Brigham Young, Utah

By Chris Donnelly

Our week’s residency here at Brigham Young was nothing short of extraordinary for a variety of reasons. Sadly, it began in a very inauspicious manner.

Our Monday travel days are often a tiring, arduous affair; however, this journey was particularly stressful.

We were up at silly-o’clock to say goodbye to wonderful Zoltan and leave Vassar. However, the first of our two flights was delayed by an hour. This meant that we would have a matter of minutes, on arriving at O’Hare airport, Chicago, to get our connecting flight to Utah.

Of course, it was not made easier by the fact that we arrived at terminal F and our connection was the extreme far end of terminal B. Officially, we had two minutes before they closed the gate and the next flight was not until 7pm that evening. If anyone has any knowledge of the size of Chicago’s major airport and therefore the distances involved, you will understand the magnitude of this challenge.

Suffice it to say that we all did our very best impersonation of Usain Bolt at the absolute peak of his powers, with a following wind, running downhill and got there, a heaving mass of sweat and hold bags, just as they were closing the gate.

Having gone into post-sprint shock, followed by several cardiac arrests and a lung transplant, we were finally calmed by the stunning views we beheld, as we began our descent into Utah. It was obvious to see that we were entering into an unique landscape of breath-taking natural beauty. As the first couple of many pictures of this blog testify…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a view of the mountains and the lake from which Utah’s major city derives its name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here the glorious snow-capped mountains that surround Salt Lake City.

After the aforementioned trauma, we were very pleased that the journey to Provo at the other end was perfectly perfunctory, the hotel and the hotel rooms lovely. Unusually, the faculty meeting would not be until the following morning, so it was delightful to have the evening free to explore the downtown and have a good feed.

My personal experience of working for AFTLS and the all-encompassing nature of the work you are immersed in, means that I rarely look too far ahead, with the odd notable exception. However, this was one such exception.

I had scant knowledge of the tenant of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, apart from the fact that Utah was its home and often named a Mormon state. This and the image of the occasional two smartly dressed, extremely polite Americans carrying out their missionary work in the UK when I was growing up.

However, we were previously informed that the university would be alcohol and coffee free and moreover, that the state as a whole largely followed the same tenet.

This, in all honesty, was a topic of conversation that became more and more prevalent the nearer the week came. Without, I hope, being disrespectful to their religious beliefs and proclivities, actors, for the most part (and certainly for we five’s part) like coffee and alcohol.

Imagine our relief and delight, then, that on venturing to the pretty downtown, with, it must be stated, its most spectacular mountain-scape backdrop…

 

 

 

 

 

 

…we fell upon (purely for medicinal purposes, you understand, to calm our frayed nerves!) a fantastic bar, called ABG’S, which was to become our spiritual home for the week.

So, after a rather protracted i.d checking process, we had a couple of glasses, put a few tunes on the classic jukebox and enjoyed a few frames of pool…

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this we became ravenous (Evvy’s perpetual state, it seems!) and again we were delighted to discover a delightful Indian restaurant…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

….which made us all extremely happy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, tired but sated, the traumatic travel day done, we all retired for a good night’s rest in anticipation of the working week.

You would be a very hard person to please if you didn’t enjoy the view on opening the curtains the following morning!

 

 

 

 

The campus…

 

 

 

 

 

 

…was equally pretty!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By virtue of that fact that this was an extremely light week of workshops, although a heavier one in respect of the number of shows we were to perform later in the week, the faculty meeting was a brief affair, after which I had an interview with the Provo Daily Herald. Here is the link to the article.

This free time gave we intrepid travellers good opportunity to explore the surrounding area and we made good use of it. We had a wonderful drive around and eventually arrived at Deer Creek State Park.

We got our stride going and proceeded to walk up the mountain for several miles. As you can see, the views were wonderful!

 

 

 

 

 

 

We only contemplated stopping when we found snow!

This was followed by another visit to ABG’S, before we attended a wonderful concert, by the BYU Philharmonic, entitled “Happy 100th, Leonard Bernstein!” This was very kindly arranged by our lovely administrator, Bridget Benton. We were all extremely impressed; considering the majority of the students were not professional, the standard was extremely high!

