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.]

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)

Westward (Ida)ho! | Richard III visits Boise State

boise As we descended into Idaho’s Boise Airport, we all saw the most dramatic and stunning scenery: the Rocky Mountains, creeks, gorges, ravines, and trees, trees, and more trees. Boise is the “City of Trees” and home to the largest Basque population outside Europe. Idaho is the land of the potato and has over three hundred natural hot springs, much wildlife, and incredibly welcoming people. Mac Test and Maya Duratovic met us at the airport and took us back to a meeting of all the teachers whose classes we would teach in at Boise State University.

Paul O'Mahony (far right) leads a workshops for Mac Test's English class at Boise State University.

Paul O’Mahony (far right) leads a workshop for Mac Test’s English class at Boise State University.

We were formally greeted by Richard Klautsch, head of the Theatre Arts Department and delighted to discover that many drama students would be in our classes. As Hannah Barrie said later in the week “It was great to do some more advanced stuff with them.” Some examples are the Guildhall exercise, ‘Look/Move/Speak,’ and ‘New Move/New Thought’ (which plays around with WHEN the thoughts/lines of a play drop in. Her students LOVED IT.

It was good for us this week as we taught in pairs for some of the lessons and I watched in awe as Alice (in Jen Black’s class) sent her students soaring and roaring with laughter at some of her fantastic ideas to experiment with the text of Richmond’s oration to his troops: do it as a political speech (timely, eh?); do it as a nursery school teacher, explaining it super clearly to us, her tiny students, and allowing us to interrupt or giggle when we liked, which we did a LOT; and then as a hellfire Southern preacher. Brilliant!

Evvy gave a masterful masterclass on Saturday, breaking down and physicalizing separate words in Richard’s oration to his troops (a nastier speech altogether) and gave such great notes that I took them all on stage with me on Saturday night, and I swear  the speech lit up as the result of her lesson. We had a  young schoolgirl, Samia, among us (the class was open to all in Boise) whom Evvy encouraged to perform Richard’s speech with us as his army; Samia said she felt empowered by speaking it.

Paul (full of energy and fiercely intelligent observations) and I taught in Linda Marie Zaerr’s   British Literature class and worked on the second wooing scene with Richard and Queen Elizabeth. She wrote us such a lovely mail that I have to quote it:

“You engaged the students powerfully, and you affirmed their ideas and interpretations while leading them to an awareness of an infinity of possibilities.”

We also had a long Q&A session with students and Boise residents with all of us as a group, and Matthew Hansen, who runs an after school program called ‘Shake it Up’ for very young students, asked a lot of interesting questions. He was paramount in getting us to Boise, and we truly had a wonderful week. The show was received very kindly and got tighter, with raised stakes in our storytelling.

We are all serious “foodies,” so a visit to Goldy’s Breakfast Bistro down near the Capitol was a must and the Andalusian eggs (with asparagus and chorizo), the potato/dill omelet, and the corned beef hash were mind-blowingly good. We managed Idaho trout, salmon, and sturgeon, a trip to the Basque Market, where I ate Paella Roll and bought membrillo, the heavenly, solid quince paste to eat with cheese, and downed a fairly generous amount of Boise Brewing’s pumpkin cider. It’s a community owned company and all the original shareholders have their own ceramic pint pot with their name on, hung up on the wall…a veritable sea of pint pots.

bogus-basinWe drove up and up and up to Bogus Basin, biked along the river from the delightful campus, visited the Basque museum which told of Basque sheepherders emigrating here in the early 20th century and being welcomed in Basque run boarding houses all over Idaho maintaining their traditional dances and cuisine. We then had an extraordinary weekend in a proper mountain log cabin, high up in Lowman and belonging to the exceptionally kind Maya Duratovic’s family.

log-cabin

20161023_124828We saw the Milky Way and more stars than I have ever seen in my life, listened to the fast running and crystal clear creek water, and saw not another soul till we drove to Idaho City the next day to see this perfectly preserved town of 500 people founded when the Gold Rush was on and with its original territorial prison and courthouse and much rusting mining equipment. A proper Wild West town. And then, three hours in the hot springs just down the road. Our little group melting, our shoulders sinking and the smiles spreading. Absolute bloody bliss!

