Much Ado Actor Blog: Utah Saints

On a sweltering Tuesday morning, myself and Jack Whitam trundled up to the campus at Brigham Young University to tech into the outdoor space. The first thing we had to do was get them to move all the seats about four foot closer to the stage, as they were laid out as if we were there to play a pop concert. That done, I wandered off into the campus to get myself a coffee. Two hours later, shaking with deprivation, it finally occurred to me that the Mormons don’t touch caffeine and this being a Mormon campus there was no coffee to be had. A campus without coffee. Hard to imagine, but there it is.

Our first night was sold out and we played in the calm warm evening to a lovely generous crowd. The second night they had brought in loads more chairs, and without any warning we found ourselves playing more or less completely in the round. Lovely to feel sought after like that. And fascinating to be forced to take in such a wide audience having built the show with an end on crowd in mind. The clouds were louring upon us though, and sure enough as the first half drew to a close the opening drops of a full on downpour were just beginning to pitterpatter onto our noses. The floodlights they had rented for us were the kind that explode when wet, so it made sense to move indoors. We were thrown into the second half end on in an unfamiliar theatre, contemplating a completely full house and a different acoustic. Of course we smashed it, and for the first time in America they forced us back on for an extra bow. All this enthusiasm is too much for our English brains to compute. But it’s certainly delightful. And by the time we had finished the last matinee on Saturday, sold out again, we were all a little bit in love with the Mormons.

Owing to the magic of social media, a man who I occasionally geek out about Homer with on twitter invited me to speak to his class about Shakespeare. So I found myself at Karl G Maeser prep school, talking to a class full of smart and enthusiastic kids. At the end one of the teachers said “Show us some of your quality.” A little confrontational, I thought, but ok. Fine. Being a geek and fond of adrenaline I said “Which play do you want me to do a bit from then?” DangerAl. He could’ve stitched me up by saying Timon of Athens. But he said Merchant of Venice. SCORE. I could then cheekily ask, “Do you want a prose speech or a verse speech?” He said prose. I did about half of the old Shylock “if you prick us”, although I forgot a chunk. Then full of adrenaline I said “I’ll do a verse one too from the same play, and then smashed Shylock’s long response to Antonio on the Rialto. Being a geek is handy sometimes. Here we all are after the lesson. I disguised myself as an academic.

Karl G Maeser

The teacher that put me on the spot is so fond of Shakespeare he had a Shakespeare tie, a Shakespeare shirt, and an array of Shakespeare badges. Another academic I met later at Brigham Young said “I like to call him Bill.” I almost responded with ” I think the evidence points to him preferring to be called Will, actually, hem hem”. I managed to stop myself by the skin of my teeth, so am saying it here instead. But generally, they love Shakespeare in Utah. There’s a Shakespeare festival, a replica Elizabethan theatre down south, and someone even thrusting some copies of their play “Much Ado About Love” into my hands after a show. It calls itself “A romantic comedy in Shakespeare’s verse.” A Frankenspeare’s monster of a play. We are going to read it later. Actually it seems rather lovely. (Edit: Having read it now, it is an extraordinary labour of love.)

I did the bulk of my teaching on the final day, running some voice classes with the acting students, and trying to give them a simple basis of connection with the breath through text use. They were smart and responsive, and brave. This is the first time AFTLS has been to Brigham Young, but if this visit is anything to go by, it won’t be the last. And it’s been the perfect friendly start to our touring section. Next week, University of Texas, San Antonio, October the 1st, 3rd and 4th at 7.30 in the Recital Hall.

(And because I grew up in the nineties, I give you the hilarious mawkish dance track that has been on my mind the whole week, by Utah Saints. Who are from Harrogate, Yorkshire: http://youtu.be/XF4EJvfNQcs )

Much Ado Actor Blog: Arrival in Utah

As dawn broke in Chicago five tired actors bundled into a cab and headed towards the airport. After a (rare) game of Squinties, (see footnote) we flew to Denver. Our connecting flight to Salt Lake City was delayed, so by the time we arrived in Utah we were considerably behind schedule. Moises was waiting for us at the airport. When we met him he looked momentarily surprised and then bustled us off to the car hire. We had a few issues regarding the billing for the car hire, which further agitated Moises. It probably didn’t help that we kept inadvertently singing the first few bars of various songs from The Book of Mormon. Which we felt terrible about. But it was unavoidable. It’s like when you meet someone called Eileen.

