by Wela MbusiAs we enter the winding roads of Wellesley College leading us through its bucolic setting, we gradually make our way towards the theatre for our first briefing by the faculty.
As we enter the building with its ornate interior you can’t help but notice the largesse the building exudes. Then, we were immediately met by nearly life-sized portraits of prominent female public figures, strewn strewn across the corridors who once were and still are huge advocates of female empowerment even in the arts.
The faculty were as excited as we were about sharing our experience as actors using Measure for Measure in their classes ranging from the basic tools of speaking text, to utilising art to speak truth to power.
My first lesson was with an English writing class that was interested in how the play can be interpreted through varying cultural spaces and cosmologies, and the best way to do that was to get them on their feet and see if they could shell out possible ways of using or breaking Shakespeare’s form to explore the themes in the text; using not only the language but their bodies, and any other cultural experiences they might have had as it was a class filled with internationals.
The space we were about to perform in was a thousand seater and making dramatic adjustments to our delivery became a reality we just had to embrace. Our first audience was so enthusiastic as it was filled with young Shakespeare aficionados who followed the play intently. We felt lucky and encouraged having such a dedicated audience and couldn’t have asked for a better opening night.
We were also briefly hosted by the Shakespeare society with their unparalleled and enviable dedication to all things Shakes. By our last night, we were starting to enjoy the play and appreciating the freedom we had found with the form of the convention and looked forward to Austin, Texas the city of cowboy boots and hats.
We’ve landed! Our jet-lagged arrival at Chicago O’Hare airport is ameliorated by a stretch limo waiting to whisk us away to our hotel rooms whilst darting through traffic. LoL. Well…maybe it isn’t actually that glamorous but Shakespeare at Notre Dame’s generosity with Debs’ logistical skills certainly made us feel that way. No rest for the wicked as daily chores had to be fulfilled if we were to have a smooth couple of months. Our first task was to familiarise ourselves with the rigours of the upcoming schedule with the workshops, followed by a scary but painless tax exemption form filling session and a bank trip to open checking accounts. Finally the evening was capped off by a wonderful meal at a steakhouse where I had the John Adams special which was an assortment of meats skewered by a sword. It’s stature certainly personified the second president.
We continued with rehearsals through the week but we’re starting to feel the need of an audience and performing to a feedback-giving audience one last time (though necessary) further induced our need for one. Having incorporated notes from the London associates, we felt we needed to prioritise in terms of time and the best use of our energies, as we’d not had a break from rehearsals for nearly five weeks. But we also felt that autonomy was the best cause of action as well, as some of the notes were personal preferences rather than things that would enhance the clarity of the story or AFTLS’s convention of five actors playing all the roles.
We were glad to find a cohesive enough ideology with regards to the notes session from Scott and Peter Holland and the London associates and that solidified our confidence in the show, but at this point we were craving for an audience at Wellesley College, our first stop. Notre Dame was a phenomenal school and with its strong Catholic roots I couldn’t help but wonder how it would be received when we returned to perform as the themes of the play are palpably resonant. Leaving those worries for another day, we made our way to Chicago (courtesy of Debs) to try and get some rest, especially as the long-awaited football game between Notre Dame and Georgia was on. The spectacle of military flyovers and marching bands during the run were not enough to intrigue us to stay because the Windy City called.
Week five. Hooray!! The long wait has finally come to an end and the finality of it is solidified by the associate actors sharing their collective notes after our final run in the UK. Our spirits are buoyant but only because we know, that after the seemingly torturous, but necessary, ordeal of receiving notes from them, we will have ascended three thousand feet in two days towards another welcoming collective of practitioners and audiences.
Alas! The notes session proved to be the remedy we needed for the majority of this isolated rehearsal process, as they were very informative coming from an outside perspective. It was also comforting to know that every single one of them had gone through this the same artistic gauntlet as well.
A sense of ownership has been instilled in us having gone through this, and aptly reinforced by Martin, is the idea that what we created can only be understood and given by us with full conviction, as it is a testament of the best of ourselves as artists.
Week three of rehearsals and our actors’ imaginations are being called upon to stretch beyond their known limitations. Whether it’s by choice or not, exhaustion can sometimes be the thing you need to transport you from the dull and austere to the absurd. From the mind-bending task of watching Ben transform from one character to another a dozen times in a single scene, to Peter frantically scratching himself in the hopes of finding some semblance of a character. Anna has also been tirelessly donning multiple outfits for Isabella as I’m spinning in circles also trying to find the internals of my characters. The highlight of the week has been a visit from Siân Williams who is a choreographer, movement specialist, and theatre practitioner. Her invaluable knowledge on how to produce movement from the root of the play and the convention we’re using, has not only been intellectually taxing but very fruitful as we’ve been learning to merge the two languages. This has been a test for all of us this week, but how we’ve managed to overcome our frustrations, has also meant that we are developing a shorthand in how we communicate our idea, and by the time we get to America, we’ll be a well-oiled hive mind.
An epic journey is underway for five actors creating a magical piece of theatre from scratch; using nothing but our skills, imagination, and the love of theatre. Did I also mention without the all seeing eye of a director?
The first two weeks of rehearsals have been about shelling out the play for its meaning, not only for clarity of storytelling, but for us to really grasp such a complex and rich play as Measure for Measure. After the initial shock of being left alone in the room with nothing but the text and our collective training, we managed to slowly, but surely, decipher the scenes one unit at a time. It has been a tremendous learning curve for all of us in the company so far as we’re coming to terms with different ways of working. On top of that, there’s the added responsibility of being all of the other figureheads responsible for the creation of a piece of theatre. However, not having the constant objective eye of a director, it has also meant enjoying the freedom of playing with the text in many ways that a ‘normal’ rehearsal wouldn’t allow us to. We’ve been paraphrasing our lines together and that has helped us not only understand our own lines but the other actors as well.
The breadth and depth of understanding that the process has given us has and hopefully will continue to enrich the play. Foursquare seems to be a regular pre-rehearsal pressure reliever and we are constantly enthused by the epic journey that we’re about to take in the States.