“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #1

By Michael Wagg

The only way I can make sense of this whirlwind of a week is to describe it backwards. We’ve arrived in Chicago, at a huge hotel in the thick of the city. Before checking in we stood on the DuSable Bridge, waving back to a wave of Mexican flags, accompanied by an orchestra of honking horns. It’s Mexican Independence Day and the joy is infectious. The horns show no sign of letting up as I head up to my room; the air sings with freedom. On a personal level, we’ve a free weekend ahead of us in this remarkable city, so perhaps we’re attuned to the mood. But the real sharpness of the taste comes from the day’s work just gone.

This morning we previewed our show at the Westville Correctional Facility, Indiana. Around 100 male prisoners gathered in the echoey auditorium to watch our performance of Macbeth. The focus of their listening and the warmth of their welcome was bolstering and humbling. Under shared light and in this shared space we began our bloody story. I’m sure none of the five of us on the concrete stage will ever forget the experience.

This play explores responsibility, fate, searing ambition, ruthless violence, loss and madness, and to play it in such a place, and with such a supportive audience was a profound privilege. This job, in all its various hats, has felt like a rare privilege from the off, but this first stab at it may remain the deepest. Lines rang true in ways that we always strive towards, but in this context were far harder edged. I’m sure we can’t really know the truth of it – but, for example, as our Macbeth cried ‘full of scorpions is my mind’ we noted one man nod in gentle agreement, as if Shakespeare’s words were describing something he felt all too acutely. And as we left the prison another man approached two of us and said quietly ‘thank you for the two hours freedom – the freedom here’ and gently tapped his head.

For most of this week we’ve been in a very different place, on the smartly manicured campus of the University of Notre Dame for our final rehearsal week, where chipmunks have cheered us on and the brilliant-red cardinal bird has showed us the way.

Steeped in the bloody business of Macbeth, for a good part of the week we’ve been trying to sort out the banquet scene. It’s a conundrum, and I’ve come to think of it as the AFTLS experience in a nutshell: There are six chairs. There are five actors. One of the actors never sits down. The other four actors are playing six characters, which means that while there are two empty chairs, in the world of the play those chairs aren’t empty at all, their occupiers kept alive by the deftest of turns. But in this case, one of the two is a vision, seen by the character standing but not by the five sitting. So one empty chair is not empty, while the other one is empty to some and not to others. I won’t blame you if you’re not following this – we too have often lost the thread – but add Banquo’s ghost to the mix and this is AFTLS… WRIT LARGE.

I might come back to the multi-rolling aspect of the work (otherwise known as ‘Annabelle Terry talks to herself’) in another blog, as in the coming weeks I hope to explore some of the particular aspects of this wonderfully peculiar and many-faceted job. One week I might look at the work we do with students; another week how our show is self-directed. I might explore the world of pretzel bites, or the opening hours of Taco Bell, or how to move a wood from one country to another… or beer… that’s very likely, Annabelle has already snapped me staring lovingly at a mash tun at the Crooked Ewe Brewery. So if you have suggestions for things you’d like covering, or you’d just like to stop me banging on about beer, then let me know (at the links below, or my twitter @michaelwagg). I will also introduce you to our cast and fantastic colleagues at Shakespeare at Notre Dame, but in the spirit of going backwards, I’ll leave that for later.

I hope there’ll be plenty of giggles along the way, and the truth is we’ve spent most of this first week with impossibly broad smiles on our faces, but as my head hits the pillow I think again of freedom and privilege. We are grateful to be taking this great play across America. The poetic worlds it opens up and the real world of travel across time zones is liberating. At the end of the play I, as Macduff announce ‘the time is free.’ It certainly feels like that as the honking horns continue to shout out over Lake Michigan. But our day’s work has shown us something else. Something stark and complex. That ‘two truths are told’ certainly – and many more.

“Much Ado About Nothing” Spring 2022 Tour: Entry #9

By Annabelle Terry
Sunday 20th February 2022

‘Contempt, farewell! And maiden pride, adieu!’ – Beatrice 3.1

Indiana round two.

This week the AFTLS tour was back in Indiana but this time by Winona Lake at Grace College. As soon as we arrived at our hotel (having been driven there in a limo, I should add!) we were taken to look around campus including the Little Theatre where we were due to perform later in the week. Though it be but little, it is fierce – a lovely intimate venue with about 100 seats for the audience – perfect for our show and Shakespeare shows in general, I think.

We spent the week delivering various workshops with the students at Grace and enjoying the views around the Lake which, yes, was frozen! It seems to cold weather was following us again as we were due for another ice storm by the time opening night came around on Thursday. The snow came thick and fast but, thanks to the resilience of the English department, the show went on!

