As You Like It – Final Actors’ Post

Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, Meet me at the Fair.
Don’t tell me the lights are shining, anyplace but there.

For the final week of the tour, Team AYLI headed to St. Louis for the SAA Conference.  When we embarked on this tour back at the end of Jan, St Louis seemed like a distant landmark. I remember talking about going to the top of the Arch with Aaron, the Marketing Manager, back in O’Rourkes after the first show in Notre Dame; and wondering if I would be courageous enough to brave both the height and the enclosed space of the tram car.  Tuesday morning was D Day and it was a breeze…though also slightly breezy at the top and disconcerting to feel ground swaying beneath me.

The Arch in St. Louis

It was a great privilege to spend the week working alongside so many eminent scholars of the Bard. It was terrific to once again see Alan Dessen, who was so instrumental in taking care of the company back in the 90s and to meet Audrey Stanley, a wonderful actor, director and scholar who is battling to keep Santa Cruz Shakespeare alive and kicking in their beautiful venue on the West Coast.

I couldn’t help thinking how delighted Will would be to see so many folks, from so many countries, gathered together to share their responses to his work. We had slightly wondered how many of them would be interested enough in the actor’s perspective to come to the workshops and were delighted to see so many throughout the week. As ever, the order of the day was to offer the chance to practically engage with the text. We ran workshops on gender, verse and prose, multi-role playing and collaborative direction and, at each session, our aim was to offer exercises that actively explored these concepts rather than seated discussion.

One of the great joys of Shakespeare is the variety of perspectives, ideas and responses generated by his words. At every point of the Conference, there were multiple seminars happening, covering a multitude of concepts, ideas and interpretations. It is interesting though, that as soon as the words are performed, it is necessary to make a choice: to play the character and the situation as you see them. There is something magical about seeing the choices come alive as ACTION, and we saw that time and again this week. As Dan said in his session, it’s called a “play” for a reason and it was terrific to see so many great minds approach the words with a sense of play and to test ideas and choices with a sense of fun.

city-museumDowntown St Louis has its own temple to fun, play and creativity in The City Museum. A treasure trove of caves, climbing, sliding, and spectacle for kids of all ages. I conquered my cowardice for the second time in a week, to tackle the ten story slide and, after two or so hours giving free reign to my inner eight year old the world truly looked a little different.

Inevitably, with the final performances and thinking about the end of our US journey, I began thinking about the characters as they emerge from Arden at the end of the play. As much as it is a place of risk, discomfort and magic, it is also a place of fun. It’s fun and experimentation that’s at the heart of Rosalind’s game with Orlando and, with five actors inhabiting all the roles, our final Act is truly a giddy roundabout of fun with Rob’s unique celebration of Hymen as the ringleader. It seems to me that this sense of fun offers the possibility of change: both for us as actors as we play our way through the multitude of characters, but also for the characters themselves as they conclude the play. As Touchstone says in Act 5 (Alan Dessen’s favourite line in Shakespeare) “Much virtue in If…”

I have had a great three months touring the big and beautiful US of A.  Huge thanks to Scott Jackson and Deborah Gasper for their wonderful work and support at Notre Dame and of course to my fellow Arden Travellers.  See you in London for As You Like It Uk style other 22nd and 23rd April…the final performance on Shakespeare’s birthday a fitting end to our epic tour.

Proceed, proceed: we will begin these rites,
As we do trust they’ll end, in true delights.

— Duke Senior, Act 5 Sc 4.

As You Like It – Actors’ Post #10

Wyoming. Forever West!
Last week AFTLS went West to Laramie, Wyoming to find big skies, snowy mountains, more cowboys, and sell-out crowds.
The University of Wyoming students and local community filled the 375 seat Buchanan Theatre. The enthusiasm and energy pulsing through the Theatre Department at the university is immediately obvious. Leigh Selting and his team clearly do a great job at engaging both the university and the wider community with the Theatre program, and it was fantastic to see this reflected in audience numbers on both Friday and Saturday night.
I thoroughly enjoyed my double session with Leigh’s Junior and Senior Scene Study group on Tuesday and Thursday. It was great to have two sessions with the same group and to have students explore some of the findings from the first session in some speech work on Thursday.
Surveying the serene scenery...

Surveying the serene scenery…

Nature figured large this week, surrounded, as we were, by huge open vistas. I spent some of Sunday afternoon sitting in Saratoga Hot Springs talking with a couple of locals about how the crows had returned to Wyoming in the last week…thus heralding the slow start of Spring. It struck me how very (very!) far this was from my London world where Spring means a lighter coat, an umbrella, and maybe some daffodils for the dining room table. It got me thinking about how geography affects thought and character. Laramie is certainly a terrifically individual town, full of antique shops and cafes (quite frankly the best coffee of the tour was at Coal Creek!). Does the geographical space mean that there’s more mental space available for reflection and individual expression? Psychogeography or psychobabble? Discuss.

