29 November 2010

There are moments...

Michael Boyd, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in the new auditorium

There are moments that change your lives dramatically, and then there are moments of sheer bliss that reveal: "Ah, yes, girl, you got it right." I had such a moment -- several of them in fact -- last Tuesday.

"I want to go big on the theatre re-opening," my wonderfully commanding editor chirped down the phone. She had secured places for both of us at the Press Preview Day, the day before the new theatre's official opening.

Jane is every inch an editor. She is exactly what one would imagine a "lady editor" to look and be. She is tall (of course, everyone is tall compared to me, but Jane could actually be described as statuesque). She is elegant, and not afraid of bold fashion statements: flawless houndstooth jackets in black and lime green. Her dark hair is cut neatly into soft, flattering bob. She exudes a warmth that is coupled with clarity and shrewdness -- this is a woman who doesn't suffer fools lightly.

When I arrive -- a miniature mod hipster, in a (gorgeous) pair Dolce & Gabbana culottes (Thank you, Ella at Corina Corina in Warwick!), knee-high black patent leather boots, and teal and cream cashmere, turtle jumper, I could see her giving me an unconscious smiling nod of approval. We were quite a team, and we had a super day!

A day which began with that  blissful "Aha!" feeling as I drove to Stratford in the brisk chill of a late autumn morning. Warwickshire was being Warwickshire in the background, mist was still rising off the dark green fields. A bright, blue November sky was peppered with soft, grey clouds. I thought to myself as I drove, "Yes, yes. This is it. This is the life I imagined!"

I have long been inspired by that wonderful quote from Thoreau: 

"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you imagine!"

Living the life 'you imagine' ain't easy. It takes daring, risk, tears and guts, but I think I'm there, and getting there more each day.

Other highlights of the day were: meeting RSC Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and him acknowledging  my book on the RSC's former studio theatre, The Other Place. This was topped by the opportunity to meet the utterly fantastic, Lady Susie Sainsbury. 

I allowed myself to become a complete groupie when I met Lady Sainsbury. I declared my undying love for Sainsbury's, as my favourite retail outlet. Absolutely true! Love it, love it!

Lady Susie Sainsbury, Deputy Chair of the Royal Shakespeare Company

New beginnings at the Royal Shakespeare Company

The year was 1987. I sat perched in one of the top rows of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Despite the great chasm between “the gods” and the proscenium, I was utterly rapt by the tiny, mesmerizing figures on stage: Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw and Alan Rickman.

The play was As You Like It. The experience of that production, in that theatre, changed my life. My chums and I had come to the RST as part of a university study tour. They left with souvenirs and postcards, I left with the certainty I had found my raison d'etre.

However, even as a loyal RSC devotee, I found the old building dark, pokey and foreboding. I never knew the RSC’s studio theatre, The Other Place, in its original configuration, though I have chronicled its history extensively.

That space placed spectator and actor on equal footing, and in equal levels of comfort and discomfort. Simon Russell Beale recalled The Other Place affectionately as “a shared experience of camping out.” It is little wonder than that the world fell in love with The Swan, when it opened in 1982. Warm, cosy and cheery, it was a space that seemed to embrace you.

Good news then that Michael Boyd and his team have succeeded in retaining aspects of all three Stratford houses in the Company’s new theatre. The new auditorium owes much to both the flaws of the old proscenium stage, and the lessons learned and cherished in The Other Place and The Swan.

In designing the new auditorium and theatre complex, Boyd has, literally and metaphorically, kept a firm grasp of the best of the Company’s stellar past, with an eye to moving forward for the future. For example, the wooden planks of the old stage provide the flooring for the upstairs lobby, so everyone has a chance to tread those famous boards.

Without being “Disney-ified”, the new complex speaks clearly to the next generation of theatre-goers and Shakespeare lovers on their own terms. It is a bright, welcoming and inviting space where visitors are encouraged to encounter Shakespeare in variety of media, and in truly evocative ways – whether one sets foot inside the auditorium, or not.

Throughout the building there are exhibition spaces, creative installations (to which visitors can contribute) and interactive displays, such as “The Insults Chair”, that bring Shakespeare’s language to life in ways that are instantaneous, engaging and hilarious. 

There are at last the much-needed creature comforts that audiences have lamented for decades: lifts, improved toilet facilities, more extensive catering outlets and shared access between the main house and The Swan. There is also wireless internet access available throughout the building, a feature that suggests the Company’s desire for this to become a place where visitors enjoy themselves throughout the day, and not exclusively as a theatre-going space.

