Karaoke and other “dark entertainments” | AFTLS at Valpo

Venue No.3 on our tour is back in Indiana, at Valparaiso University —about an hour west of Notre Dame. The vagaries of the timeline system here means that we are now six hours behind the UK, not five. Valparaiso, in Porter County, is a town of about 30,000 people and about 4,000 students (3,000 of them undergraduates) and the name apparently means “Vale of Paradise” in Spanish, so named after David Porter (founder of Porter County), who fought in the 1812 Battle of Valparaiso in Chile. It’s not where the overture comes from, but it obviously meant enough to Mr. Porter. To my mind, it has more echoes of Milton Keynes: it has a roundabout (a great rarity so far on our travels and one that bemused the locals when it was first put in); it has a stillness to it.

Borders, an acclaimed sculpture installation by the noted contemporary Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir

The university has a number of statues around the campus, Antony Gormley-like silver and bronze figures that remind me of Milton Keynes’ finest cows as you enter the town. Learn more about the installation at Valparaiso University’s Brauer Museum of Art.

Valparaiso is a regular stop for AFTLS tours, so you can imagine the welcome we got. They were ready for us too, having 35 classes lined up, on subjects ranging from macro-economics to the parables (I knew that hotel Gideon Bible would come in useful one day), from Antigone to community workshops, from nursing to the theological imagination. And yet, to be honest, it’s often the unusual subjects like these that produce surprisingly rewarding results. Jack gave a class to economics students and, immediately realizing that his lesson plan would be difficult to make work in the circumstances, he cleverly came up with a whole new idea on the spot, getting the students to work together to put forward a pitch for their own theatre company, how they would make it work financially and what would be its USP (unique selling proposition), etc.

“…this practical approach to stories and to text often helps the students to look at these works in a new and enlightening way, and it highlights the value of drama and play that goes way beyond only the interests of a theatre major.” — Roger May

When I did my class on the parables, acting out our version of The Prodigal Son, we improvised the story and set it on a present-day ranch. When the younger son left the ranch, taking his share of the family money, his first temptation was, apparently, to head straight for Disney World. Then Epcot. Then, when he was lured to some bars by people interested only in his money, I tried to lead the students to ‘darker entertainments.’ “What could they be?” I asked them. A small group shouted back “Karaoke”! Not exactly what I meant…

By the time we got to the end of the story, we had put flesh on the bare bones of the story in the Bible (albeit with some slight twists) and taken time to examine the characters’ feelings and motivations. And, at the end of the class, a theology major came up to me and said “You know, I’d never stopped to think about how the son felt when he returned home. And it’s made me look at this parable and other parables, in a new way today. Thank you for that.” I say this not to blow my own trumpet (or those in Jericho) but to blow the trumpet of this company; this practical approach to stories and to text often helps the students to look at these works in a new and enlightening way, and it highlights the value of drama and play that goes way beyond only the interests of a theatre major. Funny, though, how often these improvisations seem to lead to Disney, or to Jedi Knights, or to the Kardashians…

There remains, on our travels, a feeling that we are definitely Brits abroad. I am still struggling with the restrooms here. For a start, I was dumbfounded the other day to find a TV in the restroom – previously the only safe haven, pretty much, that I had managed to find in public spaces in America. And then, of course, those automatic flushing toilets. The other night I was sitting down in my cubicle when my phone slid out of my trousers onto the floor. I leant forward to pick it up and, no sooner had I done so than the toilet assumed I had vanished and flushed away. Well, that’s the closest I’ve come to a bidet on my travels, that’s for sure…

The British accent, too, still leads to odd situations. The other day, no sooner had we opened our mouths but the taxi driver said “So, you met the Queen?” And I swear Will was presented with a take-away cup of coffee with a curtsey the other day…

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with “How’s it going?” It took me a while to realise that Americans don’t want an answer to this – it’s really just another way of saying “Hi.” I, of course, take a perverse pleasure in answering as if they genuinely want to know how my life is going. When a hotel desk clerk in Valpo, already in the middle of a conversation with another guest, greeted my return at the front door with “How’s it going?”, I couldn’t resist taking the perverse pleasure of replying. “Not bad, thanks. I’ve just given a class on theological imagination with particular reference to the dead letter. How about you?”. There followed a confused stand-off as nobody quite knew with which conversation to resume.

