Nashville did us all proud and was a colourful place indeed to finish our tour. More tales from the Country Music Capital of The World below.
Meanwhile, back to the coal face and this week’s host was Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, founded in 1873 with an uncharacteristically generous $1 million gift from Cornelius Vanderbilt, a rail and shipping magnate who never actually came here and was not generally known for being philanthropic towards the world.
The Neely Auditorium had its own particular, intimate vibe and for the first time we didn’t have to be too wary about projecting our voices, you could whisper and reach the outer shores of the audience effortlessly so it was a charismatic studio space in which we inherited a slightly off-kilter raised stage, that thrust us nearer to the audience than we’ve yet been and served the show beautifully.
The Vanderbilt theatre guys were graceful pros: Philip undertook our lighting plot with mighty aplomb and produced some sophisticated and sinister effects for the ghost scenes; he shone a shaft of light across the hessian cloth ( which we gobbled up from the recent students’ production of The Good Person of Sezchuan ) . Matt, stage-managing, produced custom-built, freshly painted tables in a jiffy and sorted us out for every eventuality with great enthusiasm and wherewithal and student, Laura, ‘called’ both our shows with seamless efficiency. Throughout the tech, Matt’s tiny son, quiet as a mouse and with an ever-fixed smile, played avidly with a set of matchbox cars just at the foot of the stage and only sought his father’s lap during the angrier scenes before returning serenely to his miniature grand prix. We are very grateful to them and it was a smooth technical ride indeed. Houses were good, particularly the evening show, and Jon Hallquist – Co-Director of the theatre – was a real gent as I bumped into him outside the stage door ( I was taking a bit of air under the tree that’s just there), shaking my hand and kindly expressing his compliments after we’d taken our last bow.
Nashville was a most comfortable fusion of all disciplines – teaching, performing and catching a few of the tremendous sights. Perhaps because by now we were all relatively at ease with the prospect of classes, workshops and anything that might be thrown at us, we were able to let our shoulders drop a little and lose ourselves as well in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the bars on Broadway and The Grand Ole Opry as we were to the week’s schedule of classes and ultimately Saturday’s Hamlet double whammy.
Vanderbilt somehow reminded us of England and we never quite worked out why. The buildings, the birdsong , the smell of the place – anyhow, it was a pleasant and easy campus to negotiate as we all strode to our respective classes and the students were impressively bright and knowledgeable about the play and – even those who weren’t theatre majors – supportive of our efforts to get them on their feet and during the series of workshops we did throughout the week, we saw several faces again and again and there was a satisfying crescendo in the dynamic between them.
Our first academic meeting on the Monday was in the theatre around a table covered in choice snacks: Terryl, Jon, Christin, Leah, Emily and Lynn all proved to be both relaxed, welcoming and hopeful about the week ahead. One unusual interlude was our invitation to lunch with literary Professor Ed Friedman and several of his students in the department of Spanish and Portuguese. We all turned up to a graceful, rambling old Faculty building – a former academic’s home in the early 20th Century and very pretty – and found ourselves holding, for one thing, Don Quixote up to the light in conversation with a group of extremely fine minds.
I’ll attempt a round-up of the team’s Nashville adventures via the scene of its Last Supper, the final meal of the US tour enjoyed at our favourite local restaurant, Amerigo’s, just across from our hotel and where we brainstormed the events of the week.
All due care was put into choosing our final meal with the following results:
Terry – Scallops Veneto with parmesan polenta and asparagus
Pete – Lasagna, ‘but wanted you to think he had gone for the Tilapia in angel hair’
Shuna – Pasta pomodoro with shrimps
Andrew – Prime Sirloin Steak
Charlie – 1. Lobster bisque 2. Shrimp Scampi [then disappeared from view behind a] 3. Peanut butter blondie
Terry admitted to ‘a Nashville moment I shall never forget’ when Professor Emily King had quietly approached him at the beginning of class with “ Should I introduce you as Sir Terence or Sir Terry?”