–Liz Crowther

Back at the Mothership | Richard III returns to Notre Dame

Well, here we are, back at the Mothership after leaving the heat of San Antonio and the crisp walks round the lake at Wellesley. It’s wonderful to be back to the beauty of leaves falling, to be welcomed by our friends, and to feel familiar with the layout of a university campus, our American home, Shakespeare at Notre Dame.
ndautumn
I did a class yesterday on “Media Stardom and Celebrity Culture” with the lovely Christine Becker, and we all discussed the difference between film performances: locked eternally on celluloid, and theatre: mutable, shifting night to night with that glorious chemical reaction between audiences and cast, cast and cast, and cast and venues. Our Richard III has certainly been changing, and we’re a pretty playful bunch of actors who trust each other deeply and want to explore and mine our text to the limit. For example, in the coronation scene in Act 3 where Richard, newly crowned, tests the princely Buckingham’s loyalty by revealing deep insecurity in his position and the nuisance of having the illegitimate young princes around, I say:

Cousin, thou wert not won’t to be so dull;
Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead;
And I would have it suddenly performed.
What sayest thou? Speak suddenly; be brief.

Alice, who’s playing a mutely obedient Lady Anne, by my side, has started physically empathizing with Evvy’s noble and wavering Buckingham and silently pleading her horror at this thought. It gives greater emphasis to everyone else’s abhorrence of this thought and to my desire, a few moments later, to get shot of [get rid of] her and say to Catesby:

Rumour it abroad
That Anne, my wife, is very grievous sick.

Hannah who, apart from being a brilliant actor and the choreographer for various moments, had some ideas to improve the ghosts by giving them horrible unearthly gasps before each of them, all Richard’s victims, speak. It works beautifully. And Paul’s Queen Elizabeth is now so heartbreaking and vehemently reasoned in her defense of Richard marrying her daughter, that I’m having to adjust accordingly and find other tacks to succeed.

That’s the glory of Shakespeare: the endless possibilities and interpretations and the pleasure of exploring them. The reactions vary too. At Wellesley College, the audible disgust at Richard kissing Elizabeth on the mouth after persuading her to give him her daughter as a new Queen, was amazing.

shakespeare_houseAlso at Wellesley, there is a Shakespeare Society (founded in 1887) that always holds a party for the actors on their first night there. The Shakespeare House (pictured on right) is INCREDIBLE: a Tudor exterior, with its own stage and a basement heaving with endless, ancient copies of Shakespeare: some with prints that I have never seen. There is a costume department worthy of a local regional theatre in Britain. One entire rail just held CLOAKS. And in November they will perform their all-female Henry V for which they have promised a video. I can’t wait.

50wellesley

Wellesley is Hillary Clinton’s alma mater. I wonder if she ever ran naked across Severance green as is suggested on the 50 things to do before you graduate from Wellesley…I hope so.

Here at Notre Dame, we had a lovely response last night and have all had challenging and interesting classes. I worked with Peter Holland’s students on Tuesday exploring the first soliloquy and the insults to Richard. At the end Professor Holland reminded the class that, if in London, they should visit Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, where I am a volunteer (docent in your parlance) and Trustee.

David Garrick and his Wife by his Temple to Shakespeare at Hampton, Johan Zoffany, c. 1762

David Garrick and his Wife by his Temple to Shakespeare at Hampton,
Johan Zoffany, c. 1762

In the eighteenth century, David Garrick made his name, as a 23 year old, playing Richard III. We have a copy of Hogarth’s famous painting of him in the nightmare scene before the battle of Bosworth, as well as Garrick’s commissioned statue of Shakespeare. I was on duty there the week before we started rehearsals on Richard III and had one visitor that day who was intriguing and singular and asked the most informed questions. When I asked him if he was a historian, he said, “No, I work at Kensington Palace; I’m house manager for Richard, Duke of Gloucester.” At this point all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I told him I was about to play one of his boss’s antecedents and he said that the current Duke had been at the real King Richard III’s interment at Leicester Cathedral. Gosh.

Evelyn Miller puts Commedia dell'arte on its feet during a visit to John Welle's "On Humor: Understanding Italy" class during the Notre Dame residency.

Evelyn Miller puts Commedia dell’arte on its feet during a visit to John Welle’s “On Humor: Understanding Italy” class during the Notre Dame residency.

I told some of the Foundations of Theology students in Anthony Pagliarini’s class on Friday about the excellent laws that the real King Richard had passed which I learned of in Leicester Cathedral on a research visit. He ensured new laws were written in English to be understood by all. He helped confirm the place of the jury system, bail for the accused, as well as laws for land ownership and trade protection. We were discussing whether Richard’s path was chosen or determined by fate; I put forward my view that he is validating his invalidity. As Ian McKellen says in the brochure accompanying his and Richard Longcrane’s excellent Richard III film made in 1995 and set in the 1930s: “Richard’s wickedness is an outcome of other people’s disaffection with his physique.” I think that being crowned King is proof to him that he is a whole human being.

pep-rallyAfter finishing that class, I had the thrill of seeing and hearing the “pep rally”…a phrase I’d never heard before. Basically, it was all the accumulated bands of Notre Dame marching to the ground for a home game and rallying their supporters. I love a brass band. I love great big drums thumping out. And when there are over five hundred musicians playing all together, it is truly rousing.

