The Journey Begins

 

by Wela Mbusi

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?

AHHHHHHH!!!

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.

Acting up in Iowa | AFTLS at St. Ambrose

Ambrose Hall at St. Ambrose University (Davenport, Iowa)

And so to Iowa. Very flat, Iowa, as Mr. Coward might have said. We were greeted by Lance Sadlek at the airport, a man who proved to be the most wonderful host to us, with his patience and his warmth and his infectious effervescence — thank you Lance. Indeed, Iowa seemed to open its arms to us at every turn, almost as if it knew that this was week six for us, that check-ins, repackings and hotel breakfasts had slightly lost their lustre.

Deb at Notre Dame also knew this, and consequently booked us into the Residence Inn for the week, and the addition of a kitchenette in the rooms was a real treat; we scampered to local delis and bought ginger and spice and all things nice — gluten-free, in my case — and said a temporary farewell to burgers and wings and ranch dressing. (Please don’t think of us as newly-converted yoga-crafted Puritans; the freezer section meant I could also stuff my face with Ben and Jerry’s…)

St. Ambrose University was founded under the auspices of the diocese of Davenport as a seminary and ‘school of commerce’ in 1882, first as an academy, then later a college, and only officially a university in 1987 (on Shakespeare’s birthday). In World War ll it was also used as a location for training officers for the US Navy. There are about three and a half thousand students here (none of them Navy officers, to my knowledge) in a concentrated campus, surrounded by wooden-slatted houses in muted Shaker colours. It makes for a pretty ‘frame’ to the place.

This week (unusually for me), I got to teach a couple of classes with theatre majors, and Corinne Johnson, their teacher here, seems to have built up a wonderful rapport with the students. In my first class, the Kardashians made a reappearance (see past weeks), but this time they had to face the US Army; they may at last have met their match. In the next class, I had the Costume Design students try to recreate the first scene in the AFTLS style, with all seven of them assigned at least two parts — and attempting to use basic costume and/or props to help keep the characters ‘alive’ during the numerous character changes. At one point, in exasperation, a student called Megan threw her script to the floor and cried, “How do you do this?” Yep, that’s pretty much how we felt on day one of rehearsal, too, Megan…

The Romeo and Juliet cast at St. Ambrose University with Nancy Hayes (center) and Lance Sadlek (upper right)

Later in the day, the charming chair of the St. Ambrose English Department, Nancy Hayes (who has helped to set up numerous Shakespeare-related events), was telling me that, in one of her classes, she thought that Sarah had brought something out of one of her students that she had never seen before, and that she thought would change her forever. Nancy claimed she had been changed too, grabbing the chance to be a waltzing fighter. “I’ve never waltzed before in my life!” She exclaimed. It took another ten seconds for her to add, “…or fought either, you understand”.

We were given the novel task this week (forgive the pun) of taking part in a project called Human Book Day, where we had to be a book — title previously provided by us — and be happy to take questions from any visitors to the library. So there were we five, pontificating on death and mutilation, ghosts and ghouls, diversity, cross-dressing and text exploration. Not your typical Wednesday afternoon.

We were also asked one evening to do a short presentation for some benefactors, where Jack acted as ringmaster and put us through our paces. “Show us how Lady Capulet sits, William”, “Do your northern accent, Jas”, “Now show us how quickly you can change from Paris to the Nurse, Sarah”. I feigned a huge interest in my shoes and hid among the vegetable dips…
When I first toured with this company 17 years ago, I bought a shot glass from every venue, as a memento, and I’ve kept up with the practice this time around. Sadly, St.Ambrose had none for sale, so I headed (with Sarah) down to the John Deere Pavilion. We are in big John Deere country here and big is, well, a big theme down there, with their big tractors and very big combine harvesters etc. So big that they too, don’t deal in anything as small as a shot glass. However, Sarah and I still stayed long enough to try out the simulator digger. Sarah caused less damage.