Eventually we were ready to head off into the mountains. We had a deadline to make. The deadline was close. Moises was very aware of the deadline. There were many cars on the freeway. Moises decided he was going to be the fastest, irrespective of which lane he was in and which side of the car he was passing. Red lights? Moises scorned such petty fripperies. Signals? Only if absolutely necessary. They take too much time. Brakes? What are brakes?

We arrived sweating and quivering at the hotel. Moises came up to us, for all the world like we have just had a lovely walk in the park. “Well, we made it in time. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes to escort you to the university.” “Th-th-th-thanks…”

By the time we arrived at the faculty meeting we were pretty much spent. Thankfully the faculty were lovely, and before long, with some prompting, they realised that we desperately needed water and found some for us. We’ll be doing the show at Brigham Young University. Brigham was the founder of Salt Lake City, and president of the Mormons. This is a photo of him.

Brigham Young

Despite this, beards are banned on campus, which might be an explanation of why Moises did that double take at the airport. It also means that we are unable to disguise ourselves as Mormons and seamlessly blend in.

Everyone here is lovely, and healthy looking. The Mormons don’t drink alcohol or caffeine, I think. Although I have a strong suspicion that many of them are consequently addicted to sugar. My first meal was grilled chicken. With candied bacon. On a sugar waffle. Covered with maple syrup. I managed about half of it. This sugar addiction would perhaps make sense of the speed at which people drive; (“YAHOOOOOOOO!!!”) And also how much positive energy everyone seems to have. (“I JUST FEEL SOOO GOOD RIGHT NOW!!!”) And it has driven the market for the widest variety of soft drinks I have ever witnessed. About 50 different kinds of root beer were laid out on shelves at the back of the restaurant. It’s great. When I took a year off booze in London my options were watered down Coke for 700 quid a glass, or tired orange juice made out of food colouring and drain water. Had I been in Utah I probably would have lasted more than a year.

And Utah is stunning. I drove to Bryce Canyon yesterday, which is a 7 hour round trip. It’s huge. It’s gorgeous. Just astronomical. Lovely people. Lovely countryside. Food?

Our first Utah show will be tonight, Thursday 25th September at 7pm on an outdoor stage in Mary Lou Fulton Plaza. Tomorrow, same time same place. I’m curious to see what being outdoors will do to the show. We shall see. It’ll be a work out for our voices for sure. Saturday’s show is at 2pm, indoors, at The Pardoe. They keep us on our toes.

Footnote: (To play Squinties, you need two or more sensitive people. Squinties can be played at any time, anywhere, but if anyone notices they are playing then they lose. The game begins when one sensitive person inadvertently upsets another one. A common response is to inadvertently upset back. Continuation of the game can take many forms, always assuming that nobody has yet noticed they are playing. The only move that is disallowed is actual violence. Any actual violence will automatically end the game of Squinties in a draw and start a game of Hospital Tag which is no fun as nobody wins, although everybody gets a present. Squinties is won when someone says, preferably while squinting “Oh, is there tension? I hadn’t noticed”. The more one can sound like Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the better the win is considered to be.)

(By Al Barclay)

Much Ado Actor Blog: Chicago

Before Utah and after Indiana, AFTLS, being lovely, booked us a hotel in downtown Chicago for the weekend. We arrived on Saturday evening. Five English actors, 32 hours. 0 clue about Chicago. We did, however, have the stated intention to “do” it. And whatever it is, I am satisfied that it was done.

It’s a lovely thing about this group. We don’t want to let the tour slip by and only remember the shows and the interior of bars. We want to properly experience the places we go to. In America properly experiencing things usually involves eating so running is still a priority generally in the mornings, but we’re all managing it.