The following morning, I had a wonderful workshop with Junior and Senior acting students. They performed duologues from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Uncle Vanya¸ Ibsen’s The Doll’s House and The Enemy of the People and George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. We then re-worked moments and a good time was had by all!

Once again, our group met for a social in the evening at our neighbouring hotel. It was very interesting for us to note that state law dictates that wherever alcohol is to be served, food has to be purchased and brought to the table in advance of said alcohol, or else the establishment’s licence can be revoked.

The majority of food available was… cake. So it was that over a two-hour period we amassed…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…cake…

 

 

 

 

 

 

….more cake….and finally…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps now would be a good moment to return to my staple subject of Meteorology.
As stated in previous blogs, we Brits are no strangers to changeable weather. However, Utah, or Provo at least, takes it to a whole new level in Springtime. The Wednesday was beautiful, clear blue skies and twenty-three degrees – just what the doctor ordered.

We were, therefore, vey unprepared for waking up on Thursday morning to find the following vista…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By lunchtime it was all gone and we were back to this…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so to the shows…our first show in the University of Utah theater, which has a five hundred and fifty seat capacity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The house was good, roughly two-thirds full; the response to the play, fascinating. There seemed to be a good general knowledge of the piece and we all felt that they got it and were with us from beginning to end. Indeed, it was amongst the most vocal (in a good way) audiences we have played to on the entire tour.

However, there were some definite moments of atmospheric silence (apart from the odd person who couldn’t help but laugh) at the more, shall we say, overt sexual moments.
Before the Friday performance, it transpired that a few of the more senior members of the audience, who are patrons to the theatre arts programme, had raised a couple of issues regarding the above and therefore Bridget very politely requested that we extract a couple of moments of business in the remaining performances, which, of course, we did. It wasn’t wholly unexpected, but it was interesting to experience, nonetheless.

And undeterred, below, our actors prepared….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carl, svelte but strong….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom, mean and moody…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Myself….I have no idea whatsoever!

Of course, never forgetting the team mascot. One of the coconut skins used to simulate the sound of a horse and carriage in act 4, scene 5, but more commonly known as… Shrew!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were still moments whereby we felt shifts in atmosphere at certain other moments in the play that we weren’t asked to tamper with, however, the houses and the general reaction to the rest of the run was overwhelmingly enthusiastic and positive.

Another new experience for us in this residency was that we had two shows in one day. This is by no means rare in the life of an actor, but it is the only time in my experience of four tours with AFTLS that I have been called on to do so. But it was seized on with alacrity, the job, and the residency, were done.

Which leads me to my final chapter of my Provo blog and our day off.

Rather than use Sunday as a day of rest, we decided to take our two hire cars on a seven hour round trip to one of Utah’s premier tourist attractions, the Arches National Park.

Here I become lost for words – I am no Shakespeare! Someone did once write that a picture speaks a thousand words…and therefore, I will let the pictures do the talking!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so….to Hawaii!!

 

Los Angeles, California

By Chris Donnelly

The transition from Santa Monica to downtown L.A. constituted the shortest travel journey we could possibly undergo. Even taking into account the big city’s legendary traffic, the eleven miles were done in less than thirty minutes…what a delight!

However, that delight paled into insignificance in relation to the delight we all felt when we saw our residence for the week – the Westin Bonaventura Hotel…

 

 

 

 

 

 

…in all its glory!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which we, of course fitted right into…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, for the most part, at least….!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And if you have been following this blog from our arrival six weeks ago (it’s going so fast!!) please note the sublime weather!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a preferred guest rather suited our sensibilities! And our rooms…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…correction, suites – were nothing short of palatial!

They were even kind enough to provide a welcome gift….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another benefit of attending the conference was that we were able to reunite with our lovely producers, who run the programme from Notre Dame. Here is Scott Jackson pictured with the cast minus yours truly.


