“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #12

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

It’s 9am on the morning of our final show in the US and I’m sitting in my hotel room in Wyoming looking out over the stunning Bighorn Mountains and the glorious, endless sky. With five hours to go before we present King Lear to an American audience for the last time (thank you, THANK you, Sheridan College, for scheduling our final show as a matinee- it’s lovely to have an evening to wind down and let go) there’s time to take stock of this extraordinary experience.

It’s impossible to sum up in a few words what I’ve learned over the last eleven weeks, so instead here’s a stream-of-consciousness list of the things I’ll remember.

– ‘Similar but different.’ That’s the phrase that has reverberated around my head for the whole tour. There’s so much about this country that feels like home, but every day there are a hundred little differences to trip you up- whether it’s mundane things like crossing the road (what do you mean, they’re still allowed to turn right?) to the pronunciation of global brands (you’ll never believe how these guys say Pantene/ Persil/ Elvive/ Marriott…) or larger differences such as the position of religion in public life or the availability of weaponry. The genuine delight with which our British accents were greeted, especially outside the big cities, was charming, but always also served as an inadvertent reminder of otherness.

– On that note, the generosity and curiosity of pretty much everyone we met. People in this country, generally speaking, have a natural warmth and friendliness. It’s almost off-putting at first, especially with people in the service industry- ‘is this person really this nice or is it artificial?’ – but once you relax into it, it makes every day easier.

– Man, you people know how to do a catchy jingle. Oh, oh, oh, Ozempic. Liberty Liberty Liberty… Liberty. We are Farmers, dum diddy dum dum dum dum dum. Earworms for life.

– Portion size. I am not a skinny man, but I was regularly surprised, delighted and slightly intimidated by the sheer amount of food placed in front of me. While we’re on food, we need to talk about Cheetos. Back in the UK all we know about them is that they’re used in jokes about a certain politician. But my word, they’re brilliant and awful. They are sort of gross but also I can’t stop eating them. Someone get me some Cheetos.

– Complexity. Brits and Americans tend to assume, I think, that we know all about each other. But this is a much more complicated country than I had ever imagined. Maybe every nation paints itself internationally in primary colours, and you really need to get under the hood to find out what’s really happening. I’m aware of, and enjoying, what a mixed metaphor that was.

-Traveler’s tip- if you spend a lot of time in American hotels, then find an episode of Forensic Files to watch. It’s always on, and there’s something weirdly soothing about finding out how a bad guy was caught because of the way his boot broke a blade of grass.

– The universities. Once you’ve seen an American campus, any other looks half-hearted in comparison. They’re so… campus-y. And I do wish that the system of major and minor degree subjects existed back home. Our university degrees are so specialized- it’s great to see science or psych majors in English or theater classes.

– The sheer unfathomable size of the country. The space. Wyoming, for example, is larger than the entire UK but has the same population as the London Borough where I live (and there are 32 boroughs in London). Admittedly, Wyoming is the most sparsely populated state, but the numbers are still dizzying. It’s changed our attitude to distance, too. The other day Fred decided that the easiest way to sort out a delivery problem with some speakers he had ordered online was to drive to Billings, a round trip of over two hundred miles. The idea of driving, say, from London to Bristol in similar circumstances back home would be absurd, but here it was just… admin.

– The snow. I had to mention the snow. It made a cameo, or a starring, appearance in six of our ten weeks…

I can’t get my head round the idea that I’ll be in my flat in London in 48 hours time. There just remains that one last performance, in the magnificent Whitney Center For The Arts (theatre is in safe hands in this town, though, when we leave- we were privileged to see a rehearsal of Aaron Odom’s production of FIVE WOMEN WEARING THE SAME DRESS with his theater students, which opens next week, and it’s going to be cracking) and then it’s just packing, goodbyes, airports and home.

The next time we speak these lines will be in London, in front of an audience full of family and friends. That will be a more familiar experience, but the wonderful treat of this tour has been to embrace the unfamiliar.

I said in my first blog that King Lear is a play about everything. Thank you, United States of America- you have been everything, too.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #11

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

Any week where they give you free ice cream is a good week, right?

Ice cream is a big thing in Burlington, Vermont and attention was duly paid with a trip to the factory of – well, let’s not advertise. The factory of that ice cream company named after the two founders. The one that rhymes with men and cherries. They gave us free sample of their S’mores flavor and all was right with the world.

Vermont also, of course, means maple syrup, and our hosts at the Flynn Center kindly showered us with as many mapley items as we could have dreamed of in a very generous parting gift.

The schedule this week was a challenge. As well as our evening shows and classes, there were also a couple of morning matinees for schools. Performing King Lear at 10am is quite a surreal experience, matched only by the experience of sitting down to lunch having already performed King Lear!

The audiences more than made up for it, though. Before we had even left Virginia we had received an email from Flynn asking if it would be possible to add extra seating at the side of the stage, because our evening performances had sold out.

