“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #7

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

Pro tip: if you’re an actor visiting Los Angeles for the first time, it really, really helps if you already have an acting job when you arrive.

Our status as actors has made us something of a novelty in several of the places we’ve visited, and has led to several delighted conversations. In LA? Not so much. The way to stand out in the home of the entertainment industry is probably to say you’re not an actor.

On touching down from Kansas (“I’ve got a feeling we’re not…” etc., etc.) the first, welcome change was the weather. I’ve tried not to spend too much time in these blogs moaning about being cold, but let’s be clear: we’ve been quite cold. The balmy, smoggy, scented air in LA gave a holiday feeling to our arrival, one which lasted despite our work schedule.

Classes at Occidental were a joy – really engaged, energetic students of both the undergraduate and the high-school variety, and mainly focused on acting and theatre, so although we didn’t have the usual variety of subject matter we were maybe able to feel a little more expert.

The Keck Theater was filled pretty much to capacity for our one performance, with one of the liveliest and most responsive audiences we’ve had on our travels. And because there was a reception laid on after the show with drinks and snacks (a delightful surprise to us when we emerged front of house after the show) we were able to meet and chat to some of the audience.

It was wonderful to get some direct and immediate feedback. And although that kind of feedback is necessarily going to veer towards the positive – it’s a brave, or a rude, person who would approach an actor as they grab a canapé after a three hour show to say ‘Boy, did you suck!’ – the show seemed to have touched people in just the way we’d hoped and we were all told some really lovely things.

And of course because we’re all actors, of all the places on our tour we were likely to have friends, LA was top of the list. I got to spend time with a friend of 27 years standing who I hadn’t seen since he felt the lure of Hollywood five years ago.

Fred caught up with his old Youth Theatre mentor, who is something of a Hollywood name himself, and Ffion and Tricia were also able to catch up with friends. When you’re away from home for a long time, old friends matter.

Four of us caught a match at LA Galaxy (complete with a surprise appearance by our compatriot David Beckham, who was being inducted into the club’s hall of fame), three of us were entertained at the Comedy Store, and two of us took a tour of the Hollywood Hills and found out that Britney Spears and Quentin Tarantino have both owned the same house. If those walls could talk…

And now we head to San Francisco, the shortest ‘commute’ of the tour so far. California has been a joy – it’s lovely to be spending another week here before we head back East.

Now if you’ll forgive me, I’m off to find some flowers to wear in my hair. And if you get that reference, you’re probably even older than I am.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #6

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

“Why, oh why, oh why, oh’ sing Ruth and Eileen in Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, ‘Why did we ever leave Ohio?’

Bernstein’s characters are lamenting their move from Ohio to New York- but maybe they just went to the wrong Manhattan? The Little Apple in Kansas has stolen a little piece of all our hearts this week after we made our own journey from Ohio.

The clear air and wide skies, the beautiful castle-style campus (visible from our hotel windows, the definition of an easy commute) the friendly welcome and the fantastic auditorium made our week in the middle of Middle America a highlight of the tour so far.

It was the first time we’ve done King Lear on a thrust stage, which had its pros and cons. The massive plus was being so close to the audience- there’s an immediacy to the communication when you have so many people almost in arm’s reach. However, we’re also very accustomed to performing the show end-on.

Having people at our sides and behind us meant we had to spend a lot of time working out how to turn our straight lines into diagonals, so that our audiences got to see us acting rather than backting. Fights had to be rejigged, as well: suspension of disbelief is all very well, but when the audience can clearly see the weapon hitting midair rather than flesh, that’s probably taking it too far.

The Chapman Theater is very well-equipped technically, too, so we were able to get a bit arty when it comes to lighting effects. Richard has put together a brilliantly adaptable LX plot which will work on any rig, but it was fun to embellish it a bit. The Chapman has a lightable cyclorama which surrounds the audience, and giving it a cold blue for the storm scene and a blood red for the final battle really added to the atmosphere.