[Learn more about the world-famous Notre Dame Victory March.]

–Liz Crowther

Corpsing and dancing and sticks, oh my! | Rehearsing ‘RIII’

A look back at the final rehearsals of Richard III from AFTLS actress, Hannah Barrie


Since everyone was complaining of sore sides due to the amount of laughing that went on, we knew we had a “good’un.”

We all love spoonerisms, I won’t hear otherwise, and they arrived constantly in the Richard III rehearsal room. One of the reasons for a large amount of corpsing.

Derby instead of asking “What of his heart perceive you in his face?” at the council meeting in Act III asked “What of his f….?” You get the picture.

aftls-richard-iii-074_webWe’ve had furry dragons instead of fiery dragons from Liz. 

And “tyranny for trifle” from Evvy (which made everyone think of a good blancmange).

“My horse I’ll help you to a Lord,” Catesby proclaimed in Act V.

But my favourite was from Paul as Elizabeth in Act IV, “Who has any cause to moon but I?”

And if you don’t like a good spoonerism (shame on you!), please consider Alice as Richmond proudly riding a flatulent horse during a rousing speech. 

Perhaps you needed to be there, but I had to lie on the floor on more than one occasion due to laughing so much. It was a very enjoyable rehearsal process. But we didn’t just say silly things and roll ’round the floor. Our rehearsal weeks were epic. We managed to get to the end of the play with dance, music, drumming, and everyone off book.

Now this line learning business was no mean feat. It was hard. For everyone I think. Not only is the word count huge for all, there’s no one through line — one character journey that you’re creating and exploring — there are six. Unusual? Too right. And then you throw in music, rhythmic scene changes, props, etc. and the brain starts to over heat a little.

dancesteps_v12My final week in rehearsals was dedicated to mapping out my journey for each character throughout the play and the journey for Hannah the actor; exits, entrances, etc. It’s been a complicated dance, and I’m happy to finally feel confident in knowing what I’m doing from moment to moment.

northernbroadsidesBut enough about me. Let’s talk about Conrad Nelson. For any of you who are familiar with the company Northern Broadsides you’ll know the name. This company, based in the north of England (Halifax) produce Shakespeare and other works usually in the northern accent and tour the country with these vibrant shows. Their work is down to earth, accessible, musical, dynamic, and I’m a big fan. Conrad directs, acts, and composes music for them. And we were fortunate to be able to get a session with him which turned out to be far more than the music session it was briefed to be. The tricky thing with the show is how to create drama, tension, a threat, dynamic fast moving scene changes where the energy doesn’t drop, how to create atmosphere out of nowt [nothing]. So we decided that rhythm and song would be our best bet. Conrad came to us with some excellent suggestions. A song to potentially use in the Act I, scene II funeral procession, a ‘Te Deum’ that Con composed himself for the end moment with Richmond after Richard has been killed, and a song to start proceedings with a bang. He’s also a keen Morris dancer and taught us a set dance. I’m a keen Irish dancer, so I’ve used my own knowledge, this dance as inspiration, and my cast mate’s fabulous ideas to choreograph a folky number for the start. I hope you like it. We do. And finally Conrad taught us some rhythm patterns using 5, 4, and 3 that are simple but create great drama and tension. What an inspirational day. Thanks Con!

Now the challenge with this rhythm business is that everything we use has to fit in the suitcase. So sticks are our thing! The cajon was thrown out of the window, luckily the window was open at the time so no damage done. Although we loved the sounds it made and were really excited about the rhythms we were creating we decided it was too cumbersome for our little suitcase, so it had to go. Sorry cajon fans. BUT, we have sticks! aftls-richard-iii-003_cropQuite few of them, as it happens, and they’re great for sustaining the rhythms (and therefore atmosphere) we feel are so important to our production. There’s such a gathering of momentum throughout the play, as first of all Richard’s plots escalate, and then as the rebellion led by Richmond builds to its bloody climax on Bosworth Field. Most companies tackling the play would have large casts, elaborate sets, effects and costumes to create this – so we have had to be extremely imaginative! We’ve found that the sticks make a great sound and can also represent various different objects (knives, swords, etc) so they fit in perfectly with our lo-tech aesthetic/constraint.

