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.

Blizzards, blobs, and beer | Ursinus welcomes AFTLS

And so we reach our final week, heading for Collegeville, Pennsylvania and Ursinus College. The college, pronounced Yer-sigh’-nus, was founded in 1869 and is located 30 miles from Philadelphia. It’s the first time we have even got near to a coast – unless you count Lake Michigan, which does indeed look like an ocean. It’s a bit of a shock, this two-flight journey, as we go from 25 degrees Celsius to -4 (77 to 25F). The frisbee will not be coming out again. Actually we get here just in time; by Monday evening Winter Storm Stella has arrived, bringing with it 18 inches of snow. We were warned about this and there was a quick panic-buy trip to the supermarket when we arrived. Beer, cereal, crisps, all those essentials, you understand…

It also means I’m back in electric shock land. I’m not quite sure why, but Will and I seem to be more susceptible to the shocks, in colder weather, from light switches, from door handles, from each other sometimes. A couple of days ago Jas looked accusingly at me after I had made her jump, as if I was suddenly Marvel’s new creation of Electric Shock Man and doing it just for my own amusement. I’m getting scared to turn the light off at bedtime…

The Kaleidoscope, home of Ursinus College’s departments of Theater and Dance.

Tuesday saw a late start because of the snow, and Sarah and I had to dig the car out of the hotel car park to make it to the first class. We were asked to go in a directors’ class and do a couple of mock auditions for them. So Sarah went in as Nervous-Auditioner, stumbling and drying [click HERE to learn all about “drying”] her way through a speech, and I followed that with Mr. Know-It-All, who refused to redo his speech when asked to try it more melodramatically. “You don’t understand,” I spat back, “I’ve just played this part at the Royal Shakespeare Company!” Thankfully, Sarah and I got a chance to go back in (this time as Ms. Couldn’t-Care-Less and Mr. Couldn’t-Care-More) and make them realize that we weren’t really like that. Honest.

Meanwhile, on Friday, after we had done our first show the previous evening, Will went in to do his class and was promptly asked four times, by different people, to give a rendition of one of our songs in the round, “Rose, Rose, Rose, Red” – I think, having agreed to sing it the first time, it was hard to get out of it after that. Arise Jukebox Willy. Interesting how popular the use of song in the show has been over here.

As for outings this week, the weather put paid to the first half of the week, and I’m afraid none of us made it to the Liberty Bell – the closest I got, in fact, was a full-size replica back in Houston. Interesting that it and the original were both made in London. Sarah and Waggy (her husband, who came out to join us this week, along with Jas’ boyfriend Kieran) did get to Philadelphia on Friday and visited such oddities as the Mütter Museum (shown on the right), a collection of medical artefacts and brains and colons, apparently. I think I might have been even more scared to turn the light off after that…

I did make it as far as Phoenixville, a small town nearby, which has a peaceful charm about it, a few streets of Victorian wooden-slatted houses made all the more picturesque by the snow and the clear blue skies. I stopped to help a man in a very little car get out of a very lot of snow and just enjoyed the chance to wander and take in the numerous iconic yellow school buses dotted about the place, all ready to chug into action. It was less peaceful downtown, where Molly Maguire’s was already doing a roaring trade at 3pm on St. Patrick’s Day. I squeezed my way in past the kilts, the bagpipes, the fiddlers and the sea of green that covered all three floors, and sipped a little Guinness. One has to fit in, don’t you know…

One oddity about Phoenixville: it has a cinema there, the Colonial, where a famous scene from The Blob, a horror B-movie starring Steve McQueen, took place. Apparently in June they hold a BlobFest every year, where they recreate that scene. Look, I’ve told you, I’m scared enough about turning the light out as it is…

There’s been a bit of reminiscing in the hotel bar this week. The line dancing, the snow, Mission Control, Indian Forest Mountain, the Hancock Tower, skimming stones on Lake Michigan; all in all we feel pretty lucky. Not only that, but I it’s been a rewarding challenge, both in the classrooms and out. We seem to be in a time, on both sides of the Atlantic, of Arts funding cuts and pushing the money into more quantifiable, more headline-grabbing areas. All I would say is that I know, by seeing it on students’ faces and from feedback from them and their professors, that we have made a difference here – for some of them, a tangible and long-lasting difference. That is the joy of this job, and long may it continue. I know, by seeing it on students’ faces and from feedback from them and their professors, that we have made a difference here – for some of them, a tangible and long-lasting difference. That is the joy of this job, and long may it continue.

So tomorrow the adventure comes to an end. Well, sort of; we will be doing two performances of the show in London on April 2nd (5pm) and April 3rd (7.30pm), so please do come to the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone if you can. We’d love to see you.

