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.

As You Like It – Actors’ Blog #3

Actors’ Blog – Week Three

First performances, more snow, farewell South Bend, hello Chicago!

As You Like It is now officially up and running. We opened on Wednesday and it was great to have a run of three shows and finally play with the audience and take them on the journey with us. It’s a source of great excitement and satisfaction to me how each show is so very different as the audience gives it shape. I firmly believe that’s how it should always be; it’s what sets Theatre apart from Film or TV as a storytelling medium. It’s like a chemical reaction each time, but in this work the audience are so active in following all the transitions that it seems to highlight their presence even further. The story is the same each night, and we play the same characters but the audience casts a different light on the journey, so when we’re receptive to them and connect to what they are feeding us, the mood of the play is wildly different.

AFTLS cast of As You Like It

Final dress rehearsal of As You Like It at the University of Notre Dame

I think As You Like It explores this as a play too. We’ve been told, and indeed we’ve all felt from time to time, that it is one of Shakespeare’s ‘harder’ plays. There are long and dense pieces of prose and the balance is definitely tipped towards words rather than action in the traditional sense. But the words are active in themselves, they are the tool by which the characters explore and define who they are. As we’re all playing so many characters (some of whom are also in disguise at various points in the play!), as the set is merely a hat-stand and 8 chairs, the words become even more active as the tools for defining who we are and for engaging the audience with those characters. Everything is heightened.  The risk is, of course, that the audience gets lost and can’t follow who is who, or don’t have the opportunity to invest their empathy in each character because we are constantly switching roles. It’s our job to make sure this doesn’t happen, to find the ‘Touchstone’ (pardon the pun!) for each character that helps us to bring them alive.

One of the other great joys of the job is the chance to get out, meet and work with some of our audience members in the form of workshops. This week we attended classes on everything from Shakespeare, to Opera, to Philosophy. On Thursday, I joined freshman students for a class on J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and the idea of childhood and found this wonderful quote:

“I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still….On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles [simple boat]. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more”

As we explored the characters in Peter Pan using these ideas of imagination and memory, it struck me that this description of Neverland as a place of imagination could equally be applied to Arden. There’s a point in the play I’ve always struggled with, a moment where Celia watches her friend grow up, and become a woman (even though she is disguised as a man). I’d always found the loss of that moment difficult to bring to life, but thinking about childhood and memory and watching students faces change as they experienced this themselves really struck a chord with me.

AFTLS actor Jo Tincey takes a selfie in the windy city.

Spot the actor in the “Bean.” Hint: I’m in the middle.

This was our last week in South Bend before hitting the road.  We will miss our wonderful colleagues in the ND Office and look forward to seeing them at various points over the coming weeks and in St. Louis – our final stop. Saturday morning the team caught the South Shore train to Chicago for a two day pit-stop before heading to Rensselaer, IN next week. Jen and I had a wonderful night at Blue Chicago on Saturday – a special shout out must go to Essex (named after the county of my birth because that’s where his father was born!) who gave us such a wonderful show. We saw the wonderful Chicago ‘Bean’, ate wonderful Chicago pizzas and wandered around in (yet more!) snow.  Next stop St. Joseph’s College…reputed to be one of the most haunted colleges in Indiana…yikes.