AFTLS in Nashville | Visiting the House that Vander Built

The Cornelius Vanderbilt statue at the front entrance to Vanderbilt University. (Photo, Neil Brake)

Halfway through the tour. And so to the house that Vander built. Cornelius Vanderbilt, to be precise. He was a shipping and then rail magnate who donated $1 million to the college in 1873. From what I’ve heard, it was actually his wife who was the driving force behind the project, but he signed the cheques and took the acclaim and it’s his statue at the entrance. ‘Twas ever thus.

Now, we had hoped the more southerly states would be warmer, but none of us (not even Nashvillians) expected, in February, temperatures in the mid 70s (about 23 degrees Celsius, for any Brits) to sigh pleasantly in our faces as we disembarked from the plane, in our four layers of Indiana protection. I should explain that there is a real art to packing for one of these tours. For a start, it’s wise to take as little as possible. 23 kilos is the maximum allowed but, since we are state-hopping every week, and since we are often given a wearable welcome gift on arrival, it’s wise to underpack.

We’ve all had different tactics. Jack, as the most recent tourer with AFTLS, has remembered to travel light. (Also, he’s from Liverpool, where long sleeves only make an appearance with snow apparently, so he doesn’t need much). Having toured with AFTLS 17 years ago, I have had time to forget the art of light packing, and so every Sunday night is a creative juggle between suitcase and rucksack, to avoid extra charges. Will’s tactic is to wear as much as possible on the travel day in an attempt to keep it out of his luggage, so Tennessee quickly produced a ‘Wilting Will’ this Monday. Sarah, meanwhile, is the Carousel Queen; you’ll never fail to miss that bright pink Barbie case at baggage reclaim. Jas’ case consists mainly of two roller blades, which have been very useful for about five minutes of the tour so far.

Despite all that, we made it safely to the Hampton Inn. Three of us in the company have called on reinforcements for the week: Jas has her friend Daniella, Jack has his girlfriend
Sara, and I have my wife and kids waiting in room 524.

There’s something psychological about this choice (half way through the tour) and there’s something practical about this choice (school half-term). Either way, Nashville is a lovely choice, with warm weather and a very friendly downtown, with open windows and open arms, as we bask in the world of country and bluegrass. It’s a tiny tourist area downtown, but we feel welcomed with bar after bar of musicians serenading us along our way. It makes for a warm and inviting atmosphere of bars full of bars, if you see what I mean.

And maybe it was this haze of good feeling that enticed many of us onto the dance floor for a spot of line dancing at the Wildhorse Saloon. That was a night that will live long in the memory.

I also took in some laser quest (Goofy Jr, in retrospect, is not a good fighting name), some margaritas (rude not to) and the opening game of the baseball season for Vanderbilt who, two years ago, won the College World Series. (I’m not sure The Vandy Boys is a great fighting name either, but they play very well and I’m now a committed fan.)

And, bizarrely, Nashville is home to the only full-size replica of the Parthenon. No. I wasn’t expecting that, either.

Aeriel view of Vanderbilt University
(Photo: Anne Rayner)

It’s a sizeable campus here, with a hospital in the middle of it, which attracts a lot of medical students and post grads – and green grass, the first such sighting on our travels. Medical or not, a number of students came to see the two shows on Saturday, and the feedback was very warm. Very different houses for the matinee and the evening – not better or worse than each other, but the afternoon was definitely a quieter house, perhaps less interested in the humour, but very quietly attentive as the tragedy unfolded in front of them. It’s part of the joy of a live medium, where audiences react in different ways and the actors, consciously or subconsciously, adapt to the change in atmosphere.

Come the evening, of course, my children were in, so I was expecting to get some notes.

There were two from Tasha, aged 11:

1) “You were really scary; I didn’t like it. I hope you don’t shout like that at me when I’m older.”
(as Capulet, to daughter Juliet)
2) ” I kept thinking, it must be weird for Sara to watch her boyfriend kissing another girl…”

Also in the audience this week was Hunter, a student whom I had directed in a five-person A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the University of Wyoming in Laramie a couple of years ago, in the AFTLS style. “You know what?” he said after the show. “Having been in one and now seeing one like this, I never want to see Shakespeare done any other way.” Praise indeed.

Apart from the oddity of teaching in Wilson Hall, (rumoured to have its basement taken over by monkeys), the classes passed by with good involvement but little incident. Will and Sarah did a couple of playwriting classes, which gave them the opportunity to be gods, 6-year olds, sci-fi robots, and internet daters. That must have kept them busy.

And to finish off this lovely week, I went dancing in La La Land…no, I mean dancing in the Moonlight…with Warren Beatty. As if I needed something else to remember this week by.

