Another week, another state! As our flight touched down in Cleveland, top points must go to Grace Andrews who was the first to successful announce…
“We’re not in Kansas anymore!”
We were met in the airport by our lovely contact Keith, who would also look after us at the theatre for the week, before travelling all the way across the city west-east to the John Carroll Campus.
A welcome feast awaited our weary, well- travelled souls, heads still sore from the Super Bowl win the night before. The faculty of JCU gave us an incredibly warm welcome and with a full schedule of classes planned for the week, we headed back to the hotel to get some rest, stomachs full.
This seems like a good a time as any to say a few words about our teaching. Alongside the production of Romeo and Juliet, each week we partner up with professors at our host university and lead workshops with their students. These classes can vary greatly, and is one of the great adventures of this tour – sometimes you’re working with 5 English Literature students and then the next day with 80 Psychology majors. Some people have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Shakespeare, and for some they are meeting it for the first time in your class. In each case, our focus is bringing Shakespeare’s words to life from an actor’s perspective. In what ways can looking at a Romeo monologue help Business students with their public speaking? How can The Iliad be staged and performed? What does Shakespeare’a poetry tell us about the history of the theatre?
In every case, it’s very exciting to meet a new bunch of students and get them up on their feet and learning in a different way. It also helps provide clarity and insight into the Romeo and Juliet text for us as well – affecting and altering performances across the tour as we get to know these characters more and more.
After three performances and 26 classes in Cleveland, we had a well-earned cocktail or two with our hosts, before planning our day off in Ohio.
The group decided to split – Team A (Kaffe and Tom) explored the Art Museum in town before visiting the world famous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whilst Team B (me, Hillary and Grace) took a trip out of town to visit Lake Eerie.
As I write these words, we’re now flying towards Huntsville Alabama, where our penultimate residency awaits – The University of Northern Alabama!
“Kansas, it’s not that bad”. I’m reading an iron-on patch that I’ve found in a store in Aggieville (the shopping and bar area of Manhattan, Kansas), I laugh out loud, catching the attention of the otherwise distracted owner. I have to buy it. The words perfectly encapsulate the self-deprecating humour of the inhabitants of this town.
“The weather’s nice today”
“It’s not that bad”
“This building is beautiful”
“It’s not that bad”
You get the picture. Kansans are never knowingly ones to brag. Manhattan (affectionately known as the Little Apple) is a compact town flanked by an army base and our host Kansas State University. People are happy here. Not just those we meet, but statistically too. Manhattan has a lower cost of living and higher quality of life than the average US town, and has sparked a brand of well-publicised t-shirts sporting the word MANHAPPINESS.
The other thing you’ll see all over town is a deep purple logo of a cat’s face – on cars, buildings, lampposts, t-shirts, shoes and cutlery (!). KYU’s purple sports team, known as The Wildcats, is hard to miss and whilst none of us are particularly impassioned sports fans, we are very excited to head to see the Wildcats play basketball. After an initial kerfuffle with the tickets, we enter the court (arena? Pitch? Please help me with the terminology!). It’s gladiatorial. A large section of student fans, all on their feet, are chanting “K…..Y…..U!”. Families with kids, couples on dates, alumni from the university, it seems like all of Manhattan is here. Deathly silence falls as the national anthem is sung, then KYU’s band strikes up a song. Without missing a beat, the whole student section begins to dance. A kind of animatronic, puppet shuffle. Forward, back, forward back. Like they’d just pulled their back, or were repeatedly reaching to tie their shoes. It’s thrilling. We join in. The game begins and it’s overwhelmingly entertaining. End to end play, then every time there is a break, a time out, or a change of players, something exciting happens – a quiz, an interview, cheerleaders show us their moves. We’re hooked, and find ourselves turning up on the ‘dance cam’ at one point!
But that’s not the only sport we’ve encountered this week. The Super Bowl, taking place on Sunday, becomes a focus of our week – where should we watch the game? How do the rules work? What time should we try and get a table? It’s a particularly exciting year because the Kansas City Chiefs are playing. So we’re in the second best state to be able to watch them win. Now, bear with me as I explain this confusion. Kansas state is different from Kansas City which is, in fact, in Missouri. But Kansas City, which is very close to Kansas State, has a lot of fans from Kansas State itself, as well as from Missouri. Which is all to say, that the atmosphere in the bar as we enter at 4pm on Sunday was electric. The Chiefs are the underdog of the game, with the Philadelphia Eagles being the favourites.
American football is an odd combination of being both incredibly slow, and deeply violent. The teams stop and start more than they play, but when they play, it’s all-out physical fighting. With less that 1 minute 30 left on the clock, the Chiefs clinch it, and the whole bar storms the street! The exuberant night is rounded off with a local delicacy – the pickleback – a shot of whiskey accompanied by a shot of pickle juice. Sounds disgusting, but I can confirm it’s actually delicious.
Aside from the sports, we performed in the beautiful McCain Auditorium, which feels like a Kansan Barbican, to one of our most enthusiastic (and largest!) crowds yet. We relished the opportunity to grow the show to almost stadium size, making the story all the more funny and all the more tragic.
And now, onwards to Ohio! Bye bye Kansas (I’ll save my Wizard of Oz joke for next time…)
We gripped tight, knuckles white, to the steering wheel of our white Dodge Charger. 6am in Utah means snow, ice, sleet, the lot. Bound for Salt Lake City Airport at the end of our residency in Provo, we were dreaming of warmer climates: Houston, Texas.