“O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books
And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character”
 — Orlando, As You Like It, Act 3 Sc 2.

As You Like It – Actors’ Post #9

Normally on a Monday morning we all wake pretty early, gather our belongings and head off to the next stop on the tour. Last Monday however, we stayed put in Valparaiso and purposely left most of our belongings behind, in order that we could clear security at Westville Correctional Facility. Though Westville is no more than a 20 minute drive from Valpo, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I feel we’ve all travelled a pretty long way this week.

Westville houses approximately 3,000 male prisoners in various blocks; it’s out on the edge of a small town, surrounded by Indiana’s flat countryside, which was battered this week by a pretty fierce wind. None of us really knew what to expect at Monday’s orientation, beyond the obvious strict security measures. We were keen to get a sense of what was expected of us and we were shown around by Rod, who, though he has worked at Westville for just two years, has worked within the US Prison system for nearly 20, and was perfectly placed to answer our questions. If there is a word which springs to mind when I think about my first impressions, it would be Uniform. Everything, from the landscape, to the inmates clothing, the walls, the security systems, and the prison routine, felt like it conformed to a sense of uniformity, which inevitably left me with a sense of feeling pretty conspicuous.

That afternoon, we gathered our ideas for the workshop sessions and formed a three hour plan which we delivered on Tuesday and Friday between 12 and 3. I think we were all anxious about how we would engage our audience with the exercises and with the story, especially over quite a long session. I was bowled over by the readiness and enthusiasm of the inmates to work with us, to explore ideas and text. We worked through exercises exploring communication, empathy, status, imagery, and story and spent the last part of the session looking at Shakespeare’s text, specifically Duke Senior’s speech which begins  “Now my brothers and co-mates in exile…” and Jaques’ famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue.

I am currently reading John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’, his account of trucking round the US in the early sixties with his French Poodle. About half way through the book they meet an actor who is similarly on the road and who talks to them about his work.

“I hope you won’t think I’m stealing material…I admire the delivery of Sir John Gielgud. I heard him do his monologue of Shakespeare – The Ages of Man. And then I bought a record of it to study. What he can do with words, with tones, and inflections! I tell about hearing Sir John, and what it did to me, and then I say I’m going to try to give an impression of how he did it….Shakespeare doesn’t need billing, and that way I’m not stealing his material. It’s like I’m celebrating him, which I do. I’m pretty much at home with it now, because I can watch the words sink in, and they forget about me and their eyes kind of turn inward and I’m not a freak to them anymore”

In one of those bizarre pieces of creative synchronicity, I read this passage the night before we went to deliver our first workshop and that’s exactly what seemed to happen as we all worked together. Shakespeare has a timeless power to articulate the human condition and define our experience. During the course of the workshop I stopped feeling so different and conspicuous and hopefully the inmates also escaped themselves for a moment too.

Performing the show in the chapel that night, we had no lighting, no stage, just a fiercely hot room and the sound of a loud sports game next door, but we could see our audience clearly; we could feel when they were with us and when they weren’t. Through the performance that night Arden took on a heightened meaning for me.

“Now go we in content, to liberty and not to banishment” says Celia, at the end of Act 1, Sc 3, and this is the springboard into the Forest. It’s this place of exile but also of transformation. Ultimately though, it’s a place of choice.

prison-barsOf course many of those working with us this week have made bad choices, but it is a powerful and transformative thing to offer a place of possibility and choice, even if just for a short time. One of the inmates described the experience as ‘a chink of sunlight in the gloom of incarceration’ and we were all incredibly proud and humbled by that.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

— Viktor Frankl

As You Like It – Actors’ Blog #8

As You Like It Blog – Valparaiso University

Jen guards our exponentially expanding collection of luggage.

Jen guards our exponentially expanding collection of luggage.

Here we are in week 8 of our 11 week tour…still just about managing to squeeze our belongings into suitcases that fit the airline luggage allowance!

This week we were back in Indiana at Valparaiso University. When we left the mid-west, back in Feb, it had been a covered in snow and extremely cold…so it was a pleasant surprise on Monday, to find that the snow had largely melted and that Spring was starting to make its presence felt. Friday was so Spring-like that I even took the opportunity to take a running tour of the campus with Theatre student Chrissie. This would have been impossible a month ago without getting stuck in a snow drift. Now the only limitations were my speed and fitness levels.

