“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #8

By Michael Wagg

I’m writing this in Bo Diddley Plaza, downtown Gainesville.  The great blues man spent his last thirteen years just a few miles out of town.  Later I’ll stroll to The Bash, an annual music festival in tribute to the musician Tom Petty, who was born and grew up here in Gainesville.  He worked briefly as a grounds keeper at the university where we’ve been resident all week – and where a lime tree he’s said to have planted is these days known as the Tom Petty Tree.  Coming to Florida this week, I’d expected sunshine, water and perhaps the odd alligator, but what the week has really brought, in abundance, is music.

I’ve been drenched in it, like the downpour on Wednesday night that turned the humid heat dry; and seem to have found sounds round every corner of this relatively small but very buzzy northern Florida city.  It’s been a rock ‘n’ roll week.

As I mentioned in the previous entry the driver who picked us up at Gainesville airport was a renowned reggae singer and songwriter who treated us to a beautiful private concert before we’d even set foot in town.  Moments later I started to spot, among the Halloweeners, another species – the punk rocker – as spent revellers started to stagger back to our hotel from Fest, a huge punk festival here in town which sadly we just missed.

The next evening, while the rest of my gang enjoyed karaoke elsewhere (including, I’m sure, their unforgettable rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody) I stumbled across an open mic night in a little pub called The Bull, where the quality of act was exceptional.  I particularly enjoyed a young man who stepped up to do a 10-minute drum solo; and another who played Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up with Floridian vim and vigour.  I love Rick and so do the good people of Gainesville.  

Later an older man with a banjo sang a song about falling in love with a woman who lived many, many miles away and how he was going to put ‘one foot in front of the other’ and eventually reach her.  Don’t be silly, she said, I’ll get on a plane and come to Florida!  So the lyric changed to all the things they’d do together in Gainesville: We’re gonna walk in the woods, look at the trees; pick up rocks and cones and pine feathers… from bathrooms..!

The music of Gainesville, which has a sunshine smile on its face, hasn’t let up.  Last night after our show I wandered into town for a quiet pint only to find about 200 students gathered outside in the market square for a band called The Picadillies – with banjo, cello, flute, bass ukulele, guitar and drums, they played raucous sea shanty rock as acorns pelted down from the oak trees above.  And a few days ago it was a chance meeting in the thrift store, after I’d popped in to pick up some shorts, that led me to more music, when the woman at the till, unprompted and excitedly, told me that her friend went to school with Tom Petty and that The Bash, in his honour, was a must.

There’s music in the Gainesville waters as well as ‘gators, and we hope to have added a beat or two of our own.  Supporting the music of Shakespeare’s verse, we’ve added music to our story of Macbeth. Annabelle opens the show singing and playing; while later we sing My Poor Bird in a round.  We punctuate the action with buffalo drum, recorder, tambourine, wood block, bird whistle, thunder stick, and our (and particularly Annabelle’s) pride and joy, the autoharp.  A small harp with buttons for its 21 chords, Annabelle found it after her previous AFTLS tour and liked it for its portability and as a theatre instrument she could master quickly.  There are 36 strings and they’re temperamental, leading Annabelle on an adventure to track down a re-stringer, which led her to Goshen, Indiana and a man called Bill at Second Song Music who, like Annabelle could talk about autoharps all day!  They would have done if she hadn’t needed to be back in time to sing Ae Fond Kiss at the top of our show.  The autoharp is now as well travelled as we are and comes complete with stickers from our stops.  It’s our spikey, moody, faithful old friend.  Like Tom Petty’s lime tree.

Created as a nod to Tom, back at The Bash we’re treated to a wonderful, friendly, free festival.  No fences or gates, just great bands on three stages and thousands of local people rocking up.  I enjoy the rocky Morningbell and the bluesy folk of Wax Wings, before gathering at the main stage for Larkin Poe. Their singer introduces one song by describing her recent move from Georgia to Tennessee and (as if she’d read my previous blog!) the feeling of having one foot in the past of the previous place and one in the future of the next.  The song is called Georgia off my mind.