— Roger May (February 28, 2017)

Welcome to America | Bubbles, Bowling, and Buñuel

The Lab Theatre in the University of Notre Dame’s Washington Hall

So. Two weeks done in the US of A. We spent most of week one on the second floor of a campus building, a ‘theater lab’ that acts as our rehearsal space. Occasionally we would wander out to ‘The Huddle,’ a building opposite that houses various eateries and drinkeries that cater for our lunchtime needs. And in the evening, we would wander out to a local bar and chew the cud. But truthfully, we were in a kind of bubble, an other-world consisting of five British actors, a suitcase of props and costumes, and lots of bottles of water. And yet we are still not immune to the spiraling tornado that is emanating from the White House. The TV is awash with experts and questions and rants and fears. And honestly, I’m scared of where this all may lead. Arrests made at JFK Airport, protests, executive orders, closing borders. Strange times.

One of the classes I was asked to teach on was on the subject of rhetoric and great speeches, so I thought I’d work with them on the Mark Antony “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Reading over it, this section hit me between the eyes:

“O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.”

Even in our iambic bubble, you can never hide away too far…

Ground transportation is Will Donaldson approved.

In fact, to highlight the surreal in all this we were greeted at Chicago airport, when we landed, with a stretch limousine. “Why?” my daughter demanded jealously when I told her. Well, apparently it was the cheaper option. All I know is that, since Chicago is an hour behind South Bend, Indiana, there was a time when I, sitting at the front and Jack, sitting right at the back, were in different time zones.

Indiana is southeast from Chicago and Lake Michigan. South Bend, the local town, is a low sprawl of highways and chain stores, much like many an American town – with so much space to play with, the architecture is generally low and wide. It’s also pretty featureless.

The University of Notre Dame, meanwhile, is a mix of impressive buildings that seem to be, in a uniformly sand-blasted way, gothic-influenced and money-influenced. For the 8,500 students here, the facilities are palatial. Apparently, many students get scholarships, which is a good job as the annual fee is apparently $61,000. The mind boggles. (You sure you want to take away the cap on the £9,000 annual fee in the UK?) The university has its own fire station, its own police force, its own zip code, and even its own power plant.

We also boggle at adverts and billboards that are so wonderfully unenglish. So far we’ve been enticed by various stores and messages: “Let’s Spoon,” “Femme Fatale” (a gun store), “Don’t Get Caught Dirty,” and a TV advert that promises to “lubricate itself right in the package.” As you can imagine, we play up the stereotype and react in a suitably Downton Abbey manner.

One big highlight this week has been to watch a live ice hockey match – a first for me. At the beginning, Will, Sarah, and I stared incomprehensibly at the high-speed mayhem but, with the help of some hockey moms cheering on their high school kids, by the end of it we were cheering and nodding knowingly at the two-minute penalties and the nuances of stick and puck. Great fun. For the record, Newtrier beat St.Joseph’s 8-2.

The boys have also ventured out to the local bowling alley. It seemed such an unprepossessing place as we drove up to Chippewa Bowl. But inside, an astonishing tardis of striking and unsparing proportions (see what I did there?). Seventy lanes. SEVENTY lanes. I ask you. Probably a good thing, as it meant no-one noticed the spirited but average fare from lane 52…

It’s surprisingly mild for the time of year but finally, in the last few days, the snow has come in. Not a staggering amount, but enough to impress five Brits and give us an excuse to finally unpack those extra Michelin-sponsored layers. Jas’ roller blades will have to wait though. In the meantime, we get our exercise in the hotel gym. I think we all know it won’t last, but we’re pretty keen cyclists, runners, and cross-trainers for this week at least.

Looking out from the stage of Washington Hall.

In the meantime, we rehearsed. Getting into the theatre was a good shock to the system; the space is a lovely two-tiered and quite intimate space (about 500 seats), but it requires a fair amount of work vocally – especially on the consonants – and is quite wide too and a challenge to play to all areas. For English readers, it’s rather like the Rose Theatre, Kingston, or Chichester (before the make-over).

Over the last few weeks, I’ve learnt two things about how to work with a company of five and no director. The first is that you have to try everything. Not only that, but you have to have time to work through each idea. It’s quite time-consuming, but even bad ideas are useful to explore, not only to be sure they don’t work, but also because they often lead to good ideas you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. And the second thing is that you need to be as sensitive as the most sensitive person in the room. Which is not always the same person. Again, this demands a patience and awareness, but that is a useful mindset to get into for an eight-week tour. And it’s turned us into a close-knit group.

The Romeo and Juliet cast (pictured L-R): Jasmeen James, Jack Whitam, Scott Jackson (Shakespeare at Notre Dame Executive Director), Sarah Finigan, Roger May, and William Donaldson.