 

 

 

 

 

 

From left to right, Carl Prekupp (Petruchio & Curtis), Tom Kanji (Lucenetio, Gremio, Vincentio, Gabriel, Walter and other servants and Troilus (a dog!), Lizzie Hopley (Katarina, Biondello, Pedant), Scott (the boss man) and Evvy (Tranio, Bianca, Nathaniel, Peter and other servants)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is the rest of the team with Lizzie. The new recruit as Audience Development Manager, Jason Comerford, and our chief point of contact and general manager, the quite wonderful Deb Gasper.

The work itself….

Our working week was an exception to the norm, being as we were here to run three workshops and perform our production twice, at the Shakespeare Association of America’s (SAA) annual conference, which was to take place in the hotel itself.

Unlike the combined Prison association and Shakespeare Theatre Association (STA) conferences that I was fortunate enough to be privy to on my last tour with AFTLS two years ago which was hosted at Notre Dame, this was apparently to be much more based in academia.

Coming from a purely practical actor’s approach in taking text from the page onto the stage, as twere, we were not certain of how our workshops and indeed the show itself, would be received. However, I think we were all very pleasantly surprised.

All five of us were required to attend all the workshops. Tom led the first, which focused chiefly on the language of the play, Evvy led the final workshop, which explored the main themes of the play, especially with regard to the gender issues and how the play might be perceived by a modern audience. Both were terrific to be a part of and indeed to observe with a view to abject plagiarism and basic theft of ideas to use oneself in subsequent workshops!

The main thrust of my workshop was to give the delegates a taste of our rehearsal process. That is to say, splitting them into groups of five, giving them each a line of parts and without the aid of a director, their brief was to put their scene on its feet, taking special attention to keep the storytelling clear whilst transitioning from one character to another. At the end of which, they all watched each other’s work in chronological order of the play. As the following couple of pictures testify – in all three of our workshops – the attendees really threw themselves into it with alacrity and the feedback was extremely positive, as these pictures testify!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below is a particular favourite of mine, whereby a delegate decided to differentiate between two of her characters, by utilising a glass tea-pot with mints in it as a hat! Health and safety aside, a work of genius!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The shows…

Our two shows were rather interesting affairs. The performance space was a large conference room in the hotel and therefore, no lighting whatsoever and only a slightly raised platform to play on.

Like Santa Monica the week previous, we arranged the room in a thrust configuration, so that there would be as much intimacy as we could possibly generate in a space with little or no atmosphere.

Also, there was the factor of the audience themselves. What would it be like just five actors with multi-roles, playing to an ostensibly academic audience?

As it happened, the first performance was well supported and much to our surprise and joy, we received a standing ovation. This was followed by some delightful comments in the elegant (until we arrived, at least!) lobby bar afterwards.

Our second show the following evening was the last presentation of the conference and sadly, by this stage, the majority of the delegates had seemingly either departed already or were fatigued from the previous three days activity. Whatever the reason, it was rather disappointing to play to a rather meagre and restrained house for our final show in L.A. However, the feedback was again extremely positive.

The place itself…

The nature of the conference meant that we had rather more time off than we are accustomed to and we utilised this to full effect.

Wandering around L.A. in the glorious sunshine, I realised I had no real frame of reference to the place, other than a vague image of one huge smog-filled traffic queue. Therefore, I could not be anything but impressed with how delightful much of the historical part of the downtown was and how verdant and relaxed.

Here are just a few pictures I took as I meandered…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here, one of the decks of the hotel, by night…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was even the time for Evvy and I to head back to the beach at Santa Monica.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here the sunset that came soon after….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Touring doesn’t get much better than this! Further proof of this statement, if it were needed, I will again leave to the pictures to show for themselves.

Tom, Evvy and I took the trip to the Huntington museum on our final day in L.A. and it was hard to say which was more delightful; the Japanese gardens….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or the Chinese gardens….

 

 

 

 

 

 

And to top it off, an Easter bunny on Easter Sunday!

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so concluded our week in L.A…. On, on, you noble English….to New York state. And Vassar!

Santa Monica, California

By Chris Donnelly

Having crossed from Eastern to Pacific time and added three hours to our travel day, therein, we arrived in Los Angeles airport, LAX…

 

 

 

 

 

I was compelled to take a picture of our hire car number plate; perhaps because the California signature seemed so iconic to me, or perhaps it was that I was overtaken with such euphoria because we felt warmth for what seemed the first time in years!

