Vassar College in the town of Poughkeepsie, New York, is where we had last week’s residency. The university was founded in 1861 and was a women’s college although since the late 60’s has been coeducational. Architecturally it is very impressive with the Main Building having a European quality to it, almost Gothic. (On a side note: Meryl Streep graduated from Vassar and had the ‘Streep Studio’ named after her which is part of the Vogelstein Center for Drama.)
We were met by Residency Coordinator Ariel Nereson who not only gave us a lovely welcome but also a quick tour before we attended the Faculty meeting. In charge of the meeting was Professor Zoltan Markus who we got to know very well throughout the week, and was always utterly supportive and inspirational. They had very kindly laid on food for us at the meeting which was great as, usually wherever food is actors are not far behind.
Once the classes started on the Tuesday we all quickly realized the students were supremely gifted in their powers of analysis and their willingness to get involved. I asked the students in an English class with Prof Donald Foster if any of them knew anything about Stanislavsky. Don had warned me the students were pretty sharp, but the potted biog a student gave me off the cuff stunned me. I just wish I could remember exactly what he said so that from now on I could use it myself. The others in the cast have similar stories.
On the Tuesday we attended a meal at a restaurant run by members of the CIA. Being Brits we assumed they must be taking time off from catching criminals until it was pointed our it stands for Culinary Institute of America, whose main campus is in nearby Hyde Park.
It was quite an honour that the President of Vassar, Catharine ‘Cappy’ Bond Hill joined us along with the Dean of the Faculty Jon Chenette. Also with us was Head of Drama Faculty Denise Walen, Ariel and Zoltan (who gave a witty and charming toast).
All the classes seemed to go well and were very enjoyable. Annie and Ben had great fun with the USMA cadets otherwise known as young officers in training at the world famous West Point. Ben has great skills in stage movement and was delighted that contrary to what one might think these uniformed officers were highly expressive and really going for it. The fact that they chose to be there was particularly gratifying and one cadet, having memorized the opening speech from Richard III, combining it with the exercise given to him in the class, gave a dazzling piece of acting. Well done to him and to their leaders Professor Marc Napolitano, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Harper and Major Erin Hadlock for bringing them to Vassar.
On the Saturday morning we ran a class with Exploring College Students which is a program mainly for Poughkeepsie High School and is designed to foster college aspirations amongst high school students. We had around 25 who understandably were reticent at first. Many of them haven’t done much drama if at all. The ice was broken when one student, Naomi, offered to teach the whole group a dance she had invented. She then recited a poem she had written. Talented girl. Before long the group had warmed to the tasks and exercises we set and were producing some very funny and charming plays based on the first scene of Macbeth with the three witches. Thanks go to Angelica Gutierrez for bringing them to the College.
We gave three performances of Macbeth in the Martel Theatre, a beautiful theatre which was the perfect size for our production – intimate but with a fairly large capacity of just over three hundred. The staff – Stephen Jones, Joan Gerardi, Paul O’Connor, Zachary Cox, and student DSM Elizabeth were all excellent and efficient. Each night was sold out in advance so the heat was on to be as good as we can be. A particular challenge working with AFTLS is that we usually have quite a number of days between performances. We hadn’t done the show since the previous Saturday so as usual we had a speedy run of the show to reacquaint ourselves on the Wednesday before the first performance on the Thursday. Macbeth is a very difficult play, brilliant of course but easy to forget some of the finer points of the play due to its sheer complexity. This is something the audience don’t necessarily concern themselves with and nor should they, so the trick is to look utterly relaxed and confident when often one is trying to negotiate new surroundings, stage size, lighting as well as trying to act as well as possible. Thankfully this does get easier to do as the tour goes on and for the shows we really went for it. The audiences gave us standing ovations each night.
After the final performance on the Saturday, Zoltan held a party which was tremendous fun with Ben on piano, myself on ukulele, and Jo and Denise singing. A better host than Zoltan it is impossible to imagine.
Thanks to Zoltan, Ariel, Denise and everyone else who made this week a memorable one!