America Day 14 – Luis the car valet

Luis works at a grill in the downtown loop. He is subcontracted in to run the car key station for the valet parking. I picked up his little fold up stool from the roadside, as he was in shock. “Careful you don’t get his blood on your hands.”

I return it to him, but he barely registers. He’s bust up. Shaky. There’s a fair amount of his blood on the stool. Has he been bludgeoned with it? Possibly. Little bastards.

He is in shock, insisting he’s alright but not alright. He cares about his work. He won’t leave his post. He’s bleeding badly and in shock but he still wants to do the best job he can do. I wonder why they attacked him, these shit young men. Why did they beat up this quiet man with his broken English and his work ethic, working a service job for peanuts and tips?

“They wanted my stool,” he tells us, but they didn’t. They dumped it when they ran off laughing.

We don’t know Luis from before, but we are close to him when it happens. We had first seen him across the road as they were kicking him in the head on this crowded sidewalk. The city just keeps moving round.

We go and get the duty manager. Luis is trying to tell us he’s ok, but he’s covered in blood. There’s blood on the pavement. They’ve done a job on him these dumb kids.

The duty manager is quick and honestly concerned. She cares for this quiet and pleasant man and we feel it. She is out the door at a sprint and approaching his injury with love and care. We leave him in her hands and go about our evening, but we carry the blanket of the memory over us. He was what you’d call “hispanic” in this country. Was he Mexican? I didn’t ask him.

Today is Mexican Independence Day, and the streets of Chicago this evening are an explosion of green red and white.

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It’s a celebration, and with a hint of civil disobedience. People are gunning their engines and deliberately burning hard rubber at the foot of Trump tower. People are standing on the roof of moving cars in bikinis with flags. Police cars actively try to move the traffic, and to keep the epicentre from coagulating outside the narcissism monument where crowds keep trying to form. The cars get moved on, so they go round the block and come back again. Honking horns, shouting voices, laughter warmth and flags. It’s joy.

We are all swept up in this celebration, broadly smiling, happy to be part of it on our last night in the windy city that has turned out to be sunny.

I find myself worrying about Luis though. The guys who beat him up were not WASPs like most of the shooters that pop up in this country these days. I hope it was just about kids exercising power. I’m worried the division sewn at the top is becoming more and more nuanced.

I find myself trying not to draw a connection between four young men kicking the crap out of a kind sad “hispanic” working man and the surrounding streets shutting down in joyful celebration of Mexican Independence. I felt part of the party as I walked through their active fun and noise. It was truly delightful to witness and experience. Surely it wouldn’t make people who identify as something other than Mexican feel left out and polarise enough to justify opportunistically rolling over a soft target for nothing other than the feeling of power. Surely?

I’ll still miss this city. As cruel as London. Expensive, fast, silly and creative. I could live here in this mess.

America Day 13

I was 8 minutes late for our rendezvous, and arrived to find myself in the doghouse. We had booked a river cruise. It was a little over half an hour’s walk away. We had fifty minutes to get there. We made it in 25.

We virtually sprinted through the sunny streets of the windy city so we could sit in a stationary boat for ages. Then it moved and we got to hear facts. It’s hot in Chicago today. “We didn’t have much of a summer so this is great,” says the guide. And it is but I don’t have a hat.

I sat with the group on the prow of the boat with Claire’s cardigan wrapped round my head like I was some sort of shit pirate. We rolled down the river accompanied by our guide who literally didn’t stop talking for the next hour and a half.

I’ve conducted my fair share of river tours. I will never do another, but I understand the pressure to fill the gaps with noise. You forget that sometimes people like to just sit and enjoy looking at stuff. I started to feel bombarded with information. It was hot and it was relentless. The voice of our guide started grating on my nerves. It was like being at school with one of the less capable teachers. I wrote a note to Claire. “Help, I’m trapped on a boat with talking.” I wasn’t even hungover. I think if I had been I’d have been sick on our guide. I respected her for trying her best. But it’s an object lesson in performance. The amount of effort you make doesn’t automatically correlate to the amount of fun an audience has. I’ve seen actors working their socks off in order to bore me. I’ve seen actors barely lift a finger to mesmerise me. “Let them do the work,” said one of my tutors. Easy to say, not so easy to do. You stand up in front of people to work and – particularly if you enjoy the work – it doesn’t feel like work unless it’s hard so you deliberately make it difficult for yourself to justify it. Our guide had every second of the 90 minute tour filled with noise. With all the names of the architects, dates, styles, materials, histories, puns, politics, jokes, tales and references to the American football that didn’t quite feel owned.