This meant a return to Kansas-style blocking- playing the diagonals- with a touch of South Bend thrown in, as the front-on seating was very wide. Practically speaking, it meant we had to be very conscious of sightlines in two dimensions, because there were more ways of obscuring each other from view than anywhere else we’d been! Add into the mix the fact that the forestage also included a couple of load-bearing pillars, and we had to be very conscious of our surroundings this week!

And not just on stage, either. Consciousness of surroundings is richly rewarded in Burlington, a beautiful town in a beautiful setting. Our company has three water-babies in it, since Fred is from Brighton, Tricia from Liverpool and Richard from Blackpool, so the view over the water of Lake Champlain certainly made them feel at home.

The city is set among stunning forests and mountains, too, so wherever you look there’s something gorgeous to meet the eye. Burlington itself felt more similar to towns back home, too- New England living up to its name?- so there were many reasons why we felt at home.

And we were privileged to be given another reminder of why our job has value in the shape of an audience member who stayed behind to talk to us after one of the shows. Without intruding too much on the private nature of what he told us, we were honoured and touched to learn that our tragedy had helped him to process another. Art isn’t just there to entertain or to challenge or to excite: sometimes it’s there to soothe, or to remind us that we’re not alone.

So- after ten short, long weeks- we embark tomorrow on our final journey as a company, before we all go our separate ways next week. Fred, who has handled the labrythine responsibility of being travel monitor with supreme grace, has crunched the numbers of our epic journey with this play. Seventeen flights, fourteen hire cars, four limo rides, and fifteen thousand three hundred and three miles. Enough to travel half way round the world, and a quarter of the way back.

We’re going to touch down in Wyoming with a lot of miles behind us- and three more attempts at cracking Shakespeare’s hugest tragedy.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #10

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

A test of technique this week proved to be a real treat. After nine weeks away, eight performance weeks, nine different states, seven theatres (and one prison) and twenty performances, the key number this week was two.

Our first split residency brought us two universities in two different towns, and two very different performance spaces. At Roanoke College, which is actually outside the city of Roanoke, in the charming satellite of Salem (no, not that one…) we performed in one of the largest auditoria of our tour. Not quite Ohio-sized, but still a grandly-proportioned space.

Then a couple of days later we were at Hollins University, situated within the city of Roanoke itself, in a black-box studio theatre which was the smallest room we’ve played so far.

The two spaces demonstrated how adaptable our performance style needs to be, and how this job never allows us to get complacent or settle. The larger space dictates a grander, more projected style. Reactions need to be physical- that old big-house trick of taking a tiny step to indicate surprise because a flicker across your face won’t register at the back of the room, that kind of thing.

In a black box like the one at Hollins, rhetoric necessarily takes a back seat to something intimate. We all enjoyed the opportunity to make this monolith of a play a little more conversational, more naturalistic. The sheer fact of not having to be on voice all the time gave us a chance to examine our characters in a way that isn’t always possible in a larger house. From now on I’d like to alternate every job between a 500 seater and a 50 seater, please! It certainly helps to keep things fresh.

Just to keep us on our toes, the big theatre was in the small village and the little one in the big town. Salem is basically one street, but a gorgeously eclectic one of handsome buildings, thrift shops, small businesses, lively breweries and coffee shops. Roanoke is a bustling, slightly hipsterish city with a fantastic school-of-Gehry art gallery and a laid-back vibe. And both places profit hugely from nature’s art director.

When I was a child, my parents had a 7-inch vinyl record of Laurel and Hardy singing ‘The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine’. (I have no idea why). As we landed at Roanoke Airport, a large sign informed me that we were in the very Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia that give the song its first line. If you’re at all familiar with the song, that line is now reverberating round your head, for which my apologies.

But as well as inspiring songs for 1930s comedians, the Blue Ridge Mountains make a stunning backdrop to this part of the world. There can hardly be two more beautiful campuses in the entire US than Roanoke and Hollins, and most of the week was spent under bright sun and blue skies that enabled us to see them at their best. There’s something instantly uplifting about always having hills and mountains in your peripheral vision- it was one of the highlights of our LA week, too, even though LA and Roanoke could hardly be more different.

You like mountains, do you, Jon? Well, isn’t it lucky that you’re about to fly to Vermont? I’d better stop now. I haven’t worn my snow boots for four weeks and I need to hunt them out…

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #9

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

I’ll level with you- there’s one worry that won’t go away when it comes to writing these blogs. Despite the wildly diverse places we’re visiting and the people we’re meeting, there’s a kind of similarity about the weeks on tour: we teach some classes, we do some shows, people are lovely to us, we do some tourism. The thing to avoid is writing a column which, with the odd change of nouns, could apply to any week or anywhere.

That’s not going to be a problem this week. The problem this week is going to be to find words to do justice to how overwhelming an experience our visit to the Limestone Correctional Facility was.

