“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #9

By Sam Hill

For the Lord heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.
Psalm 69:33

And so just like that, we entered our final week of the tour. Looking back it felt like it had been a long tour, but also a short tour. When I think back to all the places we have been: Indiana, New York State, Vermont, Texas, California and Alabama, it feels like we have been away for a long time. But then again, it some ways it feels like yesterday that we were doing our read-through in Covent Garden, London.

Florence is a pretty, affluent town in northern Alabama. Its high street leads up to the university which is a short walk from our hotel. If you turn out of our hotel and walk down the hill, you find yourself at the Tennessee River. It’s big and beautiful, people fish on the river bank and you feel like Huckleberry Finn might pass by on a raft at any given moment.

We had three shows to do here, one at the university, one for high schoolers and one at Limestone Correctional Facility: a prison about an hour and half outside of Florence. Most of us had never performed in a prison before, including me. Going into the building is an austere experience, but once you are inside (literally and figuratively) you sort of forget you are in a prison. We were shown into a room, where we would perform, which was reminiscent of a church hall. The floor had been mopped and cleaned so well we could have had our lunch on it. We set up and the audience entered.

What struck us most was the focus this audience had on the play. Every single man was paying a deep attention to the play. They had been studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream through a program run by the University of North Alabama. They were well equipped with a ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ script in hand (this edition offers a modern English version of the story alongside the original), pencils and a list of characters in the play. They were to listen, to learn and to get out of prison life for a couple of hours.

After the show we ran a Q and A, spoke to the prisoners, and signed their copies of the play, which were kept carefully and in pristine condition. We were thanked a lot and were reminded how important it was to them that we had come. It was a profound experience. I have thought about it a lot since. And will think about it a lot, probably throughout my life. Of course, I’m sure some men in that prison have done very bad things and some might even show little to no remorse; but the people we met seemed so normal. Perhaps, a fit of anger, a tragedy, a tough, tough life, forces someone to do something rash, they get caught and that’s it: prison. And then once you’ve been to prison, done your time and get released, is it easy to establish a normal life? I don’t know, but the experience made me think. The walls we put up are built on sand.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #8

By Sam Hill

As we flew into California, the plane did that scary tipping motion as it turned to have a straight path to the runway. Whilst, as a nervous flyer, I find this frankly terrifying, it did offer an excellent view of L.A. The view was rows and rows of palm trees and pools. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many palm trees and pools in my life.

The following day I was lucky as I had a 6pm class allowing me most of the day to explore L.A. I opted for a trip to the Getty Museum. The Getty is perched on a hill overlooking L.A. You can get a small tram or walk up from the car park to the museum itself. I opted for the tram. It’s more scenic and I was put off by disconcerting signs on the walking route warning of cayotes, mountain lions and rattle snakes. Yeah, the tram is good for me.

The Getty has a reasonable collection of art, but maybe not as impressive compared to the Art Institute in Chicago or the Met. But in terms of the building and setting, the Getty is a work of art in and of itself. The modern building blends the natural and the man-made with a seamless ease. A man-made waterfall cuts through the rock and into a basin at the head of the garden. Flowers are arranged into intricate arcs and circles. Cacti are nestled together looking out onto L.A in the prickly warmth.

Citrus College, where we were working, is a community college. This means that many of the students are receiving a free (or practically free) higher education. The students are bright, grounded, intelligent. They have an excellent performing arts program and we engaged with many talented and promising young actors. When we performed for them, in the round, we found a new energy to the show. Something in having to slightly adapt the blocking for the theatre and the kind energy brought by the audience made for one of our favorite shows we’ve done here.

This week was unusual as we had a full week end off. A full week end off in L.A! Saturday I took the tram into Little Tokyo to treat myself to lunch. I then pottered to a local brewery to sample some of their produce, before meeting Lucy and her boyfriend George (aka G-force) to stroll along Venice beach.