And now it really is time to turn the light off. Thank you America. Good night and good luck.

— Roger May (March 19, 2017)

Houston…we have Shakespeare | AFTLS lands in Texas

Week seven is the “hot stop” of the tour, down in Houston. For weeks now, we have been imagining ourselves down here, in Hawaiian shirts and shorts and playing frisbee on the beach, margarita in hand… Hmm. Houston, we have a problem. But hey, warm winds and warm rain aren’t so bad – unless you forget where you parked the car in the parking lot, that is. Then you can get pretty wet, as a couple of us found out to our cost.

The University of Houston Clear Lake is made up of about eight and a half thousand students, on a sprawling campus that includes alligators and deer and armadillos. But Jas had watched a TV programme about how to escape from an alligator, so we felt quite safe. “So what do you have to do then, Jas?”. She replied: “Run”. None of them made it to a class, although an armadillo popped by the stage door after the show to say hello. No, I’m not joking.

Elizabeth Klett did a fine job of marshalling the troupe from airport to faculty meeting (where we discuss the classes to come with the teachers), and we had an eclectic mix of classes lined up for us this week: from Digital Photography to Creative Writing, from Public Speaking to Antigone (Sarah has become our Greek expert on this tour), from British Romantic Poets to Educational Psychology.

I must confess, I had had a few sleepless nights working out how best to do a class on “Manfred” by Byron, but actually it was a real pleasure. It’s an epic poem (also called a closet drama) and concerns a man seeking forgetfulness or forgiveness after he (it is implied) sleeps with his sister who then kills herself. We read the scene where he meets the spirit of his sister and explored the idea of status and eye contact and what clues there are in the text as to how the speech could be played. I then split the students into twos and had them improvise a situation where one person was seeking forgiveness from the other, looking to see if there was anything useful we could find from this exercise for the poem. One of them began with “I’m sorry I ate your grandmother’s sandwich. How was I to know it would be the last one she ever made for you…” Sometimes I love this job.

TV in Houston offers the NASA channel and a Russian channel; we soon discovered why. By the first evening we had met Vladimir and Yuri in the hot tub (Vladimir even came to see one of the performances). And we even got the chance, on Friday, to go and visit the Johnson Space Center – the highlight being the chance to go into Mission Control pictured below). It’s amazing to think what was accomplished from here. And all, we were told, using five IBM Supercomputers with the same memory as we use now for a couple of photos on our smartphone.

So yes, they can fly people to the moon and back but, as we would mutter more than once on this tour, “Why can’t they build any pavements?” [translation: sidewalks] We still skip our way around various obstacles to get to a local bar at least once a week, or to the local bowling alley – this week, with the help of NASA’s flight path technology (or maybe with the help of the local bar), brought the highest score of our tour. More importantly, Sarah got two strikes, the first being greeted with arms aloft and a bellowed “International Women’s Day!!” Never has lane 16 been that animated. Or lane 17 that bemused…

The shows went well here and built up through the week. On Saturday, remarkably, another Wyoming student turned up to see it (see Nashville blog), along with aforementioned armadillo. Thank you Kat. And, earlier that day, Will led a terrific community workshop that brought a good turnout, none more enthusiastic than six year-old Harper. It’s always difficult, without an outside eye, to know how the show is evolving, but feedback seems to be very positive – even from Harper, and we were treated to a hug and a drawing.

Saturday night, after the show, we promised to be reasonably abstemious, as we were booked in to the Houston Rodeo on the Sunday. But, Texan hospitality being what it is, and daiquiris being what they are, only Sarah and I saddled up on Sunday morning for the trip. Well, neither of us knew quite what to expect, really, but the whole thing was massive in size and massive in spectacle: a huge fun park outside, a vast livestock show, a horse show and a packed 70,000-seater stadium that hosted the Super Bowl a few weeks back. It was all quite ridiculously wonderful.

Once we got into the stadium – standing tickets only – Sarah and I had a ruse prepared. We sat ourselves down in two empty seats and, if approached by the actual seat holders, would explain that we were from the British Seat-Warming Society, hired by the event to warm initial impact – “and the best thing is, there’s no charge for this service. But feel free to tip.” We thought we might make a few bucks along the way, jumping from seat to seat, but actually the ticket holders only turned up just as we were leaving. We tried to be interested in The Chainsmokers’ concert that followed the rodeo but, by then, we were too soaked to the brim of our Texan hats with what had gone before: pig racing, steer wrestling, bull riding, lassoing, calf scrambling, mutton busting…the list goes on, as do the memories.

Thank you Houston. No problem after all.