By the way, for those of you who read last week’s blog, I’m convinced that Timmy has followed us. Not only did I fall through my bed as all the slats fell out but decided against changing rooms when I discovered that Jack’s tap water ran red and Jas and Sarah were sharing their rooms with stink bugs. Thanks Timmy.

The Romeo and Juliet cast with Danny, Valparaiso University Stage Manager

And so to the show. The theatre was very well-equipped and the tech was led by Eric and Danny. Danny, an acting student new to his stage management duties, could not have been more helpful and worked hard to look after us. And the audience were very appreciative—apparently they get professional productions here only rarely and the show was very well-attended.

And it’s a treat to meet some of the audience afterwards. They often come up with the most specific thoughts; on Saturday someone came up and said “I liked the way you paused in the middle of Mercutio’s ‘love was blind’ line; I’ve not seen that before”. It’s impressive when they pick up on details like that. Of course, I’m fully aware that, by talking about it, that moment is now never going to work again. It’s rather like when someone says how well the timing works with a funny line in a play; once thought about, it’s never quite the same…!

Roger May, Sarah Finigan, Jasmeen James, and Jack Whitam catch some sun on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Sorry to be very British here, but we’ve been so lucky with the mild weather, and our day off after Valpo was no different. (I don’t think Punxsutawney Phil knew what he was talking about a couple of weeks back when he predicted another six weeks of winter.) We headed for the Indiana Dunes on the edge of Lake Michigan and stood by the endlessly impressive lake, skimming stones and soaking in the sheer expanse of it all – the northern end of the lake is over 300 miles away. Our skimmers didn’t quite get to the other side.

Next up, Nashville and Vanderbilt University. (Timmy, you’re not invited.)

—Roger May (Wednesday, February 22, 2017)

 

Berea via Chicago | AFTLS on Tour

Berea College in Kentucky

And so on to our next stop – to Kentucky, to Berea College. Well, not quite.

First we were treated to a weekend stop in Chicago, where the time was our own until Monday. After the Friday night show at Notre Dame, we piled up our suitcases (into a stretch limo, obviously – we’re getting used to this) and headed for our downtown Chicago hotel. The view from the 14th floor (or 16th if you’re Sarah – she has contacts everywhere) was fabulous, looking down over the river and a huge neon-assisted sign of “Chicago,” in case you were still in any doubt.

While there, Sarah and I delighted in surely one of the best museums in the world, the Art Institute of Chicago. The breadth of the collection is quite staggering, particularly from the Impressionists onwards; I felt drowned in so much craft and imagination. While I was taking in Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” a young American student was slowly formulating an opinion. Eventually he turned away, with the words, “it just seems like a lot of dots to me.” Hard to argue with that.

Will and I went ice skating in the shadows of the giant Anish Kapoor silver bean; we watched the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history (still wanted the Falcons to win); we sipped Manhattans and Long Island Ice Teas high up in the Hancock Tower, with a twilit view of this metropolis, and we walked along the Navy Pier and took in the ludicrous expanse of Lake Michigan. What a treat.

But time now for Berea. A very big change from Chicago – and from Notre Dame. A much smaller place (about 1,600 students here), Berea College is a liberal arts college in Madison County, Kentucky. No, I didn’t see any bridges. All students here have to take a job while they study, and you see them in the cafes and shops, and even working the looms and potter’s wheels in the craft shop. In return, their tuition is paid for. Incoming students “have financial need,” and it must be a great relief to get through four years of college without a huge debt pushing down on their shoulders.

“Our generous TUITION PROMISE SCHOLARSHIP makes it possible for you to graduate debt-free…We sometimes call Berea ‘the best education money can’t buy.’”