We played to sold out audiences all three nights we played and it was great to see the students we had met that week in the crowd – it was particularly rewarding for me to have the ‘Back in Five’ college improv troop watching, as I had led (and participated in) an improvisation workshop with them earlier that week. Between the 5 of them they had a great positive energy and playfulness which was infectious. It struck me how much AFTLS’ style of performance would appeal to those that also enjoy watching improv – yes, we have scripts that we follow, but we remain on stage throughout changing ‘hats’, as it were, at the drop of a hat to become the different characters; the same occurs in an improv show a lot of the time. With this being said, it came naturally to Back in Five when I handed them the Dogberry/Sexton scene in Much Ado and asked them to have a go at staging it themselves and play all 8 characters in the scene between them. They were naturals! And hopefully now more confident to have fun with Shakespearean texts.

It was great to have 3 consecutive shows this week. It meant we were able to find new moments within the show and now have the nerves throughout which often come when only doing one performance. The response was, again, wonderful. One student came and thanked us after one night saying “college kids are starved of romance!” and how they had enjoyed seeing this story of comedy, tragedy and love mixed into one. Others were surprised at how much they managed to follow and enjoy it, having never watched one of Shakespeare’s plays. I do think Much Ado is a special show and a crowd pleaser to perform – it has all the punchlines, quick wit and farcical possibilities followed by the most gut wrenching drama and emotional language. It remains one of my favourites and even more so after this tour.

Tomorrow we will be down south in Alabama and I’m looking forward to some slightly warmer weather and to visit UNA.

“Much Ado About Nothing” Spring 2022 Tour: Entry #8

By Annabelle Terry
Sunday 13th February 2022

‘Be vigilant, I beseech you’ – Dogberry 3.3

Let’s go, Falcons!

This week we were in residency at the prestigious USA Air Force Academy in Colorado. I’d heard many times before about Colorado’s beautiful landscape but there really is nothing like seeing it yourself. Snow topped mountains and ancient red rock are the beautiful backdrop of this state and one which, I imagine, never gets old for its residents.

Getting to be on base at the Air Force Academy was an experience I will never forget. When the cadets weren’t flying or jumping out of planes they were in workshops with us for the week! I was intrigued to see how they would take to learning and trying their hand at some Shakespeare and, unsurprisingly, they encountered the task with vigor and respect. It was a delight to see my workshop full of future military members and leaders performing the storm scene from The Tempest – zooming across the room in wheelie chairs as boats and banging on the walls to create thunder.

We were treated to a tour of the campus by 3 brilliant cadets and given a real insight into the rigorous training they undertake during their four years at base. There was a palpable sense of comradery and belonging, albeit intense, and us actors came away feeling very lucky to have the opportunity to be a part of it for a moment in time.

The theatre space we performed in on Thursday was HUGE. A five thousand seat venue with a massive stage, usually used for presentations and award ceremonies. Safe to say we felt a little daunted when putting our minimal props and set out, but after a tech rehearsal we quickly adjusted – after all, that’s the nature of touring; each venue is different from the last and you attune your performance accordingly to suit. And what a blast it was! Despite sitting in this massive venue, our audience still felt right there with us, listening to our show and responding generously. This really hit home for me that Shakespeare’s works are and should be for everyone, not just the choice few who can interpret it on a scholastic level. Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed in pubs, taverns and alehouses for everyone to hear and enjoy, and it’s only in our lifetime that it can often be made exclusive and reverential. I really enjoyed breaking down these barriers with the students in the workshops, topped off by the ultimately relatable Much Ado, I think was a great move. The faculty at USAFA were brilliant too and eager to learn how they can continue to get the cadets learning in a more active way in the classroom, which was really refreshing to hear.

A highlight of the week was watching the college ice hockey game on Friday night – it was brutal and passionate, but I was more impressed by the college’s brass band who played throughout the game. It was a great atmosphere. At the weekend there was so much to pack in and see. On Saturday we took the train up Pike’s Peak and stood at the summit taking in the unbelievable views, and on Sunday we went to the aptly named Garden of the Gods to look at the billion year old red rocks. It was truly unforgettable.

We are headed back to Indiana next for our next residency at Grace College by Winona Lake. We’re all very excited to be back in the state we started the tour and to see some familiar faces…

“Much Ado About Nothing” Spring 2022 Tour: Entry #7

By Annabelle Terry

Sunday 6th Feb 2022

“When you depart from me sorrow abides and happiness takes his leave.” – Don Pedro 1.1

Pennsylvania, it’s been a blast.

This week we were in residency at Bloomsburg University – a university which had not previously been visited by AFTLS in the history of their tours, and who welcomed us so warmly. The campus felt exciting and full of great students and facilities.

Of course, there was lots of snow around which didn’t let up – in fact it got worse, and by the end of the week there were severe weather warnings and an ice storm due to hit. I have never seen ice like it! Our cars were covered in what looked like an outer shell of glass which we had to crack off each morning. It was definitely thermal wearing weather and, despite worries that the show might not go ahead because of it, the team at Carver Hall were resilient and brilliant and we played on Friday as scheduled.

