Much Ado Actor Blog: San Antonio

Around the shows in San Antonio we had a little time for tourism. The Alamo was first on the list. I never really understood what it was or why we are exhorted to “remember” it. It’s a mission where Davy Crockett and a small group of tough men fought off a ridiculously large opposing force while waiting for reinforcements that never came. Their sacrifice later ensured that it was retaken, but too late for the men who held out. So we remember them. There’s a terrifically gutsy letter stating their intent to hold out till the last man. The gift shop houses a beautiful model of the conflict as imagined. I found it the best means on site to picture the true circumstances of the siege and fall. As with so many of these places it is hard to make sense of the moment or period that made them famous against the backdrop of nattering tourists. I found myself suffering from the eternal tourist hypocrisy “I wish there weren’t so many bloody tourists around so I could take this place in properly.”

Outside of The Alamo, the thing that is mentioned most frequently in San Antonio is The River walk. It’s a landscaping feat, a deliberate spend with an eye to earning. They’ve made the urban river scape very attractive and arty, and inevitably the chain restaurants have started to shoulder in to the more central parts, filling the banks with Mariachi bands that come and bother you at your table, and smiling maître d’hôtels waiting outside restaurants attempting to lure you inside with their shiny shiny teeth. Further out of town the places come fewer and further between and grow more beautiful and unique. The fear is, of course, that the sprawl of commercialism will slowly creep up the river and homogenise it as it goes. But for now it is quirky and attractive and I would gladly spend time there, even in the central bit, which put me in mind of parts of The South Bank on a London summer.
Claire on the river walk

We also got taken to The Oldest Dance Hall in Texas. Finished as long ago as 1878… The town where it sits, New Braunfels, was abandoned for a while and then recolonised, so the architecture, preserved now, is familiar to anyone who has watched a film about the old west. And in culture it’s very Germanic. Something I had not anticipated is how Germanised this whole region of Texas is. There are loads of places to buy Bratwurst which pleased me having spent so much of my childhood in The Graubünden. It being October, the Oktoberfest is being celebrated in much of Texas, which makes it quite hard not to drink beer. We certainly had no trouble doing so in the dance hall, before dancing like lunatics for hours. The five of us definitely know how to smash a good dance night. Although considering it was our night off, we all slightly regretted running around like hyperactive children for four hours when we could have lain in bed with a cup of tea.

UTSA Texas San Antonio was good to us. The faculty were fun and did their utmost to keep us occupied, and entertained when we were not occupied. The shows themselves were in a functional and eccentric theatre, well received by the audiences which grew nightly, and sparky and fulfilling as ever to perform. And the acoustic in the theatre was pindrop, which meant we could pull back and really listen. Wellesley College now in Massachusetts. A bigger, older space to play. And an almost entirely female audience to play to…

Much Ado Actor Blog: Talking to Strangers

San Antonio Texas. Big America. The South West, close to the border with Mexico. The heat hits us like a warm cherry pie as we exit the plane. I regret not owning any shorts, and precious few summer shirts. I packed for Autumn. And Claire? Claire is clutching her hand luggage, which has been ferried down the plane to her by a collection of large Texan men. “What y’all got in there?” “Oh, I don’t know. Loads of stuff.” 1 million cardigans and a toothbrush.

In Texas, we drive. You wanna go to the shop? Drive. You wanna go to the bar? Drive. You wanna go to the bathroom? Drive. We are shuttled 100 metres from the airport to the car hire. In the car hire, Paul meets a lovely lady called Carolyn. “The lovely lady that works in the parking lot, she wants to come and see the show!” he beams. How delightful.

Disgorged into a hotel room that has the vague odour of death and grilled chicken, I hold my breath and plan my lessons. Then,escaping the room, I explore the local area. There’s a bar that looks good, and a place that sells actual salad. Sure they give you bread, lard, refined sugar, and a whole cow if you ask. But you don’t have to ask. And the salad is salady. It consists of leaves and healthy things. Yum. Then, returning to the hotel the back way, I find the hotel pool.
Two days later, Georgina and I are still sitting by the pool. It is clean and so hot it’s a miracle it hasn’t evaporated. It has a great view of a parking lot. I have occasionally taken time off the pool to go into the college and run a class. But for the most part, the pool. Although we do manage to pull ourselves away from it to do our first show. About 230 in the house. A little emptier than Utah. But it goes well. And one of the audience is lovely Carolyn, from the car hire. After the show, she has invited herself to come sit with us. By the pool.

