“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #5

By Michael Wagg

Small is beautiful

We’ve said so long to our brilliant colleagues at Notre Dame. To the wunderkind Scott Jackson, Executive Director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, who has guided us, and many other groups before us, with commitment and boundless enthusiasm, and who also does remarkable work with the Shakespeare in Prisons Network. To Professor Peter Holland, Chair in Shakespeare Studies, whose warmth, insight and encouragement is so very welcome. To Debs and Jason who do just about everything possible to support our tour. And this time to Cate too, who stage managed superbly during our rehearsal and performance weeks. If Will Shakespeare himself were putting together a new company, he’d do well to get this five on board from the off, and pay them a packet of ducats. I’m borrowing from a five-a-side football team I once played for, but this ND team are Shakespearoes!

After saying our cheerios we didn’t travel too far from base, just a relatively short drive south to Greencastle, near Indianapolis. Capital of Putnam County, it’s a city with a small town feel, and lovely it is too. It’s been a pleasure to be able to stroll from hotel to campus to town without having to jump into a comically large pickup truck or cross a four lane carriageway on perilous foot. In fact here in friendly Greencastle our hotel is right on campus, while the campus butts right up against Downtown. More often during our residencies there’s driving distance between the three and lots, and lots, of busy roads. So after plenty of big stuff on the tour so far – big cities, big lakes, big stadiums, big crisps – it’s been a refreshing change to enjoy the simple pleasures of a small town, albeit one with an excellent liberal arts college at its heart.

We’ve got some rare (big) travels ahead of us, so the small pleasures of this week were welcome. As was the warm welcome we’ve received from staff and students alike at DePauw University, home of the Tigers! A special thank you to the inspiring professors Ron Dye, who teaches courses on playwrighting and songwriting and organises the AFTLS residency every two years; and to Andrea Sununu who first invited the company here 30 odd years ago. Professor Sununu’s surprisingly sprightly trot to demonstrate iambic pentameter is unforgettable!

The Wednesday evening show at the Green Center for the Performing Arts was our only show this week, so it served as a good reminder to focus back on it and to try to make every moment count. I realise I haven’t said much so far about how the shows themselves have gone, or the audience reaction to them, and thinking about that now (and without wanting to sound like a total twerp!) I’m finding that the intensity of this style of work (particularly the fact that we’re all on stage throughout) perhaps coupled with the forward thrust of this particular story, has meant that by the time we get to the end of it, I’ve often been so carried along in its momentum that I haven’t much of use left to say!

I don’t mean I haven’t kept the outside eye that’s necessary to keep safe and on track, particularly when we’re fighting, but I mean I’m genuinely swept along by the story each time we tell it (which is testament to my four mates on stage). And by the time we get to the other end, how well it’s gone doesn’t seem so relevant. It’s just gone. I don’t mean this flippantly; but taking the thinking out of it, being there, experiencing it with the audience, has often hit me, and is a rare and good feeling.

There have been plenty of other rare, simple pleasures this week: various strolls in the DePauw Nature Park, spotting turkey vultures, small snakes and all; an excellent collage exhibition called ‘The Many Hats of Ralph Arnold’; limitless lunch buffets in the Hoover dining hall (fill your boots lads, like turkey vultures!); lots of swimming, naturally; and live jazz at the Fluttering Duck pub to finish Claire’s tour birthday (we’ve decided those who don’t have a real birthday will get one anyway) – complete with a brilliant, impromptu guest spot from Anne Odeke, singing the weird sisters’ words to an improvised double bass accompaniment like she’s been here forever!

Because of the relative small scale of this place, over the course of the week it’s felt like quite a few locals have come to know who we are and what we’re up to here – a feeling of creating a bit of a buzz around town. Each time I nipped into Moore’s Bar for a swift one (which was fairly often) the women behind the bar asked when the others were coming back. (It seems Claire, Anne and Annabelle made quite an impression on their first visit!). Woody in the same bar would shake my hand and chuckle at my name, repeatedly. Jacks at the Duck treated us kindly. And on my last trip to a well-known coffee shop chain, my muffin arrived in a bag on which was scribbled ‘Break a leg, Michael.’ We’re heading to a very exciting stop next, but still it was hard to drag ourselves away from here, and the lovely, friendly ease of it all.

