Richard III Hits the Road

utsa-recital-hallWe’ve been having an amazing tour so far. We opened at the University of Texas at San Antonio tonight performing in their beauteous Recital Hall (pictured) which has glorious acoustics and a mighty organ behind our delineated acting area. As we have no director, stage manager or “techies” with us, it is our job to organize: putting our play in a new space – and boy have we had some different spaces – an exciting challenge.

We first performed at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana in a tiny, bare, very hot room with around thirty or so charming men who were hungry for Shakespeare. They take part in a series of weekly workshops run by Shakespeare at Notre Dame’s Scott Jackson. They asked brilliant questions and shared wonderful thoughts about the production. Clarity can be potentially hazardous when you have five actors playing 27 or so roles, but they all seemed to follow the plot really well. We learned, several of the attendees had never been to the theatre before, and all sat in rapt attention. For us, it seemed such an important thing to do, to perform there. The visit to Westville stands as one of my most amazing theatrical experiences.

Our next stop was The University of Texas at Austin, a serene and vast campus full of live oaks, unknown to us in England. We had such enthusiastic audiences (people standing, wow!), a biggish theatre, and our very first classes. This is the first AFLTS tour for three of us – Evvy, Hannah, and Alice – and they were a bit nervous as workshops began. However, after sharing classes with them, I can testify that all three are completely BRILLIANT, and their teaching has received wonderful feedback. Paul is already a seasoned teacher and an exceptionally clever chap, having studied Classics at Oxford; this is his third tour.

The idea for our classroom sessions is to share the actors’ approach to a text. For example: warming up our voices and bodies, physicalizing words, staging short  scenes, thinking about the characters’ emotional and physical states, and, most of all, their intentions. We also touch on the importance of speaking the text OUT LOUD and having a NEED as a character to say these things. For students, this approach is occasionally strange, sometimes truly silly (which is such fun), but always a welcome way in to the text.

classroom_cropI have my classes pair off. In each pair, one becomes a Lancastrian supporter and the other a Yorkist (the two factions in the play). They then push hard against each other’s palms whilst shouting “Dog, cur, and villain.” The physical impetus makes the antipathy much easier (though most people just giggle a lot the first time round). I had a football quarterback in my class yesterday who the teacher said she had never seen so animated!

winedale-historical-centerwinedale_cropOn the Saturday of our Austin residency we drove out to Shakespeare at Winedale and their summer school Shakespeare camp run by the very wonderful Laurel and James Loehlin. I’ve known James for 25 years as he worked at the Orange Tree Theatre in the UK at the same time as me. The Winedale theatre is a converted hay barn, so we adapted to a teeny tiny stage with three additional levels, a lovely and different dynamic. We watched some fantastic child actors beforehand (directed brilliantly by Clayton Stromberger). They performed scenes from Richard III under the trees. I must give a special BRAVO! to the young girl who played a most MAGNIFICENT Queen Margaret. We had added excitement during the performance as a coral snake had to be killed trying to get into to watch our play. Evvy Miller, playing Buckingham, is terrified of snakes and calls them “speedy, small, death machines.” As she was waiting to make an entrance, she was quietly told to “shift quickly as there was a snake on the loose.” We all survived the scare and enjoyed a lovely response to the play. We concluded our Winedale evening star-watching under that dark and huge Texas sky.

broken_spokeWe have managed a few “jollies” (an English word for fun trips out) to the very famous “Broken Spoke” dance hall (pictured), to swim in the creek in Austin, and to watch the nightly exodus of one and a half million bats from under Congress Bridge which was absolutely SPECTACULAR. We have also eaten our body weight in burritos, steaks, tacos, and enchiladas. Luscious!

— Liz Crowther

Prisoners “Dream” with AFTLS

 

Our merry 'Midsummer' band at the Westville Correctional Facility, pictured with Shakespeare at Notre Dame Executive Director Scott Jackson (second from right)

Our merry ‘Midsummer’ cast at the Westville Correctional Facility, pictured with Shakespeare at Notre Dame Executive Director Scott Jackson (second from right).

I have never been into a prison before. Apprehensive does not come close to describing my feelings about it. From the stipulations about my underwear to the sign saying that carrying a cell phone into the prison is classified as a felony, all the rules and responsibilities, the dos and don’ts, made the anticipation of Sunday’s two-hour workshop at Indiana’s Westville Correctional Facility palpable.