But the best was yet to come: Enter Mavis Staples. The blues gospel singer and civil rights activist is 83 years old and, while understandably having the odd mid-set sit down, her voice and performance is astonishing; and her band just about the coolest middle-agers you could care to imagine.  A singular treat to see Mavis, she leaves the stage powerfully, mid-song, having encouraged the gathered crowd to vote in the elections this week.  I’m tired, she says.  And the crowd laugh.  But she goes on to describe the things she’s tired of in the society she sees around her and so the reasons to vote.  A wise and powerful woman, long after Mavis has left the stage her crowd are still singing the refrain she started: we’ve got work to do.

Meanwhile back on campus I have a quick look for the Tom Petty Tree but fail to find it, like many before me.  Google maps had told me there’s also a Tom Petty Road in Tennessee and Tom Petty Plumbing and Heating in Ilkley, Yorkshire.  Whether they exist or not I don’t know, as like much of the music here, delivered with a wink and a sideways glance, it may all be part of the funky folklore.  In a interview not long before he died Tom said he had no recollection of ever planting a tree on the University of Florida campus.  Still, it makes for a good story, or a song.  Something like The Lime Tree That Tom Petty Never Planted (Grows Old in Gainesville).  

I’d try to write it myself if I had the time, but we’re moving on now to another tune: Georgia on my mind.

Here’s the Macbeth Fall ’22 playlist so far:

Pineapple Kryptonite – Atarashii Gakko

California – Phantom Planet 

Do you Know the Way to San José – Dionne Warwick

Somewhere Over The Rainbow – Israel

San Francisco – Scott McKenzie

Sweet Home Chicago – Robert Johnson

Johnny Too Bad – The Slickers

No Time For Crying – Mavis Staples 

Georgia On My Mind – Ray Charles

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #7

By Michael Wagg

‘twere well it were done .. slowly

We managed to prise ourselves away from the velvet ocean and pineapple cocktails of Hawaii’s big island, and drag ourselves onto a plane at Kailua-Kona airport. A remarkable place, the terminal ‘building’ has a roof, of sorts, but no walls to speak of. Very much in the open air, the airport is like much of the island, where inside meets outside freely. I was taken with the fact that our hotels, for example, had no front door. Once on board, off we zoomed to our next stop, San José. Luckily our pilot did know the way.

One moment lolloping on a tropical island, the next checking into a hotel in one of California’s silicon cities, in the shadow of Zoom headquarters (San José is its birthplace) this week I’ve been thinking a lot about pace. The pace of things: travel; change; life. Pace is part of the gig and journeying so often as we do, along with the particular rhythm of our schedule, there’s a strong sense of being here, there and, bloody everywhere.

We travel once a week, usually flying, and one of the tasks once we get to a new place is to try to really be there. It’s easier said than done, as the adventures come thick and fast, and often I feel part of my head is stuck in the previous place, still digesting and reflecting; still trying to catch up with myself. Time zones don’t help! Added to which, in any given week there’ll be meetings and planning to do for the following week (we have an education Zoom with next week’s faculty staff) and we’ll also be looking forward to what’s on offer there. So there are three different places vying for space in our Hariboed brains. I must confess it’s often pretty muddled in there, never mind the gummy bears, and rather than ‘here, there and everywhere, it can feel much more like literally a minute ago! Now!! And, blimey that’s tomorrow!!! – and tomorrow, and tomorrow…

The pace and shape of the tour can mean it all becomes a bit of a wondrous blur. And perhaps it’ll only be when we stop, after our London shows, that we’ll really be able to catch our breath. (Book your tickets now for London, by the way – they’re selling fast!) So I’ve tried to slow things down for myself whenever I can. Swimming works. So far I’ve managed to swim every day, bar one, since we left London. My one failure was the day of our 14 hour journey to paradise so I can be excused. When I say swimming though, I really mean splashing about merrily, so that has helped to slow the pace of things.