Still, just as I was telling the others about the thoughtful little message on the coffee shop bag, and lest the town be painted too perfect, we were brought soundly back down to earth as we loaded up the cars for Indianapolis airport. One of us noticed that someone had left us quite a different message, scrawled in the dust on the back of the pickup truck. I won’t spell it out but the two words started with an F and ended with an f. Fair do’s I thought, though I’m sure it was said in jest! Nonetheless, I think it’s time for us to fly away. You can have too much of a good thing. Book ’em, Danno, and take me to Hawai’i!

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #4

By Michael Wagg

This castle hath a pleasant seat

The lights came back on and we made it to South Bend, Indiana. To the University of Notre Dame, which does indeed have a very pleasant seat.

Among its many impressive features, a Golden Dome, a mural known as Touchdown Jesus, a square nicknamed the God Quad, two lakes, two golf courses, numerous theatres, an excellent art gallery, and top notch sports facilities galore, including a football stadium for 77,000 fit to host Athenian Olympics. Its pristine, green and vast campus is part immersive Hogwarts experience, part Irish saga (its many successful sports teams are known as the Fighting Irish) and its catholic basis strong and present: Mass is read 150 times each week and if a crucifix is missing from a classroom there’s a hotline you can call. All in all it’s a pretty special place.

We opened our show on Wednesday night at the 500-seat theatre in Washington Hall which comes complete with a bat in the rafters – at the time of writing sadly yet to make an appearance in this most battish of plays. The little fella might prefer the dark of last week’s power cut, but now the light’s returned, as promised I’ll get back to where I left off and try to give you some context for this weird and wonderful job: starting with the performance style of these AFTLS productions, originally developed by a group of adventurous young actors including Patrick Stewart, and now in their fifth decade.

I was able to keep an eye out for the bat, as one of the features of the productions is that all five of us are on stage throughout, sitting at the back or to the side when not directly involved in the scene. Most of the cast play half a dozen characters or more, each one signified by a single, simple costume piece or accessory, and the changes of these happen in full view of the audience. Nothing is hidden away. Sound is acoustic, from the stage; lighting changes very minimal; clear storytelling the aim of the game. At the start of the show we do an introductory line-up to share with the audience which characters we’ll be playing (and to remind ourselves of the same!) At the heart of it all, front and centre, is the text: Shakespeare’s words.

Our weekly workload is fairly evenly split between the show itself and the workshops we deliver in the classrooms. The previous week we’ll have been given a list of requests for class visits, divvied them up among us (which so far often involves Roger gallantly accepting the class on Richard II!) and met with each professor on Zoom to agree the type of workshop we’ll devise. Requests can vary hugely and often have us racking our brains or those of others (thanks Paul O’Mahony!) We might be asked to explore the architecture of Shakespeare’s theatre, improvisation around Ovid’s Metamorphoses, public speaking or (Roger!) economic leadership and Richard II.

The students we’re working with, while often majoring in English Literature or Drama, could just as easily be Physics majors, Business students or, this week, trainee Priests; and one of the things I’m enjoying most is this colliding of worlds. After a warm-up game this week, which involves simply repeating the words ‘diddly dum’ over and over, I asked one student what he was studying. Neuroscience, he said.

The students may or may not have seen our show, and they may or may not have ever been to the theatre before, and I’m sure in some cases we, and our work, must appear quite strange to them – not like the inhabitants o’ the earth, and yet are on’t. But I hope our visits are at least a refreshing change. We’re not going into the classes as teachers, nor or academics, but as actors, trying to share some of our experience of Shakespeare and theatre-making. At its best, I think, we’re exploring where the stuff of the rehearsal room might intersect with and inform other disciplines. And more often than not our starting point is the text of Macbeth.

I must confess, and in the spirit of collision, I’m desperate for the day one of my student ‘weird sisters’ turns out to be a star of the college football team! I was hoping this might be the case on Friday when Anne and I ran a session of Shakespeare Club in the ornate ballroom of the Duncan Center. The view from the room was direct into the stadium below, where 77,000 Fighting Irish fans cheer on their young heroes in helmets weekly.

Sport is massive here at Notre Dame, in more ways than one, and its football (American) players superstars in the making, if not already. I’m told their helmets are painted with gold leaf. It’s been a treat to have a glimpse at the mind-boggling range and quality of facilities available on campus. Even before our impromptu viewing of the stadium on Friday we’d been treated to the chance to sit on the field itself, at a play reading and forum discussion on the war in Ukraine.