Still a lovely tour. I found myself thinking about the Trump tower, the ultimate penis substitute – for why else is he sensitive about his hands? I’m wondering what it’ll be in 100 years time. I’d love to think it’d be social housing, with the name still there as a stark reminder of the cost of hubris.

Then we had pizza and I wandered off to the SGI Buddhist centre to catch a quick chant in company before we go jetting off all over the world, and to buy myself some beads and a travel gong. Now I’m in the queue for Kingston Mines. “Are you guys from London?” Here we go again. Plus it’s probably 6am uk time. Better click go

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America Day 12 – Chicago Arrival

We are all bundled into a stretch limo, rolling down the road to Chicago. Kaffe just put on “Sweet Home Chicago”. It’s only an hour and a half on the road but we will cross into a new timezone which works in our favour. It won’t be too late to go out if we’ve got the life within us. And with this group I’m pretty sure we will find the life. This is the start of the tour proper now.

It’s a strange and delightful life, this tour. We did our last show this evening in South Bend on a football Friday and we had another amazing reception. We threw off our costumes as the audience left, and reconvened on stage in order to fold up the show and put it all in a blue suitcase. Katherine reads a list. We check everything off. It all goes in, in a certain order, under Katherine’s watchful eye.

And then the reality dawns. We are off now. Out. Away. Loose. We say our goodbyes to Scott, to Deb, to Jason, to Sydney. There’s lots of hugs. Scott covers us with silly string. This is the level we’ve reached. The laughs are tinged with the knowledge that this is it. A miniature shattering. Suddenly it’s just us again. Five actors, a suitcase and loads of ridiculous in-jokes, banging around to lots of interesting places, making a story and sharing our practice. Our support network will stay in South Bend and we will scoot all over this huge country and meet all sorts of people and see all sorts of sights.

Everybody is listening to Chicago the musical now. Someone opened a bottle of champagne that Jason got for us. We are leaving the home ground and we are hitting the windy city for a filthy weekend before the flight to Texas on Monday morning. I’m gonna join the conversation.


If the limo hadn’t got lost we would’ve been here in time for a drink. As it is I’m contemplating bed having just walked into this cavernous suite on the 19th floor near the river, West Side. It’s 1am local time, 2am body clock time. I’ve got a fridge in my suite, and a hob. A good sized sofa, a shower you could carve an elephant in, a massive bed, a high view of another tall building, and the ubiquitous air con. I can’t help myself. I’m going back out to see the late night street. Although I need to see this town again, so I’ll need to get some sleep. I’m just excited both to be here and to have two consecutive days off in it.


I bought a Pacifico from 7-11. I’ll have it in the suite in my pajamas. This is a luxurious start to this leg. I do love working like this. At a Q&A session today someone asked me if it’s hard to work like this, so far from home. I told them how happy I am, but also that I miss my friends and Pickle. But this is gonna be beyond awesome. Lovely show in lovely company, in the second city…

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America Day 11 – Hotels and bars

I keep a flask by my bed. It is impossible to adjust the aircon in this hotel. You can switch it off by the panel, but the panel is a lie. It’s controlled centrally. I’m dried out and frozen as I sleep. Room service have stopped taking the winter double duvet off my bed. I found it in the wardrobe. They won’t put a cover on it. But they leave it there at last. It’s hot outside. I want to live in reality please, not expensive bullshitland. But I have to live in this aircon con.

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There’s a water purifier in the gym downstairs. I fill my flask from it every night, as I utterly detest American tap water. Sure it’s safe and clean. But it tastes like it was squeezed from your armpit hair after a long day in the public swimming pool. I drank enough chlorine in Jersey when I was six and my swimming instructor kept ducking me. I can do without the memory in my tap water.

Last night I went, at about this time, to fill my flask in the gym. I found one of the company members dejected at reception. His door had run out of battery. The night porter couldn’t get him in. But let me just run that by you again. He couldn’t get into his room because his DOOR had run out of BATTERY?!? “Does this happen a lot?” I ask. “More than you’d think,” the night porter replies.