There was only one show this week, but very well-attended, with over 420 in the audience. And there was a real feeling that we wanted to give our kind hosts the best possible performance. People seemed pleased. One student even said to me afterwards: “I loved the Queen Mab speech. I was holding my girlfriend’s hand at the time but, right then, I was thinking that I could leave her for you.” Not sure that would work as advertising.

Other highlights of the week included a night out bowling, (where Scotty and Josh tried teaching us how to spin the ball), an evening out with Elaine and the local running club (first and last time I run over the Mississippi in the wind and snow) and an invitation to the Erotic Thigh – actually the Exotic Thai, but the neon sign wasn’t very clear…

Time for us to leave Davenport in one piece (which, apparently, is more than can be said for Cary Grant), proudly wearing our gifted John Deere baseball caps. Actually, that almost proved a problem late in the night on Saturday as they are forbidden in some bars, but I think peace was restored with some strawberry daiquiris. In shot glasses. Cheers. – Roger May (3/10/17)

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)

 

Welcome to America | Bubbles, Bowling, and Buñuel

The Lab Theatre in the University of Notre Dame’s Washington Hall

So. Two weeks done in the US of A. We spent most of week one on the second floor of a campus building, a ‘theater lab’ that acts as our rehearsal space. Occasionally we would wander out to ‘The Huddle,’ a building opposite that houses various eateries and drinkeries that cater for our lunchtime needs. And in the evening, we would wander out to a local bar and chew the cud. But truthfully, we were in a kind of bubble, an other-world consisting of five British actors, a suitcase of props and costumes, and lots of bottles of water. And yet we are still not immune to the spiraling tornado that is emanating from the White House. The TV is awash with experts and questions and rants and fears. And honestly, I’m scared of where this all may lead. Arrests made at JFK Airport, protests, executive orders, closing borders. Strange times.

One of the classes I was asked to teach on was on the subject of rhetoric and great speeches, so I thought I’d work with them on the Mark Antony “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Reading over it, this section hit me between the eyes:

“O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.”

Even in our iambic bubble, you can never hide away too far…

Ground transportation is Will Donaldson approved.

In fact, to highlight the surreal in all this we were greeted at Chicago airport, when we landed, with a stretch limousine. “Why?” my daughter demanded jealously when I told her. Well, apparently it was the cheaper option. All I know is that, since Chicago is an hour behind South Bend, Indiana, there was a time when I, sitting at the front and Jack, sitting right at the back, were in different time zones.

Indiana is southeast from Chicago and Lake Michigan. South Bend, the local town, is a low sprawl of highways and chain stores, much like many an American town – with so much space to play with, the architecture is generally low and wide. It’s also pretty featureless.

The University of Notre Dame, meanwhile, is a mix of impressive buildings that seem to be, in a uniformly sand-blasted way, gothic-influenced and money-influenced. For the 8,500 students here, the facilities are palatial. Apparently, many students get scholarships, which is a good job as the annual fee is apparently $61,000. The mind boggles. (You sure you want to take away the cap on the £9,000 annual fee in the UK?) The university has its own fire station, its own police force, its own zip code, and even its own power plant.

We also boggle at adverts and billboards that are so wonderfully unenglish. So far we’ve been enticed by various stores and messages: “Let’s Spoon,” “Femme Fatale” (a gun store), “Don’t Get Caught Dirty,” and a TV advert that promises to “lubricate itself right in the package.” As you can imagine, we play up the stereotype and react in a suitably Downton Abbey manner.

One big highlight this week has been to watch a live ice hockey match – a first for me. At the beginning, Will, Sarah, and I stared incomprehensibly at the high-speed mayhem but, with the help of some hockey moms cheering on their high school kids, by the end of it we were cheering and nodding knowingly at the two-minute penalties and the nuances of stick and puck. Great fun. For the record, Newtrier beat St.Joseph’s 8-2.