Getting into Westville is a similar experience to going through airport security. We showed our ID, took off our shoes, went through a metal detector, and finally got patted down by a guard. This is where the experience began to differ from the airport; rather than being released to fly off to a sunny beach, we were held in a Sally Port. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, this is a holding area with two heavy metal mesh doors – only one opening at any one time. Finally, you are escorted in a van to the designated cellblock.

As we arrived in A3 and were led down the corridors, we felt the prisoners watching us. The initial meeting was awkward, no one knowing what the exchange was going to be. This awkwardness was eased through playing theatre games. I don’t know much about the prison system or the lives of the men incarcerated there, but I’d guess that play is not a huge part of life at Westville. We taught them our games and they taught us ones that they had done with Scott. (On Sunday I won ‘Zip, Zap, Zoom,’ a very proud moment!)

Inmates learn through Shakespeare's text at Westville Correctional Facility

Inmates learn through Shakespeare’s text at Westville Correctional Facility

Samuel Collings led us all in the click game. This is where a click is passed around the circle as if it is a ball. In our production the click represents the flower ‘love in idleness.’ After the initial games, we played with the text of The Tempest. We created a storm using our hands, the floor, plastic chairs, the walls, our voices and breath – anything we could bang and make a racket with – and what a wonderful racket we made. (The guards commented on it.) Kyle, a man covered in tattoos with a neck the size of my thigh and a voice that would give Barry White a run for his money, volunteered himself for the part of Ariel, the very airy spirit. He had us in stitches and his enthusiasm was infectious. As we moved through the edited version of The Tempest, we got to know this group very well.

On Friday, when we came back to perform the play, an inmate told me that the prisoners had reprised Wednesday’s click game and had the entire block playing it. So, when Patrick came on as Puck carrying the flower, a ripple of excitement swept across the watching audience, knowing exactly how Puck was going to pass the flower to Oberon.

AFTLS actors Samuel Collings (standing as Oberon) and Claire Redcliffe (on floor as Titania) perform a scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Westville Correctional Facility

AFTLS actors Samuel Collings (standing as Oberon) and Claire Redcliffe (on floor as Titania) perform a scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Westville Correctional Facility

The Westville shows were our first public performances of the Dream, and we couldn’t have asked for a better response. I speak for all of us when I say it was extremely rewarding and an experience we will never forget. By Friday, we had met, worked with, and become invested in many of the inmates; it was sad to leave.

Thank you Scott Jackson for organizing our week at Westville.

— Actress and Midsummer blogger, Ffion Jolly

(Note: The AFTLS Midsummer cast will return to Notre Dame in 2016 to perform and discuss their Shakespeare in prison experience at the Shakespeare in Prisons: In Practice conference January 25-27.)

 

“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)

Much Ado Actor Blog: Prison Preview

Finally, after all the negotiation, all the work and all the time, we had our first audience. A crowd of approximately forty inmates of Westville Correctional Facility. It is located some miles out of South Bend, in what feels very much like American heartland. Long flat prairie land, cornfields stretching to the horizon, the interstate carving through the countryside like a scar. As we arrived in the parking lot, the temperature dropped, a little bit of pathetic fallacy. Here we are, shivering with cold and anticipation.

AFTLS at Westville

We wore our costumes in, and brought nothing but the props we needed. No underwired bras, no money, no mobile phones. At the door there is a tight, if friendly, security post. We arrived during visiting hours, and saw many families, and too many small frightened children, waiting to be x-rayed. It started to come home to me how these kids were seeing their daddy, and maybe their first memories – their only memories – of daddy will be in that context. Some seemed afraid, or daunted. Others all too used to it. The guards that waved us through were almost overly jolly, grinning and cracking jokes. Prison is FUN. “It’s not so friendly on the inside.” someone remarked. We eventually made it into an airlock, where an unsmiling gargoyle wordlessly gestured for us to show our passes. Once through security the atmosphere changed. Electric fences and guard towers, and a large complex of low rise secure buildings. We weren’t allowed to walk anywhere unaccompanied of course, and our escort was a chirpy young (six months pregnant) volunteer. She got us onto the bus that took us the short journey to the low security block in which we would be performing.

