Our next residency was at the University of Wyoming in the city of Laramie. Quite a contrast from up-state New York. It is, to British eyes at least, real cowboy country. From the hotel we could see the University complete with the motif of this state – a cowboy riding a bronco.
We were here as part of the University of Wyoming’s Shakespeare Project, a mini-festival of three student productions of Shakespeare’s popular comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice.
These productions used fifteen drama majors and were done in exactly the same style as our Macbeth – five actors, twenty odd roles in each play. The slight difference was that these shows had directors, all of whom were AFTLS alums: Roger May who directed The Dream, Paul O’Mahoney who worked on Much Ado, and Alinka Wright in charge of Merchant. These three were here as part of the Eminent Artist-in-Residence Endowment and had been working with the students for about six weeks. They had been invited here, along with ourselves, by Leigh Selting who is Head of the Drama Department at the University of Wyoming.
To get here we had to catch a 6am flight from New York, which meant we expected to be pretty drowsy the following day. At the time we were picked up to go to the airport to we weren’t even sure whether the flight would take off. In weather like this you just have to go to the airport and hope for the best. We were lucky and the flight was on time.
Once at Denver we were driven across the Rocky Mountains to Laramie in a shuttle bus where the driver informed us we were about seven and a half thousand feet above sea level. The air is thin up here, although at that time I didn’t notice any difference. More of that later…
Upon arriving in Laramie we met the Residency Coordinator Leigh Selting whose house was where the faculty meeting was to take place. Most of us were a little bleary eyed but the welcome was warm and thankfully Leigh had organized food which went down very well. Thanks for that.
The following morning began with two rather unusual classes, each just over an hour long with two hundred and ten students per class sitting in a lecture hall. We don’t really do lectures as such and prefer to get the students up and acting although with space being tight this required lateral thinking from us and good will from them. We were told many of them would be ranchers, farmers, and military, so we weren’t sure how they would react. As it happened, a more positive group you couldn’t wish for, all getting involved and some coming down to the front and really going for it in some improv exercises we set up. Highly entertaining.
Jo then taught them the first witches scene of Macbeth. This scene seems to lend itself to no end of variations in performance: bikers, old folks, cheerleaders, it doesn’t matter – all seem to work and all are funny, in fact the more outlandish the better.
Our evenings were spent watching the student shows which were by turns charming, exciting and amazingly skilled. It was plainly a great experience for all those young actors as they must have felt they were not only expressing themselves dramatically but also artistically as they had to a large degree created the shows under the guidance of their directors. This no doubt would have given them ownership of each play over and above a more ‘traditional’ rehearsal process.
This week we were finally given some leniency from the weather, reaching the upper 50s with blue skies and the chance to sit outside with a coffee not huddled in Starbucks clad in thermals. Some of us took to the hotel fitness centre and I was surprised to find I couldn’t last more than about three minutes on the running machine before being doubled over and gasping for air. Was I that out of shape? Then a guy on the cycling machine turned and drawled, “Welcome to 7200 feet.” This suddenly became a concern as on the Saturday we had to do two performances and our production is pretty physical, some of the speeches and the fights require a lot of puff even at sea level but half way up a mountain? We’ll be panting for air before the first interval. Hope for the best I suppose.
Scott Jackson, our producer and Executive Director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, came midweek to join us and to see the Shakespeare Project for himself. Always great to see him.
Saturday came and we tried to relax in the morning keeping energy levels good. The first show went well, and as we hadn’t done it for a week were ready to go. Thankfully we were able to get through it without too much altitude strain thanks to the brilliant acoustic in the Buchanan Center for the Performing Arts. We enjoyed ourselves though and thankfully the sell-out audiences were, as ever, responsive and warm in their applause. They had been the same all week with the student shows, which is hardly surprising as their achievement was high.
After the second performance there was a party that to thank the three directors of the student productions, the students themselves, and indeed to everyone who was involved in the whole project including Ruby Calvert and Jennifer Amend from Wyoming PBS who were wonderful company. Primarily the main thanks goes to the President of the University, Richard McGinity, who was prepared to back the project and whose witty and modest speech charmed us all, and in particular to Leigh Selting whose ideas and inspiration originated the festival.