As I have found with much of America, L.A is a city of extremes. On the one hand you have Beverly Hills, the Hollywood sign, Venice Beech, Malibu: the list goes on. But on the other, you see tents set up on the side of roads where people shelter, a woman passed out on the street, the homeless riding on trams for stop after stop after stop just to have somewhere to sit and then a man inhaling a misty vapor from a pipe to get away from it all. I left questioning the city and questioning myself.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #7

By Sam Hill

Austin is the city we are all the most excited about and it did not disappoint. It is the capital city of Texas and home to the largest capitol building in the U.S. Yes, it is even bigger than the U.S Capitol in Washington, D.C; the Texans made sure of that. I was told that there are two queues to get in to the Texas Capitol: one if you want to bring your gun in and one if you don’t. But when I went, I’m not sure I saw any evidence of this, so it could be apocryphal. The Capitol building itself is very interesting. Portraits of former Governors, such as George Bush, deck the walls and the chamber has huge paintings of Alamo and San Jacinto (two key battles in Texas’ war with Mexico) hanging at the back.

Austin certainly has a huge amount to offer, but perhaps the main reason we are all excited is that three of our partners are coming to join us. Touring is a wonderful way to live, but if there is a downside it’s missing the people back home. It was an utter joy to be joined by Juliette, Sarah and George for the week. We all got on rather well. In fact, so well that we finished our trip with a drunken game of darts, which I lost… the least said about that the better.

Austin is famous for two things: food and music. My first food stop was to, not one, but two, taco places. The first was a Tex-Mex joint and the second a humble food truck. The humble food truck won hands down. We also went to Micklethwait’s BBQ. The most famous BBQ joint in Austin is Franklin’s but people get in line at 7:00 am to queue for a late lunch. We felt we simply did not have the time to commit to a five hour wait, even though part of me wanted to. It must be good, right? To queue more than 5 hours for? But then again, surely anything would taste good after queuing for 5 hours? You must be starving. Micklethwait’s had no queue and we sat outside in the marvelous Texan sun devouring brisket, sausage, slaw and ribs, absolute heaven.

A real highlight of the week was going to C-Boy’s bar to hear some live music. Austin refers to itself as the live music capital of the world. I expect Nashville would have something to say about that but, hey what do I know.

C-Boy’s is essentially exactly what you imagine a dive bar in Texas to look like. It is small, dark, a neon sign hangs outside and you open what looks like a barn door to get inside. They serve beer and whisky and there is a small stage at the back where the acts play. We saw a funk band to begin with, which we all enjoyed and then a band called Pelvis Wrestley. Firstly, what a name, and secondly, they were superb! It’s hard to pin their music to a particular genre but I would hazard a guess at Country/Alternative/ Punk. They had some absolute bangers and I would highly recommend.

Of all the weeks we’ve had, this week went by the fastest. If we weren’t teaching or doing a show, we were out and about exploring everything that Austin has to offer. It was a truly fantastic week and one I will remember for the rest of my life. I was almost sad to leave, but can anyone be sad when their next stop is California? And not just anywhere in California: LA. Yes, that’s right, we’re off to Hollywood.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #6

By Sam Hill

Vermont was stunning. As we drove up the hill to the campus, we saw the mountains rising up in front of us. The air was clear and fresh. The ground on arrival was covered in snow, but this melted as it became unseasonably warm later in the week. It used to be so cold in winter that Lake Champlain would freeze over in its entirety, but now the water stays liquid. The effects of global warming are startling. This has been a theme in every place we have been.

We were met at the airport by Lisa and Andrew. They work here in the English department and were our liaison at U.V.M. They were both extraordinarily kind and welcoming. Lisa made us dinner on our first night which was sublime. She cooked a delicious salmon with curried cauliflower and greens. Not only was Lisa an excellent cook, but it was the first home cooked meal we had had in more than a month. I have had lots of good food here in the U.S but I have to say Lisa’s dinner was my favourite.

The following night we were taken to, not one, but two breweries. Vermont has a thriving and entrepreneurial craft beer scene. In fact, the global craft beer movement really started there and you can tell. In Burlington, you don’t have to walk far to end up in a brewery. Andrew and Linda were keen for us to sample some local produce and kindly offered to be our drivers, so we could have as much beer as we wanted. Purely for taste purposes you understand… Needless to say, we accepted their generosity with little deliberation.

Vermont proved to be a beautiful week: stinging cold at times, but the students warmed us with their enthusiastic engagement with our classes. Before leaving for Austin, Texas; we met Lisa and Andrew for a final brewery trip to the Burlington Beer Company. The B.B.C (as I like to call it) is a trendy, bright, light, brewery where you can order flights of beer that are given tasting notes as if they were fine wines: ‘citrussy with notes of lemon and grapefruit.’ I have to say they were sublime and also looked perfect. You felt almost like you were drinking a beer in a cartoon, the colours were so vivid and the beer so perfectly poured.

