Berea via Chicago | AFTLS on Tour

Berea College in Kentucky

And so on to our next stop – to Kentucky, to Berea College. Well, not quite.

First we were treated to a weekend stop in Chicago, where the time was our own until Monday. After the Friday night show at Notre Dame, we piled up our suitcases (into a stretch limo, obviously – we’re getting used to this) and headed for our downtown Chicago hotel. The view from the 14th floor (or 16th if you’re Sarah – she has contacts everywhere) was fabulous, looking down over the river and a huge neon-assisted sign of “Chicago,” in case you were still in any doubt.

While there, Sarah and I delighted in surely one of the best museums in the world, the Art Institute of Chicago. The breadth of the collection is quite staggering, particularly from the Impressionists onwards; I felt drowned in so much craft and imagination. While I was taking in Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” a young American student was slowly formulating an opinion. Eventually he turned away, with the words, “it just seems like a lot of dots to me.” Hard to argue with that.

Will and I went ice skating in the shadows of the giant Anish Kapoor silver bean; we watched the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history (still wanted the Falcons to win); we sipped Manhattans and Long Island Ice Teas high up in the Hancock Tower, with a twilit view of this metropolis, and we walked along the Navy Pier and took in the ludicrous expanse of Lake Michigan. What a treat.

But time now for Berea. A very big change from Chicago – and from Notre Dame. A much smaller place (about 1,600 students here), Berea College is a liberal arts college in Madison County, Kentucky. No, I didn’t see any bridges. All students here have to take a job while they study, and you see them in the cafes and shops, and even working the looms and potter’s wheels in the craft shop. In return, their tuition is paid for. Incoming students “have financial need,” and it must be a great relief to get through four years of college without a huge debt pushing down on their shoulders.

“Our generous TUITION PROMISE SCHOLARSHIP makes it possible for you to graduate debt-free…We sometimes call Berea ‘the best education money can’t buy.’”

It has a quiet charm to the place, this Daniel Boone pioneer country, and three times I went hiking up the Indian Fort Mountain to take in the view of the Appalachians in the distance. In fact, the first time, I was on my own and managed to get lost. I tried retracing my steps but to no avail, and I was left wondering which route down took me back to the car. Luckily, I came across a woman walking her dog. “Sorry to bother you,” I said, “but can you tell me which way to go to get down to the parking area?”. “Furshra” she replied. “I beg your pardon?”. “Furshra”. I felt like Hugh Grant, the Englishman who came up a hill and couldn’t get down the mountain – it was as much as I could do to stop myself from fluttering my eyelids and quoting David Cassidy. “Take the Furshra and go straight down”, the woman continued. “Oh, great, first right, yes, of course…thank you.” I stumbled away as fast as affected nonchalance would allow.

It’s always a slightly strange experience, having a five-day gap before returning to the stage. The play seems familiar and yet oddly distant, and we have to recalibrate and make sure we are still being faithful to the story every time we return to it, while also accommodating a different playing space – Berea’s Jelkyl Theater is a wide but intimate space, seating about 250 and it gave us the chance to really use the corners, play ‘upstage’ and engage with the wider space.

And, in the meantime, we have classes to give. This week, the students in one class reimagined the opening stand-off between the two opposing factions not as Montagues and Capulets, but as the Empire (Star Wars) against the Kardashians. They improvised away, with threats of bling and light sabres and various hair flicks. Good fun. Of course, the parting shot from one of the students was still, in a slight Southern lilt, “oh go on, please can you say pip, pip, cheerio for me? I just love that accent”…

We’ve been staying in the historic Boone Tavern. According to YouTube, the hotel is haunted. Well, I don’t know if it was ghosts that took me from room 232 (TV not working) to room 217 (window wouldn’t open) to room 312, but the other members of the company kindly let me know that one of the rooms is haunted by a boy called Timmy, whose cackle of laughter has been heard by various visitors. Yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s room 312. And, sure enough, the next night I was woken by a whispering wailing sound. Eventually I had to turn the lights on to investigate, only to find that the window had slipped, leaving only a sliver of air that whistled through the tiny crack. Dear dear Timmy.

Other than that, the hospitality here has been wonderful. Shan Ayers‘ care for us was way beyond duty, and Tia Davis and family today treated three of us to a wonderful American brunch – thank you, Hassan, for the delicious fare on offer, and to you all for your kind hospitality. It was a treat to be out of a hotel and in such a warm domestic environment …and away from Timmy, obviously.

Next stop Valparaiso, University…in Indiana, not Chile. Time to pack, to try and remember phone charger etc (this time) and all set for a 9.30 start. So long Timmy – and pip pip cheerio, obviously.

William, Jack, and Sarah meet their doppelgängers in the hills of Kentucky. Playing multiple roles takes its toll on our psyche.

‘Trevor Nunn’ is a Verb | Romeo and Juliet in Rehearsal

Whatever your political take, it feels like a strangely apt time to be doing a tour of Romeo and Juliet, a play about divisiveness and intolerance.

With that said, it’s time to pack. We line up our props of flowers and sticks and torches and bowls and curtains and sheets and, looking over them, we can see a representation of the collective maelstrom of our ideas that have bounced off these rehearsal room walls over the last few weeks. To be honest, this way of working (without a director) is an exhausting but invigorating process – if those are not too contradictory words.