It would have been impossible to avoid, but the team did indeed plunge themselves into the Country Music scene. On the first evening, down we strode to the main drag, Broadway, where neon lights and Stetson-hatted doormen abounded. We managed to resist for forty yards before our first sharp right into the Full Moon Saloon and – Pete emphasized – some excellent violin playing from a group, called ‘Ma Tried’, led by a gritty looking Mother on the base guitar and her curvaceous blonde daughter on vocals. The Full Moon Saloon became our default venue on Broadway and yet it had all the decorative frill of a traditional butcher’s shop, really: moist wooden floor, several old specimens slumped at the bar, cigarette smoke rising from geyser-like clusters of flesh, and nobody else around. The curvaceous daughter encouraged us – we were the only cluster of flesh showing any interest – to make requests, and after a few misses (in that none of us know enough country music to be able to make a request and other more off-country requests they knew but ‘don’t do’). Andrew hit the first jackpot with Tom Petty’s I won’t back down which was agreed to by the hitherto invisible female drummer and delivered to eviscerating effect in her astonishingly skillful, strong and characterful voice. ‘Ma Tried’ packed up in due course and, whilst the hunched drinkers still showed their backs to the stage, we shifted on our stools and dug in for the evening. Along came Megan Ellis, a young woman who proceeded to deliver a four-hour long set, and all of it only to us. She had a good voice, was glamorously dressed, and after some minutes of adjusting various knobs on the sound system, she seemed to settle down and connect, but by God it looked like hard work, singing your heart out to almost nobody for the whole of the evening. Well, we clapped and hollered appreciatively and she managed to sell us her CD, entitled, “Patsy Cline and Me” – announcing it was her very first published album and that she was ‘mighty proud’ that it had been bought by some English people. She did indeed coo at our accents and our willingness to buy her album and seemed very grateful, so much so that she asked us how long we were staying and pressed on Pete her schedule of gigs for the whole week. Looks like a tough life!
I don’t know what it was but we kept finding ourselves in The Full Moon Saloon. The next night we discovered Rory Hoffman, a blind accordionist, saxophonist, harmonica player, table guitarist and sensational singer – his set also included some excellent violin playing by a young woman. Pete was so impressed by his musicianship that he sought him out several times across the week. One piece, called simply Train, was a virtuoso musical rendition of a train – playing on the melancholy moan-like ‘Choooooo’ that the US trains have – and a rollicking stretch of listening ended in a long rhythmical switch-back of crescendos and our own riotous applause.
As none of us were Country Music aficionados, we decided to educate ourselves via a visit to all the Guidebooks’ key Nashville museum, The Country Music Hall of Fame. Here, in a mighty building with the windows drafted into its front wall in the pattern of piano keys, you walk the whole history. There was some fascinating, crackling film footage from way back, for instance from somewhere in the 1920’s, an African American family outside their ramshackle shack of a home – the father on the banjo, the mother sitting bolt upright and completely still in a high-backed wooden chair and seven young children avidly bobbing up and down doing the Charleston. Hymns and songs came with the coalminers who had traipsed to Nashville via the Cumberland Gap – and Cecil Sharp, a British historian did a survey in the 1920’s, of all the folk songs still sung in the Appalachians (and also then came westwards) that had been lost from the repertoire back home. There was a shrine to Patsy Cline that surrounds you as you enter the gallery, one of Elvis’s cars complete with TV and gold seats, and a long line of famous guitars. There was much to learn – all the offshoots such as blue grass, singing cowboys and rock n’ roll itself were detailed in great detail.
One of the week’s highlights for all of us was our visit to the Grand Ole Opry. This was and still is the name of a live broadcast radio show that was performed weekly at the old Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville and now in a mighty modern concert hall of a place just out of town. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Dolly – they all played the Grand Ole Opry.
We were up in the gallery and thoroughly enjoyed the Friday night line-up culminating in the headliners, the Old Crow Medicine Show, who played their violins and guitars at turbo-boost speed and made a sensational sound. Andrew was particularly appreciative, as he’d been introducing himself to some new American music throughout the tour and happened to already have one of their albums. One of the performers was (Andrew’s description:) ‘A clammy sweaty man’ with a generous waistline who insisted on bringing, one after the other, both his daughters up on stage – the second of whom, a robust looking lass, was awarded by Dad a two minute slot to give us a couple of verses of Amazing Grace which she sang extremely robustly. There was a superb bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers and the curtain came down to a quartet of cowboys – cooing their gentle harmonies like out of the 1950’s and the Compere was a white-haired banjoist in dungarees with a dry ole wit.
One extraordinary thing happened to Shuna at The Grand Ole Opry. During the intermission she spotted her brother, his wife and her immediate family, five rows in front! Neither she nor her brother had any idea the other was at that particular point on the planet that Friday night – much hilarity and a few beers at The Full Moon Saloon to celebrate the coincidence.
