The Journey Begins

 

by Wela Mbusi

An epic journey is underway for five actors creating a magical piece of theatre from scratch; using nothing but our skills, imagination, and the love of theatre. Did I also mention without the all seeing eye of a director?

AHHHHHHH!!!

The first two weeks of rehearsals have been about shelling out the play for its meaning, not only for clarity of storytelling, but for us to really grasp such a complex and rich play as Measure for Measure. After the initial shock of being left alone in the room with nothing but the text and our collective training, we managed to slowly, but surely, decipher the scenes one unit at a time. It has been a tremendous learning curve for all of us in the company so far as we’re coming to terms with different ways of working. On top of that, there’s the added responsibility of being all of the other figureheads responsible for the creation of a piece of theatre. However, not having the constant objective eye of a director, it has also meant enjoying the freedom of playing with the text in many ways that a ‘normal’ rehearsal wouldn’t allow us to. We’ve been paraphrasing our lines together and that has helped us not only understand our own lines but the other actors as well.

The breadth and depth of understanding that the process has given us has and hopefully will continue to enrich the play. Foursquare seems to be a regular pre-rehearsal pressure reliever and we are constantly enthused by the epic journey that we’re about to take in the States.

‘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…

Richard III | Mississippi River Run

Photo of St. Louis Skyline by Capt. Timothy Reinhart

AFTLS Quiz Time: I can’t believe this is our last week on the road with Richard III. So, all you Shakespeare pundits. I have a one question quiz for you. Where does this piece of Shakespeare text come from?

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear,
Till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,

But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep, great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
There’s the respect must give us pause:

Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take,

In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
In customary suits of solemn black,
But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,

Breathes forth contagion on the world,
And thus the native hue of resolution,
Like the poor cat i’ the adage, is sicklied o’er with care,
And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws,
But get thee to a nunnery—go!

You get two clues…

  1. When I first saw the mighty Mississippi, I laughed like a drain because it reminded me of this brain bender.
  2. It involves a King and a Duke.

Now on to our final two residency weeks, both spent at campuses on the banks of America’s mighty Mississippi River.

Last week, we performed and taught at the University of MissouriSt. Louis, affectionately referred to as UMSL (Um’-Suhl). We all had a blast in class. I taught “Acting for the Camera” to six lovely guys working on scripts written by the brilliant Dr. Niyi Coker Jr. – fantastic contemporary pieces that the young men acted really well. One of them, Dre, turned up in Jacqueline Thompson’s class the next day and knocked me out with his movement, physicalizing some knotty words from RIII.

lizumslI also taught an Honours group who were mostly biochemists, business majors, and athletes in Kim Baldus’s class. They were brave, committed, and lovely to teach. Both Jacqui and Kim did all the exercises along with their students – I do admire that.

hannahHannah went out to the Grand Center Arts Academy, a high school, and part of UMSL’s outreach programme and had a cracking class. We had a 10am matinee on the Friday which was a bit of a shock and had a good talkback after. All of Hannah’s students from the Academy were present and cheered to the rafters when she came out on stage for the talk – just LOVELY.

One of Evvy’s professors sent a message saying, “I’m on FIRE after my AFTLS class.” Not bad, eh?

It’s a strange thing to play just two or three shows a week especially when we all share so much text. We’ve actually only done around 22 performances. Normally, you’d play eight times a week, possibly in repertoire [multiple titles during the same week]. It makes me nervous usually for the first show in a new venue, but we have gradually all become more relaxed and the show has grown and become more textured and nuanced. I think our St. Louis performances were really enjoyed by us AND the audiences. Paul was incredible as he was under-the-weather but soldiered on magnificently. I think audiences are often surprised by how often “the show must go on” does literally happen.

umslmatinee

Our first evening show was interesting as all the motorways got closed down because Vice President Joe Biden was visiting St. Louis, supporting a Democratic senator, and his motorcade drove ALONE down the closed-off highways so many of our audience were stuck and we had to hold the curtain for 15 minutes. What a frightfully glamorous reason. We have been fascinated and often horrified by the lead up to the elections. My brother Nick, a BBC sports journalist did actually suggest that maybe I should have a blonde quaff [wig] as Richard – tempting, very tempting.

The 10-story slide at St. Louis's City Museum

The 10-storey slide at St. Louis’s City Museum

Apart from viewing the magnificent Mississippi, we all visited the St. Louis’s AMAZING City Museum, an adult and child playground (in an old shoe factory) where we all had the guts to brave the slightly hair raising slide and climb some of the contraptions hanging off the roof. Three of us got in those funny pods and went up the Arch, visited the gorgeous Forest Park and also went bowling. Evvy won and Alice got the most-stylish-throwing prize. We were invited to an evening of cocktails by UMSL’s Associate Professor of English (and the driving force of our being invited to UMSL) Kurt Schreyer: he and his wife Kim’s gingerbread house was lovely, and we were thrilled to go to someone’s HOME. A very good week. Read more in this from a post in the UMSL Daily.

My room with a (killer) view at Principia College

The view from our rooms at Principia College

As I write this (and before I tell you the answer to the quiz) I’m sitting in a charming room in Principia College (Elsah, Illinois): a Christian Science college just 45 minutes up the river from UMSL. Set in the most idyllic and peaceful surroundings, Principia has a thriving theatre department led by Jeff and Chrissy Steele who both studied and lived in Stratford on Avon for four years. I taught Jeff’s British Dramaturgy class earlier this week which was great fun and Alice, Hannah, Evvy, and Paul set the acting students alight in acting classes throughout the week. I managed to wangle my way into John O’Hagen’s dance class and Charleston-ed and shim-shammed for 90 minutes. Thanks for letting me join in, John; I just couldn’t resist it.

groupcropYesterday, our full group took full advantage of our surroundings and soared through the trees, reveling in the warmer-than-average autumn weather. Flying over 250′ above the ground, we added a new skill set to our CVs: zipline experts. Hannah outdid the rest of us by taking one run fast enough to flip over our instructor and into local legend.