The kind of Shakespeare performances we’re used to giving back home usually take place in front of a pre-existing audience for Shakespeare plays. Audiences don’t generally take their seats wondering what is going to happen in this story about someone called King Lear, they sit down thinking ‘I wonder what they’ll do with the storm and the blinding’.

To have the privilege of presenting this play to an audience containing a number of people who had never seen a play at all, let alone the biggest of the lot, was unforgettable. We’ve never done the show to such a rapt, responsive audience. The generosity of their reaction during and after the show was truly humbling.

Lines took on new meanings, or deepened their original ones. Richard’s line in the very first scene, ‘Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here’ rang around the room. The references to justice, and to injustice, to power and punishment, became even more live and more urgent. Tricia’s line about a magistrate and a petty criminal (‘Change places- handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?’) resonated even more in a room where we could identify inmates by their uniforms and students by their mufti.

Fred, as poor Tom, has a line about how he is ‘stock-punished and imprisoned’. The next, unconnected, line, is ‘Shhh- peace’. But this audience connected the ‘shhh’ to the ‘imprisoned’- a kind of ‘don’t mention where we are!’- and it got the biggest, and only, laugh that line will ever get. Fffion’s Fool was a particular favourite of this audience, and how could it not be, when the character spends so much time challenging authority?

It was a day that meant something, and our hearts were pretty full by the end. Fred delivered his narration of Gloucester’s death with tears streaming down his face, and for once I didn’t have to reach for my reply ‘I am almost ready to dissolve, hearing of this’.

On the outside, Florence, Alabama charmed and surprised us. On the surface it’s exactly as we foreigners might have imagined a small town in the South to be- neat and pretty and courteous. But it’s also a town with a rebel heart. Some of the greatest music ever made was cut in its two iconic recording studios. Turn a corner in a suburban neighborhood and you might find yourself in front of a stunning Usonian house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, or the wooden cabin where W.C Handy, the Father Of The Blues, lived.

And yes, we taught some classes, we did some shows, and people were lovely to us (huge thanks to Cynthia Burkhead for getting us here, and to Stephen Melvin, Jay and Candice for showing us round). The theatre at UNA was pretty much perfect for our show and the students were especially enthusiastic both in their response to the show and in the foyer afterwards.

But my abiding memory of this week, among many extraordinary ones, will be walking past the fences and the barbed wire, hearing the doors shut behind us, breathing in the air and looking at the limitless expanse of land and sky, thinking about the people on the other side of those gates and how we had told them a story.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #8

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

I’m maybe not the best person to write this week’s blog, and nor would Fred have been: this was the week we both received what I shall officially call conjugal visits. Our other halves flew in from London to San Francisco to spend the week with us and they were a very, very welcome sight.

But you, dear reader, don’t want to read about our dears. I could bore you with talk of romantic meals for two at the chef’s table, cosy getaway nights in a hotel downtown, how wonderful it feels to wake up next to the person you married after you’ve spent six weeks apart, but it’s really none of your business.

Instead, let’s talk about how we were seduced by San Francisco. It’s a gentler, less in-your-face city than its frenemy down the coast. LA shouts “look at me, aren’t I cool?” while SF quietly waits for you to notice how surpassingly beautiful it is.

I love cities when you cross a street and in all four directions there’s a view down a long, straight road, and San Francisco does this to you on every crosswalk- with the added bonus of its crazy, vertiginous hills. The drivers in our company became very adept at hill starts (Richard: “I wouldn’t like to do this in a manual!”) and there were a few terrifying, Grand Theft Auto-style journeys up and down streets that were pretty much vertical, but the fear was beautifully assuaged by the stunning, colourful architecture and the gorgeous views over the bay.

Once San Francisco gets under your skin, you realize why it was such torture for the inmates of Alcatraz to gaze out at the city, a mile and a lifetime away. Fred, Richard and I visited the prison and can now say we’ve made it to Broadway- the central aisle of the cell block was given that ironic name and leads to an intersection called Times Square.

Other highlights included theatre at the world-famous ACT, where Mfoniso Udofia’s HER PORTMANTEAU broke my heart and soothed it better. A visit to the Castro with my husband was hugely moving, paying tribute to the heroes whose sacrifices made our marriage possible. Fisherman’s Wharf fed us sourdough and chowder, Turtle Hill punished us with its relentless climb but rewarded us with spectacular views of the entire city, and the Golden Gate Bridge genuinely took our breath away: the way it hides from you as you walk through Presidio Park then suddenly appears from nowhere could only be greeted with a gasp.

Audiences at the Little Theatre at San Francisco State were warm and appreciative, and Kurt Daw welcomed us with great kindness and generosity.

I’m writing this in my hotel room at just before 9pm. My alarm is set for 3:30am so as to be on time for our 6am flight. We’re spanning timezones tomorrow, flying from California to Alabama. One day, one country, two very different places. We’re ready for the next hairpin turn in this tour of contrasts.