Andrew explored the music scene further and found more bluegrass at The Station Inn, where he was given a pumpkin muffin and watched a punch-up outside. He was particularly taken with the metal guitars at the Hall of Fame and has, meanwhile, determined to enhance his repertoire on strings (he plays the ukulele) and hit the banjo on his return to the UK.
Nashville has an excellent distribution of bicycle stations (like Boris bikes in London): Shuna and Charlie pedaled a good round via Fort Nashville and over Cumberland Bridge to the quiet, historic neighbourhood of East Nashville where birds sang along very pretty residential streets and beautiful southern houses; Shuna became obsessed with the delights of the American porch, their rocking chairs and swinging seats. Andrew cycled along a railroad track and discovered Germantown and its many churches. Andrew also found Nashville’s supply of Rembrandts at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, a former post office in the grand Art Deco style. Terry enjoyed the Tennessee State Museum’s comprehensive Civil War exhibition.
After Hamlet had closed on the Saturday night and our work in the US was done for this AFTLS tour, we all agreed to spend the final day of our whole adventure together, in Sunday’s sunshine, a short drive out at President Andrew Jackson’s home and plantation – The Hermitage, built in 1804. We spent an hour in the very extensive museum section, coming to terms with this president’s legacy of Indian removals – the Trail of Tears – and the lives of many of his slaves – some of whom long outlived him and became Freed men and women. We walked across some fields to the mighty mansion – such dimensions you just don’t see in England! An enormous house with comparatively few – but huge rooms you could play tennis in. White-haired guides with delicious, old-fashioned accents told us all sorts of stories. The highlight was the hallway with its surviving mural and the gorgeous, wide winding staircase. A long trail wound through the grounds, via the early farmhouse and all the slave quarters.
Sun-kissed, delighted, chastened we returned to Nashville and brushed up for the Last Supper. Shuna attempted to extract definitive tour highlights and lowlights but a certain amount of rambling went on and this is all she collected on the subject:
Andrew – highlights:
1. Driving the Mo Fo (tank of a hire car) west into the sunset.
2. The Old Crow Medicine Show at the Grand Ole Opry
1. Losing a filling and having to rush to a dentist in Chicago
2. Lack of decent tea to drink in the US (so bought huge packet of PG Tips in Wal-Mart and lived off those)
Terry – highlights:
1. Bird watching – e.g. bluebird and scarlet tanager in Tennessee
2. Andrew inadvertently changing ‘blue’ to ‘grey’ during Laertes’ speech;
‘T’oertop old Pelion or the skyish head
Of grey Olympus’
1. Urban detritus
2. Trying to cross a four lane highway to get a beer
Shuna – highlights
1. Approaching Chicago along Lake Shore Drive whilst listening to the song ‘Lake Shore Drive’
2. The Tennessee accent
3. Fresh snowfall in sunlight, outside Washington Hall, Notre Dame
1. Strip malls
2. Getting vertigo on the Ferris wheel on the Chicago waterfront
Pete – highlights
2. Rory Hoffman in The Full Moon Saloon, Nashville
3. Dying, one night, in Horatio’s crotch
1. The mojito problem
2. Lack of performances of Hamlet
3. You can’t get veg for fries
Charlie – highlights
1. Catching Steppenwolf’s performance in Chicago
2. Cocktails at the top of the John Hancock tower, Chicago
3. Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Dvorjak, Sibelius, Rachmaninov
1. Being bullied by Terry and Shuna about making the grave in the grave-diggers’ scene
One team highlight has been the fulfillment of teaching classes. There was no need, as it turned out, to be nervous of them at all and teaching both alone and in pairs has been an invigorating joy in all the universities of the tour.
Quote to sum up: ‘ We just can’t stop Charles from teaching!’ (Valparaiso)
Finally, we got a standing ovation at Vanderbilt for our very last show – as if they knew to tell us, ‘You’ve made it!’
It isn’t over, of course, until it’s over and the team now has one last performance of Hamlet, at the Fortune Theatre in London. It won’t be the same facing a British audience and when we set off at 7.30pm on Monday with ‘Who’s there?’ we shall remember how many students and professors and American friends have looked on our efforts with such unremitting interest and enthusiasm. – Shuna