“Hamlet” Fall Tour — Week 11

By Grace Andrews

Wellesley campus holds Lake Waban, deep blue water which mid-fall is hugged by trees in blazing deep orange and red. Walking around it, the crisp Massachusetts air is warmed by the atmosphere of this place – alive and vibrant with ingenuity.

I was fascinated to visit an all-female college; interested to get a sense of how the young women interacted, the methodology in teaching and the appetite for learning. In a workshop entitled ‘Women Centre Stage’, I asked the group what they were passionate about. ‘Protest Literature!’, ‘Language!’, ‘Spoken-word!’, ‘Penguins!’. Initially shy and graciously polite, we spoke about what it was like to take up more space; to lengthen our strides, take in more breath, allow our arms to swing with more freedom. We experimented with increased direct eye contact – and asked the question, ‘When do we allow ourselves to truly be seen?’. We spoke of clothes that constrict our breath, cinched in our waists, our modern corsets. We discussed the pressure to be right, to be liked, to please, to serve. We engaged with the temptation to prioritise being interesting and impressive over being ourselves. We acknowledged the words we frequently chose not to say, and how they build up to form a fire which can erupt.

We allowed ourselves to breathe, and have the courage to just be. In letting this tension fall away, we came to the core of what it means to be female today, and we wrestled this with relish. I was astounded by the levels of generosity, kindness and respect in the room – not always a given – and the women listened to each other, and really listened, with keen empathy and sense of joy.

The Shakespeare Society at Wellesley is a further force to behold, with freshman and seniors working together to celebrate and indulge in the Bard’s canon. Their clubhouse is a perfect replica of Shakespeare’s birthplace, and the passion and energy fizzing within its walls is testament to the girls’ bright and wide-eyed hunger for bringing his language to life. They rehearse and perform plays in a beautiful upstairs stage area, complete with Elizabethan beams and ‘Juliet Balcony’. Fittingly, they’re currently rehearsing Romeo and Juliet – and there’s no question of gender-blind casting here – with fierce young women taking on Romeo like he was written for them.

I think of playing Ophelia and Laertes, and how every show I attempt to find a new and better way to tell their story. It seems too easy to simply change physicality. For Laertes I began by widening my feet, puffing up my chest, raising my chin and finding freedom in my gestures. Ophelia was much smaller, narrower, more careful in her movements. I found their scope of breath in their horizons, how Laertes can breathe with the sky as his limit – the ocean and world laid out for him as his playground – an opportunity he can reach. I imagine Ophelia existing within walls, rules, routines – and her breath would match her shallow room for growth. I thought of Laertes as a puppy, with bounce and vigour – and Ophelia as a caged bird, tethered, with a sense of missing something she never knew – flight. I thought of Laertes as earth or fire, powerful and unpredictable – and Ophelia as water, movable, changeable, malleable – and as strong as she is fragile.

Their gender does not define them, but as the actor is it hard to ignore – and I strive to find the truth in the masculinity and femininity – and how both exist within us all.

Laertes:
Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears. But yet
It is our trick. Nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will. When these are gone,
The woman will be out.—Adieu, my lord.
I have a speech of fire that fain would blaze,
But that this folly doubts it.

As we pack up and leave Wellesley to go on to Tennessee, I walk through the hallways lined with black and white photographs of notable alumni spanning over 140 years. I wonder what these women didn’t say, what they held back, what stood in their way. What gave them focus, drive, what words they would have chosen for their passion. I think of the moment they left the world of Wellesley, and how they will have had to adapt, to shift, to grow even further to get their voices heard.

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.

An Audience at Westville

by Wela Mbusi

Westville correctional facility was certainly a unique experience for all of us and definitely left an indelible impression on the cast. Although the facility was an interim holding for prisoners who were about to be released, entering a place that is devoid of all the little mundane things that make up a life, right down to not having privacy when performing your ablutions, always made me wonder what efficacy would mere words performed by actors have there.

Upon arrival we were greeted with an air of enthusiasm, but little did our fragile egos realize that it was not out of anticipation for Shakespeare’s ‘transformative’ words, but due to the anticipation of the new; the unknown; a piece of the outside world they will soon be a part of. After being searched we were told we had to be decently covered and no parts of our body were to be on display.

We were unsure how the presentation of the play and the numerous scenes set in a prison would be received, but they turned out to be the most well received. Due to everyday prison routine we couldn’t stop the production when a large portion of them had to leave for food or roll call but we pushed through until they returned.

The resonance of the play had an effect on how we performed to a certain extent but the idea of staging a production that has immediate relevance to an audience, did add a sense of appreciation for the power of what we do as actors.

For the inmates, the play was their only contact for with the outside and to have been able to bring them that made what we do seem less superfluous.

After the production we got the chance to speak to them and their interest in the play was astounding and questions about the themes were the most surprising, as we thought they wouldn’t want to talk about them.

Such a unique experience which never gets old and one that I would love to do again given the chance.

 

Back to Fighting Irish Country

by Wela MbusiIt feels great to be back in Notre Dame this week as this was our first destination at the beginning of the tour. We’re a little under the weather as some of us are plagued with tummy bugs and physical ailments. This week exhaustion has set in as the novelty of hotel hopping has finally ended; but we still manage to find solace in the show and the magnificent reception it’s been receiving here in Notre Dame.

Dominic had not been feeling well all week and immediately put himself on a pharmacopeia of medicines to stave it off for the show in the evenings. The frequent change in beds had finally caught up with my body and suffered from a muscle strain as well. Ben, Anna and Pete also tittering on the edge of throat tickles and feelings of being light headed, but all in all we are still loving the show and the feedback from the audiences has been overwhelming. We’ve had a mixture of Shakespeare aficionados and theatre enthusiasts whose feedback on the clarity and joy we seem to be having on stage, has been very encouraging and great to hear.

Students from the workshops also made up some of the numbers in the audiences and for them to see the show after having explored parts of it in detail, was something they thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated. I especially enjoyed working with some of the Accounting students as they were not familiar with the play but using it to work on basic presentation skills was an eye opener for them and for me as well.

The school itself has also been a a bit of a culture shock as Ben recounted one of his classes starting with the Lord’s prayer; something, coming from a predominantly secular London culture we’re not used to. Certainly a lot of the themes from the play have been points of interest for the students as well as the professors.

The change of weather is slowly but surely creeping in as we’ve had a few wet spells, but we’re all looking forward to our prison performance on the weekend as that’ll be a new experience for most of us but one we’re prepared for as a group.