Much Ado Actor Blog: Prison Preview

Finally, after all the negotiation, all the work and all the time, we had our first audience. A crowd of approximately forty inmates of Westville Correctional Facility. It is located some miles out of South Bend, in what feels very much like American heartland. Long flat prairie land, cornfields stretching to the horizon, the interstate carving through the countryside like a scar. As we arrived in the parking lot, the temperature dropped, a little bit of pathetic fallacy. Here we are, shivering with cold and anticipation.

AFTLS at Westville

We wore our costumes in, and brought nothing but the props we needed. No underwired bras, no money, no mobile phones. At the door there is a tight, if friendly, security post. We arrived during visiting hours, and saw many families, and too many small frightened children, waiting to be x-rayed. It started to come home to me how these kids were seeing their daddy, and maybe their first memories – their only memories – of daddy will be in that context. Some seemed afraid, or daunted. Others all too used to it. The guards that waved us through were almost overly jolly, grinning and cracking jokes. Prison is FUN. “It’s not so friendly on the inside.” someone remarked. We eventually made it into an airlock, where an unsmiling gargoyle wordlessly gestured for us to show our passes. Once through security the atmosphere changed. Electric fences and guard towers, and a large complex of low rise secure buildings. We weren’t allowed to walk anywhere unaccompanied of course, and our escort was a chirpy young (six months pregnant) volunteer. She got us onto the bus that took us the short journey to the low security block in which we would be performing.

In the block, lots of wooden panels. Prayers mounted on the walls and pictures of prison wardens through the ages. Empty corridors. Our escort led us to a flight of stairs, and up them to an unprepossessing looking door which she opened with a small key. She gestured us in. As I walked through the door it was like walking into a different world. Men all around, standing, staring. Some at nothing. Some at us. Some out of windows. Their body language was closed. Their eye contact limited and fleeting. Their movements nervous, strained, unfamiliar. Some were wiping down windows and floors, with an air of care bordering on the compulsive. Some were standing in groups, next to each other, staring. One or two attempted a wave, or a nod, of greeting. All were dressed in the prison uniform. White trainers, white T-Shirt, beige slacks. It was customisable to the extent that there was a beige collared shirt that could be worn on top of the T-shirt if cold. Those in just the T-shirt were pretty buff, and often covered in livid technicolor tattoos right up to the chin. One stern and practical looking woman served as guard in this unit. She took our names. We then rather coyly went to the room where we would be working and began to set up the stage.

As we were setting up the guys started to filter in. The front row filled first, and then row after row, with the back filling up last. We were nervous, and they were talking amongst themselves, their body language still quite closed. I was tentatively warming up, but not really wanting to make too much of a spectacle of myself. Once we filled up, the volunteer closed the door. There were still some people outside, watching through a window, curious. Extra chairs were carried in for them and once we were packed, Scott said we would start early. So we quite suddenly launched into the show. I was aware that my nerves were up. They didn’t last long.

The thing that was instantly evident in the room was the quality of attention. They were really listening, audibly listening. And they were unashamed to laugh when they thought something was even slightly funny. The next thing that became clear was the level of empathy. They were right on top of us, so it was easy to feel with them. And the changes and surprises were landing audibly, as were their opinions of the different characters. It very quickly became a revelation to us, having never done the play to an audience that doesn’t know the play and the company. The surprises, the twists and turns, the confusions, many things that we almost took for granted having known the play all our working lives, they really began to ping out for us because they pinged out for them. The show flew by. There were a couple of mistakes that were so enjoyed and supported by the crowd that they felt almost right. And we realised that we knew the show now, and began to have fun.

At the end they all stood to applaud, from the back to the front, like a wave. The questions afterwards were eager, curious, and to do with detail of character and craft and plot, rather than, as too often happens in theatre q&a, people showing off about what they know and not genuinely interested in getting an answer to anything really.

