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.
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.
Of 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 Blog – Valparaiso University
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.
AFTLS hits Music City…
“Come, sing; and you that will not, hold your tongues” – Jaques, As You Like It
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.
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.
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.
The ABCs of A&M: A is for Aggies; B is for Boots (and a Bat); C is for Cowboys
This week team AFTLS continued to work Texas-side with a week’s residency at Texas A&M (in College Station, Texas)…go Aggies!
We arrived just a week before Spring Break and were a bit apprehensive that this might cause a dip in audience numbers, especially towards the end of the week. We needn’t have worried. A&M traditionally has us booked for larger classes (150 students or so) and audiences at both the workshop sessions and the performances were excellent…on Friday we even had a Mexican Free-Tailed Bat visit the auditorium and stage to get in on some Arden action.
Large classes meant that we paired up for a few sessions this week, which was fun. It was also great to see the rhythm of the verse and the power of imagery and character engaging so many students at once. Our aim is to get as many students speaking Shakespeare as we can, which in large classes means lots of group work. Students were challenged to get on their feet and work together, and we were all impressed by the readiness with which they rose to the occasion. A 6′ 5″ strapping Silvius in army uniform, orchestrating a chorus of “…and I for Ganymede”…”and I for Rosalind”…”and I for no woman” was a highlight for me and Jen.
Also topping Jen’s week was the purchase of some truly amazing Cowboy (Girl?) boots…see picture. Her love for these beauties is boundless. Dan has also purchased a rather stunning pair and together they made quite the dashing couple at Sunday’s visit to THE RODEEEOOOH!
As Monday’s flight to Nashville was an early one, we headed back to Houston on Sunday to spend the night closer to the airport. As luck would have it, the Livestock Show and Rodeo was in town, so I accompanied Dan, Jen, and their boots to Reliant Park on Sunday afternoon, to see some real Cowboys (and some Mutton Busting kids!) in action.
Before leaving College Station, we had been given some Cowboy low-down by A&M student Emily who waited on our table at Fish Daddy’s on Saturday night. Her boyfriend, Sheldon, is a Team Roper, so at least I’d heard of one event when I looked at the program on Sunday! It was a terrific spectacle (I especially loved the Barrel Racing). I can’t really think of an English cultural equivalent, and it was brilliant to throw ourselves in to something so totally different…(“I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it!” Celia Act 2 Sc 4). I now understand that “Mutton Busting” involves small children riding/clinging on to sheep, and ‘Calf Wrestling’ involves catching/tethering/and penning a calf.
While Dan and Jen looked every bit the part in boots and hats, I was certainly not under-dressed myself. My birthday on Monday provided the perfect excuse for an early celebration and I was duly dressed up in hat, plastic pistols and belt, beard and birthday badge. Just call me Davy Crockett from now on please.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed” — Neil Armstrong
This week we escaped the cold weather and basked in the balmy climate of Houston, Texas. Rice University is a regular stop on the tour (both Dan and Jen have been before), so I’d been primed to expect a beautiful campus and great facilities and certainly wasn’t disappointed. The Wellness Center would be the envy of most top health clubs and boasted machines we’d never even seen before. It could almost tempt me to join a gym back home, but somehow I think my local leisure centre might pale in comparison. It was surreal to turn up at the airport in all our Indiana winter gear to be met by Christina in Capri pants and sandals. Our hotel even had an outdoor pool. I was too much of a wuss to try it as it was un-heated, but Rob was hardy enough to give it a go.
We had a great week of classes and the students were bright and game enough to try whatever we threw at them. A highlight for us all was Friday’s lunch and afternoon class with Dennis Hutson who kept us entertained for hours. In fact, I had the pleasure twice as I also attended his Wednesday class…where I was slightly taken aback to discover (after a brief discussion about accents and dialect in performance) not one, but two fellow Brits among the students – one was even a fellow Essex girl!
On Thursday, we had tea at Baker Master House with some other fellow Brits, Rose and Ivo and their gorgeous dogs Bronte and Baker (though Bronte’s cute demeanor masks a true huntswoman’s heart, squirrels beware!) There is a large British ex-pat community in Houston, served by ‘British Isles’ a shop in Rice Village selling British goodies (crunchie bars, tea and Bridgewater china) and run by the Uncle of one of Rob’s good friends from home…who is also friends with Rose and Ivo…the world is small really, but we still crave our home comforts.
I was thinking a lot about our relationship to places and objects on Friday morning when I taught a workshop on A Streetcar Named Desire as part of a module exploring the writing of New Orleans. Rob had been in and done some scene study with the students earlier in the week, so I decided to focus the workshop on the senses and the actors’/characters’ response to objects and place. It was a great and thought-provoking session where we journeyed not only to New Orleans but also France, Vermont, El Salvador, Indiana, and Wyoming.