In terms of the travel, it all comes back to being here. And that’s the task on stage too. We try to be present. Just as on the journey there’s a pull to look back and a push to look forward, sometimes sitting at the back of the stage I have to consciously remind myself not to dwell on what’s just happened (even if it was a shambles!) nor worry about what’s to come (even when the little devil pops in to suggest you’ve forgotten the words!) We try to be here, now. Which is also easier said than done; but no-one said it was easy!

We often chat about the pace of the show too, and its running time is a gauge of that, but can deceive us. As with all theatre, there’s a running time that feels like the right duration for our particular telling of the story, but pace is a different thing and we try to welcome elasticity; wriggle room. Within the (exactly) two hours traffic of our stage (1hr 15, re-set, have a vape, 45 mins) we try to allow room for moments to expand or tighten, in response to each given space, audience or atmosphere. We’re looking for urgency without rushing, drive with pause for breath, moments to find their own pace. Time for such a word.

And the pace of (real) life here, where so much is dominated by the motor car, can often feel hectic. I’m not a fan of cars (in fact in more bellicose moments I declare they should be made illegal immediately) so I’ve walked wherever and whenever possible. To take things in at a walking pace – strolling, wandering, meandering, bummeling – has felt important; though those that know me will also know that my own walking pace is..well.. pacey. I love slow travel, but I like to stretch my legs!

This week I’ve enjoyed cycling around San José too, and along the Guadalupe River. And on day one here I slowed down long enough to spot the earthquake shake the bathroom door (5.1 magnitude, the largest quake here for nearly a decade, a news report said it “rattled nerves” only). Then by the end of the week we were jumping the trams in San Francisco. Trams are, officially, the coolest way to travel. Particularly with flowers in your hair.

The pace of change then, on a simple level, is the challenge. Just as we’re starting to settle in to one place – which mainly means knowing where the best breweries are – we up sticks and head to a new hotel in a new city in a new state. Only yesterday we flew 2,500 miles over ten states – from the Golden State to the Sunshine State, via the Peach State (Georgia). As we waited for our bags at the carousel (which goes at a lovely pace, and I’m sure is some sort of image of the inside of our heads) Anne noted that yesterday she was on the island of Alcatraz, and tomorrow she’ll be in a Florida swamp.

To add to the whirlwind, the taxi driver that took us, leisurely, to the hotel turned out to be a significant reggae star: a marvellous man who knew Bob Marley personally and whose songs have been covered by numerous bands, including UB40 (unfortunately!) To our delight he sang for us, beautifully, as we wended our way through the humid streets. And if that wasn’t enough to blow my jellied brain, moments after we arrived I met a Floridian couple who used to live in Sutton Coldfield!

I need a lie down, and this week I’ll mainly be floating in the rooftop pool and walking with alligators. Slowly.

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #6

By Michael Wagg

Sitting beside Ka’eo, staring westwards into the Pacific, I’m sure I haven’t the words to describe the week. Here on Hawai’i’s big island it’s felt like quite the trip of a lifetime, and I know we all feel very fortunate to have been given the experience. It’ll take time to reflect and, frankly, I’ll soon be ready for another splash in the ocean, so for this week’s blog I’ll take a leaf out of Ka’eo’s book, sit still and listen.

To try to give you a sense of the week just gone (we have done some work, honest!) this week’s dispatch is a five-person Hawai’i highlights show: our own Hawaii Five-Oh! Here we go …

Annabelle: Swimming with a turtle! I’d never seen a sea turtle before and I got to feed it, too. A local person told me it was a blessing that it was there – a blessing on our tour.

Roger: Swimming with a puffer fish! It took me completely by surprise.

Anne: Pineapple cocktails! They didn’t disappoint. We went to a restaurant called Pineapples and drank pineapple flavoured cocktails served in pineapples! It was ‘Hawai’i in a drink.’

Claire: At the workshop at Waiakea High School in Hilo, a boy who at the start was really struggling with the exercise suddenly started to flourish, and found his voice. He turned out to be one of the best ‘weird sisters’ I’ve ever seen.

