Sam as he walks us across the yard, an extraordinarily pretty campus adorned by trees, a bandstand, and a load of cannons they nicked from us during the Revolution.

Sam and Desiree are the ensigns who have been assigned to look after us for the week. They both graduated last year and so are now full-fledged officers, meaning the student midshipmen all have to salute them as they pass. Sam is training to become a Navy pilot and Desiree’s a Marine. An actual Marine. Far from the jarhead stereotype, though; they’re both charming, bright and smiley.

Fun fact: the US Navy actually has more pilots than the Air Force – something I imagine it’ll be best not to mention when we get to the Air Force Academy in Colorado at the end of the tour.

Desiree’s older siblings both had a military education, and part of the reason she says she signed up was her perception of what the discipline instilled in them. How they matured more quickly, how the focus on being accountable for one another spurred them on into adulthood. Not only do you need to keep your own bunk clean and tidy – the corners of the bedspread folded to exact measurements – you also need to make sure your roommate is doing the same; you’ll both get yelled at even if only one of you has let the side down.

Not that we face a fraction of the stress or danger for which the midshipmen are being prepared, but there are some similarities between their training and what we undergo as actors. Both focus on physical and mental fitness, working in conjunction. Both require each individual to understand that they’re part of a whole; a small cog in a much larger machine which needs to serve its function well when it’s called upon, and to allow others to do so when it isn’t. They have their own set of heroes and myths, songs and poems, traditions and superstitions which exist in the collective consciousness.

I’m not big on theatre superstition myself (“Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth”), but my favourite of the bunch is the one about not whistling in a theatre. Supposedly, it dates back to when the stagehands operating the ropes would often be ex-sailors, hired for their knot-tying expertise. The sailors, having traded their crows’ nests for fly towers, would habitually communicate with each other using whistles of different pitches, a sound that would have cut through the bellowing winds of the high seas much more effectively than shouting ever could. A system that would have worked well, then, until some actor wanders through the wings absent-mindedly whistling Danny Boy to themselves, ending up with a chunk of scenery on their head. As I say, not a big one for superstition, but even I thought twice before whistling in the USNA theatre.

Annapolis is a sailing town, and it’s the annual boat show this weekend so the place is busy. It’s also incredibly pretty, quaint rows of multi-coloured, colonial-era houses criss-crossing away from the Maryland State Capitol in the centre of downtown out to the harbour, where you can find a host of pubs boasting eighteenth-century establishment dates. While it must feel like an ancient historical site to your average American, to us it feels like home. Streets which were paved in a time before cars were the main mode of transport, when things needed to be accessible by walking from place to place, rather than jumping behind the wheel.

Driving in to the Academy each day has proven to be more complicated than we expected. It’s a bit of a logistical nightmare. To be able to drive through the security gates, you need a security card. To be issued a security card, you need to get your fingerprint added to the database. To have your fingerprint added to the database, you need to bring your driver’s license, proof that the car is yours (or at least that the rental agreement is in your name), and you need to have filled out a long form at least ten days ahead of time. Despite the form having been filled out and sent on our behalf with time to spare, Al and Jono (our designated fingerprintees) still weren’t able to get their ID cards sorted. Luckily, Desiree and Sam came to the rescue, meeting us in the temporary parking bay outside before every class, and driving us on to the lot. Unlike the five of us, they didn’t complain once.

We were rewarded for our plight, however. After a long day of teaching, Al was given a present.

“One of me professors gave me this, it’s a coin. Look.” He says. He’s holding a coin, a bit bigger than a watch face, adorned with the crest of the US Naval Academy. “I think he felt bad about me having to do two forty-person classes on the trot in a lecture theatre with non-movable seats…”

“How did he give it to you?” I ask, reminded of something I heard about in a podcast I listen to.

“He shook my hand, and there it was,” he says.