It was one of the most remarkably positive experiences of my working life. Most of them had never seen a play before, let alone a Shakespeare play. And despite the obsolescence of much of the language, the themes and motifs all landed on these initially intimidating looking people. It made me think about my prejudices, as much as it made me think of the things I take for granted. To quote the friar, “What we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost, why then we rack the value, then we find the virtue that possession could not show us whilst it was ours.”

As we walked back out of the prison into a warmer day, we all experienced a moment of knowledge that we were free. We could go wherever we wanted to. And the people we had shared that experience with could not. We all tasted our freedom fresh. And we all understood how truly lucky we are to be here, thousands of miles from home, travelling round this vast but welcoming country, and working with the words of a man who somehow cracked the fundamentals of the human condition, and had the eloquence to express them.

(By Al Barclay)

Much Ado Actors Blog: Settling In

Notre Dame campus is like a little village. Deb met us in the morning and took us on a working tour of the area. We started with some admin, in a building with a dome. Upstairs there were huge murals of Columbus, and vast panelled hallways, gigantic crowns in display cases, and mosaic flooring. I was curious. “How old is this place?” “Oh, it’s really old. Maybe the 1860’s.” Victoria was on the throne in England. Dickens was publishing Great Expectations. It doesn’t feel so long ago somehow if you’re in England, but here there is a short, intensive period of history and growth, and somehow it does conspire to make something from the 1800’s feel old.

We then got tax sorted out, by Becky and Lindsay. I was smitten. Anyone that can do numbers is a source of wonder and amazement to me generally, so when they said “Hi, we do tax,” I had no choice but to say “cooooool.” For which they quite rightly laughed at me. “People usually have a very different reaction when we say that.”

Then off to get American Bank accounts opened, at a Credit Union. I’ve not done a great deal of research, but Credit Unions look like a good idea. More idealistic than building societies. And they seem to be working.

Then to rehearsing. We have a new companion in the room. Ryan. Lovely Ryan. Not used to having anyone who can help us out we are still banging our heads against prop issues. Ryan is very wry. “You know, guys, your life would be so much easier if you just let me do stuff for you.” He has a point. We let him. Now we have props.

The room is good, despite some annoying pillars in the playing space, but as far as I’m concerned it’s useful to get used to playing in all sorts of different places, and dealing with all sorts of obstructions, since we’ll be moving around a great deal over the course of this job. With the deadline approaching there is a little more tension in the room, but the work is getting done, and we end the days having moved forward, and made discoveries. Members of the faculty are able to come in and out and see what we’re up to, and their feedback is pretty much universally helpful. These guys know their Shakespeare and are happy to express what they have witnessed and what they didn’t understand, in order to help us clarify and tighten the show we are creating. Talking with them after the showing was terrifically valuable, as I certainly don’t know exactly what this tour will entail, as yet. The idea that they imparted to me was that we might be the first Shakespeare that many of the audience have witnessed, and almost certainly the first pro Shakespeare. We can’t afford to lose them, or bore them. So I certainly started thinking about cuts. We have been very complete in our approach but that’s fine because now we know what we can drop, and we know, when it’s gone, whether or not we miss it. The issue around excessive cutting is diplomacy, but I think as a company we are both close enough and robust enough to put up with it. After all, here we all are companionably squinting while sipping beer together from the same flight at The Evil Czech Brewery.
Yep, that’s right. Evil Czech Brewery. It was Taco Tuesday. How could anyone resist? All the actors, lots of the faculty. Huge amounts of food. Beer. All of us have been up every morning to run since. Oh, the food. This is no country for celiacs. But that’s for another post.

Much Ado Actors Blog: Arrival

After an eight hour flight, we all bundled out of the plane with a massive shot of adrenaline. “Here we are! In America! Let’s GO! All we have to do is get through passport control. A formality. No more than that, surely. Oh look, a queue. We have those in England.”

Maybe they were trying to make us feel at home. Yes, of course, nothing makes an Englishman feel at home so much as a good long queue. But THREE HOURS. A THREE HOUR QUEUE?! Even the most ardent of queue fanciers would balk at such a prospect.