The hazy delight of Sunday afternoon spent at the B.B.C (remember: Burlington Beer Company) was abruptly shattered by a 3:00am wake up call to catch our 6:00am flight to Austin. To add to our woes, the hotel had run out of water, so we met in the lobby un-showered, with bed hair and an extra spray of deodorant, to be courteous to our fellow passengers.

Our first flight to Philadelphia was delayed by an hour, which had the unfortunate knock-on effect of making us miss our connecting flight. We managed to get on a flight to North Carolina, then finally on to Austin, Texas.

Although it all worked out in the end, this did mean in one day we had been in Vermont, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and, finally, Texas. I have to say as a group we dealt with this incredibly testing day very well. It would have been very understandable for someone to lose their temper or snap; bearing in mind we had got up at 3:30 am, rushed to get a flight, missed it, hadn’t been able to shower in the morning, and now had 5 hours added to our journey. However, everyone was kind, patient and looked after each other. Well done team!

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #5

By Sam Hill

Off-we-go to Os-we-go, sorry, terrible joke, you can blame Lucy for that one… Oswego is a city in upstate New York. It sits on Lake Ontario, and for the most part, has been covered in pristine snow. Although it is COLD, the town is beautiful and the snow, newly laid upon the ground, makes a soft, crunching sound, providing a satisfying ASMR to every walk.

We performed two shows here and enjoyed them both. As any actor would, we balked at the idea of performing at 9:30 am to a group of high schoolers. To be clear, we were more than happy to perform to high schoolers; it was the idea of performing so early we struggled with. However, we were met by a warm group of young people in the auditorium and ended up thoroughly enjoying ourselves. That’s actors for you. We love to complain but, when we get going, always end up enjoying ourselves.

Did you know what the collective noun for a group of actors is? A whinge (just kidding).

A real highlight of the stay here was getting tickets to a local ice hockey game. There was a local championship in which an Oswego team had reached the final. Hockey is %$£$-ing brutal. Actions that would get you sent off in any other sport seem to be totally acceptable. These include smashing into each other, hitting each other with sticks, tripping each other up and shoving the other player into the side-barrier, which thankfully separates competitors and fans. I felt particularly sorry for the keeper, whose job is to wear a comical amount of padding, so much so that they look like Michelin men. They stand in front of the goal as a hard puck is fired towards their head, chest or groin. It is so physical that you can see the young players getting more heated as the game went on. With increasing frequency, players ended up in the sin bin to cool down and by the end three players had been sent off during the game. They must have been black and blue by the end of the game and need to be hosed down with deep heat. Oswego won 5 goals to 2 and at the end of the match every Oswego player threw their helmet and stick in the air and left them strewn upon the ice. So fair and foul a day I have not seen.

I am going to add a section now called ‘Wing of the Week’. Anna and I are both fans of wings and have been sampling local wing stops throughout the tour. As we have travelled, we have developed a subtle and complex rating system: ‘clucks’. The highest award is 5 Clucks; the minimum is 1 Cluck. We are yet to have a wing worth of 5 Clucks, but here are our ratings so far.

Week 1 and 2: O’Rourke’s, South Bend, Indiana. A solid, dependable buffalo wing here, but its not going to change your life. 3 Clucks
Week 3: Harry’s, West Lafayette, Indiana. A good dependable wing, but has a slight edge on
O’Rourke’s. 3.5 Clucks.
Week 4: Domino’s Buffalo Wings. Oswego, New York. A terrible wing experience. Soggy, lacking in flavour, not enough Buffalo sauce. 1 Cluck.
Week 4: Southern Fare. Oswego, New York. Good quality chicken for sure. A flavourful dry rub however, we wanted a little more. The chicken itself, although good quality, a tiny bit dry. 3.8 Clucks.

Talking of wings, we gotta fly! We travel to Syracuse airport to fly into La Guardia, New York from where we catch a connecting flight to Burlington, Vermont. Burlington is the home of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and our last cold stop of the tour. From there we go South…