“If I’d known you were coming back here, I’d have taken you to a real house. With food. I’d have cooked you kidneys, so you’d feel right at home. That’s what you guys eat, huh? Kidneys? And sh*t like that?” opens lovely Carolyn. “Come on, what sort of sh*t DO you eat?” she continues, before ensuring that all of us feel bad about our diet. It’s alright though, because the diet in America is bad, she concedes, but there’s less protein. Which is why we’re all so thin.

Lovely Carolyn is curious. “Would you kill someone for money?” If we say no we are liars. She uses herself as an illustration. “You,” she smiles to Jack, “I’d kill you, for what you did tonight, playing a woman like that. I would actually shoot you. Shoot you dead.” Jack has based his Margaret on his scouse auntie. It’s familiar to me, and delightfully done. Lovely Carolyn thinks it isn’t womanly enough. I don’t think she means the threat but it hits us strangely. Then she thinks for a while. “This thing you do. This Shakespeare. You know, if one of my children wanted to do that crap, I would beat it out of them. MY CHILDREN? Oh I would beat them so hard. But you? You’ve all given your LIVES to it. Your LIVES.” We are silent, perhaps contemplating our own struggle with our parents, perhaps thinking what might be right to say, perhaps thinking about the truth in her words. Lovely Carolyn is concerned her point hasn’t landed. To be absolutely clear she repeats it. “Your lives. You’ve given your whole lives to that sh*t.”

The conversation drifts to prisons, “If they’re in there they should have NOTHING good. They need to be punished, and punished hard.” It covers a range of topics. Lovely Carolyn has something negative to say about all of them. She makes it clear she has enjoyed the play, though, and it appears she is unaware of how unfamiliar her provocative conversation is. We are rinsed, though, especially after the show. But too polite to ask her to stop bombarding us. So we all simultaneously (and honestly) apologise that we are tired and want to go to bed. Lovely Carolyn gets a photo taken with us, perhaps to stick on her hit list, apologises (“I don’t get out much.”) and vanishes into the night. We all separately and wordlessly collapse.

I love Texas. The food. The heat. The audience. The students. The pool. The next day, before class I am talking to Mark, the professor, and he says this to me: “I learnt a long time ago in this country not to talk to strangers.” You’d think being from London that we would know better. But we don’t. Perhaps we’ll never learn. And perhaps that’s for the best.

Much Ado Actor Blog: Utah Saints

On a sweltering Tuesday morning, myself and Jack Whitam trundled up to the campus at Brigham Young University to tech into the outdoor space. The first thing we had to do was get them to move all the seats about four foot closer to the stage, as they were laid out as if we were there to play a pop concert. That done, I wandered off into the campus to get myself a coffee. Two hours later, shaking with deprivation, it finally occurred to me that the Mormons don’t touch caffeine and this being a Mormon campus there was no coffee to be had. A campus without coffee. Hard to imagine, but there it is.

Our first night was sold out and we played in the calm warm evening to a lovely generous crowd. The second night they had brought in loads more chairs, and without any warning we found ourselves playing more or less completely in the round. Lovely to feel sought after like that. And fascinating to be forced to take in such a wide audience having built the show with an end on crowd in mind. The clouds were louring upon us though, and sure enough as the first half drew to a close the opening drops of a full on downpour were just beginning to pitterpatter onto our noses. The floodlights they had rented for us were the kind that explode when wet, so it made sense to move indoors. We were thrown into the second half end on in an unfamiliar theatre, contemplating a completely full house and a different acoustic. Of course we smashed it, and for the first time in America they forced us back on for an extra bow. All this enthusiasm is too much for our English brains to compute. But it’s certainly delightful. And by the time we had finished the last matinee on Saturday, sold out again, we were all a little bit in love with the Mormons.