The shows sold really well, too, which always helps. There’s something about hearing the buzz of audience chatter over a show relay which really helps focus the mind and set the adrenalin going. And thanks to a generous post-show dinner invitation from Professor Don Hedrick, we got to chat with some of them ourselves, too.

As we found in South Bend, it really is a privilege to be invited into people’s homes- and it helps with homesickness, too. It’s lovely to stay in hotels, with all mod cons and someone to make your bed for you every day if you want it, but it’s also nice to spend time somewhere lived in. A full refrigerator. Bookshelves. A row of shoes by the door. Little details of everyday life to remind us that our current day-to-day existence is thrillingly out of the ordinary.

LA next! With impeccable timing, we arrive the day after the Oscars. After a month made up pretty much of snow, snow, sleet and snow, we’re all looking forward to digging the shorts and T-shirts our from the bottom of our suitcases. See you by the pool.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #5

by Jonathan Dryden Taylor

Well, we can add ‘pulled over by the police on the interstate’ to our list of life experiences. On the journey from South Bend to Cleveland, we found ourselves stationary by the side of the road as a very diligent Ohio State Trooper quizzed our driver on who we were and what we were doing there. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a stretch limo on a motorway either, so I guess I’d have been a little curious…

That moment aside, it made a nice change to move venues on a road rather than in the sky, not least because all our suitcases are hovering round the dangerous 50lbs mark and a certain amount of hurried repacking tends to happen at airports. The journey was only around four hours or so and once we’d picked up our rental cars for the week we were able to check into our hotel.

I became aware of some of my priorities in life when I first saw my hotel room. We’ve been in some truly luxurious digs on this tour but this was the first time the rooms had had a bath rather than just a shower, and, better still, they had a fully fitted kitchenette! Apparently it doesn’t take the lap of luxury to make me happy: a hob, a measuring jug and a few pans will do it.

Cooking is the way I de-stress and calm down, so not having picked up a wooden spoon for three weeks had probably left me quite tightly wound. As soon as was humanly possible I was happily browsing the aisles at Trader Joe’s, and not long after that I was blissfully stirring a beef stew that became the basis of most of the week’s meals.

So determined was I to get it right that I popped down to the minimart at the hotel reception to get some beer for a good ale gravy, not stopping to think that buying strong IPA in a hotel at 10am might not be the best piece of reputation management I’ve ever achieved.

The welcome at John Carroll University was as warm as we’ve come to expect, and the classes were particularly diverse this week. As well as the O’Malley building which houses the arts and humanities, we also worked with the scientists in the Dolan building, and in the Boler Business School. It was a busy week with a number of classes each, but we all had our highlights.

Taking her lead from Lear’s ‘Poor naked wretches’ speech, Tricia delivered classes on poverty, social inequality and ‘cli-fi’ (a genre new to most of us!). Ffion tackled the relationship between Shakespeare and popular culture- a relationship she embodies in the show with her performance-poet take on the Fool. Richard examined the Psychology of Autism, and Fred and I literally taught the same class to a different set of students back to back (although our versions of the class were apparently pretty divergent!)

The giant Kulas Auditorium was our home for the week and it was great to bring the show to a space which matches the dimensions of the play itself. Jean Feerick and her colleagues in the English faculty couldn’t have been more welcoming and after our Friday night show we were taken for a very generous meal, in a restaurant whose décor some of us couldn’t resist paying tribute to…

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #4

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

When you’re a long way from home, a home from home sure comes in handy, and that’s what we had in Notre Dame. Returning to South Bend after our week in Houston really was a homecoming: familiar friendly faces, a hotel we’d already stayed in, and a campus we already knew how to navigate. It made for a welcome feeling of feeling welcome.

But there were still some things that were unfamiliar, in particular the new home for our show, the auditorium at Washington Hall. We’d spent our previous week at Notre Dame in the smaller rehearsal room upstairs, so this larger, beautifully appointed space presented a few challenges. The acoustics are magnificent, and almost too generous in their reverberance; lose sight of the consonants for a second and even the gentlest line became a wash of sound. It was a real reminder of the importance of technique.