And so to the show. Finally playing to an audience was just what we needed, and the reception was lovely. There really is a lot of humour in the first half, despite the family feud, and the audience was quick to pick up on that. The biggest challenge is to keep the freshness of a story that everyone knows and the ending that the prologue has forewarned you of (spoiler alert). Over the coming weeks that, I suspect, will be our biggest test.

Apart from taking a class on the acting styles used in the Buñuel film Los Olvidados, possibly. That was a challenge I wasn’t expecting on this tour. In the event, we had great fun with it, storyboarding the opening of Romeo and Juliet in the style of a Buñuel film. It’s important to understand that the students we teach are often not drama students (in this case they were studying Spanish), but their willingness to dive in and participate is both surprising and wonderful. Other classes covered in this first week of teaching have included Henry VIII, the speeches of Lady Macbeth, gang violence and poetry reading.

In my warm-up for a class on rhetoric the other day, I asked the students to face a wall and give only the volume needed for that distance, and then got them to increase tat distance bit by bit. “Do any speech you like”, I said, “or, if you don’t know one, then a poem or lyrics or anything you can repeat a few times”. “Anything?”, one student asked. “Yes, anything”, I confirmed. I think it was a great compliment to the establishment that, on walking round the classroom, I heard three “Hail Marys” and four or five “Lord’s Prayers”…

After the final sold-out show tonight, we head off to Chicago for the weekend, before our next stop at Berea College in Kentucky. I have to say that the hospitality and the generosity we’ve encountered has been terrific. Long may that last on this journey.

— Roger May (2/3/17)

 

[Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Shakespeare at Notre Dame or the University of Notre Dame.]

Dreaming up a Fresh “Midsummer”

Wow, three weeks into rehearsals and it seems like a dream, forgive the pun! The five of us met in Brixton three weeks ago to begin this journey which feels fairly similar to Peter Quince’s and his troupe in the play. We have two veteran AFTLS-ers and three ‘newbies’ muddling through Shakespeare’s (arguably) greatest comedy. The past few weeks have seen us mere actors take on not only up to six roles within the play but also the roles of director, production designer, prop and costume buyer and stage management. It has been a test of our mettle and an insight into what ‘mere’ actors can achieve when left to our own devices (fingers crossed it’s good-judge for yourselves when you see the show).

It has been a blessing and a curse having fairy magic on our side. Whilst having an infinite amount of options available to us for our fairy realm (not easy when directing by committee) it has also opened up the floodgates of our creativity. On a small budget with little technical back-up we really to have to use our imaginations and trust the magic of theatre to aid us in our ‘devices’.

We should also give Shakespeare some credit too. The road has been made much smoother by some good writing. A lot of the magic can be found within the text. Actors know that we are expected to perform miracles for our audiences, but, with Shakespeare, he gives us a statement of fact to deliver and produce the same effect: ‘I am Invisible and I will overhear their conference.’ Thank you, Will!!!

The wonderful practitioners whom have helped us have also made our road smoother. Lucy Cullingford, our Movement director, and Bobby Delaney, our musical director, have gone over and above what we expected and have been joys to have in the room. Their hard work, generosity, and expertise have informed a great deal of our production. Thank you Bobby and Lucy too!

I have been walking into rehearsals over these last 3 weeks and have taken a great deal of Midsummer inspiration from the street art that adorns my route. Who’d’ve thought Peckham would be so relevant to Shakespeare…

Post and photos by Actors From The London Stage actor Ffion Jolly

'I'll go with thee, cheek by jowl'

‘I’ll go with thee, cheek by jowl’

'Meet me in the palace wood a mile without the town' 'At the Duke's Oak we meet'- This picture was taken from a place called Honor Oak Park- named so because Elizabeth I took a rest under an oak tree on the top of this hill on a morn of may in 1602 and so the oak was honoured.

‘Meet me in the palace wood a mile without the town’ ‘At the Duke’s Oak we meet’- This picture was taken from a place called Honor Oak Park- named so because Elizabeth I took a rest under an oak tree on the top of this hill on a morn of may in 1602 and so the oak was honoured.