One of the exciting challenges is making whole worlds out of almost nothing and the freedom that eventually gives you (plus the lack of tech time when you’re on tour). It’s the essence and beauty of ‘poor theatre’ which then allows there to be almost no divide between the performers and audience, which is a relationship which suits Shakespeare well (soliloquies, asides, etc).

We’ve experimented with different stick options. First of all we used some old broom handles (in fact, many of the items we’ve used in rehearsals have emerged from Liz’s attic) and then moved on to dowel rods. Once we settled on dowels, we then experimented with different lengths and how practical and aurally pleasing they were. We also had to consider the suitcase, so they certainly couldn’t be very long. After much deliberation we’ve settled on varying sizes of sticks. And as I type this, they’re safely nestled in our large blue suitcase surrounded by the costumes and props we’ve decided upon. But there lies another story for another time…

— Hannah Barrie (from September’s London rehearsals)

Richard III Hits the Road

utsa-recital-hallWe’ve been having an amazing tour so far. We opened at the University of Texas at San Antonio tonight performing in their beauteous Recital Hall (pictured) which has glorious acoustics and a mighty organ behind our delineated acting area. As we have no director, stage manager or “techies” with us, it is our job to organize: putting our play in a new space – and boy have we had some different spaces – an exciting challenge.

We first performed at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana in a tiny, bare, very hot room with around thirty or so charming men who were hungry for Shakespeare. They take part in a series of weekly workshops run by Shakespeare at Notre Dame’s Scott Jackson. They asked brilliant questions and shared wonderful thoughts about the production. Clarity can be potentially hazardous when you have five actors playing 27 or so roles, but they all seemed to follow the plot really well. We learned, several of the attendees had never been to the theatre before, and all sat in rapt attention. For us, it seemed such an important thing to do, to perform there. The visit to Westville stands as one of my most amazing theatrical experiences.

Our next stop was The University of Texas at Austin, a serene and vast campus full of live oaks, unknown to us in England. We had such enthusiastic audiences (people standing, wow!), a biggish theatre, and our very first classes. This is the first AFLTS tour for three of us – Evvy, Hannah, and Alice – and they were a bit nervous as workshops began. However, after sharing classes with them, I can testify that all three are completely BRILLIANT, and their teaching has received wonderful feedback. Paul is already a seasoned teacher and an exceptionally clever chap, having studied Classics at Oxford; this is his third tour.

The idea for our classroom sessions is to share the actors’ approach to a text. For example: warming up our voices and bodies, physicalizing words, staging short  scenes, thinking about the characters’ emotional and physical states, and, most of all, their intentions. We also touch on the importance of speaking the text OUT LOUD and having a NEED as a character to say these things. For students, this approach is occasionally strange, sometimes truly silly (which is such fun), but always a welcome way in to the text.

classroom_cropI have my classes pair off. In each pair, one becomes a Lancastrian supporter and the other a Yorkist (the two factions in the play). They then push hard against each other’s palms whilst shouting “Dog, cur, and villain.” The physical impetus makes the antipathy much easier (though most people just giggle a lot the first time round). I had a football quarterback in my class yesterday who the teacher said she had never seen so animated!

winedale-historical-centerwinedale_cropOn the Saturday of our Austin residency we drove out to Shakespeare at Winedale and their summer school Shakespeare camp run by the very wonderful Laurel and James Loehlin. I’ve known James for 25 years as he worked at the Orange Tree Theatre in the UK at the same time as me. The Winedale theatre is a converted hay barn, so we adapted to a teeny tiny stage with three additional levels, a lovely and different dynamic. We watched some fantastic child actors beforehand (directed brilliantly by Clayton Stromberger). They performed scenes from Richard III under the trees. I must give a special BRAVO! to the young girl who played a most MAGNIFICENT Queen Margaret. We had added excitement during the performance as a coral snake had to be killed trying to get into to watch our play. Evvy Miller, playing Buckingham, is terrified of snakes and calls them “speedy, small, death machines.” As she was waiting to make an entrance, she was quietly told to “shift quickly as there was a snake on the loose.” We all survived the scare and enjoyed a lovely response to the play. We concluded our Winedale evening star-watching under that dark and huge Texas sky.

broken_spokeWe have managed a few “jollies” (an English word for fun trips out) to the very famous “Broken Spoke” dance hall (pictured), to swim in the creek in Austin, and to watch the nightly exodus of one and a half million bats from under Congress Bridge which was absolutely SPECTACULAR. We have also eaten our body weight in burritos, steaks, tacos, and enchiladas. Luscious!

— Liz Crowther