In the block, lots of wooden panels. Prayers mounted on the walls and pictures of prison wardens through the ages. Empty corridors. Our escort led us to a flight of stairs, and up them to an unprepossessing looking door which she opened with a small key. She gestured us in. As I walked through the door it was like walking into a different world. Men all around, standing, staring. Some at nothing. Some at us. Some out of windows. Their body language was closed. Their eye contact limited and fleeting. Their movements nervous, strained, unfamiliar. Some were wiping down windows and floors, with an air of care bordering on the compulsive. Some were standing in groups, next to each other, staring. One or two attempted a wave, or a nod, of greeting. All were dressed in the prison uniform. White trainers, white T-Shirt, beige slacks. It was customisable to the extent that there was a beige collared shirt that could be worn on top of the T-shirt if cold. Those in just the T-shirt were pretty buff, and often covered in livid technicolor tattoos right up to the chin. One stern and practical looking woman served as guard in this unit. She took our names. We then rather coyly went to the room where we would be working and began to set up the stage.

As we were setting up the guys started to filter in. The front row filled first, and then row after row, with the back filling up last. We were nervous, and they were talking amongst themselves, their body language still quite closed. I was tentatively warming up, but not really wanting to make too much of a spectacle of myself. Once we filled up, the volunteer closed the door. There were still some people outside, watching through a window, curious. Extra chairs were carried in for them and once we were packed, Scott said we would start early. So we quite suddenly launched into the show. I was aware that my nerves were up. They didn’t last long.

The thing that was instantly evident in the room was the quality of attention. They were really listening, audibly listening. And they were unashamed to laugh when they thought something was even slightly funny. The next thing that became clear was the level of empathy. They were right on top of us, so it was easy to feel with them. And the changes and surprises were landing audibly, as were their opinions of the different characters. It very quickly became a revelation to us, having never done the play to an audience that doesn’t know the play and the company. The surprises, the twists and turns, the confusions, many things that we almost took for granted having known the play all our working lives, they really began to ping out for us because they pinged out for them. The show flew by. There were a couple of mistakes that were so enjoyed and supported by the crowd that they felt almost right. And we realised that we knew the show now, and began to have fun.

At the end they all stood to applaud, from the back to the front, like a wave. The questions afterwards were eager, curious, and to do with detail of character and craft and plot, rather than, as too often happens in theatre q&a, people showing off about what they know and not genuinely interested in getting an answer to anything really.

It was one of the most remarkably positive experiences of my working life. Most of them had never seen a play before, let alone a Shakespeare play. And despite the obsolescence of much of the language, the themes and motifs all landed on these initially intimidating looking people. It made me think about my prejudices, as much as it made me think of the things I take for granted. To quote the friar, “What we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost, why then we rack the value, then we find the virtue that possession could not show us whilst it was ours.”

As we walked back out of the prison into a warmer day, we all experienced a moment of knowledge that we were free. We could go wherever we wanted to. And the people we had shared that experience with could not. We all tasted our freedom fresh. And we all understood how truly lucky we are to be here, thousands of miles from home, travelling round this vast but welcoming country, and working with the words of a man who somehow cracked the fundamentals of the human condition, and had the eloquence to express them.

(By Al Barclay)

As You Like It – Actors’ Post #9

Normally on a Monday morning we all wake pretty early, gather our belongings and head off to the next stop on the tour. Last Monday however, we stayed put in Valparaiso and purposely left most of our belongings behind, in order that we could clear security at Westville Correctional Facility. Though Westville is no more than a 20 minute drive from Valpo, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I feel we’ve all travelled a pretty long way this week.

Westville houses approximately 3,000 male prisoners in various blocks; it’s out on the edge of a small town, surrounded by Indiana’s flat countryside, which was battered this week by a pretty fierce wind. None of us really knew what to expect at Monday’s orientation, beyond the obvious strict security measures. We were keen to get a sense of what was expected of us and we were shown around by Rod, who, though he has worked at Westville for just two years, has worked within the US Prison system for nearly 20, and was perfectly placed to answer our questions. If there is a word which springs to mind when I think about my first impressions, it would be Uniform. Everything, from the landscape, to the inmates clothing, the walls, the security systems, and the prison routine, felt like it conformed to a sense of uniformity, which inevitably left me with a sense of feeling pretty conspicuous.

That afternoon, we gathered our ideas for the workshop sessions and formed a three hour plan which we delivered on Tuesday and Friday between 12 and 3. I think we were all anxious about how we would engage our audience with the exercises and with the story, especially over quite a long session. I was bowled over by the readiness and enthusiasm of the inmates to work with us, to explore ideas and text. We worked through exercises exploring communication, empathy, status, imagery, and story and spent the last part of the session looking at Shakespeare’s text, specifically Duke Senior’s speech which begins  “Now my brothers and co-mates in exile…” and Jaques’ famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue.

I am currently reading John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’, his account of trucking round the US in the early sixties with his French Poodle. About half way through the book they meet an actor who is similarly on the road and who talks to them about his work.