It’s called a ‘Challenge Coin.’ A quick Google brings up the information I’m struggling to recall. Used throughout the US Military, Challenge Coins serve no official function but are more for boosting morale. You give someone a coin as a gift, usually in recognition of something they’ve achieved, by shaking their hand with the coin in your palm. It’s then their responsibility to keep it on their person at all times, in case they’re challenged. A challenge, or ‘coin check’, can be instigated by anyone in possession of their own coin, by pulling it out and rapping it on the bar. If you’ve got your coin, you pull it out and put on the bar too, but if you don’t you’ve got to buy a round of drinks for everyone who has. However, if everyone produces a coin, it’s then the challenger’s round. It’s a very cool thing to receive from an officer in the Navy.

My coin-envy abated, however, after our final class of the week. We were asked by Commander Mike Flynn, Sam and Desiree’s commanding officer, to help out with some mock interviews for some of the Academy’s top students who are seeking to gain a Rhode Scholarship to study at Universities at the UK. Thankfully, we weren’t being expected to comment on the content of the interviews (not all British people know what it’s like to go to Cambridge University), but to help the students with their interview technique; how to present themselves to a panel and keep control of any nerves that might spring up. In retrospect, it seems bizarre that we were teaching trained Naval Officers how to keep calm under pressure, but, as it turns out, we did have some pearls of wisdom to offer.

A few breathing exercises and tension-releasing stretches later, Mike shakes my hand, leaving
behind a shining silver challenge coin. He apologises that he’s only got two – Katherine receiving the other – but we’re not deprived of a full set for long. During a farewell tour of the yard, Desiree and Sam present Claire and Jono with a coin each too.

So we’ve all got one. I’ll have to remember to keep mine on me if I don’t want to be buying rounds for everyone for the rest of the trip.

“Twelfth Night” Fall 2019 Tour: Entry #10

Week Ten: Wellesley College, Massachusetts
By Kaffe Keating

“Live life fully, with gratitude, kindness, determination and joy!”
– Adina Shira Kletter

I need to get these lyrics into my brain. And somehow simultaneously clear my head, just decompress a bit. The vaguely familiar climate and landscape, though still quintessentially American (there are chipmunks), should hopefully help to ease the sensory overload of the last month.

I’m trudging around the serene Lake Woban upon whose banks rests Wellesley College, its towers soaring above the woods which shade and shelter the paths below. It’s a truly beautiful place, and the New England weather makes me feel right at home. Wellesley is historically a women’s college, founded in the year 1875 and which boasts a very impressive alumni. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the one you hear about the most, but I was personally more excited to learn that Norah Ephron went here; I grew up on When Harry Met Sally.

The school song, dedicated to Wellesley’s Alma Mater, is what’s brought me out to the lake. We had the idea back in Brixton to open the second half of the show with Feste, Olivia’s jester, busking for the audience – with the song he plays varying from college to college. In Notre Dame and then Austin it was the respective college football fight songs (which you need to get word perfect, as everyone knows them) and in San Antonio it was the old classic “San Antonio Rose.” Here, it’ll be the aptly named “To Alma Mater;” since Wellesley doesn’t have a college football team, there wasn’t a fight song to learn. It’s instead a song encouraging Wellesley students of past and present to sing about the beauty of their college. It’s quite a nice break to learn a song which isn’t all about destroying people and instead focuses on a much-loved place which has been treasured by generations.

I mutter the lines to myself as I set off on a clockwise route from the College Club where we’re staying (we can walk to our classes from here, which is a dream), pausing every so often in my recital so as to avoid alarming the walkers passing me in the opposite direction. I’m approaching this like I would some Shakespearean verse, and it’s well written enough that the thoughts all make sense in sequence. A general rule of thumb: the better written something is, the easier it is to learn. I’ll marry the lyrics with the guitar part later.

I bump into one of the students walking in the opposite direction, Tati, who’s been helping us out in the theatre. They’re all ferociously intelligent, the women who attend this college; I gather it’s incredibly difficult to get accepted, especially in more recent decades with Wellesley making a conscious effort to attract students from a wider range of backgrounds. Tati’s currently working on the design for the show currently being rehearsed in the studio below the theatre we’ll be playing in in Alumnae Hall. It’s called Stupid Fucking Bird, a modern adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. I love Chekhov, as it’s so different to Shakespeare; in Shakespeare everyone stands and pretty much says what they mean, whereas in Chekhov they hardly ever do. It’s a shame we won’t be here to see Tati’s design on stage.