We were met by our delightful administrator, Gordon Dossett, who led us to our hotel on Pico Boulevard, with its beautifully quaint courtyard…

 

 

 

 

 

 

…which we put to good use throughout the week!

The hotel was conveniently located for our week’s residency at Santa Monica College, which we all agreed was a lovely campus…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often, after a very early start and a long day of travel, there is a great desire to unpack and simply acclimatize to the new surroundings.  However, there is the obligatory faculty meeting to discuss the week’s workshops to attend first, and on this occasion, it was a lovely experience. There was a great energy and enthusiasm from the lecturers in the room and the meeting done, we were treated to a very fine Mexican meal at a restaurant across the road from our hotel.

On Tuesday the workshops began. The college does not offer four-year degree courses, rather two-year study, similar I believe to the colleges of further education in England that have foundation courses and the like. Whatever the course, we were all impressed by how bright and proactive the students were. All five of us had great experiences with them and we were all thrilled that a good number of them came to see the show – sometimes more them once!
Indeed, to further emphasize the enthusiasm and passion the tutors had for all things Shakespeare, here is a picture of the English lecturer Jason Bostick, whom I ran two workshops for…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With regard to the shows themselves, we were playing their studio space which was in a thrust configuration. It was the first time we had played to anything other than proscenium arch, so there were various alterations that we had to adapt to in the staging of the show.
However, rather than it being inhibitive, it was actually very liberating and the proximity of the audience in this intimate space gave the performances an extremely interactive and playful feel; although in such intensity it was rather hot on stage and it felt like there was a distinct lack of oxygen!

There was a Q&A after the second performance, which was extremely well attended and almost inevitably the majority of the debate centered on Katherine and Petruchio’s relationship, his treatment of her and of course, that climactic speech at the end of the play.
Aside from the wonderful working side of the week, we were all delighted with the warmer climate and Santa Monica in general (although there were still a couple of days of rain!) and we certainly made the most of it…

Here’s Carl and Evvy, just chillin’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this is the view of Santa Monica from the rather swish Huntley Hotel cocktail bar…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a picture of the team, with addition of the founder of the feast, Gordon and minus myself, for obvious reasons…

 

 

 

 

 

 

(There is an ongoing joke between the cast that whatever and wherever the picture, Tom always looks photoshopped in!)

And here is Venice beach in all its beauty…

 

 

 

 

 

 

In general, the response was overwhelmingly positive and Gordon and his fellow lecturer, Perviz Sawoski, emphasized this by taking us out for another meal on the Friday evening! They could not have been more gracious and generous hosts and they stressed severally how keen they were to have AFTLS back again as soon as they possibly can.
So we must have been doing something right!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so, in good heart, good cheer, and warmth, we intrepid Shakespearian warriors sally forth to downtown L.A and the Shakespeare Association of America annual conference…. huzzah!

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, New Jersey

By Chris Donnelly

The subject of the weather was a rather prevalent feature in my blog about the previous leg of the tour, in Wisconsin.

Sadly, living up to the British stereotype of being obsessed with the subject, I apologise in advance that I am compelled to begin this blog with the same! Here is the view as we approached Newark International Airport.


 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is the view from my hotel window the next morning!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I promise to move on from this subject, after the following final (for the present) passage on the subject.

We are no strangers to adverse weather in the UK, as anyone who has stayed for any period of time there will surely testify. However, our rehearsal period, from mid-January to mid-February, seemed to be engulfed in one long rain cloud. It was wet and grey in the mornings and completely dark by the time our working day was done. So the torrential rain in South Bend, followed by the freezing conditions of Wisconsin and the fresh snow of New Jersey, were a constant test of our durability. But there is great solace in the fact that the final leg of the tour ends in Hawaii and that the two weeks following this present residency will be in LA!!

Having shed that skin, I am now free to ruminate on our week in Red Bank, NJ, in more detail.
The week was a slight departure from a normal residency in that we are not actually attached to any college or university, but rather to the Count Basie Theatre, where we performed two shows to schoolchildren and ran workshops for high school children as part of the theatre’s outreach program.

