“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #4

By Sam Hill

Grace College couldn’t be more of a change from Purdue. Whereas Purdue is a public university with 54,000 students, Grace is a private, Christian university with less than 2,000. The students attend chapel three times a week. It is a small, intimate campus; pretty, and the students smile at you as you walk by.

The students here are beyond friendly. Every need, every request is met with a smile and a ‘no problem at all’ or a ‘sure!’ Campus is easy to navigate, but of course I still got lost. Two very kind students escorted me to my class, which happened to be a Spanish class. I was particularly excited for this class as Elena, the teacher, had asked me during my meeting, ‘Do you like pastries?’ Is the Pope a Catholic? I had expected one pastry, but Elena had brought in an entire platter of Mexican pastries from a local baker. Gracias Dios.

Grace is situated near Winona Lake. Of course, when I say lake, I mean an American lake, which to an English person looks more like a small sea. Around the lake are trails through the woods that wind, like a rattlesnake, around the campus. Lucy and I headed out for a run and dodged, ducked, dipped, dived and dodged (guess the film?) through the Indiana countryside.

We have had the great privilege of being given access to the canteen here. Which means we get free, healthy food, I cannot emphasise how much of a blessing this is for us. The food is good quality, with plenty of vegetables on offer, which, in America, can be hard to come by. We get asked a lot about British cuisine and its terrible international reputation. I don’t want to seem defensive and trust me I LOVE U.S food, especially Culvers and the warm cookies they have at the canteen here. But British food has come a long way in the last 20 years or so. London has a wide array of different cuisines from all around the world. And look, I just feel the need to point out that a few U.S foods are just plain weird. If you’ll humour me….

Example A: Biscuits and gravy. These are a sort of a savoury scone with a meat sauce. I do not know what ‘meat’ goes into the ‘meat sauce’ but the fact that it is hard to tell, tells any reader what to expect.

Example B: Pickled sausage, I made the mistake of getting a pickled sausage from a store. What can I say, I love Jerky and Biltong, I thought this would be in the same ball-park, but it is not. All I can say is “no, no, no, never again”.

Example C: Pickles. Some pickles here are excellent. The pickled cucumbers you get with your burger. SUBLIME! But some of the pickles you get have a very strange mix of flavours. They taste sort of cinnamon-like, giving the gherkins a bizarre Christmas flavour. That’s the only way I can describe it. Christmas in a jar. But not a good Christmas, the kind of Christmas where everyone argues… and drinks too much… and someone burns the turkey.

Anyway, diatribe over…

It’s a big weekend this weekend as it is the Super Bowl. The biggest game in American sports. The 49ers and the Chiefs take on each other. The American way seems to be to throw a Super Bowl party so we threw our very own party in the hotel. We decked the lobby out with a case of beers, chips-n- dip, and wings. Did you know an expected 1.4 billion wings get eaten during the Super Bowl? Most of our snacks were very kindly brought by our new friend Niki, who worked at the hotel. We were also joined by our wonderful Techie Chris, who had done all our lighting, as well as being a general legend. We were all surprised by how much we enjoyed the game itself. The game stops an awful lot, but the entertainment doesn’t-with A-List celebrities appearing in the adverts, Usher doing the half time show and everyone chatting as the game unfolds. Although sadly the Chiefs won (I wanted the 49ers to win), we were very happy to have had experienced our own slice of American culture.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #3

By Sam Hill

We arrived at Purdue University, a prestigious public university in West Lafayette, Indiana. We were immediately impressed by… the hotel!! The on-campus hotel is a fantastic 4-star establishment staffed predominantly by students and alumni. We excitedly ran into our rooms like kids on their first holiday. I even had a little jump on the bed- I’m 29 years old… We were even more delighted to discover that there was a bar in the hotel serving an excellent cocktail list and an impressive collection of Japanese whisky and scotch. I could feel my wallet getting lighter already, not that it was particularly heavy in the first place…

The campus here is massive and the rapidly growing student body numbers around 54,000 students. Purdue is a university primarily focused on engineering and is proud to have produced more astronauts than any other university in the U.S (possibly the world??) including Neil Armstrong. You may well ask, “what can a group of actors, teaching classes on Shakespeare, do for students who are looking to start careers in Engineering?”. Well, quite a lot. Most jobs involve presenting in some capacity: pitching your ideas to other people, selling your product, making a power point presentation and more. We teach students to present their ideas confidently, articulately and with ease. Shakespeare’s language is specific and conveys exactly what the author wants to say, by studying Shakespeare, students learn the importance of being specific and accurate in their communication with others. I would argue that if you master these skills before you enter the professional world, little will stand in your way.