What fresh hell is this? What’s wrong with a key? I had to renew my card every day because the thing demagnetised in my pocket, principally because I’m carrying quick change magnets most of the time. My fault for carrying them maybe? But my friend can’t sleep in the room where all his stuff is because the DOOR has run out of BATTERY…! And the night porter can’t change the battery. So, after the first night of the show he had to sleep in another room that they opened for him. He did it with good grace… But…

I stuck with him for a bit to make sure the night porter gave him a toothbrush and toothpaste. I know how easy it is when you’re discombobulated to forget to ask for the things you need.

“How was the room?” I asked the next morning – “Did they give you the penthouse at least?” “No. It was on the ground floor near the car park.”

He shrugs. And then he goes off to teach his first ever solo class. He’s been worrying about it for a while. I have no doubt he aced it. But I remember my first few classes five years ago when I did this tour. I was nervous as hell. Paul had to help me out to get my mind into understanding that my life has been adequate training to teach these smart and inquisitive kids what they need. Now I’m doing Paul’s job from my first tour. I have to be supremely confident about classes and offer advice and be organised and active and helpful. Weird. But hugely powerful to understand how much I’ve shifted in five years.

This summer has been about seeing what I’m capable of. All of us are capable of more than we thought we were. Turns out I’m no exception. I’m going to keep raising the bar…

And on the subject of bars, next up is a 32 bar musical self tape that has to be in by Monday so will come from my hotel room in Chicago courtesy of iPad and gaffer tape. As a self taught musician I don’t even know what 32 bars means. I’ll just have to play something for a bit and not be shit. That’s hard enough, frankly. It might make Chicago a bit less fun, but it might make January a lot more fun. Balance…

 

America Day 10 – Opening Night

I’m in a trail of happy people as we make our way through Notre Dame. 150 years ago this was in the middle of the biggest fenland in America outside of the Everglades. It was drained eventually for farming, but the wet air and the chirring of the treeborne insects helps connect me imaginatively to that time.

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We have just emerged triumphant from the theatre. First night, at long last. We played to an audience that marked every moment, vocally joined us in the rollercoaster, laughed at the weird little gags we forced in, cared for the journeys of our unusual characters, got the show, got our gags and all stood up at the end, God bless them, and did the old standing O. American audiences, perhaps. But this difficult process has been validated utterly in one evening.

“We made this!” I find myself saying in the wings as we exit from the bowing, shot full to bursting with neat adrenaline, finally able to express the extent of it to the little portable village that we have formed.

Not many other processes can allow that feeling of “We made this” to be so owned.

We were given the means to make it. We were given time in a big room in Brixton. We were paid well. We were respected and trusted. We worked fucking hard. And now we have an uncut Twelfth Night, all parts played by this little band of five. And – thank God – it works and it works in detail. And it is incontrovertibly going to be a joy to do it for the next couple of months.

I barely had time to be nervous before the show. I’m having to make sure that lessons are well coordinated and spread evenly among the company, and that nobody is feeling worried about their work in workshops. It’s an aspect of this company that we are asked to teach all kinds of things in the daytime. Usually performative. Katherine is in tomorrow to teach confidence in public speaking to managerial students. I had to go in today to teach 21 people to improvise about climate change, and tomorrow I’ll be teaching about how to make verse work in your favour as a performer, and what it means when you shift from prose to verse. All grist to the mill for academics, all par for the course for performers conversant with the idiom. But that’s the joy with this company. You make a show with five actors that can fit in a suitcase. You fill all the roles that need filling. You create a company. You come together. Then off to Notre Dame, where you play to the home crowd and those of us who have never taught before get to break the back of the fear and responsibility that teaching carries.

Then into the world.

For now though, two more shows in Notre Dame. Chicago calling, and then Texas. My cowboy boots are sitting patiently in my hotel room for next week.

 

America Day 09 – Prison

Five years ago I went to Westville Penitentiary. It was at exactly this stage in the process. Scott brought us all into the prison, and we did Much Ado About Nothing with none of the props or chairs or gewgaws to a bunch of medium security American prisoners. It was our first performance and it was a remarkable experience and made it impossible for us to ever be nervous with the show again.

We were asked if we wanted to come in and do a workshop in the prison this time. Three of us could do it, and we did so despite a hectic schedule.

Ricky picked us up at 8.30 and drove us across the county line to the prison. We left all our bits and pieces in the car, and walked into the unit with only some printouts. Through the x-ray and a thorough patdown. Through the very solid iron airlock doors. Past bundles of razor wire and electric wire and into the dilapidated shuttle to spin us over the sunny concrete to the run down stone unit.