Amidst the various workshops, I had the fascinating experience of running a workshop for a special life skills class for students aged fourteen to fifteen. It was completely outside of my comfort zone, having never worked with such students before. I confess to being trepidatious, mainly because I didn’t feel that I had the very specific skill set required to do justice to them. Once again, it was to be a memorable experience.

To begin with, on reaching the high school, it was quite a culture shock to see private security guards at reception. Then, when the students came into the classroom, there was an announcement over the speaker system, following which everyone stood with one arm across their chest as they pledged allegiance to the American flag, which is something I had not witnessed before.

With regard to the pupils themselves, I was interested to see how broad a range of learning disabilities there were, from seemingly fully cognitive to fully autistic. As Mrs. Meyers put it, in our brief chat before the workshop…

“Some of them some days are totally connected; other days it’s like it fell out of their shoes.”

Having completed the workshop, I was left with two thoughts; firstly, how warm, friendly and desperate to please the vast majority of the students were and secondly, how amazingly patient, calm, caring and unerringly kind Mrs. Meyer and her teaching assistant, Mrs. Baeza, were. Not for the first time on this tour, I had had an extremely humbling experience. My colleague, Lizzie, had one similar later in the week.

And so to the theatre…

The Count Basie theatre holds over a thousand people when full. As the picture shows, it is a grand space:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally opened in 1926 as Reade’s Carlton Theater, it is apparently one of the nation’s most celebrated performing arts centres and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in America.

Art Garfunkel apparently once remarked, “This hall is to a singer what Steinway is to a pianist.”
I find it very impressive that the likes of Springsteen, Tony Bennett and the Beach Boys are amongst the thousands of known superstars have graced the stage in its ninety-year history. However, from my personal point of view, I am rather delighted that I can state with firm assurance, because Ringo Starr played there, that I have shared a stage with a Beatle….sort of!

The two shows themselves we performed to approximately three hundred and then seven hundred students respectively, and were well-received, especially the latter. I do believe that our decision to have a pre-show whereby we actors mingle and chat with the audience for twenty minutes or so before we actually begin actively adds to their enjoyment by breaking down the barrier between audience and performer.

I was extremely touched to see, as I mingled, the whole of my workshop class and I was presented with a folder of cards that the class had made for me…and a tray full of cookies. I am delighted to be dubbed Mr. Chris!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The end of the shows heralded the end of our working week and the whole cast, at various times (and on various modes of transport), took the opportunity to enjoy Red Bank’s proximity to New York and a fine time was had on Saturday, the 17th – St. Patrick’s Day, in the Big Apple.

Myself and Tom enjoyed the one-hour ferry ride…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although, everyone had places to go, things to see, friends to meet…and beers to drink, obviously…I thought it was a lovely testament to the closeness of the group that the whole cast met up for a while in a friendly bar on West 46th and 8th Avenue…

However, the weekend reverie being done, it is time to move on to Santa Monica…and sunshine!

Classroom Lessons, Lakeside Relaxation

By Wela Mbusi

Last week, we had the pleasure of being the first international theatre company to participate in a week-long theatre programme with Grace College. The college is a small-sized school ensconced in the heart of the predominately religious state of Indiana.

The classes were very differently from what we were used to, as they were academically led, but it meant clarifying that our approach as actors was performance-based regardless of the text. Luckily, the students were very receptive, and were happy to work on some of the scenes from the play. A lot of the questions about the play were in relation to the religious aspects of it; the moral dilemmas were viewed by the students and the faculty from a very specific Christian framework. Sometimes, as an actor, it’s hard to view the character you’re playing from a single prism, but we did glean some unique perspectives about the world and its motivations.

The audiences in Grace College were amazing — we had full houses for nearly every performance. We hadn’t performed the play for a nearly a full week, and that fueled our need to do it. The beautiful lake of Warsaw became a place we went to regularly, but the town itself was quite conservative, and that meant most outlets were closed by eight in the evening.

Very much looking forward to Tennessee, as that’s our next stop, and hoping to see more of the autumn as the weather begins to change.