And just this morning, as I walked to the Alumni Stadium to watch the women’s soccer team beat Florida State (4-0) in a lively match with a crowd of around 300, I passed a second football stadium (for practise), a baseball diamond, a lacrosse stadium, an aquatics centre, and an ice rink. Each of these arenas make Selhurst Park look like a Meccano set. (Which it pretty much is, but nevermind). Sport is all here; no wonder Jesus gets a touchdown

So surrounded by it as we are, it was apt to end our week with those that make all this happen – the Shakespeare that is, not the sport – as we gathered round the TV to watch Notre Dame take on BYU in Las Vegas (football, American). I’ll introduce you to the rest of the Shakespeare at ND team another time, but for now thanks to the kind invitation from our general manager, the wonder woman that is Debs Gasper, and her husband, we find ourselves gathered together among friends and family, and the dogs – at home. A reminder that it’s the people we work with here who really make this place special, not the gold leaf and golden domes.

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #3

By Michael Wagg

So foul and.. foul.. a day I have not seen.

Last night during the fight at the end of our play a sword snapped in half. Roger and I battled on as best we could. The swords we use reflect the style of this work and are perhaps slightly less dangerous than the real thing, but still it was a shock and I’m pretty sure I’ve been holding my breath ever since. At least until I plunged into the hot tub this morning. Everything’s fine and we’ll have new swords soon, but it was hard not to see the mishap as a sign of the coming storm.

A hurricane, ridiculously named Ian, has caused devastation in Florida over the past 24 hours, and our thoughts have been with those affected there. We’ve had it a lot less harsh here, but heavy rain, high winds, and wise caution meant that our show was cancelled this evening. We were disappointed, particularly for the students we’ve been working with throughout the week who were due to come and see the show in the intimate Black Box Theatre. Even beyond Shakespeare, we’re told that for many of these students our performance would be their first experience of live theatre, so as much as the cancellation is put into perspective by the hardship and loss in Florida, we still felt the disappointment.

So, sitting here in the shelter of the hotel lobby in Charlotte, North Carolina, we’ve pause for thought, before we head back to base next week for our residency at Notre Dame. I thought I’d take the opportunity to do what I probably should have done long before blog three, and tell you who we are, and what the hell we’re doing here. Some of you reading may have a working knowledge of the AFTLS (Actors From The London Stage) experience, but even so its particular peculiarity is worth remembering; and for those who don’t know here’s, I think, what we’re up to!

Twice a year AFTLS, in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana (Shakespeare at ND) put five UK-based actors in a room in south London for five weeks and hope they’ll neither murder each other nor fail to make a production of a Shakespeare play. The play is decided in advance: in our case, The Tragedy of Macbeth. There’s a playful feeling of being locked in and left to get on with it, like kids in a rather wordy candy store, but the truth is there is great support from the extended company alumni, and particularly now from the magnificent Jennifer Higham.

There is no director in the room; no designer, musical director or stage management. It’s just the five of us left to thrash it out before flying off with what we’ve got to our university venues – in this case a mouthwatering list of nine places. In addition the five, who also control the show budget, can choose to briefly bring in an outside specialist, and we opted for the fight director Philip d’Orléans – a lovely man who appears a sort of Zen-like personification of war and peace.

Beyond that the five of us are the director, designer etc. But rather than thinking of the scenario as having five different directors (which has, let’s be honest, nightmare written all over it) I prefer to think of it as one director split into five complementary parts. And as much as the work is highly collaborative in this way, I think it’s also a lot more than that.

Once the fretful five have finished the five weeks of making, we’re off on the road and in the air, with all the ups and downs that may bring. The need to look after, and out for, each other is absolutely to the fore. I make no apology for quoting Sister Sledge in suggesting that at its best we are (a strange Shakespearian) family! At its worst too, I’m sure. But I feel very lucky to report that I’ve felt fully supported by the other four from the off, and I hope I’m providing the same. I also know that we’re very proud of the show we’ve made. But enough of the niceness; who are these losers?!

There are 31 named characters in Macbeth, plus messengers, soldiers etc, and while we’ve cut a few of them, that means an awful lot of hat-switching, so bear with me:

Roger May plays Macbeth, the bloody Sergeant, Old Man and a messenger, as well as taking the off-stage role of education co-ordinator (in our world, Thane of Education). Claire Redcliffe plays Lady Macbeth, Donalbain, Ross, Fleance, Second Witch, Young Siward and a messenger, and is our Thane of Travel. Annabelle Terry is Banquo, Lennox, the Porter, the Doctor, Son, Menteith, Siward and Hecate, and Thane of Tech. And Anne Odeke takes on Malcolm, Lady Macduff, First Witch, First Murderer, Caithness, the Gentlewoman and a messenger, is Thane of Tech (2) and looks after our hectic social life! Finally, I’m Duncan, Macduff, Third Witch, Second Murderer, Angus and Seyton, while also keeping an eye on Covid guidelines and scribbling here. I also do a lot of swimming… But hang on a minute!

Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my …

I was about to introduce you to our brilliant colleagues at Notre Dame, tell you a bit about the style of these productions and about the other significant part of our work, as the play is just the half of it – but that’ll have to wait for another blog. We’ve just been plunged into darkness, scuppering a competitive game of Exploding Kittens. Power cut. Storm Ian really has got the better of us.

Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood …

I’ll see you in South Bend. All being well.

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #2

By Michael Wagg

Everything this week has come in the shape of the state of Texas. On Tuesday morning at the breakfast bar my waffle was the shape of Texas. I was seduced into thinking this was a treat just for me, but it turns out all waffles here are the shape of Texas. The crisps (chips) we shared before dinner were each the shape of Texas. The shadows cast by the pecan trees, I’m sure are the shape of Texas. I expect if I spill my coffee it will form into… you get the idea. Texas is all around us; and Texas is big.

Over dinner on Monday evening, after we’d arrived from Chicago and our lazy swims in Lake Michigan, our host casually mentioned that Texas is about the size of France. I nearly choked on my Alamo Golden Ale. (Lake Michigan, by the way, is about twice the size of Belgium). I realise I’m experiencing what all comers to America feel at some point, but the sheer scale of this state takes some getting your head around. I’ve been thinking a lot about scale ever since, as my barbecued brain, I’m sure, morphs into the shape of …

Here in San Antonio the sky is huge, the roads even huger, the waffles substantial, and even the poor toad I nearly trod on was a big guy. The welcome we’ve received from everyone we’ve met, on campus and beyond, has also been wholly big-spirited and satisfyingly complete with ‘Howdy y’alls.’ I won’t mention the woman at the chicken shop who shouted at me for approaching the counter, sacrilegiously, on foot! (Car is king here.) The theatre where we opened our show on Wednesday night is sizable too; a recital hall with a generous pipe organ providing our backdrop. This first stab at the show on the tour proper went well. The only mishap was my knocking over a bottle of water, which trickled onto the smooth stage to form a puddle in the shape of …

At this first stop I’ve also been pondering the scale of our journey ahead. We’ll be taking this Scottish story to seven states, plus the bonus of Bermuda; across five times zones, covering something like 21,000 miles (don’t ask me to verify this, it’s a very rough estimate, and all I know is it’s an awful lot of Belgiums)!

The scale of our tale is significant too. It begins on a blasted heath, takes us to the battlefield and from there, deep into the darkest recesses of the mind. At the brutal end of it, as our heroes take their separate tragic roads (colossal freeways) an army of ten thousand moves a forest from one country to another. The fact that there are only four of us to do this makes the task even bigger.

But despite all this, despite the scale of everything, I’ve found it’s the smallness that sticks too. I’m thinking of fleeting moments of, sometimes surprising, contact: the man from Florida who has stopped each of us individually to tell us that many years ago he lived in Ipswich and still remembers snippets of conversation in the local shop. The woman who stopped her car to offer to take a photo of us beside a buffalo-shaped barbecue. The man at reception who has asked all of us if we know Wendy from England?

In the university context too, we’ve all brought back stories of small moments of meeting and response which grow far beyond themselves: this week the five of us have led workshops at the UTSA campus on a wide variety of subjects. Our job is to share our experience of Shakespeare and theatre-making across disciplines, which has led Anne to work with music students on composing in response to Shakespeare’s rhythms; Annabelle to explore Dante’s Divine Comedy; Claire to work on staging with opera singers; and Roger to tackle the art of persuasion, leading to one student improvising the line ‘Hey buddy, I really need your pants!’

I ran a workshop with art students and I’ll treasure the moment I turned round to see a group of three sporting tin hats for a slapstick reading of the weird sisters. The professor wrote to me afterwards that ‘your pleasure in seeing the results of our foolishness, gave us permission to blindly and fearlessly jump right in.’ After the show last night I overheard an opera student who Claire had worked with thanking her with shy sincerity. ‘I will use the exercises you taught me before every performance I do for the rest of my life,’ she said.