William Donaldson (dead) and Jack Whitam fail to ‘Trevor Nunn’ while rehearsing Romeo and Juliet.

We have built up a strange company linguistic shorthand over the last few weeks. For some reason we ‘concur’ a lot, rather than agreeing (think Catch Me If You Can), and ‘Trevor Nunn’ (the name of a prominent theatre director in the UK) seems to be another form of agreement we use – not sure of the derivation of that! But it’s a relief that we ‘concur’ and ‘Trevor Nunn’ pretty frequently through our working day.

We still have some more rehearsal time in Indiana, but yesterday we showed our work (in the form of a run of the whole play) to some of the Associate Directors of the Company. Their feedback was very positive and also gave us some pointers to work on next week.

It’s only by doing a run of the play that you start to get an idea of each actor’s ‘track’ through the play. I think of the term ‘track’ as being from the musicals world, really, (I guess stemming from the fact that, in that world, you often have to understudy a number of other parts to cover for sickness etc, and so you need to learn the track of each one – in other words, the various entrances and exits, as well as your offstage journey to each one, and where you might be in a dancing formation etc. Anyway, it seems an apt word for us here, where we are playing many parts and needing to find out when we enter where, with what prop and as which character. As you can imagine, it’s a confusing route for all of us. This is made harder by the fact that no actor ever exits the stage; if you do leave the scene, you sit on the chairs upstage, as you may (and often will) be needed to contribute sounds or voices to scenes you are not otherwise involved in.

The five member Romeo and Juliet cast walks their tracks.

At the moment, this all seems insurmountable – so far I have 36 different items on my track list – but I’m sure that running the play a few times will make things clearer. So, it’s time to print up travel details, weigh bags, and hopefully all meet on Sunday at Heathrow airport. The journey begins.

Roger May (January 20, 2017 | Brixton)

[Update: our Actors From The London Stage are safe and sound at their American home, Shakespeare at Notre Dame. Their first public performances will be February 1-3. Click HERE for tickets.]

Romeo and Rum Cake: Creating Verona in South London

[The first in a series of blog posts from the spring 2017 Actors From The London Stage tour of Romeo and Juliet. Written by AFTLS actor and tour veteran, Roger May]

So, the journey begins. On many levels. One of which is that I’m a middle-aged blog virgin, so please be gentle with me and join us on a journey of discovery, travel, and adventure as Romeo and Juliet takes five people to new places, real and imaginary.

Jack Whitam, Sarah Finigan, Jasmeen ‘Jas’ James, Will Donaldson, and I were cast together for this play a couple of months ago after an audition and a recall, or call-back, as I think they are called in the States — in fact, let me say now that I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings between the languages of American English and British English. It wouldn’t be the first time. (Note to self, it’s called an eraser over there, an eraser…) Jack is doing his third tour with this company, and I am doing my second (although that was 17 years ago). However, there is no hierarchy within this company. Everyone has different strengths in this group, and not having a director allows us the chance to explore all of these.

Anyway, we had a read-through of the play a few weeks back, and, just before Christmas, we began the process by sitting down together with a blank canvas, a blank rehearsal room and a blank schedule. Only twelve days later, it seems like we’ve known each other a long while already and have built up a very good way of working with each other and explored a lot of different avenues around Verona (“where we lay our scene”).

We rehearse in Brixton, an area in south London that has made us very welcome. On our last rehearsal day before Christmas, there was a post-funeral wake downstairs (we rehearse in the large room upstairs) and, at lunchtime, we were invited to come down and join them for their meal. It was a feast, with some Jamaican specialties like fried plantain and curried goat. I was really moved by the whole thing. There seem to have been plenty of examples of the world closing in recently, becoming more insular, and here were people we didn’t even know inviting us down to eat with them. A Jamaican rum cake followed — I definitely tasted more rum than cake — followed by the rum bottle itself. I am still staggered by the warmth and generosity of that day.

Brixton shows a warm welcome to the cast of Romeo and Juliet: (pictured L-R) Jasmeen James, Sarah Finigan, William Donaldson, and Jack Whitam. Roger May is hiding behind the camera.

As I said earlier, we are now twelve days in – about half-way through our time in Brixton. We are still very much experimenting with different ways of conveying characters, building scenes and finding the through-line of the narrative, but already scenes are coming together, and yesterday we did a run of the play for the two Associate Directors who cast this play. Neither of them walked out.

One of the massive benefits of this way of working (with a cast of five) is that, in my experience, there has always been a clarity that shines out in performance, that helps the play to stand out and connect, and that is our aim here. Romeo and Juliet starts with an avalanche of characters in the first scene — Will is especially busy changing from one character to another (and another!) — and it has a couple of big set pieces. However, it also has a lot of two-hander scenes, so our challenge is to keep the focus clear, to tell the story and bring the audience with us.

On Monday we have a fight director, Philip D’Orleans, joining us. We think (although nothing is set in stone at this stage) that we’ll be using something to represent swords rather than swords themselves, making the trip through airport security a little simpler. We looked at hand-to-hand combat, but there are many references to rapiers and weapons in the script. Anyway, that’s today’s thinking. It all may change.

And, later in the week we have a woman called Donna Berlin coming in to help us with movement, both in terms of the ball scene and more general movement challenges in representing different characters — we have about four or five each to convey through the show. I think it’s fair to say that fitness levels will be tested in the coming weeks.

Busy week ahead. More to come…