It has a quiet charm to the place, this Daniel Boone pioneer country, and three times I went hiking up the Indian Fort Mountain to take in the view of the Appalachians in the distance. In fact, the first time, I was on my own and managed to get lost. I tried retracing my steps but to no avail, and I was left wondering which route down took me back to the car. Luckily, I came across a woman walking her dog. “Sorry to bother you,” I said, “but can you tell me which way to go to get down to the parking area?”. “Furshra” she replied. “I beg your pardon?”. “Furshra”. I felt like Hugh Grant, the Englishman who came up a hill and couldn’t get down the mountain – it was as much as I could do to stop myself from fluttering my eyelids and quoting David Cassidy. “Take the Furshra and go straight down”, the woman continued. “Oh, great, first right, yes, of course…thank you.” I stumbled away as fast as affected nonchalance would allow.

It’s always a slightly strange experience, having a five-day gap before returning to the stage. The play seems familiar and yet oddly distant, and we have to recalibrate and make sure we are still being faithful to the story every time we return to it, while also accommodating a different playing space – Berea’s Jelkyl Theater is a wide but intimate space, seating about 250 and it gave us the chance to really use the corners, play ‘upstage’ and engage with the wider space.

And, in the meantime, we have classes to give. This week, the students in one class reimagined the opening stand-off between the two opposing factions not as Montagues and Capulets, but as the Empire (Star Wars) against the Kardashians. They improvised away, with threats of bling and light sabres and various hair flicks. Good fun. Of course, the parting shot from one of the students was still, in a slight Southern lilt, “oh go on, please can you say pip, pip, cheerio for me? I just love that accent”…

We’ve been staying in the historic Boone Tavern. According to YouTube, the hotel is haunted. Well, I don’t know if it was ghosts that took me from room 232 (TV not working) to room 217 (window wouldn’t open) to room 312, but the other members of the company kindly let me know that one of the rooms is haunted by a boy called Timmy, whose cackle of laughter has been heard by various visitors. Yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s room 312. And, sure enough, the next night I was woken by a whispering wailing sound. Eventually I had to turn the lights on to investigate, only to find that the window had slipped, leaving only a sliver of air that whistled through the tiny crack. Dear dear Timmy.

Other than that, the hospitality here has been wonderful. Shan Ayers‘ care for us was way beyond duty, and Tia Davis and family today treated three of us to a wonderful American brunch – thank you, Hassan, for the delicious fare on offer, and to you all for your kind hospitality. It was a treat to be out of a hotel and in such a warm domestic environment …and away from Timmy, obviously.

Next stop Valparaiso, University…in Indiana, not Chile. Time to pack, to try and remember phone charger etc (this time) and all set for a 9.30 start. So long Timmy – and pip pip cheerio, obviously.

William, Jack, and Sarah meet their doppelgängers in the hills of Kentucky. Playing multiple roles takes its toll on our psyche.

Romeo and Rum Cake: Creating Verona in South London

[The first in a series of blog posts from the spring 2017 Actors From The London Stage tour of Romeo and Juliet. Written by AFTLS actor and tour veteran, Roger May]

So, the journey begins. On many levels. One of which is that I’m a middle-aged blog virgin, so please be gentle with me and join us on a journey of discovery, travel, and adventure as Romeo and Juliet takes five people to new places, real and imaginary.

Jack Whitam, Sarah Finigan, Jasmeen ‘Jas’ James, Will Donaldson, and I were cast together for this play a couple of months ago after an audition and a recall, or call-back, as I think they are called in the States — in fact, let me say now that I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings between the languages of American English and British English. It wouldn’t be the first time. (Note to self, it’s called an eraser over there, an eraser…) Jack is doing his third tour with this company, and I am doing my second (although that was 17 years ago). However, there is no hierarchy within this company. Everyone has different strengths in this group, and not having a director allows us the chance to explore all of these.

Anyway, we had a read-through of the play a few weeks back, and, just before Christmas, we began the process by sitting down together with a blank canvas, a blank rehearsal room and a blank schedule. Only twelve days later, it seems like we’ve known each other a long while already and have built up a very good way of working with each other and explored a lot of different avenues around Verona (“where we lay our scene”).

