I’d intended last week’s blog to be the last, and to leave it lost in Barry Manilow’s Bermuda Triangle. But having had a couple of days rest I found myself scribbling this, which I hope you’ll take as a light-hearted farewell from my angle. Mr Tucker was our taxi driver for most of the last week. Thanks for reading.
Mr Tucker took us wide eyed from St George’s through Tucker’s Town and Devon to Fourways, Georgia heavy on our suitcase minds Mr Tucker took us
Mr Tucker took us bleary eyed to prison, wide Sargasso Sea behind the walls where the waiting young perform the beach scene in their minds Mr Tucker took us
Through Somerset and Southampton to Dockyard, big ships sailing in, grabbing rum and shorts and out again, filling Horseshoe bay like ducks on a hurricane Mr Tucker took us
Mr Tucker took us back to school, learning Shakespeare’s new minted words: baseless, barefaced, bump countless, critic, swagger Knock, knock – who’s there?
Mr Tucker took us to the stage and back shouting in the evening over tree frog chorus, lamentings heard i’ th’ air where Mr Tucker took us
To a Bermuda beach breaking our toes in electric blue washing our wounds in pink sand, the gift of the parrot fish and the weight of the road Mr Tucker took us home –
Indiana, Texas and North Carolina, Hawai’i, California, Florida and Georgia, from the Swizzle Inn where we swaggered out again to Canada Water, Mr Tucker took us.
Here in Georgia, on the Golden Isles, Storm Nicole has skirted passed and today’s classes were all cancelled as a precaution. Storm Ian threatened us in North Carolina a few weeks back, now Nicole, and our thoughts are once again with the people of Florida affected.
On a less serious level it’s a shame, as I was looking forward to seeing which icons my students studying Cultural Power were going to chuck into the boiling pot, in the class I had planned. I had money on the Sony Walkman and the Cornhole sack replacing our fillet of a fenny snake, but that’ll have to wait for another time. We’ve had a really warm welcome from the College of Coastal Georgia this week, particularly from Professor Rob Bleil, who among other brilliant qualities wears a different bow tie for every teaching day of each semester. The class cancellation has meant a bow-less day for Rob, perhaps, and allowed us pause for thought; and so as we near the end of our American adventure I’m glad to have a moment to reflect on some highlights.
We’ve travelled around 20,000 miles and explored eight very different states, collecting tales and encounters that I’m sure we’ll carry with us for years. We’ve met many wonderful, characterful, people – take a bow Fonzo, Hartley, Huk, Dye, Sununu, Panek, Jose, Altmeyer, Kwasny et al. – while performing and working with students on eight university campuses from Hawai’i in the west (or the east depending which way you go) to Georgia in the east. The journey’s not over yet. We’ve a treat next week as we head further east out into the ocean. But frankly, it’s been a blast!
Macbeth has been one of my favourite Shakespeares for a long time (for me only pipped, I think, by Twelfth Night and King Lear) for its urgency and its welcome of the bizarre; and after performing in this production I like it even more. It never fails to grab me and drag me with its kicking and screaming. I’ve done two previous Macbeths, one of them in China so it’s been great to consider these two experiences alongside each other (like a cold war in kilts!) For those not entirely fed up with my musings you can read about my time in China in this piece for The Observer.
In those previous productions I often felt for the actor playing Macduff. A difficult part, perhaps often forgotten, he doesn’t appear until late in act two and almost immediately has to deal with horror, horror, horror. He doesn’t get to be a ghost; has to do a big fight; and most of all, has to receive the most terrible, personal news. I’d never really fancied playing the part, probably because I didn’t think I was up to it, and couldn’t imagine anyone casting me as him anyhow.
But thank you AFTLS & Shakespeare at ND: I’ve surprised myself in loving the challenge of having a go at dear Duff, and others, and in such supportive company too, thanks to Anne, Annabelle, Claire and Roger. I’ve learnt what I probably knew already in theory, but not always in practice, that with such material there is nowhere to hide. The job, as with the travel too I’ve come to know, is about leaving yourself alone and being there. In the end, about trust. The part, in its all too humanness, remains a challenge each time I have a go, and for that I am grateful. And no-one said it was easy!