I was both excited and intrigued to see how the a totally new audience would take to the AFTLS style of multi-roling and the stripped back nature of the shows. The wonderful students we met over the week’s workshops sounded just as intrigued, particularly those due to perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” themselves in the next couple of months. Tom and I got to have a zoom Q&A with most of them and they were so generous with their questions and attentive with our answers.

I’m pleased to say that the show went down a storm (not of the ice variety thankfully). As soon as we heard the audience respond to the first few lines we settled into the show – having not done it for a week can always be a bit daunting, but thanks to the intense nature of our rehearsals it’s firmly in our muscle memory now.

The next morning we got to host workshops for the local community. Will and I met some of the local ‘River Poets’ in the morning as well as the founding members of the Bloomsburg ensemble and owner of the Alvina Krause Theatre in town, Laurie. She was kind enough to secure us tickets for that evenings performance of The Mountaintop. We were lucky enough to go onto stage after the show to see the set up close and meet the very talented two cast members in the production. It was a treat to get to be audience members for the night – it was clear that this small town values its local theatre immensely and the buzz about the place was great to see.

Then on Sunday a few of us decided that New York was just too close to pass up a quick day trip to. I was designated driver and we set off early to maximise the time we had in the city. The drive was beautiful – past the Pocono mountains and through states including New Jersey before finally getting into the Big Apple. I had never been to New York and, boy oh boy, it did not disappoint. Luckily we were joined by a friend of Katherine’s who took us on a whistle-stop tour of the best sights in the city. 5th Avenue, Central Park, the 9/11 memorial, St Nicholas’ church, the Empire State Building, the Flat Iron Building, the Brooklyn Bridge to name just a few, and some great food spots. Although we only had a day, we packed it all in and were left feeling so lucky that we got to experience this iconic place together.

Now, onwards to Colorado! I’m currently on the flight from DC to Denver and can’t wait to land and see this amazing state and its natural beauty. We will be in residence at the prestigious Air Force Academy which, no doubt, will be an amazing opportunity to be a part of.

“Much Ado About Nothing” Spring 2022 Tour: Entry #6

By Annabelle Terry

Sunday 30th January 2022

“I know we shall have reveling tonight” – Don Pedro 1.1

We have officially opened the show!

Our opening three performances at Notre Dame were electric. For all the stress, challenges and adversity that stood in our way, it was all worth it as soon as we stepped out onto that stage. To see an audience in real life again after 2 years was emotional to say the least, and they were so generous.

But before I get carried away with telling you about the performances, here’s a little about the show week prep. On Monday we moved down into Washington Hall and onto the main stage. It’s a gorgeous space with a big capacity and we spent the day adjusting vocally and physically to the space and setting up the stage with our props. For those that have never seen an AFTLS show before, you have one large suitcase to fit the whole show into; that means costumes, props, any set pieces and scripts etc. This might seem impossible, but it’s all about being savvy. For example, walking sticks that can collapse right down, boxes that can flat pack, bunting and washing lines that can coil away – with these few items alone you can change a space or a character completely. Our biggest prop is probably the ukulele I play as Balthasar – it’s bubble wrapped within an inch of its life and so far has been all good on its travels.

We spent the last few days before opening night (Wednesday) refining the show and tech-ing. All sound is made by the actors on stage so the only thing to tech is lights. Again, the simplest lighting really compliments the stripped back nature of working in this way, and so we really only have two lighting states: light and bright for Leonato’s residence and the party, and dark and moody for Don John and the villains. We also run a singing call each day to keep the music in the show in good form. Apart from a few songs on the ukulele, the rest is totally sung acapella and by this point, we are really in sync with one another. It’s really challenging singing with no accompaniment or start note, but it’s in our muscle memories now and we know the songs well enough to hear if they are a little off etc.

And then Wednesday comes around. We are all nervous and excited, still in slight shock we have made it, and above all else: we are ready. There always comes a point in rehearsal where either the cast or creatives say ‘I’m ready for an audience’ or ‘you guys just need the audience to see it now’ and they’re right – the audience is the final part of the puzzle when performing theatre. Having an audience is what makes live theatre – having their attention and time to listen to the story we are telling. And, as I mentioned earlier, it was amazing. Bearing in mind we hadn’t shown the show to anyone except once through to Scott, to hear them laughing and equally silent when they were listening was incredible.

Did things go wrong? Yes. Were they major? No. Did we have fun? Absolutely. All of the hard work, emotion, surprises and playfulness that we had stored up over the past 5 weeks was finally released to the world. We really felt that the audience were as happy to be back in a theatre watching a live performance as we were to be performing it. So much so that they leapt to their feet at the end. I will never forget that moment.

Thursday became slicker and by Friday it felt like we were really in the driver’s seat. There were many moments where I was watching the other 4 on stage and feeling overwhelmingly proud of them and to be part of this company.

This weekend we have been in Chicago before we fly to Pennsylvania on Monday to head to Bloomsburg University. Chicago is wonderful and, yes, I did get to try pizza pie which I’m sure my Italian family will either applaud or boo at when I tell them…