We rehearse in Brixton, an area in south London that has made us very welcome. On our last rehearsal day before Christmas, there was a post-funeral wake downstairs (we rehearse in the large room upstairs) and, at lunchtime, we were invited to come down and join them for their meal. It was a feast, with some Jamaican specialties like fried plantain and curried goat. I was really moved by the whole thing. There seem to have been plenty of examples of the world closing in recently, becoming more insular, and here were people we didn’t even know inviting us down to eat with them. A Jamaican rum cake followed — I definitely tasted more rum than cake — followed by the rum bottle itself. I am still staggered by the warmth and generosity of that day.

Brixton shows a warm welcome to the cast of Romeo and Juliet: (pictured L-R) Jasmeen James, Sarah Finigan, William Donaldson, and Jack Whitam. Roger May is hiding behind the camera.

As I said earlier, we are now twelve days in – about half-way through our time in Brixton. We are still very much experimenting with different ways of conveying characters, building scenes and finding the through-line of the narrative, but already scenes are coming together, and yesterday we did a run of the play for the two Associate Directors who cast this play. Neither of them walked out.

One of the massive benefits of this way of working (with a cast of five) is that, in my experience, there has always been a clarity that shines out in performance, that helps the play to stand out and connect, and that is our aim here. Romeo and Juliet starts with an avalanche of characters in the first scene — Will is especially busy changing from one character to another (and another!) — and it has a couple of big set pieces. However, it also has a lot of two-hander scenes, so our challenge is to keep the focus clear, to tell the story and bring the audience with us.

On Monday we have a fight director, Philip D’Orleans, joining us. We think (although nothing is set in stone at this stage) that we’ll be using something to represent swords rather than swords themselves, making the trip through airport security a little simpler. We looked at hand-to-hand combat, but there are many references to rapiers and weapons in the script. Anyway, that’s today’s thinking. It all may change.

And, later in the week we have a woman called Donna Berlin coming in to help us with movement, both in terms of the ball scene and more general movement challenges in representing different characters — we have about four or five each to convey through the show. I think it’s fair to say that fitness levels will be tested in the coming weeks.

Busy week ahead. More to come…

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

Inside the King’s Kitchen | Final Rehearsals for Richard III

We spent our last week in London reworking the play in finer detail, sometimes as a group, breaking the script down into sections and marking where we feel there are a strong gear shifts. While working on the second wooing scene with Queen Elizabeth bereft then of her husband and sons — which is a rather horrible and much tougher mirror of the first wooing scene where Richard actually manages to put a ring on the finger of the young widow whose husband he’s helped to kill along with her father-in-law whom he has killed — Evvy [Evelyn Miller] suggested clapping some of the beats to remind us where they were while we were actually playing the scene. It was really helpful and that and playing on the diagonals in the space helped us move forward.

WooedWhile finessing the first wooing scene, it was really interesting that suddenly the only chap in our cast, Paul O’Mahony, seemed to have the most excellent understanding. He told me to be very confident since Richard has definitely decided to marry this woman. Of course Paul would understand; he’s a man. I haven’t done huge amounts of wooing in my life! It’s written like a piece of music with Lady Anne and Richard finishing each other’s sentences or batting back the same rhythm. Similarly, in the scene where Queen Elizabeth, who is played by Paul, comes on having lost her little sons, all us women suddenly had a lot to say.