Purdue has been a week of great questions. My favourites are the questions about England. These include, “have you ever ridden a double decker bus?” (yes). “Have you ever had Vimto?” (Yes). Do you prefer dogs or frogs? (sorry what?!). But my personal favourite goes to Cooper, in the Q and A after our performance for school children, Cooper asked, ‘why is Bottom so funny?’ Cooper, I would say you made my day, but I think its more accurate to say you made my whole year, thank you!

Our final performance finished, we went to the Boiler Maker Bar and relaxed with a cocktail. However, we were all exhausted after a great week of teaching and performing so retired to bed (relatively early). After a lie-in, we were fresh and wondered into down-town West Lafayette. Two audience members, Linda and Cliff, had invited us to see Artist’s Own: an independent art gallery. Linda was one of a group of local artists who ran the gallery. What an experience that turned out to be. We saw pottery, lovingly made by local artists, a mind-blowing exhibition of pieces by local high schoolers, as well as paintings and jewelry.

Cliff, Linda’s husband, had literally retired two days before. He was (and clearly at heart still is!) a scientist specialising in insects. Cliff told me about the Cicada Broods about to emerge in the U.S this year. In brief, Cicada’s are a grasshopper-like insect that spend years hibernating underground. A ‘brood’ of Cicadas will hibernate for a set number of years. One brood might hibernate for 13 years, another brood might hibernate for 17 years. Here comes the interesting part: this year Brood XIII and Brood XIX will emerge at the same time. They will dig tunnels to the surface and swarm the local area, but there is a crossover zone in parts of Indiana and Illinois, where both broods will converge and emerge at the same time. The last time a double Cicada brood emerged in the US, the year was 1803, Thomas Jefferson was president and George III sat on the throne of England.

Anyway, that is plenty from me! Cliff and Linda, thank you for your kindness, we hope to see you in London! Now on to Grace College, our final stop in Indiana.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #2

By Sam Hill

This week saw the beginning of our proper work at Notre Dame: teaching and performing. Professors invite us into their class to share our experiences of performing with the students. Normally, this consists of helping the students to explore Shakespeare like an actor would: through playfulness, games and getting the text up on its feet. We LOVE the students. They are so kind, willing, attentive, and welcoming. They regularly make our days with their wit, charm, and talent.

The other half of our work here is performing. We had an excellent question from a young man at De Paul Academy in a post-show Q&A. He asked ‘how would you rate your nerves out of ten?’ We all were essentially on the same page. For the first night, we were all in the 8s and 9s but by the second night we felt quite at home. Another excellent question I had from a student was, ‘what’s the difference between English and American audiences?’ There is a world of difference! First of all, American audiences tend to get to their feet at the end of a show, whereas, normally English audiences stay sat. I could get very used to the audience on their feet every night, I can tell you.

The week has generally been so busy that there has been little time to explore or even see my fellow cast mates! I managed to do some site seeing around campus. I (typical me) left to leave my phone in one of my classes at St Mary’s College. As I don’t drive, I decided to don my running gear (which now includes a Notre Dame running top which I wear with immense pride) and jog back to St Mary’s to collect my phone. En route, I visited the Basilica (stunning), the Golden Dome (stunning) and the Grotto (also stunning). I arrived at the class in a state of energetic sweatiness and spirituality, just as the Professor said to her class ‘the thing about travelling minstrels is…’ I collected my phone and left them to it.

Saturday saw our final performance, which we loved but also, it saw all five of us working with the ‘Not So Royal Shakespeare’ group a student run theatre company based at Notre Dame. These young, passionate and dedicated students made our week. I would like to offer a special shout out to Isabel, Ryan and Hannah who drew the short straw and had to work with me (I’m really sorry if the spelling of your names isn’t correct, I should have asked on the day, but was too caught up in your wonderful monologues!).Thank you for your passion and willingness to throw yourself into the crazy exercises I set you.

We left Notre Dame feeling like we were leaving our own homes. We had got so used to the Golden Dome, the Grotto, the pretzel bites at O’Rourke’s, and indeed the wonderful Notre Dame team: Scott, Deb, Jenny and Jason. We all want to thank you for making our first residency so special- we miss you, we miss the students, we miss Notre Dame!

P.S why are pretzel bites so good??

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #1

By Sam Hill

I’ll put a girdle about the earth in 40 minutes.

If only…

I had a lie in the day we flew. I got up at 6:00am. My castmates (and now, after 5 weeks of rehearsals, my friends!) got up at 5:00am. I met Natasha by the taxi and we loaded our suitcases like a game of Tetris into the boot. On arrival at the airport, we of course, had a drink. For those not familiar with British drinking culture, morning drinking is acceptable at Christmas and at airports. Why it has developed that way I cannot say.