The boys have also ventured out to the local bowling alley. It seemed such an unprepossessing place as we drove up to Chippewa Bowl. But inside, an astonishing tardis of striking and unsparing proportions (see what I did there?). Seventy lanes. SEVENTY lanes. I ask you. Probably a good thing, as it meant no-one noticed the spirited but average fare from lane 52…

It’s surprisingly mild for the time of year but finally, in the last few days, the snow has come in. Not a staggering amount, but enough to impress five Brits and give us an excuse to finally unpack those extra Michelin-sponsored layers. Jas’ roller blades will have to wait though. In the meantime, we get our exercise in the hotel gym. I think we all know it won’t last, but we’re pretty keen cyclists, runners, and cross-trainers for this week at least.

Looking out from the stage of Washington Hall.

In the meantime, we rehearsed. Getting into the theatre was a good shock to the system; the space is a lovely two-tiered and quite intimate space (about 500 seats), but it requires a fair amount of work vocally – especially on the consonants – and is quite wide too and a challenge to play to all areas. For English readers, it’s rather like the Rose Theatre, Kingston, or Chichester (before the make-over).

Over the last few weeks, I’ve learnt two things about how to work with a company of five and no director. The first is that you have to try everything. Not only that, but you have to have time to work through each idea. It’s quite time-consuming, but even bad ideas are useful to explore, not only to be sure they don’t work, but also because they often lead to good ideas you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. And the second thing is that you need to be as sensitive as the most sensitive person in the room. Which is not always the same person. Again, this demands a patience and awareness, but that is a useful mindset to get into for an eight-week tour. And it’s turned us into a close-knit group.

The Romeo and Juliet cast (pictured L-R): Jasmeen James, Jack Whitam, Scott Jackson (Shakespeare at Notre Dame Executive Director), Sarah Finigan, Roger May, and William Donaldson.

And so to the show. Finally playing to an audience was just what we needed, and the reception was lovely. There really is a lot of humour in the first half, despite the family feud, and the audience was quick to pick up on that. The biggest challenge is to keep the freshness of a story that everyone knows and the ending that the prologue has forewarned you of (spoiler alert). Over the coming weeks that, I suspect, will be our biggest test.

Apart from taking a class on the acting styles used in the Buñuel film Los Olvidados, possibly. That was a challenge I wasn’t expecting on this tour. In the event, we had great fun with it, storyboarding the opening of Romeo and Juliet in the style of a Buñuel film. It’s important to understand that the students we teach are often not drama students (in this case they were studying Spanish), but their willingness to dive in and participate is both surprising and wonderful. Other classes covered in this first week of teaching have included Henry VIII, the speeches of Lady Macbeth, gang violence and poetry reading.

In my warm-up for a class on rhetoric the other day, I asked the students to face a wall and give only the volume needed for that distance, and then got them to increase tat distance bit by bit. “Do any speech you like”, I said, “or, if you don’t know one, then a poem or lyrics or anything you can repeat a few times”. “Anything?”, one student asked. “Yes, anything”, I confirmed. I think it was a great compliment to the establishment that, on walking round the classroom, I heard three “Hail Marys” and four or five “Lord’s Prayers”…

After the final sold-out show tonight, we head off to Chicago for the weekend, before our next stop at Berea College in Kentucky. I have to say that the hospitality and the generosity we’ve encountered has been terrific. Long may that last on this journey.

— Roger May (2/3/17)

 

[Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Shakespeare at Notre Dame or the University of Notre Dame.]

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…

Making the Cut | AFTLS “Streamlines” Richard III

In just three days, our five actors bring their new adaptation of Richard III to the United States. AFTLS Associate Director, Caroline Devlin, has edited one of Shakespeare’s longest plays into a fast, fierce 2:15 production. Read how she “made the cut” in today’s tour blog.

Folio title pageRichard III is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays. It’s length is justified as it serves not only as a narrative of this famous King, but also as a conclusion to the series of plays we know as Shakespeare’s “History” plays. It can also compete for being one of his most complex plays – in almost every scene we meet a new character! That is a very intricate web of names and faces to confront the audience with. Bear in mind, these names and faces would have been very familiar to Elizabethan audiences, as these plays dealt with their not too distant history, but for contemporary audiences, just keeping up with who’s who is a challenge, let alone investing in the plot and character journeys.