There, once again, the big men in beige prison smocks – some with gang tattoos some with visible old injuries. Men you might feel threatened by in other circumstances, but in this instance hungry to learn, curious, starved of input.

Much of the work brought to prisoners over here is on a voluntary basis. As a result, I’m told that a lot of what is available to these people exists in various fundamental religious spheres. The zealots want to have a go at redeeming them.

Shakespeare is a perfect example of something secular that works in this context both in theory and in practice. Morally complex and ambiguous, open to interpretation, responsive to the individual, dealing with basic human needs and desires but old enough and established enough for someone to rubber stamp it, people do Shakespeare in prisons all over the world.

“Since you were here five years ago, they’ve relaxed security for us a little,” Ricky tells me. “Students on our course have a 3% readmission rate. That’s down from over 30%” The power of education. They only take people with at least two years left inside, as they get a degree out of it if they have the time. We got to come in on pretty much the first day of their work on Twelfth Night. So we did a lot of ensemble building work. Stuff that we would do in the first week of rehearsal. We were getting these guys to relax, to breathe and stretch. Then to focus together as a group. Some basic theatre games including Grandmother’s Footsteps, which was electric. And then onto working with simple bits of text.

Towards the end I was pulled out of that class. There was another class going on across the way on romantic poetry. I got ferried in to do work with them on verse and heartbeat and intention and delivery pertaining to romantic poetry – specifically Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It’s a lovely way to come into any lesson – as a practitioner. “All I can do is teach you how we would approach this piece of work for performance.” I got them speaking sonnets to me. Typically they then asked me for a famous speech. I ended up doing requests in a room in an Illinois prison to a bunch of guys with teardrops tattooed on their cheeks. I had a few tears of my own by the end, but thankfully less ominous in meaning and less permanent.

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America Day 08 – Ghost lights

Just east of the golden dome of the basilica in Notre Dame Indiana is Washington Hall. It was built in 1881. It’s relatively old for this area. And it’s riddled with ghosts.

Just 8pm, but we are in a pool of light, sitting on the stage doing a speed run. Vital to identify the bits of bad learning and a speed run will find them. But it’s cold in here. I’m already on the edge of shivering when I look to Claire mid scene. She is turned at ninety degrees to the stage, utterly still, staring defiantly at something in the wings. I turn to look. “Don’t,” she shoots, barely moving. It’s like she’s holding something at bay. “Oh no, the ghost?” I ask her. “Sssh” she responds. My character has just been talking about Satan. I go cold.

Actors are a superstitious lot. It’s well known. I’ve escaped a lot of the superstitions but ghosts… Oh go on then. I get a shot of full body goose pimples. The whole speed run crashes for a few minutes while we all quietly lose and regain our cool. Then we get back on track despite the fact that there’s somebody else in the room. A strange shifting notion of a presence. An observer. Nice to have an audience I guess. I find myself relieved that we’ve outlined our stage space with a circle of light. We sit there, huddled in this huge hall, under the scrutiny of this idea of a dead person among hundreds of empty chairs, and we make another dead man’s words come alive in a ring of warmth and brightness and life.

I remember five years ago when I first walked onto this stage with Scott. The theatre was dark, but there was one strange light standing alone in the middle of the stage. “What’s that,” I asked. “Don’t you have those in the UK?” He said. “It’s a ghost light. And we need it here.” “Does it attract them or scare them off?” “I think the idea is that it keeps them off the stage…” No ghost operas on our stage overnight then. That’s something. But the presence of the light brings the presence of a presence into the tense present. Suggestion is a powerful thing. We are cold from air con. We are tired at the end of the day without much food. We see a ghost – in so much as anybody has ever seen a ghost. I see it through Claire seeing it. Now I have a frame of reference for “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” I can still picture the expression on her face. Challenge mixed with horror. Stillness.

Coming from London, having spent time in York and having lived in a room in Oxford that was certainly haunted (so far as you CAN be certain of that bollocks), this relatively new building is a prime candidate for one of the spookiest places I’ve ever worked in.

It’s an amazing auditorium though and the five of us will fill it with light and joy for three nights this week. We will either banish the ghosts to the edges of the darkness, or we will give them a bloody good show.

Here’s three of us, watched by a ghostly audience. There’s the ghost light and Sydney who gave her time up to be on book for us, and is generally awesome. And who I promised I’d shout out. And who could be a friendly ghost, considering we’ve never seen her outside of the building. But if so she’s got us fooled.

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