And because the seating in Wash Hall reaches an angle of almost 180 degrees, we had to consider sightlines, too. Any position in the far downstage right or far downstage left area of the stage ran the risk of obscuring any action further towards the upstage centre. But it wasn’t as simple as merely moving upstage from those positions: do that and you ran the risk of creating the dreaded straight lines. Nobody wants to watch a series of bus queues!

These issues safely transposed from major to minor, and the second performance was proceeding smoothly when our cast of five became six for the half an hour that a local bat took up residence in the lighting grid. I was on stage at the time, playing a scene, as can often happen in an AFTLS production, with myself. Hearing a mixture of laughter and incredulity from the audience, I briefly wondered if I was being particularly funny in what is not a funny scene- or if my fly was open- before I realized we had a visitor.

Fortunately, the bat found the lights more interesting than the Shakespeare and stayed in the grid. I always find a beer a more satisfying way to end a show than a rabies shot!

Aside from the shows, there was plenty to fill the days. Ffion took her tarot cards to campus to provide free readings; Tricia gave an interview for local TV which was so compelling that the hotel receptionist was starstruck to recognize her later, and of course there were the classes and workshops to teach.

On a personal level, I was particularly thrilled to work with some of the student opera singers. As a full-on opera obsessive since my teens, as far as I’m concerned these people are trainee superheroes, so I was hugely excited to get to run a workshop with and for them, especially since their usual teacher, Alek Shrader, is a singer I’ve admired for years. It was an unforgettable treat.

As was our final Saturday, when Deb Gasper, the magnificent General Manager of SAND who has made our lives run so smoothly, was kind enough to invite us into her home. Deb’s husband Matt made the best pot roast we’d ever tasted, marketing guru Jason and his wife Jenna brought a baked brie that was picked clean in seconds, and our wonderful stage manager Stephanie provided a dessert so moreish that I may have had five slices. And when I say I may have had five, I mean I definitely had six.

The best acting companies feel like a family: but when you’re made to feel part of an actual family while on tour, that’s special. There’s no place like home from home.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #3

By Tricia Kelly

As we leave Houston and the end of our first performance and teaching week, what have we learned?

First and foremost, it was a relief to find that we have a show that works with audiences. Until you do the first show, you’re never quite sure.

The Houston audiences have laughed and occasionally cried and given us genuinely rousing applause.

They’ve also been unbelievably generous in their hospitality. We’ve eaten Mexican, Pizza and had a wonderful BBQ at Fred’s uncle and aunt’s home who invited us out to watch the SuperBowl – a real American experience.

The biggest revelation for all of us, but maybe especially for me, has been to realise that what we thought of as a problem back in our rehearsal room in London – dealing with the transitions between characters when we are playing more than one in the same scene – is in fact one of the very things that the audience loves most. It’s part of the style and fabric of AFTLS work and the thing that makes the shows unique.

I’m still working to improve my transitions between Lear & Cornwall – I find myself getting too caught up in Lear and not nimble enough in my changes- but hopefully I’m a lot better than I was.

Jon, Richard, Fred and Ffion have lots more of them and are becoming really expert at the ease and wit with which they change characters.

We have all had delighted laughs at a transformation amid a really serious scene followed by silent concentration at the story unfolding. It’s gratifying when it happens.

Playing the part of Lear is a challenge every time. So many words, so much anger and explosive rage – especially in the first half. How to calibrate the playing of this in a way that isn’t just an exhausting series of rants for both myself and the audience is something I’m still exploring. Finding as many different shades as possible is one of my missions – always remembering that Lear has to have had loveable qualities to earn the devotion that makes Kent risk his life to follow him in disguise and Cordelia to want to rescue him.

But the fact remains he is a very angry man…. and playing him takes a lot of stamina.
I’m finding that I have to protect my energy and sometimes that means I need to withdraw and be quiet. Most of the company are less than half my age and can recover much more quickly!
Back in South Bend this week for our Notre Dame performances feels like coming home. We’ve already rehearsed there and we know the people and the campus.

Each week of the tour will have a different character, without a doubt, and that’s part of the joy of this tour.

Many adventures await. Blow winds…..