Usually, whoever is not in the scene or has very little in it gets to sit “out front” and see if we’re making sense and honoring the text. Shakespeare and Richard pull off the absolute impossible at the end of the first wooing scene with Lady Anne melting fatally and momentarily — as she says later – “I grew grossly captive to his honey’d words.” Richard, who says he’s marrying her “not all so much for love” BEFORE the scene, finds himself believing all he says and falling for her. I don’t think he’s had much love in his life at all (though he clearly WORSHIPPED his father). So, when he totally liberates himself by determining to “prove a villain” at the top of the play, he suddenly finds it possible to win a beautiful young woman’s attention. He is so gobsmacked when she leaves that I think he is physically and mentally reeling and even has a strange stab of feeling for her dead husband (Queen Margaret’s son ) Edward. Richard calls him “young ,valiant, wise, and no doubt right royal” and wonders if Anne is fickle for having submitted to him. Of course the wonder of Shakespeare is the multiplicity of choice one has: he could be cynical, sneering, tearful. But you KNOW that he has somehow, with Lady Anne, felt a feeling unknown to himself before that scene. Alice is a heartbreaking Lady Anne.

Later in the week, we found an intriguing way of staging Queen Margaret’s famous curse scene that predicts the demise of practically everyone on stage. She is such a fantastical chorus like creature, this Lancastrian Queen who has been banished on pain of death. AFTLS - Richard III 039_webHannah is using a brass singing bowl which when circled makes an eerie sound that is loud but seems to appear from nowhere. She taps it on each of her curses and we all make these involuntary movements as if being physically compelled towards her. At the beginning Margaret has asides where she is supposed to be unseen. Usually the actress would be high above or below and we played with the idea of her coming through the audience but, on Alice’s suggestion, decided to physically freeze on her asides as if Margaret has such power that she can suspend Time itself. Hannah experimented with long bits of string and silky material that she knotted as she spoke each curse but she has found something wonderfully unnerving crouching on a chair with this brass bowl as a sort of comforter.

The Royal Arms of King Richard lll

The Royal Arms of King Richard lll

She’s very powerful and Shakespeare’s gives her such frightening words. For instance, she addresses Richard as an “elvish mark’d abortive rooting hog.” In Shakespeare’s time, anyone with a physical disability was considered literally marked by elves and God’s revenge for bad deeds. The rooting hog relates to the white boar that was part of Richard’s royal arms (at right). Hannah is also our divine dance captain and chief songstress along with Evvy (our quietly fabulous Buckingham) who has given us some great dynamics for our last ‘Te Deum’ and we’ve managed some rather gorgeous harmonies that the brilliant Conrad Nelson has given us.

This week, we had the very lovely Richard Neale “on the book” for us (i.e. giving lines and prompting). Normally there would be a deputy stage manager from day one, so it was a bit of a shock to realize that some bits had just bedded in WRONG. Usually you bat off people who ask “How do you learn your lines?” but, as we each share a fifth of a two hour fifteen minute Shakespeare play, it has been seriously challenging. The process has been vocally tiring as well — many tired vocal chords and much steaming. We’ve gradually, as we are responsible for ALL our choices, rushed out before rehearsals or in the lunch hour and found our COSTUMES. Paul has some dazzling shoes with an electric blue sole, a rather lovely black fur scarf of my Mum’s for his proud and fiercely intelligent Queen Elizabeth, and a handkerchief for his hilarious sweating and constantly unpunctual Lord Hastings. I’ve gone for culottes and a long waistcoat in pinstripes and a crown made out of garden and picture wire (that needed some serious attention as it kept getting stuck in our hair). Alice has gone for a top hat as Lord Rivers and geeky glasses for the Lord Mayor with a black veil for lady Anne. Hannah has a bright red beret as a female Catesby and fine pieces of cloth for Clarence, King Edward, and Queen Margaret. Evvy uses a flat cap for Lord Derby and a silk cravat for Buckingham. Everything needs to be simple and read INSTANTLY. It also needs to weigh under 23 kilos. We did a run through for ourselves and then the hair-raising Thursday run in front of our Associate Directors but it was actually great to have an audience. Richard needs to have someone with whom to share all his devilish plots. They enjoyed the performance and you will too. America, here we come.

– Liz Crowther

[The tour is currently in residence at the University of Texas at Austin and next week travels 90 minutes south to the University of Texas at San Antonio.]

Richard III, King of the Car Park | AFTLS Tour Blog III

You may not know this (forgive me if you do) but the real King Richard III who ruled England from 1483-1485 was the last English king to die on the battlefield: at Bosworth Field near Leicester.