Being the diligent (obsessive) people we all are, we spent a large amount of our queue time discussing the play, Much Ado About Nothing, most likely to the chagrin of all the people around us, who just wanted to stand in a nice queue and not have people excitedly jabbering about Shakespeare while they did it.

Nonetheless, we finally emerged blinking and a little bit better informed into the bright early evening sunshine, all the while ignoring the frantic howling of our body clock “IT’S MIDNIGHT! HOW CAN IT BE LIGHT? THE WORLD IS ENDING!!!” And our transportation was before us. The final leg of the journey. And what a leg. It made up for all the queuing. A stretch limo! I have never been in one before. Here we all are:

Inside the limo

Paul O’Mahony closest. He’s Benedick, Dogberry and more. Then me, Al Barclay, I’m Don Pedro, Friar Francis and more. Then Georgina Strawson, she’s Beatrice, Don John and more. Then Jack Whitam, he’s Claudio, Antonio and more, and finally Claire Redcliffe, she’s Leonato, Hero and more. This was taken around the moment that Claire realised she had packed nothing but 100 cardigans.

2 hours of luxury, cheesy eighties power ballads, iced soft drinks, slightly delirious conversations about sunsets and trucks, games of guess the eighties tune and “I spy”, sporadic unexpected bursts of sleep or laughter, and general hilarity, before finally we were in Notre Dame. Debra met us all as we emerged blinking from the vast car, five mildly hysterical zombies. She welcomed us, and told us we’d do all the important talking the next morning, for which we were grateful. So, we all grabbed the nearest burger, shoved it into our mouths, and fell into deep deep luxurious sleep.

(Posted by Al Barclay)

Much Ado rehearsal blog: The London leg

Every actor loves the phrase “You got the part!” I was in a coffee shop on The Kings Road, getting ready to go to Yorkshire when my agent said that to me. But he sounded confused. Concerned, even. “They want you to go to America to play Don Pedro. And Friar Francis. And Ursula. And a watchman. And a messenger. AND there’s no director. There are only five actors. So… Well… I don’t know how that’s all going to work.” Sounds great, I replied. “You only get four weeks rehearsal.” He continued. “And they pay you direct.” Lovely, I said, entirely honestly. You’ll have to invoice for your commission, I continued through gritted teeth.

“Only” four weeks, he had said. Yeah I know they get 8 or 9 at the RSC, but I was about to go to Yorkshire for the 6th year running to rehearse multiple parts in a very involved promenade Shakespeare at Sprite Productions and we never get more than 3 weeks there. So 4 weeks, surely that’s luxury, even without a director. Or a costume designer. Or a huge team of skilled Stage Managers and ASMs. Or a dedicated Musical Director and Composer. Or an on site producer constantly troubleshooting. Hmmmm.

On second thoughts four weeks is nothing. This is a play by one of the densest theatre writers ever, written in language and social morays that were current 500 years ago. And we have four weeks to do the work of a whole team, while playing multiple parts across gender and class. And singing songs. Maybe this is going to be a heck of a challenge. Bring it!

The Karibu centre in Brixton is a delightful place to rehearse. It’s a very lively community centre with a big upstairs room. We always had a load of space and air around us as we worked, which helped consolidate an atmosphere of freedom in the company. We ended up roping out a stage area in this vast room with, at first, empty cans, then string, and finally, hessian. Karibu is right next to a lively mosque where they frequently broadcast prayer through loudspeakers enthusiastically at lunchtimes. It can get pretty noisy. The centre itself forms a big part of the local community, dealing with young offenders on their community service, holding meetings for AA etc, and managing big groups of hilarious precocious kids who get dragged off en masse to do activities in the park, and to exhaust themselves running around in circles while mum and dad are at work. And since it is rooted in the Caribbean community, they want to cook for you. “Do you want some jerk chicken with rice and peas darling?” became a frequently overheard phrase. And then they would insist on serving you so much on the plate that you feel fit for bursting, because if you don’t finish it THEY WILL MAKE YOU, before trying to peddle mangoes for dessert in such an efficient and determined fashion that you end up eating three of them and taking a melon with you “in case you need a snack for after, lovely.” Fuel though. And we needed it.