Then, at the end of the week, we journeyed to the moon. Well, okay, not literally, but via a trip to NASA where Christina had kindly put us in touch with fellow actor H.R., who performs in regular shows at the Center (letting us see what life is like on-board the International Space Station – who knew they recycled urine into drinking water!). H.R., in turn, linked us in with Tour Guide Kevin, who gave us a completely amazing private tour of the Center…which included the chance to sit in Mission Control for the Apollo landings! To sit somewhere so steeped in history and stories was truly awe inspiring; there was the red phone to the pentagon, an ‘abort request’ button, and, perhaps most poignantly, a mirror used onboard Apollo 13 and donated to the Control Center by the astronauts onboard, in recognition of the work done to save their lives.
We rounded the week off sitting outside (in February!), eating Tex Mex, and drinking a Margarita or two before team As You Like It got ready to head to College Station and Texas A&M.
Over and out.
With auditions tomorrow, you should be aware of one key difference between last year’s plans for the Young Company and this: this year all actors cast in the Young Company will have roles on stage with the Professional Company in Henry IV.
There are several reasons for this decision. First and foremost, it’s a larger show, affording us an opportunity to grow. Secondly, while I still firmly believe there is inestimable value in working on any crew for a professional production taking place right here on our campus at Notre Dame, it’s also clear that the opportunities to be on stage are what draw us as actors. This summer’s production is tied directly to the history of your predecessors here at Notre Dame—and the play arguably includes some of Shakespeare’s greatest characters and writing. They are very much worth your time.
Upon arriving in the summer of 2012, the Young Company was the first program of the Festival I was certain needed to continue. I felt then as now that ND and St Mary’s students are strong, and able to compete with those from elsewhere, even among BFA students. It has been our goal to increase the participation of our own students in the Festival. It’s for this reason we recruited (and have engaged) West Hyler, a director with Broadway credits, who has assisted no less an internationally known director as Des MacAnuff (former Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival), and who regularly casts the international productions of Jersey Boys wherever it tours.
Even if you are unsure about joining the summer Festival, DO NOT MISS THE CHANCE TO AUDITION FOR MR. HYLER. I guarantee you will see his name again, be it in New York, Las Vegas, or around the world.
There are a few slots remaining, and you should e-mail DEB GASPER (firstname.lastname@example.org) by 5pm TODAY to arrange your slot. Even if your audition piece is not yet up to snuff, heck, even if you’re on book, don’t miss this chance.
See you tomorrow!
Grant Mudge, Ryan Producing Artistic Director Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival Shakespeare at Notre Dame World Class Theatre. | Right Next Door.
“Little Cousin Jasper, he
Don’t live in this town, like me,-
He lives ‘way to Rensselaer,
An ‘ist comes to visit here”
– James Whitcomb Riley
This week we visited St Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana and found ourselves made so welcome it felt like we were immediately part of the community. It’s a small college with only a little over a thousand students and a thriving drama programme run by the wonderful John Rahe.
We had a great week getting to know lots of the students and the faculty. It was also terrific to see so many members of the town community at our performances alongside the St Joe’s students. On Friday evening we were invited to join various members of the audience at Embers Bar in town after the performance. They had been offering a special Valentine’s Day trip to see the show that included dinner beforehand and (luckily for us!) some rather tasty desserts as a post-show treat. We met so many people who expressed their delight at being able to come and see some Shakespeare in their hometown.
It was wonderful to see the college as such a centre-point for the community. Saturday morning saw about 30 or so school children in the canteen who were all getting ready for a lesson with some of the college dance troupe before performing that afternoon at the basketball game. Go Pumas! Dan went out to the local middle-school to lead a workshop on Comedy of Errors and Jen got a whole bunch of student teachers dancing to the Ski-Sunday theme tune.
Our Stage Manager for the week, Erin, is a St Joe alumnus who had returned to take excellent care of us. She spoke really eloquently on Friday about how important it is for a community to have a hub, a creative place to meet and how powerful theatre is in creating a space which makes that possible – a place in which to share an experience.
Drama students at St Joe’s have a ritual called ‘Green Room.’ I shan’t give away any trade secrets but, in order to enact it, everybody stands in a circle. As we gathered on Saturday it seemed like such a powerful symbol for what theatre is; gathering people together so that something creative can happen.
After the show we all signed our names next to a quote from As You Like It, which has long been on the wall in the St Joe’s Theatre Tech Box.
“All the world’s a Stage,
And all the men and women merely players”
– Jaques, Act 2, Sc 7.
So there we are now, preserved as part of the St Joe’s community… merely players in all sorts of ways, as the Melancholy Jaques says. But the Stage? That remains a place of infinite possibility.
February 19, 2014
Actors’ Blog – Week Three
First performances, more snow, farewell South Bend, hello Chicago!