He is also one of England’s greatest “villains,” mostly because he was deemed responsible for the disappearance of his two young nephews, Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York who went into the Tower of London in the summer of 1483 and were never seen again. They had been proved illegitimate and, though young Edward was due to be crowned, it was his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who became king.

Richard III by Andrew Jamieson (courtesy of the Richard III Society)

Richard III by Andrew Jamieson (courtesy of the Richard III Society)

I put “villain” in inverted commas because many people feel even now that he was maligned especially by Shakespeare who concentrated on the wicked and comedic aspects of the man. Indeed, Shakespeare has Richard tell us in his very first speech that he is “determined to prove a villain.” Of course, dramatically, it makes Richard III an even more powerful and classy psychological thriller. It is argued that it was mostly the Tudors that wished to dishonour him.

In 1924, a group of very vehement supporters of Richard III formed a society in his name  to uphold and defend him as an excellent king who passed many good laws (true: a fairer criminal justice system and granting of bail was due to him) and they have members all over the world. The Richard III Society think that Shakespeare vilely slandered Richard, that he had nothing to do with the young princes’ disappearance, and that he certainly did NOT have a curvature of the spine and physical challenges.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard is called “a bunchback’d toad” amongst other horrible names. [Click HERE for a list of the insults hurled in Richard III]

In 2012, Phillipa Langley, a member of the still flourishing Richard III Society, after much research and poring over ancient maps, managed with an historian, John Ashdown-Hill, to persuade Leicester University’s archeological department and Leicester City Council to dig up the council’s car park (parking lot in your parlance) as they both had strong evidence that Greyfriars Monastery was beneath it and that Richard could possibly be buried there. Richard’s body, history told us previously, was taken from the battlefield, stripped naked, thrown and tied over the back of a horse, and ridden around the city of Leicester to prove he was dead. Philippa believed otherwise.

Richard greetings cardThere was money enough to dig two trenches and a film crew shot a documentary about this adventure. One of the first shots is of the rather beautiful and slightly nervy and terribly British Phillipa standing on a seemingly randomly painted letter ‘R’ (some old designated spacing I imagine) saying tremulously: “I don’t know why but I have the most extraordinary feeling that he’s right under here”…and HE WAS! In the very first hours of the very first day of the dig, they found first some legs and then a skull which they assumed (because of its awkward position) was another body on top ,only to discover that it was someone with a severely curved spine. It is worth watching The King in the Car Park solely for Philippa’s reaction as she looks down to the skeleton. You can watch she and the Society’s belief in Richard’s normal physicality shatter on screen. Matt, the lead archeologist of the dig, said that if they had chosen to dig 50 centimetres to the right, they would never have discovered his skeleton. The Home Office had to be called as human bones had been found, but the dig continued. It was later discovered that a descendant of Richard III’s sister, a Canadian cabinet maker living in London called Michael Ibsen, had  exactly the same DNA as the skeleton. They truly had found a “King in a car park,” 527 years after his death.

Richard's ReinterrmentPhillipa is a fantastic woman who doggedly pursued her instincts and who honoured this man, whatever his misdemeanours. She keeps saying all the way through, often weeping, “I just keep thinking about the man, the human being he was.” Two and a half years later he was interred at Leicester cathedral in an absolutely beautiful coffin made by his descendant, Michael Ibsen. Gosh, it’s nearly as thrilling as our play.

Richard-iii-remainsOne more wonderful thing, bearing in mind our gender blind casting and me — a woman — playing Richard, is that when the osteologist was first examining the bones she (for a goodly while) thought it was the skeleton of a woman because the hip bones were slightly larger than a male and the forearms very delicate and “gracile”…just like mine. Hurrah!

— Liz Crowther

BREAKING NEWS — Another King found in a car park just this week! The UK’s Telegraph newspaper has the whole story: Another car park, another King: ‘Henry I’s remains’ found beneath tarmac at Reading Gaol