The Signature Lounge first, just as the sun set, for cocktails. We somehow lucked in to the best seats in the house, in a corner by the window, with an unparalleled view of the skyline from the 95th floor. It was very possibly because the guy at the bottom of the stairs who was managing the queue said to me, then Jack, then Paul as he checked our passports “Oh, you’re English. Oh and it’s your birthday soon?”. Useful to have three company members with birthdays so close together.

No trip to Chicago is real without a Deep Dish. We arrived at Lou Malnatis tired and drunk. We still had a great pizza, loads of Revolution IPA, and were up early the next morning for an Architectural Boat tour. Or most of us. But to be fair, Jack had done it before. Fascinating the time and thought that went into the reconstruction of the city. And my neck, in that cliched fashion, was genuinely hurting from all the looking up.

Then here we are at The Bean, getting all hands on with a great piece of public art.
The Bean
After which I snuck off on my own to Looking Glass Theatre to see what sort of thing they’re making in Chicago. I watched Death Tax which was great, and passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. It was a really tightly drilled piece about Death and Family and Money. The actors worked with great simplicity and focus, and every word pinged out. I was very glad to have seen it.

Back to the others, wind, coffee more wind, a man called Larry who was smitten with Claire, and a wander over to Navy Pier, a bit more wind, out of which we emerged half asleep and panting at a ridiculously awesome pasta place. Shoving pasta into our semiconscious faces, we reluctantly decided to relinquish the blues bar because we knew we had to get up early. But Chicago. My kind of town. We did you.

Much Ado Actor Blog: Run at Notre Dame

Paul and the ghost light.

Our opening nights at Notre Dame take place in Washington Hall. The Hall is an old building, with bats in the rafters, but it was modernised in the 1950s. The stage is more recent than that I think and the lighting rig is good. The interior of the theatre itself is a little sparse. When I comment on that, Kathleen, who works front of house, tells me that there used to be some lovely murals of George Washington, Shakespeare, Molière, Mozart, Beethoven etc. Semi randomised great artists and the president. They were whitewashed in the 50′s, when everyone was so zealous about being austere. I ask out of curiosity if perhaps they were grotesquely badly painted. “Perhaps it’s a mercy that we are spared them”. Kathleen insists that they were quite lovely. In which case, what a shame.

And our run begins in earnest. Three nights only, and a packed house on the third, with good audiences on the first two. The show is still breathing, moments are changing, landing differently. We are surprising each other. It feels right. Specific where it needs to be and free where it needs to be. The Notre Dame audiences are reactive and vocal, and despite being a little further away from them we still feel able to include them in our world, and play to, for and with them. On the first night a small child is laughing throughout the show. On every night, the upper and lower floors stand at the end. American audiences are generous like that. Scott encourages us to hold our hands out wide to, essentially, imitate Fonzy as we take the bow. “You’re all so humble and … English.” We attempt to allow ourselves such indulgence.

On the final night, a bat comes out in the interval, and panics at all the people panicking at it. As it circles the hall, we are drawn to the monitor just in time to see it fly right onto the stage accompanied by an audible gasp, and shoot up into the rafters above the playing space. It remains there for the rest of the show, and I find myself wondering how / if we might have been able to incorporate it had it done that while we had been on stage. And also whether or not it is going to bring guano into Messina, and make Messina that little bit messier. Thankfully that’s he last we see of it.

Since we have arrived in America, we have cut over 200 lines of dialogue. It feels leaner for it, and we wonder why we ever tried to do it complete. As a group we are coming together more and more, learning to trust each other and play off each other. It’s only going to tighten and deepen over time. Notre Dame has been a delightful place to start our run. A family. A home. As we all head to Chicago in a taxi full of bags, we realise that now the tour begins in earnest. Our friends in the room, in the lighting box, in O’Rourkes afterwards, on and around the campus, they all stay there. Hereafter it’s just the five of us and the friends we make on the way. Next stop Utah. But first, a weekend in CHICAGO!