We’re really looking forward to our last shows tonight and tomorrow where there’s a blinking HUGE church organ on the side of the stage which may HAVE to be used in the persuading of the citizens’ scene; it’s just CRYING out to be included. After this week’s workshops, the small but mighty campus is buzzing for our performances. Thanks Principia for being a brilliant final stop on our US tour.

We return to the UK next week and will perform Richard III in London later this month. See our final two performances at The Cockpit Sunday the 20th (5pm) and Monday the 21st (7:30pm). Tickets are available HERE.


I haven’t forgotten our quiz: the answer is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for that’s where the two fraudsters – the King and the Duke – decide to perform a night of Shakespeare. They also performed in a small American town on the banks of the Mississippi. Mangled bits of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III make up Twain’s hilarious mishmash of a speech. How wonderful that touring Shakespeare in the US is still such a delight 130 years after that novel was written.

— Liz Crowther (November 4, 2016)

Richard III, King of the Car Park | AFTLS Tour Blog III

You may not know this (forgive me if you do) but the real King Richard III who ruled England from 1483-1485 was the last English king to die on the battlefield: at Bosworth Field near Leicester.

He is also one of England’s greatest “villains,” mostly because he was deemed responsible for the disappearance of his two young nephews, Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York who went into the Tower of London in the summer of 1483 and were never seen again. They had been proved illegitimate and, though young Edward was due to be crowned, it was his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who became king.

Richard III by Andrew Jamieson (courtesy of the Richard III Society)

Richard III by Andrew Jamieson (courtesy of the Richard III Society)

I put “villain” in inverted commas because many people feel even now that he was maligned especially by Shakespeare who concentrated on the wicked and comedic aspects of the man. Indeed, Shakespeare has Richard tell us in his very first speech that he is “determined to prove a villain.” Of course, dramatically, it makes Richard III an even more powerful and classy psychological thriller. It is argued that it was mostly the Tudors that wished to dishonour him.

In 1924, a group of very vehement supporters of Richard III formed a society in his name  to uphold and defend him as an excellent king who passed many good laws (true: a fairer criminal justice system and granting of bail was due to him) and they have members all over the world. The Richard III Society think that Shakespeare vilely slandered Richard, that he had nothing to do with the young princes’ disappearance, and that he certainly did NOT have a curvature of the spine and physical challenges.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard is called “a bunchback’d toad” amongst other horrible names. [Click HERE for a list of the insults hurled in Richard III]

In 2012, Phillipa Langley, a member of the still flourishing Richard III Society, after much research and poring over ancient maps, managed with an historian, John Ashdown-Hill, to persuade Leicester University’s archeological department and Leicester City Council to dig up the council’s car park (parking lot in your parlance) as they both had strong evidence that Greyfriars Monastery was beneath it and that Richard could possibly be buried there. Richard’s body, history told us previously, was taken from the battlefield, stripped naked, thrown and tied over the back of a horse, and ridden around the city of Leicester to prove he was dead. Philippa believed otherwise.

Richard greetings cardThere was money enough to dig two trenches and a film crew shot a documentary about this adventure. One of the first shots is of the rather beautiful and slightly nervy and terribly British Phillipa standing on a seemingly randomly painted letter ‘R’ (some old designated spacing I imagine) saying tremulously: “I don’t know why but I have the most extraordinary feeling that he’s right under here”…and HE WAS! In the very first hours of the very first day of the dig, they found first some legs and then a skull which they assumed (because of its awkward position) was another body on top ,only to discover that it was someone with a severely curved spine. It is worth watching The King in the Car Park solely for Philippa’s reaction as she looks down to the skeleton. You can watch she and the Society’s belief in Richard’s normal physicality shatter on screen. Matt, the lead archeologist of the dig, said that if they had chosen to dig 50 centimetres to the right, they would never have discovered his skeleton. The Home Office had to be called as human bones had been found, but the dig continued. It was later discovered that a descendant of Richard III’s sister, a Canadian cabinet maker living in London called Michael Ibsen, had  exactly the same DNA as the skeleton. They truly had found a “King in a car park,” 527 years after his death.

Richard's ReinterrmentPhillipa is a fantastic woman who doggedly pursued her instincts and who honoured this man, whatever his misdemeanours. She keeps saying all the way through, often weeping, “I just keep thinking about the man, the human being he was.” Two and a half years later he was interred at Leicester cathedral in an absolutely beautiful coffin made by his descendant, Michael Ibsen. Gosh, it’s nearly as thrilling as our play.

Richard-iii-remainsOne more wonderful thing, bearing in mind our gender blind casting and me — a woman — playing Richard, is that when the osteologist was first examining the bones she (for a goodly while) thought it was the skeleton of a woman because the hip bones were slightly larger than a male and the forearms very delicate and “gracile”…just like mine. Hurrah!

— Liz Crowther

BREAKING NEWS — Another King found in a car park just this week! The UK’s Telegraph newspaper has the whole story: Another car park, another King: ‘Henry I’s remains’ found beneath tarmac at Reading Gaol