Waggy: It was a pleasure meeting English professor Mark Panek and working with his class on a difficult scene. Afterwards Mark gave me a copy of his book about a Hawai’ian sumo wrestler. (I was glad to return the favour by giving him a book about East German Football!)

Anne: At the end of the first performance this week, at the university in Hilo, we were each given a lei (a flower garland traditional in Hawai’i). I wasn’t expecting it; such a kind gesture. We wore our leis with pride and thanks.

Roger: The first, sunset swim in the velvety ocean, here in the shadow of Mauna Kea [the tallest mountain in the world from its underwater base, we’re told].

Claire: Snorkelling! Here at Kauna’oa Bay. I’ve never done it before and rarely put my head under water, but I had a go and it was brilliant. I was alone with the ocean.

Annabelle: Meeting Sam and Kristin at the Kahilu Theatre – a really lovely theatre – and doing the world’s smoothest tech rehearsal!

Anne: And they gave us Twinings tea and cheese & biscuits, to make us feel at home!

Waggy: The grey cat we met on our first night on the island. I couldn’t get over the fact that you could live a cat’s life and live on Hawai’i!

Anne: I loved the Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hilo. The colours, the smells, the shapes – it was like being in Jurassic Park! Very humid too: the island has lots of different climates and we’ve been lucky enough to experience them.

Annabelle: The shaved ice was delicious. It came with flavoured syrups and coconut condensed milk. We’d just finished quite an intense workshop, with just four students who became our four weird sisters, so it was the perfect refreshing treat after work.

Roger: The precious opportunity to watch, up close, the balletic feeding of the manta rays.

Claire: The performance for the whole school in the gymnasium at Kohala High School was a really special one. I noticed a girl in the front row, with a flower in her hair, who was transfixed for the whole show. We’ve been told that for many of the students that will have been their first experience of live theatre. Hopefully she’s hooked.

Waggy: Morning coffee with Ka’eo.* Watching hula dance, then diving into the ocean as the sun goes down …

talking of which …

With Aloha, and Mahalo.

* Ka’eo is a 47-year-old red, yellow and blue macaw, soon to retire, and I’m sure the wisest voice around.

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #5

By Michael Wagg

Small is beautiful

We’ve said so long to our brilliant colleagues at Notre Dame. To the wunderkind Scott Jackson, Executive Director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, who has guided us, and many other groups before us, with commitment and boundless enthusiasm, and who also does remarkable work with the Shakespeare in Prisons Network. To Professor Peter Holland, Chair in Shakespeare Studies, whose warmth, insight and encouragement is so very welcome. To Debs and Jason who do just about everything possible to support our tour. And this time to Cate too, who stage managed superbly during our rehearsal and performance weeks. If Will Shakespeare himself were putting together a new company, he’d do well to get this five on board from the off, and pay them a packet of ducats. I’m borrowing from a five-a-side football team I once played for, but this ND team are Shakespearoes!

After saying our cheerios we didn’t travel too far from base, just a relatively short drive south to Greencastle, near Indianapolis. Capital of Putnam County, it’s a city with a small town feel, and lovely it is too. It’s been a pleasure to be able to stroll from hotel to campus to town without having to jump into a comically large pickup truck or cross a four lane carriageway on perilous foot. In fact here in friendly Greencastle our hotel is right on campus, while the campus butts right up against Downtown. More often during our residencies there’s driving distance between the three and lots, and lots, of busy roads. So after plenty of big stuff on the tour so far – big cities, big lakes, big stadiums, big crisps – it’s been a refreshing change to enjoy the simple pleasures of a small town, albeit one with an excellent liberal arts college at its heart.

We’ve got some rare (big) travels ahead of us, so the small pleasures of this week were welcome. As was the warm welcome we’ve received from staff and students alike at DePauw University, home of the Tigers! A special thank you to the inspiring professors Ron Dye, who teaches courses on playwrighting and songwriting and organises the AFTLS residency every two years; and to Andrea Sununu who first invited the company here 30 odd years ago. Professor Sununu’s surprisingly sprightly trot to demonstrate iambic pentameter is unforgettable!