 

Streetside Inspiration Image

‘I know a bank where the wild thyme grows’

Meet the Cast of The Winter’s Tale: Giles Davies

Over the coming weeks, we’ll introduce the principal actors of our Professional Company productions: The Winter’s Tale and William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged).  Starting with the character whose profession is self-described as “a snatcher-up of unconsidered trifles,” Autolycus is part thief, part con-man, wordsmith, and ballad-singer, and one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedic creations. Playing the role is Giles Davies.   -NDSF Staff

Giles Davis (Autolycus)

Giles Davies (Autolycus)


Giles Davies (Autolycus) was born in Hong Kong and is of British descent.  He grew up watching his parents on stage and acted from the age of five.  He received his undergraduate degree from Ball State University, and then traveled the globe, performing his solo work wherever possible. After graduating from The Ohio State University’s graduate program (with a specialty in creating solo work), he immediately joined the ensemble with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.  Currently living in Tampa, he is in Cincinnati over the next year as a visiting professor at The University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music & Drama. He loves teaching, directing, and the tropics.  Favorite past roles include Coriolanus, Macbeth, Richard III, Dracula, Frankenstein (solo), Caliban in The Tempest, and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot.


For tickets visit DeBartolo Performing Arts Center Box Office

For information visit Shakespeare at Notre Dame

 

Much Ado Actors Blog: Halloween in Denton

From Austin Texas, it is a long windy drive northwards to Denton. Early in the morning the five of us crawled stinking into a rented minivan and began to fight our way up. By the time we got to Waco it made perfect sense to stop for a Burger King, by which you can all imagine the sort of state we were in. But Denton was a long way and eventually we had consumed enough water to be vaguely human again, if a little sloshy and greasy. Mark Packer met us at the hotel. Mark is very enthusiastic and playful. He likes to talk. The five of us had been communicating monosyllabically over the course of the journey so his stream of consciousness as he drove us to campus was a new energy. His personality was gentle and amusing though, the exact opposite of his driving. By the time we got out of his van we were unsure whether to laugh or vomit, so did a little bit of both. To give you a sense of Mark, by the time we had left Denton he had burst into one of our classes dressed as a serial killer, he had expressed delight at driving us “off-road” on his golf buggy at 15mph, and he had become thoroughly overexcited at being given his first ever chai latte, which he was still clutching an hour later. He kept us laughing with his total abandonment. The man has two daughters. They must adore him. We did.

The English department, who were at the heart of the residency, were extremely helpful and generous throughout the time we were there. Sadly the theatre department were less involved with the project, and the theatre we were placed in featured a gargantuan unmovable organ between us and the audience. The stage was very high, but sight lines were still tricky over the organ. It’s very much a recital hall, or large lecture theatre, and lacks adequate lighting. So to compensate for that, they had brought in some floodlights and mounted them on the balcony. The effect of all these things together meant that we were totally blinded, vertiginous, and partially blocked from the distant audience. An attempt was made to win the space a little bit; “ah, the prince and Monsieur love, I will hide me behind the organ.” But playing the pit had to be limited as it is a long way down from the stage, and not lit. For the people that came, I feel we told the story as well as we could have done in the circumstances. But it was a shame, particularly after Winedale, to have such an enforced disconnect at the end of the US run. And doubly so when we taught one of our classes in a theatre that would have been perfect for our purposes, but sadly was being used for a student production those nights.

We did have time to kick back, and on Halloween some of us went to Dallas and inspected Dealey Plaza, where they have an X taped to the road where JFK was shot. And then we all dressed up and went out for a small town American Halloween. Here we all are.

image

We ended up at a house party right out of Superbad, with a crate of beer and a thumping sound system, surrounded by screaming jumping drunk American students dressed up as radios and kings and devils and princesses, dancing like maniacs and punching each other by mistake. When we finally left we all felt a little older than we did when we arrived, and entertained ourselves singing catches and old spirituals on a half an hour walk home through the arctic. Winter has caught up with us it seems, even in Texas.

The classes were a joy. The kids were bold and often outspoken, not seeking to get it “right”. The college’s request to always have multiple actors in class proved a lovely thing as we shared the burden and learnt from each other even as we taught. Having started this job concerned that I might dislike the whole teaching aspect, I have finished it surprised that I found it less tricky and more interesting than I could have imagined. Bernard Shaw has a lot to answer for in his famous encapsulation of the teaching stigma, (the whole ‘do’ ‘can’t do’ ‘teach’ thing that gets trotted out every five minutes) and as a practitioner I felt a twofold pressure. “I am not a teacher,” “I have nothing to teach.” Both of these things were wrong. Because I am so obsessive about my craft in practise, I always had ways to impart my understanding of it to young academics in a way they could process. And it helped that my own personal journey was to unlearn the academic understanding I had of text in order to approach the human.

This company is almost as old as I am, and over the years it must have been responsible for giving so much agency to so many actors. I will miss the work, and the little community we formed within that work. We have one more show in London, a celebration of our time together and the work we did. Coming on the back of Denton I expect we will all be hungering for a crowd of people that we know, people that we can actually see. The RADA Studios (The Drill Hall) at 7.30pm on 12th November. There’s your chance. Come!