Owing to the magic of social media, a man who I occasionally geek out about Homer with on twitter invited me to speak to his class about Shakespeare. So I found myself at Karl G Maeser prep school, talking to a class full of smart and enthusiastic kids. At the end one of the teachers said “Show us some of your quality.” A little confrontational, I thought, but ok. Fine. Being a geek and fond of adrenaline I said “Which play do you want me to do a bit from then?” DangerAl. He could’ve stitched me up by saying Timon of Athens. But he said Merchant of Venice. SCORE. I could then cheekily ask, “Do you want a prose speech or a verse speech?” He said prose. I did about half of the old Shylock “if you prick us”, although I forgot a chunk. Then full of adrenaline I said “I’ll do a verse one too from the same play, and then smashed Shylock’s long response to Antonio on the Rialto. Being a geek is handy sometimes. Here we all are after the lesson. I disguised myself as an academic.

Karl G Maeser

The teacher that put me on the spot is so fond of Shakespeare he had a Shakespeare tie, a Shakespeare shirt, and an array of Shakespeare badges. Another academic I met later at Brigham Young said “I like to call him Bill.” I almost responded with ” I think the evidence points to him preferring to be called Will, actually, hem hem”. I managed to stop myself by the skin of my teeth, so am saying it here instead. But generally, they love Shakespeare in Utah. There’s a Shakespeare festival, a replica Elizabethan theatre down south, and someone even thrusting some copies of their play “Much Ado About Love” into my hands after a show. It calls itself “A romantic comedy in Shakespeare’s verse.” A Frankenspeare’s monster of a play. We are going to read it later. Actually it seems rather lovely. (Edit: Having read it now, it is an extraordinary labour of love.)

I did the bulk of my teaching on the final day, running some voice classes with the acting students, and trying to give them a simple basis of connection with the breath through text use. They were smart and responsive, and brave. This is the first time AFTLS has been to Brigham Young, but if this visit is anything to go by, it won’t be the last. And it’s been the perfect friendly start to our touring section. Next week, University of Texas, San Antonio, October the 1st, 3rd and 4th at 7.30 in the Recital Hall.

(And because I grew up in the nineties, I give you the hilarious mawkish dance track that has been on my mind the whole week, by Utah Saints. Who are from Harrogate, Yorkshire: )

Much Ado Actor Blog: Arrival in Utah

As dawn broke in Chicago five tired actors bundled into a cab and headed towards the airport. After a (rare) game of Squinties, (see footnote) we flew to Denver. Our connecting flight to Salt Lake City was delayed, so by the time we arrived in Utah we were considerably behind schedule. Moises was waiting for us at the airport. When we met him he looked momentarily surprised and then bustled us off to the car hire. We had a few issues regarding the billing for the car hire, which further agitated Moises. It probably didn’t help that we kept inadvertently singing the first few bars of various songs from The Book of Mormon. Which we felt terrible about. But it was unavoidable. It’s like when you meet someone called Eileen.

Eventually we were ready to head off into the mountains. We had a deadline to make. The deadline was close. Moises was very aware of the deadline. There were many cars on the freeway. Moises decided he was going to be the fastest, irrespective of which lane he was in and which side of the car he was passing. Red lights? Moises scorned such petty fripperies. Signals? Only if absolutely necessary. They take too much time. Brakes? What are brakes?

We arrived sweating and quivering at the hotel. Moises came up to us, for all the world like we have just had a lovely walk in the park. “Well, we made it in time. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes to escort you to the university.” “Th-th-th-thanks…”

By the time we arrived at the faculty meeting we were pretty much spent. Thankfully the faculty were lovely, and before long, with some prompting, they realised that we desperately needed water and found some for us. We’ll be doing the show at Brigham Young University. Brigham was the founder of Salt Lake City, and president of the Mormons. This is a photo of him.

Brigham Young

Despite this, beards are banned on campus, which might be an explanation of why Moises did that double take at the airport. It also means that we are unable to disguise ourselves as Mormons and seamlessly blend in.