The other clear highlight of the tour for me – beyond swimming off an Hawai’ian beach, sipping beer in South Bend Brew Werks, and Mavis Staples! – has been the work we’re asked to do in the classrooms. It’s a significant part of our week, the heart of it, and if it’s been anywhere near as fun and rewarding for the students as it has been for me, then we’re on to a winner! I’ve led workshops, most often using the Macbeth text as a springboard, with classes on visual art, architecture, psychology, commedia, literature, theatre, among other studies, and have loved the way the students (for the most part!) are willing to dive into, sometimes scary, waters and have a go. I’m really proud of responses like ‘you gave us the permission to be silly,’ and that which Anne and I got after our recent joint session with acting students at San José: ‘it was a class delivered with love.’
Last night as the storm gathered I offered my other four intrepid actors the chance to chip in with some of their own highlights and, eventually, the floodgates opened! Talking of the show Roger remembered the quality of focus from the audience for our first performance, at Westville prison; while Claire talked of her surprise and delight at being presented with a garland of fresh flowers after our first Hawai’i show. In terms of teaching Claire went on to remember her work with opera students and how one student in particular was committed to continuing the work they’d started together. And Roger will never forget the moment, previously mentioned, when an improvising student said ‘hey buddy, I need your pants.’
We all agreed that the experiences we’ve had as a result of the incredible travel we’ve been afforded are too many to mention. Cherished memories behind every spreadsheet itinerary, hard to single down. But Anne finally landed on her favourite thing: the architecture boat tour along the Chicago River. For ‘the colours, the styles, the history – a day of reflecting on what we’d been doing and on all that was to come – and with a cocktail in hand!’ Claire chipped in, quite rightly, with ‘walking into the most incredible hotel room in Hawai’i and seeing there was loads of free stuff!’
And then Annabelle brought us back to something I think we all agree on wholeheartedly: ‘It has to be the wildlife and all the different micro climates in each state. From turkey vultures in their hundreds in Indiana, to dolphins in Georgia; manta rays, parrots and turtles in Hawai’i; butterflies and aligators in Florida. The list goes on. David Attenborough would be having a field day!’
I don’t know if Sir David is available for the next AFTLS tour; but in any case let’s hope the storms have all passed now as we start to prepare to head back to London Town and the Canada Water Theatre. I’ve a feeling there’s a bit more fun – and rum – to be had before we get there though, as we stop off in a tantalising place on the way; the inspiration for another of Shakespeare’s tales, which starts with a Tempest. Our story starts with thunder too, and When shall we three meet again…
Soon our American connection will cease, cell phones and all, and so if you never hear from us again then we’re probably somewhere near a small island in the Atlantic, between Georgia and Land’s End. In a mythical place, with three angles and three sides. Swimming, no doubt.
I’m writing this in Bo Diddley Plaza, downtown Gainesville. The great blues man spent his last thirteen years just a few miles out of town. Later I’ll stroll to The Bash, an annual music festival in tribute to the musician Tom Petty, who was born and grew up here in Gainesville. He worked briefly as a grounds keeper at the university where we’ve been resident all week – and where a lime tree he’s said to have planted is these days known as the Tom Petty Tree. Coming to Florida this week, I’d expected sunshine, water and perhaps the odd alligator, but what the week has really brought, in abundance, is music.
I’ve been drenched in it, like the downpour on Wednesday night that turned the humid heat dry; and seem to have found sounds round every corner of this relatively small but very buzzy northern Florida city. It’s been a rock ‘n’ roll week.
As I mentioned in the previous entry the driver who picked us up at Gainesville airport was a renowned reggae singer and songwriter who treated us to a beautiful private concert before we’d even set foot in town. Moments later I started to spot, among the Halloweeners, another species – the punk rocker – as spent revellers started to stagger back to our hotel from Fest, a huge punk festival here in town which sadly we just missed.