5 actors. No director. Many parts. How to begin? Consensus in the group was instant on day one. “Let’s just do the whole play, on it’s feet, now.” So that was the first thing we did. Many confused moments as people went “oh hang on wait I’m talking to myself here for ages,” but also much joy. Instantly it was clear that this was a creative bunch of people. And a diverse bunch. We very quickly improvised props or costume that would stand for characters who were in the scene but currently having to be someone else. In fact, this satsuma was Hero for the whole of the first day:Hero the satsuma

The rest of the process followed a similar vein. “If someone has an idea, say yes to it and try it out.” And we did. And we stayed ahead of it, exhausting ourselves all day speaking crunchy text before going home to work on lines, or music, or costume, or dance, or physicality. While taking a little time out to live life. A frequently expressed thought from everyone was “everyone is so good, I need to work harder.”

Patsy Rodenburg, my old voice teacher, would frequently say “You’ve got to be fit to do Shakespeare. It’s a physical, vocal and emotional workout.” This is true. Carolyn Lyle, my old English lecturer, used to say “If you look at the structure of the plays, if one of the actors has a big hard emotional scene, then Shakespeare sends in the clowns and lets the poor guy have a breather.” This doesn’t apply when five people are playing all the parts. So yeah, we thought we were fit. But every Friday evening we were knackered. But also inspired.

One of the effects of no director is that we all have to take ownership of the whole piece of work. You can’t cop off when you’re not in that scene to get a coffee, because the only person they’ve got for an outside eye is you. I have known Much Ado for years. I was in it at University, generalising and shouting my way through one of the parts (thankfully not one I’m playing now) with bleached spiked blonde hair and an achingly and effortlessly gained six pack. I’ve seen countless productions of it since, but I’ve never loved it or understood it like I love and understand it now. The thing about good writing is the deeper you go the richer it turns out to be. And Shakespeare really is one of the best.

It’s quite a short play, compared to some. At first we tried to do it complete, and uncut, and it was only after we showed it to some members of the company that we felt we had permission to make a couple of snips. We took some unnecessary entrances that would have made for more trouble than they were worth “Here comes signor Leonato, and the Sexton” Became “Here comes signor Leonato.” Because the Sexton says nothing in the scene, and is played by the same actor as Leonato. Sometimes we chose to make a virtue out of the difficulty of the changes, but in that instance it was too fussy.

The only other major cut we have made so far is all the stuff about Deformed. The cultural references are all long dead, so it just smells a bit funny, and Borachio’s long tirade about  fashion felt like it inevitably dropped the pace without dong anything for the plot. But we have kept Imogen, the ghost character, silent wife to Leonato, who is seen in the first scene, never speaks, and is forgotten shortly after. Perhaps once we get to the states, we’ll cut more, or perhaps we’ll find we miss things and put them back. But four weeks on and it still feels like a creative, living, generative group of five weird, passionate and lovely craftspersons. I suppose I should introduce us all, since I’ll be blogging for the whole time we are in America. I’ll do that in the next post. Right now I’m going to have a gin and tonic and watch some of the inflight entertainment. Ahh British airways. Luxury.

(Posted by Al Barclay)

Announcing the 15th Anniversary Season of the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival!

This 15th season is also the 150th anniversary of the first Shakespeare play ever performed at the University and the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. We look forward commemorating this momentous convergence of events with the following:

 ShakeScenesJuly 19 & 20, 2014

Young Company | The Merry Wives of WindsorJuly & August, 2014

 Professional Company | Henry IVAugust 19–31, 2014

 Actors From The London Stage | Much Ado About NothingSeptember 17–19, 2014

Explore the power and imagination of Shakespeare’s works, and celebrate a century and a half of the playwright’s influence here at Notre Dame. Join us for the 15th anniversary season of the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival.

2014 Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival Season

2014 Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival Season