(By Al Barclay)

Much Ado Actor Blog: Teaching at Notre Dame

As we come to the end of our stay in Notre Dame, we are all reflecting on what this work has meant to us so far. Apart from being the job on which most of us saw our first chipmunk.

Chipmunk

Putting on a show of this nature with so few actors and no director has helped us to gain a better understanding of what we do in the rehearsal room. Where our strengths and weaknesses lie. If you only have yourself and your fellow actors to police your habits you really start to identify them. And we need to look at our process closely now because the other, very important, part of our work has come into play. The teaching. As we move around the USA, we will be teaching classes in the daytime to university students. These classes are not usually acting classes. They are on a range of subjects. We come into the room with our expertise, and use it as best we can to approach whatever topic we have been asked to approach.

I do not think of myself as a teacher. I think of myself as a practitioner. Not through aggressive self identifying. Just through a habitual contempt for bad teachers from my childhood. Here’s looking at you, Mr Wimbush. And through an unexamined lack of confidence in my ability to put things across. “What do I have to teach?” was my worry. “Oh shut up,” was Claire’s response. Which is what I love about actors. And was an entirely appropriate response.

The lovely thing is, we are not called upon to be the voice of the absolute. Just to share the things we have learnt. And we are, by our nature, eloquent people.

My first class was on Ethnomusicology and the oral tradition with Tala Jarjour. Eep. I was ridiculously nervous, and since all my students were anthropologists they were nervous too. We were on the stage in a massive theatre where I couldn’t work out how to put the lights on, and I was asking them to sing and improvise fairy stories. It was a great big nervous pie. But we ate it. And there was some tasty filling. I improvise in song in London all the time with The Factory. I love it and am getting quite good at it. But nerves are a stinker and I hadn’t been prepared for having to run the room.

Fortunately I had another class that day with Romana Huk, on Verse Drama. And this was in a non cavernous room with lights that I could work out how to switch on. And I knew I’d have to run the room so I did. Reflecting after the class I realised that, by teaching others, if you are open and honest, you teach yourself as well. I know a great deal more about the things I do unthinkingly now, having had to put them across to a room full of strangers.

My final class was Hamlet for English students with John Staud. He wanted them on their feet, so I did some acting work on them through the text. And helped a few of them to shift and be honest and confident while being watched by their peers. It was helpful having the perspective I’ve gained from doing an English degree myself. And having to explain how simultaneously helpful and unhelpful the academic perspective can be for an actor in practice. How my journey at drama school was away from it until I could hold on to the useful elements (quick study, no fear of sightreading etc) and abandon the less useful (endgaming, overweighting meaning etc)

By working practically with others, and speaking to them about my craft, it has already helped me chrystallise my understanding of that craft. And all five of us will be deepening that understanding as we tour and teach on a wealth of different topics across a wealth of different communities.

(By Al Barclay)

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.

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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.
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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)

“Twins both alike” – Zada and Zuri Eshun

2014 Young Company Members, Zuri and Zada Eshun

(L-R) Zuri Eshun and Zada Eshun

When we found out we would be acting together this summer, we were both very shocked, excited, and slightly confused.  This was not Comedy of Errors or Twelfth Night, and pondering our potential relationship in the same show was as stressful as the auditioning process. However, when we received word that we would be playing mother and daughter (Mistress Page and Anne Page), those stresses were calmed and aside from thoughts of the Film “Chinatown,” we were  content with finally being able to take the stage together.

This excitement  is rooted in the simple fact that we have never acted together. Ever. We have never even seen each other in a play. Why? We each spent our undergraduate careers on opposite sides of the country. Boston and South Bend are not exactly neighboring cities and this distance played a large role in separating us during the time we actually decided to take on acting. What’s amazing about NDSF is that they approached us when were deciding whether to spend another two to three years apart for grad school. The joy felt from being cast together somehow overflowed into that decision, and we decided to spend the next two years, together, at the East 15 Acting School of London.
If anything, we would like to thank NDSF for allowing us to learn and act together this summer. We are going from never acting together to being in two shows with each other, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without their help and encouragement. So look out for us this summer, and if you can’t tell the difference, don’t get too upset, nobody really can!