Everyone here is lovely, and healthy looking. The Mormons don’t drink alcohol or caffeine, I think. Although I have a strong suspicion that many of them are consequently addicted to sugar. My first meal was grilled chicken. With candied bacon. On a sugar waffle. Covered with maple syrup. I managed about half of it. This sugar addiction would perhaps make sense of the speed at which people drive; (“YAHOOOOOOOO!!!”) And also how much positive energy everyone seems to have. (“I JUST FEEL SOOO GOOD RIGHT NOW!!!”) And it has driven the market for the widest variety of soft drinks I have ever witnessed. About 50 different kinds of root beer were laid out on shelves at the back of the restaurant. It’s great. When I took a year off booze in London my options were watered down Coke for 700 quid a glass, or tired orange juice made out of food colouring and drain water. Had I been in Utah I probably would have lasted more than a year.

And Utah is stunning. I drove to Bryce Canyon yesterday, which is a 7 hour round trip. It’s huge. It’s gorgeous. Just astronomical. Lovely people. Lovely countryside. Food?

Our first Utah show will be tonight, Thursday 25th September at 7pm on an outdoor stage in Mary Lou Fulton Plaza. Tomorrow, same time same place. I’m curious to see what being outdoors will do to the show. We shall see. It’ll be a work out for our voices for sure. Saturday’s show is at 2pm, indoors, at The Pardoe. They keep us on our toes.

Footnote: (To play Squinties, you need two or more sensitive people. Squinties can be played at any time, anywhere, but if anyone notices they are playing then they lose. The game begins when one sensitive person inadvertently upsets another one. A common response is to inadvertently upset back. Continuation of the game can take many forms, always assuming that nobody has yet noticed they are playing. The only move that is disallowed is actual violence. Any actual violence will automatically end the game of Squinties in a draw and start a game of Hospital Tag which is no fun as nobody wins, although everybody gets a present. Squinties is won when someone says, preferably while squinting “Oh, is there tension? I hadn’t noticed”. The more one can sound like Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the better the win is considered to be.)

(By Al Barclay)

Much Ado Actor Blog: Chicago

Before Utah and after Indiana, AFTLS, being lovely, booked us a hotel in downtown Chicago for the weekend. We arrived on Saturday evening. Five English actors, 32 hours. 0 clue about Chicago. We did, however, have the stated intention to “do” it. And whatever it is, I am satisfied that it was done.

It’s a lovely thing about this group. We don’t want to let the tour slip by and only remember the shows and the interior of bars. We want to properly experience the places we go to. In America properly experiencing things usually involves eating so running is still a priority generally in the mornings, but we’re all managing it.

The Signature Lounge first, just as the sun set, for cocktails. We somehow lucked in to the best seats in the house, in a corner by the window, with an unparalleled view of the skyline from the 95th floor. It was very possibly because the guy at the bottom of the stairs who was managing the queue said to me, then Jack, then Paul as he checked our passports “Oh, you’re English. Oh and it’s your birthday soon?”. Useful to have three company members with birthdays so close together.

No trip to Chicago is real without a Deep Dish. We arrived at Lou Malnatis tired and drunk. We still had a great pizza, loads of Revolution IPA, and were up early the next morning for an Architectural Boat tour. Or most of us. But to be fair, Jack had done it before. Fascinating the time and thought that went into the reconstruction of the city. And my neck, in that cliched fashion, was genuinely hurting from all the looking up.

Then here we are at The Bean, getting all hands on with a great piece of public art.
The Bean
After which I snuck off on my own to Looking Glass Theatre to see what sort of thing they’re making in Chicago. I watched Death Tax which was great, and passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. It was a really tightly drilled piece about Death and Family and Money. The actors worked with great simplicity and focus, and every word pinged out. I was very glad to have seen it.

Back to the others, wind, coffee more wind, a man called Larry who was smitten with Claire, and a wander over to Navy Pier, a bit more wind, out of which we emerged half asleep and panting at a ridiculously awesome pasta place. Shoving pasta into our semiconscious faces, we reluctantly decided to relinquish the blues bar because we knew we had to get up early. But Chicago. My kind of town. We did you.