King_Richard_IIIThe main objective has been therefore, not to “cut” the play, so much as “streamline” it to the story surrounding the Duke of Gloucester, his bloody rise to power and his ultimate defeat at Bosworth. Uncut, it is epic with a vast cast of about 45 which I’ve cut down to 27 (excluding messengers and citizens) so quite a few characters have gone. Almost exclusively, any character going has been directly relatable to their importance to the Richard story. Jane Shore is a lovely character, but the mention of her in the play, although deliciously political in nature, doesn’t help the audience unless they are fully versed in her role as court courtesan, therefore, she was a clear contender for being cut.

This is the case with almost all other characters that have been cut. In some places a character has been merged, for example, I’ve merged Ratcliffe into Catesby – simply to avoid meeting another minor character who doesn’t have a story that particularly develops. Also, at this late stage of the play we are already meeting new characters in the shape of Richmond and his followers, so I wanted to keep any new faces and names to an absolute necessity.

In a few places a character has been added, Marquis of Dorset arrives in a scene to replace a messenger. This aids to keep his character alive for the audience, he is a minor character but his relationship to Queen Elizabeth and his timely escape from London to join Richmond is important storytelling, so I wanted to keep this character clear to the audience.

I felt sadly bound to diminish the role of various Priests and Archbishops in the storytelling. In some places these lines have been included but given to other characters. I felt that unless someone was familiar with the role of the Church in State matters in the 1480’s, it could be confusing as to why a member of the clergy may be so essential to State decisions. But ultimately, it again came down to the clarity of storytelling.

Caroline DevlinThe rehearsal script has had numerous readings with Associate Directors and the AFTLS office contributing feedback, and the version has had a successful professional run (albeit with a full cast, not five actors) and was praised for its clarity and pace. I mention this only to re-assure that the cut works!” — Caroline Devlin, AFTLS Associate Director and three-time tour veteran

Richard III will be performing across the United States this fall. To learn about Actors From The London Stage, explore how 27 roles are shared between five actors, and see if AFTLS will be at a university near you, visit our WEBPAGE for more details and a full tour schedule.

AFTLS_5FaceBanner (web)

The Richard III cast (pictured L-R): Hannah Barrie, Evelyn Miller, Liz Crowther, Paul O’Mahony, & Alice Haig.

Two Weeks in Texas – Part One: Austin

Austin PostcardMy small and charming creature of delight,
We are alone; you need not look so flush
About your ears. For under pale moonlight,
We can afford to breathe and not to rush.

There is time yet to tell me how you feel,
To see if you can match the things I’ve said,
Inform me how your injuries I heal
But, silly friend, you opt to swim instead.

University of Texas Austin campus at sunset-dusk - aerial view

I sigh and lightly nap till your return,
Your neck stretched out to steal a furtive kiss.
My eyes blink open, and your red ears burn.
You tuck your head away in bashful bliss.

But even when you hide, I know you well:
My green and pretty turtle in his shell.

– UT Austin student, Austin Hanna

Greetings from Austin! We’ve had a fabulous week here. It’s been extremely busy but that is to be expected; The University of Texas in Austin has approximately 50,000 students. Twenty(!) of these students volunteered to help us actors get around campus. Austin Hanna was Chris’ guide and he wrote the sonnet above. I mentioned to him that I had seen a turtle for the first time and he recited this. The guides, all UT students, have extraordinary talents and have been invaluable sources of local knowledge. My guides – Amanda Rodriguez, Bryson Kisner, Jonathan Vineyard, and Drew Orland – introduced me to the delights of Texan-style queso and the traditional Texan Barbecue, a culinary experience I shall never forget.

Student Drew Orland at the top of the UT-Austin Bell Tower

Drew at the top of the UT-Austin Bell Tower

We were all extremely fortunate to be invited by Drew to the top of the bell tower of the main building where he is one of a handful of people granted access because he plays the bells. He played the British national anthem in our honour.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a very handsome woman called Liz Fisher who got us to the hotel where we met Alan Friedman and David Kornhaber. They presented us with an enormous goody bag full of food. Austin is a foodie city and Liz knows the best spots. She showed us where to get all the best nosh over the week. Alan is the professor who invited us and made us feel very welcome. He had organized a performance of Pyramus and Thisbie by the students on the evening we arrived after which we met all the professors that we would be working with over the week. Between the five of us we did a number of varying classes from Jane Austen to public speaking for chemical engineers as well as going off campus into local high schools and elementary schools. We did have our work cut out, but we worked hard and played hard and ate really well.