“I hope you won’t think I’m stealing material…I admire the delivery of Sir John Gielgud. I heard him do his monologue of Shakespeare – The Ages of Man. And then I bought a record of it to study. What he can do with words, with tones, and inflections! I tell about hearing Sir John, and what it did to me, and then I say I’m going to try to give an impression of how he did it….Shakespeare doesn’t need billing, and that way I’m not stealing his material. It’s like I’m celebrating him, which I do. I’m pretty much at home with it now, because I can watch the words sink in, and they forget about me and their eyes kind of turn inward and I’m not a freak to them anymore”

In one of those bizarre pieces of creative synchronicity, I read this passage the night before we went to deliver our first workshop and that’s exactly what seemed to happen as we all worked together. Shakespeare has a timeless power to articulate the human condition and define our experience. During the course of the workshop I stopped feeling so different and conspicuous and hopefully the inmates also escaped themselves for a moment too.

Performing the show in the chapel that night, we had no lighting, no stage, just a fiercely hot room and the sound of a loud sports game next door, but we could see our audience clearly; we could feel when they were with us and when they weren’t. Through the performance that night Arden took on a heightened meaning for me.

“Now go we in content, to liberty and not to banishment” says Celia, at the end of Act 1, Sc 3, and this is the springboard into the Forest. It’s this place of exile but also of transformation. Ultimately though, it’s a place of choice.

prison-barsOf course many of those working with us this week have made bad choices, but it is a powerful and transformative thing to offer a place of possibility and choice, even if just for a short time. One of the inmates described the experience as ‘a chink of sunlight in the gloom of incarceration’ and we were all incredibly proud and humbled by that.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

— Viktor Frankl

As You Like It – Actors’ Blog #8

As You Like It Blog – Valparaiso University

Jen guards our exponentially expanding collection of luggage.

Jen guards our exponentially expanding collection of luggage.

Here we are in week 8 of our 11 week tour…still just about managing to squeeze our belongings into suitcases that fit the airline luggage allowance!

This week we were back in Indiana at Valparaiso University. When we left the mid-west, back in Feb, it had been a covered in snow and extremely cold…so it was a pleasant surprise on Monday, to find that the snow had largely melted and that Spring was starting to make its presence felt. Friday was so Spring-like that I even took the opportunity to take a running tour of the campus with Theatre student Chrissie. This would have been impossible a month ago without getting stuck in a snow drift. Now the only limitations were my speed and fitness levels.

This is the third time that “Valpo” has been host to AFTLS, and it was great to see this experience reflected in the diversity of the classes we attended. I spent Tuesday visiting a session in the Law department. Final year students had all written a personal paper on a particular legal angle in one of Shakespeare’s plays and the breadth of their research was fascinating. I lead various exercises encouraging them to explore the role of the audience in Merchant of Venice and especially enjoyed having them experience connection to an audience while standing in the middle of the room on a large wooden boardroom table…I recommend it to executives snoozing through meetings everywhere.

One of the great things about the American college system is the opportunity for studying such a range of subjects, and nowhere is this more the case than Valpo. I met so many students with dual majors across disciplines. Even those students following a single major in theatre will study design, acting, costume making, lighting design, stage management and so on. Many of the students acting or working in shows on campus are not majoring in theatre but are nonetheless making it an integral part of their college experience. We were very well looked after by a Kari-Anne and her team of students studying for a Masters in Arts Administration, many of whom had travelled from China to study the course in Valpo. I also spoke to a number of other students who were taking opportunities to study abroad during the course of their programmes, several of whom are off to Cambridge this Autumn. 

The Faculty responsible for teaching the broad range of classes on offer are of course multi-talented. I would love to have been able to attend the Tap class, taught by Ann (who also teaches costume design) and we spend Sunday admiring faculty member Alan Ernstein’s beautiful hand-made furniture (and amazing Black Bean Soup!).

Being back in our home state meant this week offered a lovely opportunity to catch up with familiar faces from earlier in the tour.  We had visits from colleagues at Notre Dame and also from Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer and Saturday night brought members from all three institutions together as we toasted the closing night of the show in Stacks…from the outside a seemingly humble office block but inside a terrific bar and restaurant full of books with an encyclopaedic drinks menu to match.

Next week we are staying put in Valpo (giving our suitcases another week to mysteriously expand!) as we will be working at Westville Correctional Facility a few miles down the road.

Westville Correctional Facility (Westville, Indiana)

Westville Correctional Facility (Westville, Indiana)