This is the third time that “Valpo” has been host to AFTLS, and it was great to see this experience reflected in the diversity of the classes we attended. I spent Tuesday visiting a session in the Law department. Final year students had all written a personal paper on a particular legal angle in one of Shakespeare’s plays and the breadth of their research was fascinating. I lead various exercises encouraging them to explore the role of the audience in Merchant of Venice and especially enjoyed having them experience connection to an audience while standing in the middle of the room on a large wooden boardroom table…I recommend it to executives snoozing through meetings everywhere.

One of the great things about the American college system is the opportunity for studying such a range of subjects, and nowhere is this more the case than Valpo. I met so many students with dual majors across disciplines. Even those students following a single major in theatre will study design, acting, costume making, lighting design, stage management and so on. Many of the students acting or working in shows on campus are not majoring in theatre but are nonetheless making it an integral part of their college experience. We were very well looked after by a Kari-Anne and her team of students studying for a Masters in Arts Administration, many of whom had travelled from China to study the course in Valpo. I also spoke to a number of other students who were taking opportunities to study abroad during the course of their programmes, several of whom are off to Cambridge this Autumn. 

The Faculty responsible for teaching the broad range of classes on offer are of course multi-talented. I would love to have been able to attend the Tap class, taught by Ann (who also teaches costume design) and we spend Sunday admiring faculty member Alan Ernstein’s beautiful hand-made furniture (and amazing Black Bean Soup!).

Being back in our home state meant this week offered a lovely opportunity to catch up with familiar faces from earlier in the tour.  We had visits from colleagues at Notre Dame and also from Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer and Saturday night brought members from all three institutions together as we toasted the closing night of the show in Stacks…from the outside a seemingly humble office block but inside a terrific bar and restaurant full of books with an encyclopaedic drinks menu to match.

Next week we are staying put in Valpo (giving our suitcases another week to mysteriously expand!) as we will be working at Westville Correctional Facility a few miles down the road.

Westville Correctional Facility (Westville, Indiana)

Westville Correctional Facility (Westville, Indiana)

As You Like It – Actors’ Blog #7

AFTLS hits Music City…

“Come, sing; and you that will not, hold your tongues”Jaques, As You Like It

Yours truly (Joannah Tincey) blends in with the locals in Nashville.

Yours truly (Joannah Tincey) blends in with the locals in Nashville.

Ah, Nashville how we have loved thee! A brilliant week was had by all, as we dashed around, eager to sample the best that city could offer…and what a list! Monday was my birthday so we hit the Honkytonks (very subtly dressed) to give our dancing shoes free-reign. Tuesday we had a more sedate evening watching the brilliant Music City Doughboys at the Station Inn. I spent Friday wandering the streets of Downtown and visiting the museum of Country Music.

Since the age of about 4, I have been listening to country music, care of journeys in my day’s car.  When I got married last year,  Kenny Rogers’  ‘The Gambler’ was on our wedding play-list, mostly because it was one of the first songs I remember knowing all the words to. Kenny joined the Country Music Hall of Fame (in Nashville) last year and I was tickled pink to take a picture of his bronze plaque to email my dad back home.

Kenny Rogers preserved in Carbonite

Kenny Rogers preserved in Carbonite

In between all this, we had our classes and performances on the lovely Vanderbilt Campus.  The students of Vanderbilt are a talented and engaging bunch.  I spent time with Actors, Stage Managers and English students and all were readily able to turn their hand to anything I asked of them.

If a theme emerged for me this week, it was the power of story to create unity.  I worked with five students as part of their devising class on Tuesday and we explored varying approaches to story-telling and character, working as a collective group.  I spent Thursday looking at status in Shaw’s Pygmalion, a story which, by the end of the session, seemed to me to depict class as artifice, a game that belies the fact that under the social mask lies a collective humanity.

Vanderbilt's thrust stage allowed audience on three sides.

Vanderbilt’s thrust stage allowed audience on three sides.

It felt fitting then, that this week’s performance of As You Like it should be in thrust, placing us in the middle of our audience, enabling us to see faces and talk to them as if they were part of the stage itself. Jen even explored sitting with them while Celia recounted her tale of meeting Orlando.  And in fact Nashville as a city is a living testimony to the power of music and story to bring people together and give them a good time…

“You’ve got to capture an audience. You don’t go out there and just sing, or just play. If you can’t capture an audience, you might as well not be out there.” – Roy Cuff

Next week we are reunited with our home-state Indiana, as we play at Valpo University.  We’re looking forward to meeting the next set of students and faculty and also, hopefully, catching up with a few familiar faces from earlier tour weeks.