The next evening, while the rest of my gang enjoyed karaoke elsewhere (including, I’m sure, their unforgettable rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody) I stumbled across an open mic night in a little pub called The Bull, where the quality of act was exceptional. I particularly enjoyed a young man who stepped up to do a 10-minute drum solo; and another who played Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up with Floridian vim and vigour. I love Rick and so do the good people of Gainesville.
Later an older man with a banjo sang a song about falling in love with a woman who lived many, many miles away and how he was going to put ‘one foot in front of the other’ and eventually reach her. Don’t be silly, she said, I’ll get on a plane and come to Florida! So the lyric changed to all the things they’d do together in Gainesville: We’re gonna walk in the woods, look at the trees; pick up rocks and cones and pine feathers… from bathrooms..!
The music of Gainesville, which has a sunshine smile on its face, hasn’t let up. Last night after our show I wandered into town for a quiet pint only to find about 200 students gathered outside in the market square for a band called The Picadillies – with banjo, cello, flute, bass ukulele, guitar and drums, they played raucous sea shanty rock as acorns pelted down from the oak trees above. And a few days ago it was a chance meeting in the thrift store, after I’d popped in to pick up some shorts, that led me to more music, when the woman at the till, unprompted and excitedly, told me that her friend went to school with Tom Petty and that The Bash, in his honour, was a must.
There’s music in the Gainesville waters as well as ‘gators, and we hope to have added a beat or two of our own. Supporting the music of Shakespeare’s verse, we’ve added music to our story of Macbeth. Annabelle opens the show singing and playing; while later we sing My Poor Bird in a round. We punctuate the action with buffalo drum, recorder, tambourine, wood block, bird whistle, thunder stick, and our (and particularly Annabelle’s) pride and joy, the autoharp. A small harp with buttons for its 21 chords, Annabelle found it after her previous AFTLS tour and liked it for its portability and as a theatre instrument she could master quickly. There are 36 strings and they’re temperamental, leading Annabelle on an adventure to track down a re-stringer, which led her to Goshen, Indiana and a man called Bill at Second Song Music who, like Annabelle could talk about autoharps all day! They would have done if she hadn’t needed to be back in time to sing Ae Fond Kiss at the top of our show. The autoharp is now as well travelled as we are and comes complete with stickers from our stops. It’s our spikey, moody, faithful old friend. Like Tom Petty’s lime tree.
Created as a nod to Tom, back at The Bash we’re treated to a wonderful, friendly, free festival. No fences or gates, just great bands on three stages and thousands of local people rocking up. I enjoy the rocky Morningbell and the bluesy folk of Wax Wings, before gathering at the main stage for Larkin Poe. Their singer introduces one song by describing her recent move from Georgia to Tennessee and (as if she’d read my previous blog!) the feeling of having one foot in the past of the previous place and one in the future of the next. The song is called Georgia off my mind.
But the best was yet to come: Enter Mavis Staples. The blues gospel singer and civil rights activist is 83 years old and, while understandably having the odd mid-set sit down, her voice and performance is astonishing; and her band just about the coolest middle-agers you could care to imagine. A singular treat to see Mavis, she leaves the stage powerfully, mid-song, having encouraged the gathered crowd to vote in the elections this week. I’m tired, she says. And the crowd laugh. But she goes on to describe the things she’s tired of in the society she sees around her and so the reasons to vote. A wise and powerful woman, long after Mavis has left the stage her crowd are still singing the refrain she started: we’ve got work to do.
Meanwhile back on campus I have a quick look for the Tom Petty Tree but fail to find it, like many before me. Google maps had told me there’s also a Tom Petty Road in Tennessee and Tom Petty Plumbing and Heating in Ilkley, Yorkshire. Whether they exist or not I don’t know, as like much of the music here, delivered with a wink and a sideways glance, it may all be part of the funky folklore. In a interview not long before he died Tom said he had no recollection of ever planting a tree on the University of Florida campus. Still, it makes for a good story, or a song. Something like The Lime Tree That Tom Petty Never Planted (Grows Old in Gainesville).
I’d try to write it myself if I had the time, but we’re moving on now to another tune: Georgia on my mind.