With a nod to Brecht, and his philosophy that the mechanics of theatre should always be visible, Boyd has positioned the “load-in” dock through the main lobby so visitors, particularly the young, can see how theatre is made.

The much-debated Tower is truly the icing on the cake. The stunning views it offers are simply breathtaking. The tower, too, is a reclaimed piece of the theatre’s history, a re-imagining of the original tower that was destroyed by fire.

There is a moment, while experiencing this bird’s eye view of Shakespeare’s world, when all the pieces come together quite magically. Shakespeare: the man, his town, his birthplace, his school, his home, his final resting place, his words and works. And, now, he finally has the theatre he deserves.

22 November 2010

A funny old day...

In bed, feeling rotten.
We had a barnstorming first weekend at the Music Hall. No surprise that Sunday morning tidy up found most of the cast exhausted, coughing and sneezing.
The old wive's tale is true, once you stop moving that's when the sniffles catch you!

I, too, have finally succumbed to the dreaded 'Dressing Room Lurgie (cold)'.
Sore throat, mild cough, achy, etc...
I've kept myself tucked up in bed all day, hoping to feel better for the busy week ahead.

Tomorrow is the big Press Preview day of the new theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Another 'Big pearls and cashmere' day, at long last!) I'm delighted to have been invited along to have a nose round the new theatre. I just want to feel better, brighter, etc.

So, my plan was to take it easy today. I cancelled a coffee meeting I had (re)scheduled for this afternoon, and didn't make it to the gym for Aquafit. :(

A bit of surprise then, when the phone rang this afternoon and it was a producer from BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire wanting me to come and "talk Shakespeare" on the Mark Powlett show. At first, I thought it was a prank, but then, couldn't think who would do such a thing...

As a lead-up to the opening of the new theatre this week, Mark Powlett wanted to talk about Shakespeare's language and what Shakespeare means today. In a hazy of cough syrup and Ibuprofen, I gathered my thoughts about Shakespeare and prepped for our chat.

It turned out to be a really super conversation. Mark Powlett is a very clever and witty guy. And, I really enjoyed myself. Not least because I was able to do it sat in bed in my pyjamas! It really brightened my day, and lifted my spirits.

The DEB is bringing home a Chinese take away for dinner, so that neither of us will have to cook tonight. We both need a bit of comfort food and sleep.

And, I received a lovely message from the radio show's producer:
"How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world." - Merchant of Venice
Thank you very much for your time Alycia - it was a really enjoyablepiece of radio. Hope you get back to top health quickly! Kindest regards.

I hope so, too!

19 November 2010

There's no business like show business!

I am finally surfacing from my “euphoria hang-over”…

Last night was opening night for the Music Hall. It was fantastic! We had a super audience, who all seemed to being really enjoying themselves. Their positive energy really inspired us to do our best. Lovely when that happens!

There’s an old superstition in the theatre, if you have a stellar opening night, the rest of the run is fated for disaster, I hope this time the legend doesn’t prove true. I actually think we will continue to settle into our parts, really relax into them, and enjoy them.

The entire run of the show (this weekend and next weekend) sold out weeks ago, as the Music Hall has a faithful and dedicated audience. It’s incredible to witness and experience that level of support. And, honestly, you can feel the good will in the air. You can feel the audience willing you, wanting you to succeed.

Of course, I’m not naïve enough to think that every audience, or even every person in it feels that way. There’s always at least one “Incredibly Unimpressed Sour-puss” in every bunch. Thankfully, for us, the sour puss didn’t materialise last night!

I have said before that Barford seems an incredibly talented village, and maybe every village feels that way. Nevertheless, I am staggered by the level of skill and ability. Especially the gift of comedy. English humour, even the so called ‘low variety’, is an art form.

A few weeks ago, some very dear friends of mine from my old parish in New York came to London to celebrate their honeymoon. The DEB and I went down to London and took them for lunch in Covent Garden.

That was an incredible day, actually. Perfect weather and London being London in the background. Our favourite café in Covent Garden is the one where the performers busk while you’re eating. We’ve seen some very good acts there, mostly classical instrumentalists and singers. On the other side of Covent Garden, there is a courtyard that often plays host to jugglers, dancers and comics. On the day we were there, there was a guy juggling chainsaws … whilst riding a unicycle … wearing only a pair of fuchsia underpants. “The height of British culture,” my friend, John, said with a mighty guffaw. “More than you realise!” I chirped.

After our lunch at Covent Garden, we took a tour of The Banqueting House in Whitehall (designed by Inigo Jones, remarkable ceiling by Rubens) and rounded the day off by attending Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral – beautiful.