I have a class with some of the other design students this week, on ‘How to make a play that fits into a suitcase.’ We start with a few exercises to do with saying ‘yes’ and working collaboratively. There’s a relatively simple exercise called ‘Yes, and…’ which is meant to teach people to accept and build on one another’s ideas. First, in a circle, we all tell a story together taking responsibility for a sentence each. The story will inevitably meanders off into somewhere bizarre, as each person feels the pressure to be interesting and to say something more imaginative than what came before. Then you try it again, but this time everyone has to begin their sentence with the words ‘Yes, and…’ and attempt to use the details of what’s come before to move their section of the story forward.

The difference is immediate; where first we had a bizarre and nonsensical story which started off with a main character who disappeared half-way through the plot, the second time through the students all worked together to create a truly touching tale of a young girl who, after discovering a porpoise which had been washed up on a beach, went on to have her first experience facing the concept of mortality. That was on their first go with the ‘yes, and’ rule. It was meant to be a stupid improv game but that’s what they came up with… This sets the students in good stead for the rest of the workshop, which has them using props they’ve brought in to represent completely different items and then using those skills to set their own version of scenes from Twelfth Night. Hilariously, about half of them have brought umbrellas with them to use, which mirrors our play nicely.

I must be about half way round the lake by now. I think I can see where I set off from on the
opposite side, over in the distance. Tati told me the walk should take no longer than an hour and fifteen minutes but I’ve not exactly been rushing. The words are going in but knowing them when you’re rambling around on your own is one thing; knowing them on stage, under lights and in front of a few hundred people is entirely another.

To say I’m regretting going along with this particular choice, of having to learn a new song from scratch and perform it every week, is maybe a bit far, but it’s definitely proving more work than I’d initially thought when we first decided to do this back in the heady days of rehearsals. However, extra work that it is, learning the lyrics of this particular song has given me a deeper appreciation of this campus and the country in which it’s nestled. “Oh changeful sky, bend blue above her” rounds out the first verse, urging the tempestuous New England element to shine kindly down on the college grounds and buildings below.

One such building is a replica of William Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon. You’re walking through the campus on the way to a class when you round a corner and there, in the middle of a wood in Massachusetts, is a little Elizabethan cottage. It’s home to Wellesley’s own Shakespeare Society, founded only two years after the college itself. The basement is full of costumes and props and stage swords, with an actual stage installed on the top floor upon which the society puts on plays from Shakespeare’s canon. Despite the traditional setting, the casting of the shows is in direct opposition to Elizabethan tradition; the plays are only performed by students and so the company is always all-female. Again, it’s frustrating to not be able to stick around long enough to see their upcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing which sounds like it’s going to be very interesting indeed.

There’s something so unique about this place. Men aren’t exactly absent; there are plenty of male members of staff, but the usual prevalent feeling in the rest of the world of male dominance, male default, certainly is. It’s difficult to tell if it’s just the reprieve from the Texas heat, or the picturesque setting I’ve found myself in that’s bringing this clear sense of calm, but I suspect there’s also something in the feeling of shelter from a world that is governed by the flow of testosterone. How long that will last though, especially when some of the women we’ve met at this college get their go in the world, remains to be seen.

I’ve made it to a bench. I’m pretty sure I’m at least three quarters of the way round now. Looking down, there’s a plaque underneath honouring the memory of a certain Adina Shira Kletter. An epitaph at the bottom reads: “Live life fully, with gratitude, kindness, determination and joy!” I have no idea who Adina Kletter was, but the exclamation mark makes me feel like this is a direct quote of hers. Fine words to live by indeed.

We’ll be here for a few more days and then we’ll be off again. Flying out to another part of this huge country. With only a week in each college, there’s never enough time to truly put down roots, to allow any moss to form before the stone rolls inevitably on to its next brief resting place. We have to make the most of these moments of serenity and calm where we can get them, and there are few better spots for that than this.

But I can’t stay too long, we’ve got a show tonight. I’ll sit here for a bit longer, but then I’ll have to go.