We managed to prise ourselves away from the velvet ocean and pineapple cocktails of Hawaii’s big island, and drag ourselves onto a plane at Kailua-Kona airport. A remarkable place, the terminal ‘building’ has a roof, of sorts, but no walls to speak of. Very much in the open air, the airport is like much of the island, where inside meets outside freely. I was taken with the fact that our hotels, for example, had no front door. Once on board, off we zoomed to our next stop, San José. Luckily our pilot did know the way.
One moment lolloping on a tropical island, the next checking into a hotel in one of California’s silicon cities, in the shadow of Zoom headquarters (San José is its birthplace) this week I’ve been thinking a lot about pace. The pace of things: travel; change; life. Pace is part of the gig and journeying so often as we do, along with the particular rhythm of our schedule, there’s a strong sense of being here, there and, bloody everywhere.
We travel once a week, usually flying, and one of the tasks once we get to a new place is to try to really be there. It’s easier said than done, as the adventures come thick and fast, and often I feel part of my head is stuck in the previous place, still digesting and reflecting; still trying to catch up with myself. Time zones don’t help! Added to which, in any given week there’ll be meetings and planning to do for the following week (we have an education Zoom with next week’s faculty staff) and we’ll also be looking forward to what’s on offer there. So there are three different places vying for space in our Hariboed brains. I must confess it’s often pretty muddled in there, never mind the gummy bears, and rather than ‘here, there and everywhere, it can feel much more like literally a minute ago! Now!! And, blimey that’s tomorrow!!! – and tomorrow, and tomorrow…
The pace and shape of the tour can mean it all becomes a bit of a wondrous blur. And perhaps it’ll only be when we stop, after our London shows, that we’ll really be able to catch our breath. (Book your tickets now for London, by the way – they’re selling fast!) So I’ve tried to slow things down for myself whenever I can. Swimming works. So far I’ve managed to swim every day, bar one, since we left London. My one failure was the day of our 14 hour journey to paradise so I can be excused. When I say swimming though, I really mean splashing about merrily, so that has helped to slow the pace of things.
In terms of the travel, it all comes back to being here. And that’s the task on stage too. We try to be present. Just as on the journey there’s a pull to look back and a push to look forward, sometimes sitting at the back of the stage I have to consciously remind myself not to dwell on what’s just happened (even if it was a shambles!) nor worry about what’s to come (even when the little devil pops in to suggest you’ve forgotten the words!) We try to be here, now. Which is also easier said than done; but no-one said it was easy!
We often chat about the pace of the show too, and its running time is a gauge of that, but can deceive us. As with all theatre, there’s a running time that feels like the right duration for our particular telling of the story, but pace is a different thing and we try to welcome elasticity; wriggle room. Within the (exactly) two hours traffic of our stage (1hr 15, re-set, have a vape, 45 mins) we try to allow room for moments to expand or tighten, in response to each given space, audience or atmosphere. We’re looking for urgency without rushing, drive with pause for breath, moments to find their own pace. Time for such a word.
And the pace of (real) life here, where so much is dominated by the motor car, can often feel hectic. I’m not a fan of cars (in fact in more bellicose moments I declare they should be made illegal immediately) so I’ve walked wherever and whenever possible. To take things in at a walking pace – strolling, wandering, meandering, bummeling – has felt important; though those that know me will also know that my own walking pace is..well.. pacey. I love slow travel, but I like to stretch my legs!
This week I’ve enjoyed cycling around San José too, and along the Guadalupe River. And on day one here I slowed down long enough to spot the earthquake shake the bathroom door (5.1 magnitude, the largest quake here for nearly a decade, a news report said it “rattled nerves” only). Then by the end of the week we were jumping the trams in San Francisco. Trams are, officially, the coolest way to travel. Particularly with flowers in your hair.
The pace of change then, on a simple level, is the challenge. Just as we’re starting to settle in to one place – which mainly means knowing where the best breweries are – we up sticks and head to a new hotel in a new city in a new state. Only yesterday we flew 2,500 miles over ten states – from the Golden State to the Sunshine State, via the Peach State (Georgia). As we waited for our bags at the carousel (which goes at a lovely pace, and I’m sure is some sort of image of the inside of our heads) Anne noted that yesterday she was on the island of Alcatraz, and tomorrow she’ll be in a Florida swamp.