The Winedale stage

On the final day of our residency, we drove an hour and a half outside the city to a barn in the middle of nowhere called Winedale; it was a magical place. It’s dedicated to performing Shakespeare plays and there are summer schools held there every year. We arrived in the day and re-rehearsed the show to allow for entrances and exits and exploring the new levels which was great fun. Then from 6pm people started arriving in their cars with picnics. Earlier in the week, we had great audiences at the massive B. Iden Payne Theatre on campus at UT. Winedale is much more intimate with only 200 seats or so; therefore, the relationship between the actors and audience can be closer too.

Chris Donnelly and Sam Collings walking into the Sunset at Barton Springs

Chris Donnelly and Sam Collings walking into the sunset at Barton Springs

After such a busy week with the fantastic climax at Winedale we felt we’d earned a good rest, so we spent Sunday in the sun at Barton Springs, just delightful!

San Antonio next…

“Midsummer” arrives at Notre Dame

The Midsummer AFTLS cast

“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties, Above the fruited plain!”

We’ve arrived in the land of the free! (In a stretch limo no less; thanks Deb!) [Office note: the limo was the cheapest option to transport our five actors from Chicago to South Bend.] And at the risk of completely adhering to the British stereotype, I am going to talk about the weather. It has been amazing! I hadn’t packed for the beautiful Indian summer here. I have alpaca and cashmere for the winter but very little in the way of shorts and sunscreen, and it’s making me nervous about Texas in a couple of weeks…

Our first week in the US has been fairly slow-moving. We’ve had to do a lot of admin, from filling-in and rehearsing whilst battling the bewildering effects of jet lag. However, it has been a joy to finally meet the wonderful people at the end of all the emails who have also helped us through this week. Deb Gasper is an astonishing lady, organizing everything and conducting herself with the patience of a saint while we set ourselves up for the tour ahead. We have had the pleasure of meeting Becky and Heidi in finance and Peter, Scott, Aaron from Shakespeare at Notre Dame who have all been delightful.

The craft beer list at South Bend's Evil Czech Brewery

The craft beer list at South Bend’s Evil Czech Brewery

Deb, Aaron and Scott very kindly took us out for Taco Tuesday at Evil Czech Brewery where we got to experience the famous American craft beer movement first hand. (Scott’s spicy Porter had a real kick to it!) Joining us with an Irish welcome was Grant Mudge, producing artistic director of Notre Dame’s Shakespeare Festival.

In our rehearsal room this week we have been joined by Anna Kurtz-Kuk who has been a joy! So positive, useful, and insightful. I wish we could have had her with us in London too. She is about to direct a production of The Understudy and it promises to be a fantastic production if her contribution to our Midsummer is anything to go by.

Notre Dame's Golden Dome as seen from our rehearsal space, ND's historic Washington Hall.

The burning sun on the dome at Notre Dame. This picture does not do it justice. I couldn’t look at the dome it was so bright.

Rehearsals were held in Notre Dame’s historic Washington Hall, just steps away from ND’s Golden Dome. We did our second preview on Friday afternoon, a week after the first in London and got some great feedback from the audience. We’ll hopefully get some time this week to work the notes. After notes it was straight on the road to go to Valparaiso, gearing up for our Westville residency.

Saturday was our much needed day off and the day of the England vs Wales Rugby match in the Rugby Union World Cup which is going on back home.

The Indiana Dunes on the shore of Lake Michigan

View of Lake Michigan from the Indiana Dunes

Sam and Chris were keen to catch the match but failed to find anywhere in downtown Valparaiso showing it so ended up heading towards Lake Michigan where Claire, Patrick, and I had already gone to have a dip. My gosh, it was beautiful! And not as cold as the Hampstead ponds in London.