I was also lucky enough to have my birthday here in San Antonio (amongst other things, the birthplace of the modern nacho!) and thanks to Claire, Roger, Anne, and Annabelle, as well as Tom Jones visiting from Leicester and the marvelous Prof. Kimberly Fonzo and her husband, it was made extra special. Treated royally to a BBQ by the pool, the things I’ll carry along the road with me, as we head on to North Carolina next week, are these fleeting moments, seemingly small but bigger than the sum of their parts: enthusiasm, openness, kindness. The thoughtfulness of a packet of silly stickers and an oversize cookie. In the shape of … well … a cookie. From big hearts, Texas-shaped.

“Macbeth” Fall 2022 Tour: Entry #1

By Michael Wagg

The only way I can make sense of this whirlwind of a week is to describe it backwards. We’ve arrived in Chicago, at a huge hotel in the thick of the city. Before checking in we stood on the DuSable Bridge, waving back to a wave of Mexican flags, accompanied by an orchestra of honking horns. It’s Mexican Independence Day and the joy is infectious. The horns show no sign of letting up as I head up to my room; the air sings with freedom. On a personal level, we’ve a free weekend ahead of us in this remarkable city, so perhaps we’re attuned to the mood. But the real sharpness of the taste comes from the day’s work just gone.

This morning we previewed our show at the Westville Correctional Facility, Indiana. Around 100 male prisoners gathered in the echoey auditorium to watch our performance of Macbeth. The focus of their listening and the warmth of their welcome was bolstering and humbling. Under shared light and in this shared space we began our bloody story. I’m sure none of the five of us on the concrete stage will ever forget the experience.

This play explores responsibility, fate, searing ambition, ruthless violence, loss and madness, and to play it in such a place, and with such a supportive audience was a profound privilege. This job, in all its various hats, has felt like a rare privilege from the off, but this first stab at it may remain the deepest. Lines rang true in ways that we always strive towards, but in this context were far harder edged. I’m sure we can’t really know the truth of it – but, for example, as our Macbeth cried ‘full of scorpions is my mind’ we noted one man nod in gentle agreement, as if Shakespeare’s words were describing something he felt all too acutely. And as we left the prison another man approached two of us and said quietly ‘thank you for the two hours freedom – the freedom here’ and gently tapped his head.

For most of this week we’ve been in a very different place, on the smartly manicured campus of the University of Notre Dame for our final rehearsal week, where chipmunks have cheered us on and the brilliant-red cardinal bird has showed us the way.

Steeped in the bloody business of Macbeth, for a good part of the week we’ve been trying to sort out the banquet scene. It’s a conundrum, and I’ve come to think of it as the AFTLS experience in a nutshell: There are six chairs. There are five actors. One of the actors never sits down. The other four actors are playing six characters, which means that while there are two empty chairs, in the world of the play those chairs aren’t empty at all, their occupiers kept alive by the deftest of turns. But in this case, one of the two is a vision, seen by the character standing but not by the five sitting. So one empty chair is not empty, while the other one is empty to some and not to others. I won’t blame you if you’re not following this – we too have often lost the thread – but add Banquo’s ghost to the mix and this is AFTLS… WRIT LARGE.

I might come back to the multi-rolling aspect of the work (otherwise known as ‘Annabelle Terry talks to herself’) in another blog, as in the coming weeks I hope to explore some of the particular aspects of this wonderfully peculiar and many-faceted job. One week I might look at the work we do with students; another week how our show is self-directed. I might explore the world of pretzel bites, or the opening hours of Taco Bell, or how to move a wood from one country to another… or beer… that’s very likely, Annabelle has already snapped me staring lovingly at a mash tun at the Crooked Ewe Brewery. So if you have suggestions for things you’d like covering, or you’d just like to stop me banging on about beer, then let me know (at the links below, or my twitter @michaelwagg). I will also introduce you to our cast and fantastic colleagues at Shakespeare at Notre Dame, but in the spirit of going backwards, I’ll leave that for later.

I hope there’ll be plenty of giggles along the way, and the truth is we’ve spent most of this first week with impossibly broad smiles on our faces, but as my head hits the pillow I think again of freedom and privilege. We are grateful to be taking this great play across America. The poetic worlds it opens up and the real world of travel across time zones is liberating. At the end of the play I, as Macduff announce ‘the time is free.’ It certainly feels like that as the honking horns continue to shout out over Lake Michigan. But our day’s work has shown us something else. Something stark and complex. That ‘two truths are told’ certainly – and many more.