“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #4

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

When you’re a long way from home, a home from home sure comes in handy, and that’s what we had in Notre Dame. Returning to South Bend after our week in Houston really was a homecoming: familiar friendly faces, a hotel we’d already stayed in, and a campus we already knew how to navigate. It made for a welcome feeling of feeling welcome.

But there were still some things that were unfamiliar, in particular the new home for our show, the auditorium at Washington Hall. We’d spent our previous week at Notre Dame in the smaller rehearsal room upstairs, so this larger, beautifully appointed space presented a few challenges. The acoustics are magnificent, and almost too generous in their reverberance; lose sight of the consonants for a second and even the gentlest line became a wash of sound. It was a real reminder of the importance of technique.

And because the seating in Wash Hall reaches an angle of almost 180 degrees, we had to consider sightlines, too. Any position in the far downstage right or far downstage left area of the stage ran the risk of obscuring any action further towards the upstage centre. But it wasn’t as simple as merely moving upstage from those positions: do that and you ran the risk of creating the dreaded straight lines. Nobody wants to watch a series of bus queues!

These issues safely transposed from major to minor, and the second performance was proceeding smoothly when our cast of five became six for the half an hour that a local bat took up residence in the lighting grid. I was on stage at the time, playing a scene, as can often happen in an AFTLS production, with myself. Hearing a mixture of laughter and incredulity from the audience, I briefly wondered if I was being particularly funny in what is not a funny scene- or if my fly was open- before I realized we had a visitor.

Fortunately, the bat found the lights more interesting than the Shakespeare and stayed in the grid. I always find a beer a more satisfying way to end a show than a rabies shot!

Aside from the shows, there was plenty to fill the days. Ffion took her tarot cards to campus to provide free readings; Tricia gave an interview for local TV which was so compelling that the hotel receptionist was starstruck to recognize her later, and of course there were the classes and workshops to teach.

On a personal level, I was particularly thrilled to work with some of the student opera singers. As a full-on opera obsessive since my teens, as far as I’m concerned these people are trainee superheroes, so I was hugely excited to get to run a workshop with and for them, especially since their usual teacher, Alek Shrader, is a singer I’ve admired for years. It was an unforgettable treat.

As was our final Saturday, when Deb Gasper, the magnificent General Manager of SAND who has made our lives run so smoothly, was kind enough to invite us into her home. Deb’s husband Matt made the best pot roast we’d ever tasted, marketing guru Jason and his wife Jenna brought a baked brie that was picked clean in seconds, and our wonderful stage manager Stephanie provided a dessert so moreish that I may have had five slices. And when I say I may have had five, I mean I definitely had six.

The best acting companies feel like a family: but when you’re made to feel part of an actual family while on tour, that’s special. There’s no place like home from home.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #3

By Tricia Kelly

As we leave Houston and the end of our first performance and teaching week, what have we learned?

First and foremost, it was a relief to find that we have a show that works with audiences. Until you do the first show, you’re never quite sure.

The Houston audiences have laughed and occasionally cried and given us genuinely rousing applause.

They’ve also been unbelievably generous in their hospitality. We’ve eaten Mexican, Pizza and had a wonderful BBQ at Fred’s uncle and aunt’s home who invited us out to watch the SuperBowl – a real American experience.

The biggest revelation for all of us, but maybe especially for me, has been to realise that what we thought of as a problem back in our rehearsal room in London – dealing with the transitions between characters when we are playing more than one in the same scene – is in fact one of the very things that the audience loves most. It’s part of the style and fabric of AFTLS work and the thing that makes the shows unique.

I’m still working to improve my transitions between Lear & Cornwall – I find myself getting too caught up in Lear and not nimble enough in my changes- but hopefully I’m a lot better than I was.

Jon, Richard, Fred and Ffion have lots more of them and are becoming really expert at the ease and wit with which they change characters.

We have all had delighted laughs at a transformation amid a really serious scene followed by silent concentration at the story unfolding. It’s gratifying when it happens.

Playing the part of Lear is a challenge every time. So many words, so much anger and explosive rage – especially in the first half. How to calibrate the playing of this in a way that isn’t just an exhausting series of rants for both myself and the audience is something I’m still exploring. Finding as many different shades as possible is one of my missions – always remembering that Lear has to have had loveable qualities to earn the devotion that makes Kent risk his life to follow him in disguise and Cordelia to want to rescue him.

But the fact remains he is a very angry man…. and playing him takes a lot of stamina.
I’m finding that I have to protect my energy and sometimes that means I need to withdraw and be quiet. Most of the company are less than half my age and can recover much more quickly!
Back in South Bend this week for our Notre Dame performances feels like coming home. We’ve already rehearsed there and we know the people and the campus.

Each week of the tour will have a different character, without a doubt, and that’s part of the joy of this tour.

Many adventures await. Blow winds…..