As You Like It is now officially up and running. We opened on Wednesday and it was great to have a run of three shows and finally play with the audience and take them on the journey with us. It’s a source of great excitement and satisfaction to me how each show is so very different as the audience gives it shape. I firmly believe that’s how it should always be; it’s what sets Theatre apart from Film or TV as a storytelling medium. It’s like a chemical reaction each time, but in this work the audience are so active in following all the transitions that it seems to highlight their presence even further. The story is the same each night, and we play the same characters but the audience casts a different light on the journey, so when we’re receptive to them and connect to what they are feeding us, the mood of the play is wildly different.
I think As You Like It explores this as a play too. We’ve been told, and indeed we’ve all felt from time to time, that it is one of Shakespeare’s ‘harder’ plays. There are long and dense pieces of prose and the balance is definitely tipped towards words rather than action in the traditional sense. But the words are active in themselves, they are the tool by which the characters explore and define who they are. As we’re all playing so many characters (some of whom are also in disguise at various points in the play!), as the set is merely a hat-stand and 8 chairs, the words become even more active as the tools for defining who we are and for engaging the audience with those characters. Everything is heightened. The risk is, of course, that the audience gets lost and can’t follow who is who, or don’t have the opportunity to invest their empathy in each character because we are constantly switching roles. It’s our job to make sure this doesn’t happen, to find the ‘Touchstone’ (pardon the pun!) for each character that helps us to bring them alive.
One of the other great joys of the job is the chance to get out, meet and work with some of our audience members in the form of workshops. This week we attended classes on everything from Shakespeare, to Opera, to Philosophy. On Thursday, I joined freshman students for a class on J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and the idea of childhood and found this wonderful quote:
“I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still….On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles [simple boat]. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more”
As we explored the characters in Peter Pan using these ideas of imagination and memory, it struck me that this description of Neverland as a place of imagination could equally be applied to Arden. There’s a point in the play I’ve always struggled with, a moment where Celia watches her friend grow up, and become a woman (even though she is disguised as a man). I’d always found the loss of that moment difficult to bring to life, but thinking about childhood and memory and watching students faces change as they experienced this themselves really struck a chord with me.
This was our last week in South Bend before hitting the road. We will miss our wonderful colleagues in the ND Office and look forward to seeing them at various points over the coming weeks and in St. Louis – our final stop. Saturday morning the team caught the South Shore train to Chicago for a two day pit-stop before heading to Rensselaer, IN next week. Jen and I had a wonderful night at Blue Chicago on Saturday – a special shout out must go to Essex (named after the county of my birth because that’s where his father was born!) who gave us such a wonderful show. We saw the wonderful Chicago ‘Bean’, ate wonderful Chicago pizzas and wandered around in (yet more!) snow. Next stop St. Joseph’s College…reputed to be one of the most haunted colleges in Indiana…yikes.
Week 1: snow, freezing temperatures, a “State of Emergency,” the Sword of John Adams and a touch of magic.
We’ve been Vortexed. As we went about our tax and banking business on Monday we were told that the University was being closed for the rest of the day due to an official ‘State of Emergency’ (exciting!). Any car on the road after 6pm would be subject to a heavy fine, so businesses duly closed as employees struggled to get to work (or arrange how to get home again). We hot-footed it to the supermarket for supplies (and an impromptu photo) and commenced a 36 hour lock-down in the hotel.
We rehearsed in their Gold Conference room where the carpet is so psychedelic it almost became the 6th actor in our play.
Wednesday we were allowed back into Washington Hall. After a quick visit to the stage, which will see our opening night this Wednesday (eek!) we made our way up to The Lab to continue rehearsals (without the crazy carpet). Thursday we ran the play in front of a very kind and generous invited audience that included Grant Mudge, Artistic Director of Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival, who fondly remembers the AFTLS production of As You Like It 25 years ago that inspired him to build a career in the world of Shakespeare ….such is the magic of Arden.
We are still working to fine tune various bits of the play; transitions between scenes and characters, motivations and drivers for scenes and polishing the crazy dance that is 8 couples on stage at once (with only 5 actors to embody them)…hello Act 5, Sc4! Exploring how best to represent the power and presence of the Forest on stage, has also been a focus for us. Jen has been playing around with Rosalind/Ganymede’s connection to the power and magic of Arden.
“Believe then, if you please, that I can do strange things”
Encouraged greatly by Scott:
“Are you magic-ing? If you’re going to do magic then go for it…make it more magic-y”…
He’s right though, in this work choices have to bold, clear and motivated and when this happens the characters are drawn out and defined by the forest that surrounds them….Arden (not the hotel carpet) becomes the 6th actor in the play.
At the end of a long week of snow and magic-ing (!) came a cast and company meal to Corndance, where many partook of the ‘Sword of John Adams’…as a pescatarian I merely looked on in wonder (while tucking in to delicious pear and nut ravioli)….and increasing awe as colleagues ploughed their way through. I did manage the amazing melting chocolate cake for pudding though.
This evening some of us are off to celebrate the Super Bowl with the ever lovely and hospitable Debs Gasper our wonderful company manager. Somebody will have to explain the rules I think…Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos…and, erm, a ball…or a bowl?