This winter has been a tough time for the East coast. The weather has been freezing and the snow, certainly in Boston, almost unrelenting. We spent the weekend in Chicago and as we flew out of the Windy (and icy) City we were so hoping for some warmth. We got it in the form of a lovely welcome from the residency coordinator Jeff Steele and his cousin Drew who were at the airport in St. Louis to greet us for our next residency at Principia College. Unfortunately the weather was as cold as in Chicago and over the week got colder.
Principia is perched on a hill next to arguably the prettiest town in Illinois – Elsah. Almost untouched in the twentieth century, Elsah has maintained the full character of its Civil War roots, positioned as it is right next to the Mississippi River. As we drove to the campus, Jeff, who is undoubtedly an expert in local and national history, gave us a guided tour suggesting this part of the river would have been typically where Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn would have floated down on their boat.
Principia is a college for Christian Scientists. The staff and students, of which there are around five hundred, are all members of the church. As such, the campus is “dry” (i.e. no alcohol, caffeine or cigarettes). For most actors this might present something of a challenge – indeed it was for us – but as the phrase goes, “your house, your rules.” We were happy to comply.
We stayed on the campus at the Principia Guest House, which had a huge sitting room that looked out on a forest outside. To British eyes, the birds feeding at the table looked utterly exotic: Red Cardinals, Woodpeckers, even the sparrows were larger and more diverse than in the UK. It honestly was a vision of woodland beauty and utter relaxation. Do we have to go and teach? Do the show? It was a strain just prying oneself away from the constant log fire.
As we have discovered on this tour, the staff and students are always friendly and motivated, but perhaps on this campus the smiles and the welcome were even warmer, which is just as well as the temperature dropped to about -8 Celsius and that was during the day. The mind boggles as to what it was during the night. I have never experienced such cold. After a few minutes of walking you suddenly realized you were frozen to the bone and getting inside became an imperative.
Jeff visited most classes and offered the friendliest of faces. He opened his home to us, gave us lifts, and couldn’t be faulted.
A class which Charlie and I took was a stage fighting class which was great fun. To make it more interesting both Jeff, who was present, and the teacher of that class, John O’Hagan, were qualified stage fighters. This kept us on our toes somewhat. Fortunately during rehearsals back in London we had got the great fight director Philip d’Orleans to choreograph the Macbeth/Macduff showdown. His staging not only has the advantage of complete safety for myself and Charles who play those characters, but also that it is equally safe and exiting for the students to learn and perform. To our amazement they all learnt it within the hour – I’ll confess it took me rather longer than that – and some of them really went for it. It was thrilling to watch.
We had only two performances in the week, the first being at the high school in St. Louis, which is part of Principia. A particular highlight for Ben was the teaching of a class run by Liesl Ehmke. Although the class was large having fifty plus students he described them as, ‘Open, generous, talented – a delight to teach.’ Praise must go to Liesl for guiding her students in such a good way. The highlight for Jo was the “sheer beauty of the place,” and for Annie it was the “sense of peace – just sitting by the Mississippi.”
Before the school performance we had a Q and A. Many of them hadn’t read the play or seen it, they were just looking forward to the show and having a good night in their theatre. They asked us about the quick change of characters and whether we get confused; even whether they will understand it. Hopefully they got the story and were very appreciative at the end. There were warnings of ice and snowstorms for that evening and those forecasts turned out to be right. The drive home afterwards was treacherous and special thanks go to Drew who was calm and cheerful whilst driving though those awful conditions.
On Saturday, we gave a show at the main theatre on the college campus, which is the Cox Auditorium. The staff there was brilliant, efficient, and fun. After our final performance on the Saturday night with an audience of over four hundred (who very kindly stood for the applause) we returned to the guesthouse where Margaret Sotos, who runs the place, had made us a fabulous chili and even played the piano (very well despite her modesty) whilst we ate.
So a great week at The Principia. Thanks to everyone we met in particular Jeff Steele who made it happen, his lovely wife Chrissy, and his cousin Drew.