(Blog post by AFTLS actor Ffion Jolly)

Dreaming up a Fresh “Midsummer”

Wow, three weeks into rehearsals and it seems like a dream, forgive the pun! The five of us met in Brixton three weeks ago to begin this journey which feels fairly similar to Peter Quince’s and his troupe in the play. We have two veteran AFTLS-ers and three ‘newbies’ muddling through Shakespeare’s (arguably) greatest comedy. The past few weeks have seen us mere actors take on not only up to six roles within the play but also the roles of director, production designer, prop and costume buyer and stage management. It has been a test of our mettle and an insight into what ‘mere’ actors can achieve when left to our own devices (fingers crossed it’s good-judge for yourselves when you see the show).

It has been a blessing and a curse having fairy magic on our side. Whilst having an infinite amount of options available to us for our fairy realm (not easy when directing by committee) it has also opened up the floodgates of our creativity. On a small budget with little technical back-up we really to have to use our imaginations and trust the magic of theatre to aid us in our ‘devices’.

We should also give Shakespeare some credit too. The road has been made much smoother by some good writing. A lot of the magic can be found within the text. Actors know that we are expected to perform miracles for our audiences, but, with Shakespeare, he gives us a statement of fact to deliver and produce the same effect: ‘I am Invisible and I will overhear their conference.’ Thank you, Will!!!

The wonderful practitioners whom have helped us have also made our road smoother. Lucy Cullingford, our Movement director, and Bobby Delaney, our musical director, have gone over and above what we expected and have been joys to have in the room. Their hard work, generosity, and expertise have informed a great deal of our production. Thank you Bobby and Lucy too!

I have been walking into rehearsals over these last 3 weeks and have taken a great deal of Midsummer inspiration from the street art that adorns my route. Who’d’ve thought Peckham would be so relevant to Shakespeare…

Post and photos by Actors From The London Stage actor Ffion Jolly

'I'll go with thee, cheek by jowl'

‘I’ll go with thee, cheek by jowl’

'Meet me in the palace wood a mile without the town' 'At the Duke's Oak we meet'- This picture was taken from a place called Honor Oak Park- named so because Elizabeth I took a rest under an oak tree on the top of this hill on a morn of may in 1602 and so the oak was honoured.

‘Meet me in the palace wood a mile without the town’ ‘At the Duke’s Oak we meet’- This picture was taken from a place called Honor Oak Park- named so because Elizabeth I took a rest under an oak tree on the top of this hill on a morn of may in 1602 and so the oak was honoured.

 

Streetside Inspiration Image

‘I know a bank where the wild thyme grows’

Meet the Cast of The Winter’s Tale: Joneal Joplin

Joneal Joplin (Camillo)

Joneal Joplin (Camillo)

Joneal “Jop” Joplin (Camillo) is pleased to be making his debut at NDSF with The Winter’s Tale. He has appeared in over 300 productions throughout the U.S. and Canada. Recent roles have included Tony Reilly in Outside Mullingar, The Old Actor in The Fantastiks!, Monseigneur Ryan in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Uncle Ben in Death of a Salesman, Selsdon Mowbray in Noises Off, Northumberland in Henry IV, Archbishop and King Louis in Henry V, Candy in Of Mice and Men, John of Gaunt in Richard II and Captain Smith in Titanic. He has performed at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Missouri Rep, South Coast Rep, The Muny Opera, Dallas Theatre Center, Atlanta Theatre Under The Stars, Kansas City Starlight, The Hangar Theatre, Country Dinner Playhouse, Indianapolis Starlight, Theatre on the Square, Ensemble Theatre, Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, The Human Race Theatre, Actor’s Studio, and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company to name a few. He is a proud member of Actors’ Equity, the proud father of two splendid actors, Jen and Jared, and the proud husband for 53 years of his lovely bride, Janie.


For tickets visit DeBartolo Performing Arts Center Box Office

For information visit Shakespeare at Notre Dame