The Wednesday evening show at the Green Center for the Performing Arts was our only show this week, so it served as a good reminder to focus back on it and to try to make every moment count. I realise I haven’t said much so far about how the shows themselves have gone, or the audience reaction to them, and thinking about that now (and without wanting to sound like a total twerp!) I’m finding that the intensity of this style of work (particularly the fact that we’re all on stage throughout) perhaps coupled with the forward thrust of this particular story, has meant that by the time we get to the end of it, I’ve often been so carried along in its momentum that I haven’t much of use left to say!

I don’t mean I haven’t kept the outside eye that’s necessary to keep safe and on track, particularly when we’re fighting, but I mean I’m genuinely swept along by the story each time we tell it (which is testament to my four mates on stage). And by the time we get to the other end, how well it’s gone doesn’t seem so relevant. It’s just gone. I don’t mean this flippantly; but taking the thinking out of it, being there, experiencing it with the audience, has often hit me, and is a rare and good feeling.

There have been plenty of other rare, simple pleasures this week: various strolls in the DePauw Nature Park, spotting turkey vultures, small snakes and all; an excellent collage exhibition called ‘The Many Hats of Ralph Arnold’; limitless lunch buffets in the Hoover dining hall (fill your boots lads, like turkey vultures!); lots of swimming, naturally; and live jazz at the Fluttering Duck pub to finish Claire’s tour birthday (we’ve decided those who don’t have a real birthday will get one anyway) – complete with a brilliant, impromptu guest spot from Anne Odeke, singing the weird sisters’ words to an improvised double bass accompaniment like she’s been here forever!

Because of the relative small scale of this place, over the course of the week it’s felt like quite a few locals have come to know who we are and what we’re up to here – a feeling of creating a bit of a buzz around town. Each time I nipped into Moore’s Bar for a swift one (which was fairly often) the women behind the bar asked when the others were coming back. (It seems Claire, Anne and Annabelle made quite an impression on their first visit!). Woody in the same bar would shake my hand and chuckle at my name, repeatedly. Jacks at the Duck treated us kindly. And on my last trip to a well-known coffee shop chain, my muffin arrived in a bag on which was scribbled ‘Break a leg, Michael.’ We’re heading to a very exciting stop next, but still it was hard to drag ourselves away from here, and the lovely, friendly ease of it all.

Still, just as I was telling the others about the thoughtful little message on the coffee shop bag, and lest the town be painted too perfect, we were brought soundly back down to earth as we loaded up the cars for Indianapolis airport. One of us noticed that someone had left us quite a different message, scrawled in the dust on the back of the pickup truck. I won’t spell it out but the two words started with an F and ended with an f. Fair do’s I thought, though I’m sure it was said in jest! Nonetheless, I think it’s time for us to fly away. You can have too much of a good thing. Book ’em, Danno, and take me to Hawai’i!

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #4

By Michael Wagg

This castle hath a pleasant seat

The lights came back on and we made it to South Bend, Indiana. To the University of Notre Dame, which does indeed have a very pleasant seat.

Among its many impressive features, a Golden Dome, a mural known as Touchdown Jesus, a square nicknamed the God Quad, two lakes, two golf courses, numerous theatres, an excellent art gallery, and top notch sports facilities galore, including a football stadium for 77,000 fit to host Athenian Olympics. Its pristine, green and vast campus is part immersive Hogwarts experience, part Irish saga (its many successful sports teams are known as the Fighting Irish) and its catholic basis strong and present: Mass is read 150 times each week and if a crucifix is missing from a classroom there’s a hotline you can call. All in all it’s a pretty special place.