Our flight got off to a rip-roaring start with a 3 hour delay. We had actually boarded the plane at this point, but were grounded at Heathrow. I looked despondently at the little airplane on my screen which should be inching its way across England, over Ireland, skimming the Atlantic to Canada, and then sliding, smoothly down into Chicago.

We did eventually take off and 8 hours and three films later, landed, without so much
as a bump.

OH MY. THE. COLD. Leaving Chicago airport felt like walking out into The Day After Tomorrow. The door to our taxi had frozen over, as had the door to the plane which had caused another delay getting our luggage. We did manage to pry open the taxi door and get huddled into the cab. A two hour drive took us to our hotel and then, finally, we looked at each other wearily and softly said ‘sweet friends, to bed’. Actually, we didn’t say that, but I kind of wish we had.

The following week was a rehearsal week punctuated with tax meetings, bank meetings, faculty meetings and other administrative duties. As well as getting used to the time difference which hit us surprisingly hard. Our bodies felt 6 hours ahead at all times. Most of us were waking up at about 4:00am and have to try to stay in bed until at least 7:00. We are very lucky that Lucy is also a personal trainer and have been enjoying gym sessions in the morning.

On Thursday we went to the Crooked Ewe brewery. The ‘who am I’ beer is one of the best I’ve ever tasted and we were treated to mountains of food. Our eyes shone as plates of brisket, fries, burgers, tacos, poutine and more were placed before us. The food from the American TV shows of our childhood was suddenly in front of us and we did not stand upon ceremony. Talk quickly turned to Shakespeare. The challenge being to answer the following:

1) Which is the best Shakespeare play?
2) Which is your personal favourite?
3) Which play would you not touch with a 20 ft pole.

I answered:

1) King Lear
2) Twelfth Night
3) Cymbeline

I confess I have changed my mind about five times on this.

The end of week one involved a weekend trip to Chicago. Jen, a member of Shakespeare at Notre Dame team, took us from South Bend to the Windy City and she did so with patience, grace and expert snow-driving. Our first stop was the Art Institute which left us all speechless. Anna described it perfectly as being as if the National Gallery, the Tate Modern and V&A had been rolled into one. The next day we went to a brunch place in Andersonville which had French Toast so perfect it looked like it has been taken out of a cartoon (Note to self: you can’t only talk about food on the blog). We finished our trip watching a band at Andy’s Jazz bar, sipping a Cocktail. Life back in dreary England is going to be tough after this.

Post-Script: A Warning to the Curious
I had a pickle back in Chicago. I expected it to be more than the sum of its parts. By which I mean, I expected the combination of Whisky followed immediately by Pickle Juice to create a new flavour which I had not experienced. I can only say this is dramatically not the case. It tastes exactly like a whisky followed by pickle juice. I feel obliged to inform people of this. Thank you. Over and out.

Setting the Scene: The Scenic Design of “Hamlet 50/50”

By Jennifer Thorup Birkett

Scenic designer Marcus Stephens describes the moment in which he heard the Hamlet 50/50 pitch as an “ah-ha moment,” a long-sought-after solution to a perennial problem regarding the casting of male-presenting actors and the lack of female roles. But he also saw the project as a way to not merely keep Shakespeare alive, but to keep Shakespeare relevant and to address the current climate of union strikes and work equity in the arts.

While designing, Stephens kept two phrases in mind: utility and original practice. “Original practice” refers to the ways in which Shakespeare’s company originally utilized a theater’s resources (trap doors, canons, etc) to stage their productions. In designing the set for Hamlet 50/50, Stephens sought a negotiation between the past and the present and a celebration of the practical / the reusable. For inspiration, Stephens looked to intellectual and aesthetic movements such as the Russian revolution and Nordic minimalism (think IKEA storage solutions). The result is a set which celebrates texture, honest materials, and clean lines.

In building the set, Stephens and technical director / scenic artist Jeff Szymanowski focused on maneuverability and actor interaction, wanting to give more ownership to the players on the stage. Although initially appearing as one connected structure, doors open, and panels pull away to create separate spaces. In many ways, the set is a collection of building blocks all working together to tell a story–much like the cast itself.

It is easy to hear metaphors of the 50/50 project ringing throughout Szymanowski’s building process as he discusses the need for extra support when wooden framing, which is typically hidden, moves into a more central role. Notions of equitable practice and distribution of labor come forth as Szymanowski discusses uniting two 1x pieces of wood, rather than simply use 1 2x, as a way to lighten the load and ultimately make the structure stronger. From the design, to the construction, and eventually to the movement by the actors on the stage, this set is a beautiful example of teamwork and practicality.