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #2

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

68 Fahrenheit never felt so good.

Emerging from Houston Airport in our woolly hats, scarves and gloves, it was quickly apparent that we weren’t in Illinois any more, Toto. Having spent the weekend in a polar Chicago (braving the snow and ice to check out the jawdropping Art Institute, shows at Steppenwolf and Second City, and a Bulls game: we DID Chicago) it was a huge relief to be surrounded by air that wasn’t actively wanting to hurt our faces.

But once heavy sweaters and boots had been exchanged for t-shirts and sneakers, there were a couple of rather pressing responsibilities to deal with. Firstly, we had our first classes and workshops to teach. Secondly, there was the small matter of actually opening the play we’ve been working on for the last six weeks…

The range of topics covered by AFTLS classes is vast and, in the best possible way, challenging. This week alone we have covered- among other things- comedy improv, Tennessee Williams, directing photographic models, Shakespeare’s London, directing actors for film, critical reading of texts, and costume design for the stage. Fred and I had a fascinating session with some chamber musicians at the magnificent Shepherd School of Music, working on entrances, exits and taking the stage at recitals- and in return, had our mind blown by Hindemith’s Wind Quintet (check out the fifth movement, and you’re welcome).

The facilities available to US students continue to leave me wide-eyed. The Shepherd School, for example, has both a concert hall and a recital room, and a 1500-seater opera house is under construction. Our venue for this week’s opening performances of King Lear was the 475-seater Hamman Hall, a fantastic space which would make most UK drama students weep with envy.

And so, finally, we got to tell this story to a paying audience- and what an audience! For all three performances at Rice we had dream crowds. They were attentive, responsive, involved, and very free with their applause. After the Friday night performance, Fred, Richard and I were already starting a debrief in the wings when we noticed frantic signaling from stage management because the clapping hadn’t abated and we needed to take another curtain call. To have such a generous audience response is unbelievably helpful in the neurotic early stages of a run: we owe our Rice audiences a real debt of gratitude.

While I’m on the thanks (‘my mum, my dad, my agent and the Academy…’) it would be remiss not to mention Abigail, Claire and Sierra, our superb student stage management team who interpreted our regularly-rewritten prompt copy superbly. We don’t have many lighting effects but they’re important ones, and they were executed with a real feel for the rhythm of the show.

And as a running-time nerd- the kind of person who can get excited three months into a run if thirty seconds is taken off an act- I was delighted that by Saturday night our playing time was 2hrs 35mins. For comparison, last time I was in King Lear our first half alone was 1hr52… and the first stagger-through of this production broke the three hour mark. King Lear is such a vast play that the leaner we can make it, the better.

Speaking of lean… I’m glad I chose drawstring trousers for my costume. Houston, it turns out, is good, good eating. Carry on like this and I’ll have to book myself an extra seat on the plane home.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #1

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

The flying time from London Heathrow to Chicago O’Hare is nine hours, or, to put it another way, approximately three and a quarter performances of King Lear. But for our company, those nine hours represented more than just the passage of time.

There’s always a point in any production where you begin to realize that rehearsal isn’t just an end in itself; that you’ll have to be putting this work in front of other people at some point. Of course, you always know on an intellectual level that you’re creating work to be seen, but there’s something seductively private about a rehearsal room that can sometimes prevent that knowledge being absorbed emotionally. It can come as a shock when you finally have a full-bodied realization that, before too long, what has been an empty room will become an auditorium full of people.

Traveling to another continent really helps that moment to arrive quicker, it turns out! And once we’d arrived in Notre Dame, what had been a private group of five in London, rehearsing on our own without a director or stage manager, became gratefully absorbed into the wider AFTLS family. Finally getting to meet the people who help the organization to run so smoothly has given us a very welcome support network, but also reminded us that the first public performances are just round the corner.

Unpacking the suitcase containing the whole production in our new rehearsal room on campus helped us ground ourselves in these new surroundings. We may be five thousand miles away from where we first got this play on its feet, but finding all the costumes and props we’d gathered together over the last five weeks was an instant visual reminder of the work we’d already put in.

When there’s any kind of interruption of the rehearsal process- and a transatlantic flight is quite an interruption- there’s always a nagging fear that momentum might be lost, that you won’t quite pick up from where you left off. Fortunately once we started tentatively dipping our toes back in the choppy waters of King Lear, we were not only able to consolidate the work we’d done in London, but we found it was beginning to develop, to gather the kind of pace and energy any production needs as it approaches its first performance.

Maybe those nine hours in the air had allowed some of our ideas to percolate from our short-term memory into the long-term, maybe the excitement of arriving at Notre Dame had given a shot of adrenalin, maybe the approach of opening night had focused and concentrated our minds. Maybe it was a combination of all three. But whatever the reason, our play was energizingly and reassuringly taking shape.

But while it’s good to know that this production travels robustly, as we gear up to take it from coast to coast, that’s not enough. It’s our job now to take our solid but skeletal structure and flesh it out. Colour it in. Bring it to life.