We opened our show on Wednesday night at the 500-seat theatre in Washington Hall which comes complete with a bat in the rafters – at the time of writing sadly yet to make an appearance in this most battish of plays. The little fella might prefer the dark of last week’s power cut, but now the light’s returned, as promised I’ll get back to where I left off and try to give you some context for this weird and wonderful job: starting with the performance style of these AFTLS productions, originally developed by a group of adventurous young actors including Patrick Stewart, and now in their fifth decade.

I was able to keep an eye out for the bat, as one of the features of the productions is that all five of us are on stage throughout, sitting at the back or to the side when not directly involved in the scene. Most of the cast play half a dozen characters or more, each one signified by a single, simple costume piece or accessory, and the changes of these happen in full view of the audience. Nothing is hidden away. Sound is acoustic, from the stage; lighting changes very minimal; clear storytelling the aim of the game. At the start of the show we do an introductory line-up to share with the audience which characters we’ll be playing (and to remind ourselves of the same!) At the heart of it all, front and centre, is the text: Shakespeare’s words.

Our weekly workload is fairly evenly split between the show itself and the workshops we deliver in the classrooms. The previous week we’ll have been given a list of requests for class visits, divvied them up among us (which so far often involves Roger gallantly accepting the class on Richard II!) and met with each professor on Zoom to agree the type of workshop we’ll devise. Requests can vary hugely and often have us racking our brains or those of others (thanks Paul O’Mahony!) We might be asked to explore the architecture of Shakespeare’s theatre, improvisation around Ovid’s Metamorphoses, public speaking or (Roger!) economic leadership and Richard II.

The students we’re working with, while often majoring in English Literature or Drama, could just as easily be Physics majors, Business students or, this week, trainee Priests; and one of the things I’m enjoying most is this colliding of worlds. After a warm-up game this week, which involves simply repeating the words ‘diddly dum’ over and over, I asked one student what he was studying. Neuroscience, he said.

The students may or may not have seen our show, and they may or may not have ever been to the theatre before, and I’m sure in some cases we, and our work, must appear quite strange to them – not like the inhabitants o’ the earth, and yet are on’t. But I hope our visits are at least a refreshing change. We’re not going into the classes as teachers, nor or academics, but as actors, trying to share some of our experience of Shakespeare and theatre-making. At its best, I think, we’re exploring where the stuff of the rehearsal room might intersect with and inform other disciplines. And more often than not our starting point is the text of Macbeth.

I must confess, and in the spirit of collision, I’m desperate for the day one of my student ‘weird sisters’ turns out to be a star of the college football team! I was hoping this might be the case on Friday when Anne and I ran a session of Shakespeare Club in the ornate ballroom of the Duncan Center. The view from the room was direct into the stadium below, where 77,000 Fighting Irish fans cheer on their young heroes in helmets weekly.

Sport is massive here at Notre Dame, in more ways than one, and its football (American) players superstars in the making, if not already. I’m told their helmets are painted with gold leaf. It’s been a treat to have a glimpse at the mind-boggling range and quality of facilities available on campus. Even before our impromptu viewing of the stadium on Friday we’d been treated to the chance to sit on the field itself, at a play reading and forum discussion on the war in Ukraine.

And just this morning, as I walked to the Alumni Stadium to watch the women’s soccer team beat Florida State (4-0) in a lively match with a crowd of around 300, I passed a second football stadium (for practise), a baseball diamond, a lacrosse stadium, an aquatics centre, and an ice rink. Each of these arenas make Selhurst Park look like a Meccano set. (Which it pretty much is, but nevermind). Sport is all here; no wonder Jesus gets a touchdown

So surrounded by it as we are, it was apt to end our week with those that make all this happen – the Shakespeare that is, not the sport – as we gathered round the TV to watch Notre Dame take on BYU in Las Vegas (football, American). I’ll introduce you to the rest of the Shakespeare at ND team another time, but for now thanks to the kind invitation from our general manager, the wonder woman that is Debs Gasper, and her husband, we find ourselves gathered together among friends and family, and the dogs – at home. A reminder that it’s the people we work with here who really make this place special, not the gold leaf and golden domes.