All that seems ages ago now, and I don’t know how we had time for it with rehearsal taking over our lives as they have! It has been worth it though. It was a joy to be on stage last night. And, to feel proud of the hard work I’ve put in. Especially these days when I have been feeling a bit low (after Lucy) and a bit down about my (relatively non-existent) career/work prospects.

The Music Hall has given me a real focus over the past few weeks. It’s been nice to have something to “get on with”. And get on, we have. Rehearsals have been quite full on, and hopefully that shows in our performances. We’re all really exhausted, but during the show it’s an amazing feeling, an incredible high, like nothing else in the world!

The DEB has really come into his own, and it has been so wonderful to watch him flourish as a comic actor and music leader. And, although I have a bit of a reputation for being fearless, I must confess I am very, very proud of myself for having the guts to face down “Don’t Tell Mama”. Greater performers than lowly me have flinched and wilted at the prospect!

Taking a leaf out of Beyonce Knowles’ book, I have to have a quiet word with myself in the loo before each performance. Though I haven’t gone as far as creating a ‘stage persona’ to assume to accomplish the brassy task.

Backstage at Wembley, Beyonce channels her alter ego, Sasha Fierce to steel her courage for her amazingly provocative performances. By contrast, I stand, freezing, in the dimly lit dressing room loo of the Barford Village Hall, sipping a cup of hot lemon water. I look myself in the eye, and call myself up short: “Look. Just go do it.”

Beyonce was also a source of inspiration for my costume. A more modest (?) version of this:

06 November 2010

More than a bit of sparkle

“Remember, remember the Fifth of November!”

Bonfire Weekend is always a big weekend in Barford. Tonight, we’re going to the village Bonfire Night celebrations with a few of our friends. Guy Fawkes Day was actually yesterday, but most towns and villages hold their bonfires on the Saturday nearest the 5th of November.

Last year, I was laid low by a nasty flu, so I missed all the fun. I was tucked up in bed, not even able to see the fireworks, though I could hear them. I’m really looking forward to tonight.

Thankfully, it rained last night, and this morning is crisp and clear, with bright sunshine, so - fingers crossed – we should be okay for fireworks, cider, sausages and merriment tonight!

There’s a small Christmas market in the village hall today, in aid of Home Farm Trust. I want to try and go up later and show my support, but I have one or two things I need to get done around here first.

Tomorrow is the big Music Hall “Audition Day”. I have spent the better part of this week hunting and gathering costumes for the DEB and myself. How did we all live before eBay? It is such an incredible resource for the kind of stuff you need for a village variety show!

I found an incredible seller that I must praise, called “Superstar UK”. They are simply great! We’re supposed to be fully costumed for the auditions tomorrow, and I was desperate to get an item I needed. The gals at Superstar UK were incredibly helpfully and they got my stuff here first thing this morning!

Praise, and a warning … be careful searching for cabaret accessories on eBay UK. While conducting a completely innocent search for “stockings and suspenders”, I came across some vendors whose presentation was right on the edge of the very fine line between advertising and “Readers’ Wives” styled pornography! Yikes!

So wrong, on so many levels, not least for the fact that surely no one is in the market for tights that have been worn by someone else?! …Double Yikes!

Marks & Spencer is a much better alternative in this regard! Speaking of M&S, while ordering stockings, I had a sneak peek at their champagne and wines. They are currently running quite a few pre-Christmas specials on champers. So – time to stock up!

Now that I think about it, Bonfire Night, is really the last “hurrah” before Christmas here in the UK. These days, I am really torn about Thanksgiving. Of course, I love the concept, the colors, the foods, etc. But, in a way, it really is a just sort of very sincere “Dress Rehearsal” for Christmas.

I don’t mean to belittle Thanksgiving in any way, but I must say it does seem a little redundant. Although, there is clearly a need to have some sort of festivity between Halloween and Christmas, at the very least just to keep shopkeepers from putting up Christmas decorations in August!

Speaking of decorations, I must go and make sure the DEB has everything he needs for his costumes for tomorrow. And, I have a few “arts and crafts“ projects to get our props ready as well. Then, off to the Bonfire and hopefully, an early night. I’ve got a stint on the radio tomorrow morning – as if I needed another challenge.

It’s for a sort of “Week in Review” show. The host, another guest and I will read through and discuss the Sunday papers. I was flattered to be asked. I’m really looking forward to it, if somewhat nervous about it.

So, the theme for tomorrow is nerves and hopefully, a bit of sparkle!