By Jonathan Dryden Taylor
A test of technique this week proved to be a real treat. After nine weeks away, eight performance weeks, nine different states, seven theatres (and one prison) and twenty performances, the key number this week was two.
Our first split residency brought us two universities in two different towns, and two very different performance spaces. At Roanoke College, which is actually outside the city of Roanoke, in the charming satellite of Salem (no, not that one…) we performed in one of the largest auditoria of our tour. Not quite Ohio-sized, but still a grandly-proportioned space.
Then a couple of days later we were at Hollins University, situated within the city of Roanoke itself, in a black-box studio theatre which was the smallest room we’ve played so far.
The two spaces demonstrated how adaptable our performance style needs to be, and how this job never allows us to get complacent or settle. The larger space dictates a grander, more projected style. Reactions need to be physical- that old big-house trick of taking a tiny step to indicate surprise because a flicker across your face won’t register at the back of the room, that kind of thing.
In a black box like the one at Hollins, rhetoric necessarily takes a back seat to something intimate. We all enjoyed the opportunity to make this monolith of a play a little more conversational, more naturalistic. The sheer fact of not having to be on voice all the time gave us a chance to examine our characters in a way that isn’t always possible in a larger house. From now on I’d like to alternate every job between a 500 seater and a 50 seater, please! It certainly helps to keep things fresh.
Just to keep us on our toes, the big theatre was in the small village and the little one in the big town. Salem is basically one street, but a gorgeously eclectic one of handsome buildings, thrift shops, small businesses, lively breweries and coffee shops. Roanoke is a bustling, slightly hipsterish city with a fantastic school-of-Gehry art gallery and a laid-back vibe. And both places profit hugely from nature’s art director.
When I was a child, my parents had a 7-inch vinyl record of Laurel and Hardy singing ‘The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine’. (I have no idea why). As we landed at Roanoke Airport, a large sign informed me that we were in the very Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia that give the song its first line. If you’re at all familiar with the song, that line is now reverberating round your head, for which my apologies.
But as well as inspiring songs for 1930s comedians, the Blue Ridge Mountains make a stunning backdrop to this part of the world. There can hardly be two more beautiful campuses in the entire US than Roanoke and Hollins, and most of the week was spent under bright sun and blue skies that enabled us to see them at their best. There’s something instantly uplifting about always having hills and mountains in your peripheral vision- it was one of the highlights of our LA week, too, even though LA and Roanoke could hardly be more different.
You like mountains, do you, Jon? Well, isn’t it lucky that you’re about to fly to Vermont? I’d better stop now. I haven’t worn my snow boots for four weeks and I need to hunt them out…