By Jonathan Dryden Taylor
68 Fahrenheit never felt so good.
Emerging from Houston Airport in our woolly hats, scarves and gloves, it was quickly apparent that we weren’t in Illinois any more, Toto. Having spent the weekend in a polar Chicago (braving the snow and ice to check out the jawdropping Art Institute, shows at Steppenwolf and Second City, and a Bulls game: we DID Chicago) it was a huge relief to be surrounded by air that wasn’t actively wanting to hurt our faces.
But once heavy sweaters and boots had been exchanged for t-shirts and sneakers, there were a couple of rather pressing responsibilities to deal with. Firstly, we had our first classes and workshops to teach. Secondly, there was the small matter of actually opening the play we’ve been working on for the last six weeks…
The range of topics covered by AFTLS classes is vast and, in the best possible way, challenging. This week alone we have covered- among other things- comedy improv, Tennessee Williams, directing photographic models, Shakespeare’s London, directing actors for film, critical reading of texts, and costume design for the stage. Fred and I had a fascinating session with some chamber musicians at the magnificent Shepherd School of Music, working on entrances, exits and taking the stage at recitals- and in return, had our mind blown by Hindemith’s Wind Quintet (check out the fifth movement, and you’re welcome).
The facilities available to US students continue to leave me wide-eyed. The Shepherd School, for example, has both a concert hall and a recital room, and a 1500-seater opera house is under construction. Our venue for this week’s opening performances of King Lear was the 475-seater Hamman Hall, a fantastic space which would make most UK drama students weep with envy.
And so, finally, we got to tell this story to a paying audience- and what an audience! For all three performances at Rice we had dream crowds. They were attentive, responsive, involved, and very free with their applause. After the Friday night performance, Fred, Richard and I were already starting a debrief in the wings when we noticed frantic signaling from stage management because the clapping hadn’t abated and we needed to take another curtain call. To have such a generous audience response is unbelievably helpful in the neurotic early stages of a run: we owe our Rice audiences a real debt of gratitude.
While I’m on the thanks (‘my mum, my dad, my agent and the Academy…’) it would be remiss not to mention Abigail, Claire and Sierra, our superb student stage management team who interpreted our regularly-rewritten prompt copy superbly. We don’t have many lighting effects but they’re important ones, and they were executed with a real feel for the rhythm of the show.
And as a running-time nerd- the kind of person who can get excited three months into a run if thirty seconds is taken off an act- I was delighted that by Saturday night our playing time was 2hrs 35mins. For comparison, last time I was in King Lear our first half alone was 1hr52… and the first stagger-through of this production broke the three hour mark. King Lear is such a vast play that the leaner we can make it, the better.
Speaking of lean… I’m glad I chose drawstring trousers for my costume. Houston, it turns out, is good, good eating. Carry on like this and I’ll have to book myself an extra seat on the plane home.