“We’ve got unprecedented cold weather here in Houston, y’all,” says smiley Christina, our contact for the week at Rice. We sigh. We were hoping for some sun.
“It’ll get better towards the end of the week.” She reassures, as we stare up at the grey. “Welcome to Houston!”
Undeterred, the tone for our week in Houston was set by Howard, who drove us from the airport to the rental car pickup. A short five minute journey, he managed to give us a snapshot of Houston itself – 4th largest city in the United States and one of the most diverse. Houston is a cultural melting pot known for its food, culture and (as we came to see first hand) large medical sector. A city that was formed after a coastal disaster moved people in-land. Then they found Oil and Gas, and the fortunes of the city changed. Now it just keeps growing and growing. COVID-19 brought a new wave of people looking for space, and Houston is now threatening to become the 3rd largest city in the country.
Howard is an ex-marine, he passed through Houston 20 years ago and never left.
“We’re actors, here performing Romeo and Juliet and working at Rice University for a week”.
“You’re actors?! No way! I don’t believe you!”. Howard laughed and smiled wide. He preceded to tell us an (almost) unbelievable tale of when his ex-girlfriend introduced him to her family. As he nervously waited in the front room for them to enter, in walks…Sidney Poitier!
“I’m honoured to meet you guys,” he says. We’re not quite Sidney, but we’re flattered.
We take his email, promising to send him details of our shows this week. Who knows, maybe he’ll come along…!
Our hotel is situated across the road from the medical centre of the city. A complex of hospitals, labs, emergency rooms, university spaces, spilling into each other, forming one of the foremost centres for cancer treatment in the United States. The edge of this medical centre backs onto the Rice University campus itself, and it’s a world of difference. Residential roads lined with leafy oaks, that bow over the cars as they cruise by. Runners with dogs, runners without dogs, dogs without runners roaming free. Almost all the students live on campus for 3 out of the 4 years, so it’s got a very strong community feel to it, as well as a kid of grandness: dusty red brick buildings with archways, emblems and names of alumni adorned on top.
Rice Village – the spillover neighbourhood built to clothe and feed the staff and students of the university – is not far away. Boutique shops, yoga studios, coffee houses and an Italian restaurant called Prego where Professor Logan Browning took us out for dinner. Logan (who tells us he sometimes goes by Falstaff to his Shakespearean colleagues) has been watching AFTLS shows for years, and it was such a delight to get to know him and his wife and friends over a bowl of pasta and a glass of red wine (or two…).
As the sun began to shine on Houston later in the week, our brilliant host Christina sadly got struck down with COVID, but not before we had our first shows and warm drinks reception at Hamman Hall. The theatre itself is a great space that, I’m told, used to be a lecture hall, and all of the crew and building staff were extremely kind and helpful – southern hospitality proving it’s infamy! Grace’s partner Ned joined us from the UK, briefly becoming the 6th member of our cast, and whilst we couldn’t find a part for him in the show, he was a diligent audience member across our Houston run.
Houston in the sun is a whole different city – our heavy winter coats stuffed away in our hotel rooms, we strolled through Montrose checking out the vintage shops, nipped into the Rothko Chapel and had ourselves a Mexican brunch at Hugo’s. The show is firmly in our hands now, and we relished the opportunity to showcase our work to Houston audiences who were generous and attentive. As the lights came down on our final show, the rush of applause was punctuated by a familiar face – Howard! He’d bought his daughter and family along to see the show, and rounded off our week perfectly.
Just before hopping on a plane to Kansas there were two things on our list that we had to tick off. We simply weren’t allowed to leave Texas without:
A) going to the NASA museum (‘Houston we have a problem’ needed to be seen first hand)
B) getting ourselves some Texas BBQ.
Both adventures had been earmarked for our day off, Sunday. And as Houston made its way out of the cold, we took a trip to outer space. NASA is a full day trip that, for a reasonable price, gets you unbelievable access to the site and the history of the USA’s lunar and interstellar exploration. We were blown away, or…. blasted off. Either way, the experience was ‘out of this world’. Ahem.
Newly acquired NASA hats on our heads, we drove straight to Goode Company BBQ in the city where our tired legs were much replenished by cold beer, smoked meat and pecan pie. Apart from Kaffe, the only vegetarian among us, who graciously tucked into potato salad.
Houston, goodbye! We’re clicking our heels and heading to…KANSAS.
Our second week in the USA and our first residency brought us to beautiful Utah where we’ve been spending time with Brigham Young University. This week, I chatted to Kaffe Keating and Grace Andrews about our time in Provo; the workshops with students, the shows and the landscape!
Hello there! Welcome to the AFTLS blog 2023. I’m Jonathan and I’m very excited to be bringing you updates about our tour, travels, adventures and mishaps for Romeo and Juliet. As well as some pictures and some words, I’m going to be bringing together a few audio snap-shots of our experiences, so you’ll be able to hear from myself, and the other actors, all about the trip.
Kicking off our first blog entry you’ll hear from two cast members, Hillary and Thomas, who will be chatting about our very first week in the USA: rehearsals in South Bend, the campus of Notre Dame and our weekend trip to Chicago!