To add to the whirlwind, the taxi driver that took us, leisurely, to the hotel turned out to be a significant reggae star: a marvellous man who knew Bob Marley personally and whose songs have been covered by numerous bands, including UB40 (unfortunately!) To our delight he sang for us, beautifully, as we wended our way through the humid streets. And if that wasn’t enough to blow my jellied brain, moments after we arrived I met a Floridian couple who used to live in Sutton Coldfield!
I need a lie down, and this week I’ll mainly be floating in the rooftop pool and walking with alligators. Slowly.
Sitting beside Ka’eo, staring westwards into the Pacific, I’m sure I haven’t the words to describe the week. Here on Hawai’i’s big island it’s felt like quite the trip of a lifetime, and I know we all feel very fortunate to have been given the experience. It’ll take time to reflect and, frankly, I’ll soon be ready for another splash in the ocean, so for this week’s blog I’ll take a leaf out of Ka’eo’s book, sit still and listen.
To try to give you a sense of the week just gone (we have done some work, honest!) this week’s dispatch is a five-person Hawai’i highlights show: our own Hawaii Five-Oh! Here we go …
Annabelle: Swimming with a turtle! I’d never seen a sea turtle before and I got to feed it, too. A local person told me it was a blessing that it was there – a blessing on our tour.
Roger: Swimming with a puffer fish! It took me completely by surprise.
Anne: Pineapple cocktails! They didn’t disappoint. We went to a restaurant called Pineapples and drank pineapple flavoured cocktails served in pineapples! It was ‘Hawai’i in a drink.’
Claire: At the workshop at Waiakea High School in Hilo, a boy who at the start was really struggling with the exercise suddenly started to flourish, and found his voice. He turned out to be one of the best ‘weird sisters’ I’ve ever seen.
Waggy: It was a pleasure meeting English professor Mark Panek and working with his class on a difficult scene. Afterwards Mark gave me a copy of his book about a Hawai’ian sumo wrestler. (I was glad to return the favour by giving him a book about East German Football!)
Anne: At the end of the first performance this week, at the university in Hilo, we were each given a lei (a flower garland traditional in Hawai’i). I wasn’t expecting it; such a kind gesture. We wore our leis with pride and thanks.
Roger: The first, sunset swim in the velvety ocean, here in the shadow of Mauna Kea [the tallest mountain in the world from its underwater base, we’re told].
Claire: Snorkelling! Here at Kauna’oa Bay. I’ve never done it before and rarely put my head under water, but I had a go and it was brilliant. I was alone with the ocean.
Annabelle: Meeting Sam and Kristin at the Kahilu Theatre – a really lovely theatre – and doing the world’s smoothest tech rehearsal!
Anne: And they gave us Twinings tea and cheese & biscuits, to make us feel at home!
Waggy: The grey cat we met on our first night on the island. I couldn’t get over the fact that you could live a cat’s life and live on Hawai’i!
Anne: I loved the Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hilo. The colours, the smells, the shapes – it was like being in Jurassic Park! Very humid too: the island has lots of different climates and we’ve been lucky enough to experience them.
Annabelle: The shaved ice was delicious. It came with flavoured syrups and coconut condensed milk. We’d just finished quite an intense workshop, with just four students who became our four weird sisters, so it was the perfect refreshing treat after work.
Roger: The precious opportunity to watch, up close, the balletic feeding of the manta rays.
Claire: The performance for the whole school in the gymnasium at Kohala High School was a really special one. I noticed a girl in the front row, with a flower in her hair, who was transfixed for the whole show. We’ve been told that for many of the students that will have been their first experience of live theatre. Hopefully she’s hooked.
Waggy: Morning coffee with Ka’eo.* Watching hula dance, then diving into the ocean as the sun goes down …
talking of which …
With Aloha, and Mahalo.
* Ka’eo is a 47-year-old red, yellow and blue macaw, soon to retire, and I’m sure the wisest voice around.