— Roger May (March 16, 2017)

Acting up in Iowa | AFTLS at St. Ambrose

Ambrose Hall at St. Ambrose University (Davenport, Iowa)

And so to Iowa. Very flat, Iowa, as Mr. Coward might have said. We were greeted by Lance Sadlek at the airport, a man who proved to be the most wonderful host to us, with his patience and his warmth and his infectious effervescence — thank you Lance. Indeed, Iowa seemed to open its arms to us at every turn, almost as if it knew that this was week six for us, that check-ins, repackings and hotel breakfasts had slightly lost their lustre.

Deb at Notre Dame also knew this, and consequently booked us into the Residence Inn for the week, and the addition of a kitchenette in the rooms was a real treat; we scampered to local delis and bought ginger and spice and all things nice — gluten-free, in my case — and said a temporary farewell to burgers and wings and ranch dressing. (Please don’t think of us as newly-converted yoga-crafted Puritans; the freezer section meant I could also stuff my face with Ben and Jerry’s…)

St. Ambrose University was founded under the auspices of the diocese of Davenport as a seminary and ‘school of commerce’ in 1882, first as an academy, then later a college, and only officially a university in 1987 (on Shakespeare’s birthday). In World War ll it was also used as a location for training officers for the US Navy. There are about three and a half thousand students here (none of them Navy officers, to my knowledge) in a concentrated campus, surrounded by wooden-slatted houses in muted Shaker colours. It makes for a pretty ‘frame’ to the place.

This week (unusually for me), I got to teach a couple of classes with theatre majors, and Corinne Johnson, their teacher here, seems to have built up a wonderful rapport with the students. In my first class, the Kardashians made a reappearance (see past weeks), but this time they had to face the US Army; they may at last have met their match. In the next class, I had the Costume Design students try to recreate the first scene in the AFTLS style, with all seven of them assigned at least two parts — and attempting to use basic costume and/or props to help keep the characters ‘alive’ during the numerous character changes. At one point, in exasperation, a student called Megan threw her script to the floor and cried, “How do you do this?” Yep, that’s pretty much how we felt on day one of rehearsal, too, Megan…

The Romeo and Juliet cast at St. Ambrose University with Nancy Hayes (center) and Lance Sadlek (upper right)

Later in the day, the charming chair of the St. Ambrose English Department, Nancy Hayes (who has helped to set up numerous Shakespeare-related events), was telling me that, in one of her classes, she thought that Sarah had brought something out of one of her students that she had never seen before, and that she thought would change her forever. Nancy claimed she had been changed too, grabbing the chance to be a waltzing fighter. “I’ve never waltzed before in my life!” She exclaimed. It took another ten seconds for her to add, “…or fought either, you understand”.

We were given the novel task this week (forgive the pun) of taking part in a project called Human Book Day, where we had to be a book — title previously provided by us — and be happy to take questions from any visitors to the library. So there were we five, pontificating on death and mutilation, ghosts and ghouls, diversity, cross-dressing and text exploration. Not your typical Wednesday afternoon.

We were also asked one evening to do a short presentation for some benefactors, where Jack acted as ringmaster and put us through our paces. “Show us how Lady Capulet sits, William”, “Do your northern accent, Jas”, “Now show us how quickly you can change from Paris to the Nurse, Sarah”. I feigned a huge interest in my shoes and hid among the vegetable dips…
When I first toured with this company 17 years ago, I bought a shot glass from every venue, as a memento, and I’ve kept up with the practice this time around. Sadly, St.Ambrose had none for sale, so I headed (with Sarah) down to the John Deere Pavilion. We are in big John Deere country here and big is, well, a big theme down there, with their big tractors and very big combine harvesters etc. So big that they too, don’t deal in anything as small as a shot glass. However, Sarah and I still stayed long enough to try out the simulator digger. Sarah caused less damage.

There was only one show this week, but very well-attended, with over 420 in the audience. And there was a real feeling that we wanted to give our kind hosts the best possible performance. People seemed pleased. One student even said to me afterwards: “I loved the Queen Mab speech. I was holding my girlfriend’s hand at the time but, right then, I was thinking that I could leave her for you.” Not sure that would work as advertising.

Other highlights of the week included a night out bowling, (where Scotty and Josh tried teaching us how to spin the ball), an evening out with Elaine and the local running club (first and last time I run over the Mississippi in the wind and snow) and an invitation to the Erotic Thigh – actually the Exotic Thai, but the neon sign wasn’t very clear…

Time for us to leave Davenport in one piece (which, apparently, is more than can be said for Cary Grant), proudly wearing our gifted John Deere baseball caps. Actually, that almost proved a problem late in the night on Saturday as they are forbidden in some bars, but I think peace was restored with some strawberry daiquiris. In shot glasses. Cheers. – Roger May (3/10/17)

‘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.]