November 17, 2004
On Tour With The Scottish Play, Part V
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, a renowned Equity LORT company, recently toured the NEA-US Department of Defense-funded Shakespeare in American Communities Military Base Tour of the "Scottish Play." It opened on Friday, September 10, 2004, at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, and visited 13 military bases in seven states before returning to the Virginia Samford Theatre in Montgomery. The cast included William Brock, Aaron Cabell, Rodney Clark, Suzanne Curtis, Paul Hebron, Jennifer Hunt, Warren Jackson, James Knight, Alex Knold, Joe Kolbow, Sonja Lanzener, Mark D. Leslie, Kathleen S. McCall, Chris Mixon, Howard W. Overshown, Philip Pleasants, Remi Sandri, and Frederick Snyder.
INSTALLMENT # 5, Final Installment
(October 11, 2004) So we drive out of Leavenworth and head west, back across the Kansas prairie. It's a long, all day drive to Burlington, CO. We stop for lunch near a truck stop and then drive on. As we pull into Burlington, Paul, our bus driver, notices that we're low on gas (as it turns out later, several of his gauges will prove to be less than reliable). Seeing a FINA station off the highway to the right, we pull off and make for the first available drive through lane.
Only we don't get there. Twenty yards from the pump the engine dies, and we coast for another 5 or so. We are out of gas. Thinking at first that it's a mechanical issue, we all dutifully pile off the bus and wander into the connected convenience store, just in case we've missed anything in the dozens of convenience stores we've wandered through in the past five or six weeks. One of us outside hears that we have in fact run out of gas. Slowly but surely we're seized by a kind of carnival impulse and run to push the bus to the pump. Four, then six, eight, twelve of us are now shoulder to shoulder, heaving and straining from behind it to push forward to the goal of gasoline. Several of us discover almost too late that the last occupant of this lane was a cattle truck, and it has apparently left behind more than it drove away with. Ten yards, then five…my good friend Frederick Snyder sees me pushing beside him, and is kind enough to remind me that this kind of exertion is perhaps not the smartest thing for a recovering heart patient to be participating in. I step away, and join two or three of the smokers in our company, wheezing encouragement from the sidelines. Others are snapping pictures, and shouting at our teamster wannabes to lean harder and smile. Standing there, watching it all, it strikes me that this little scene is life imitating art, a moment of Theatre amongst the 7000 mind numbing miles we will eventually travel. We are, for a moment, an ensemble. We get the gas amidst much cheering from the now considerable crowd of locals, and drive the last .25 miles to our hotel.
Crossing the plains of Eastern Colorado is a curious mix of excitement and pain for me. I attended undergraduate school in our next destination, Colorado Springs, at the Colorado College, and have in fact missed my thirtieth reunion weekend by a day (probably a good thing: none of my closest friends were able to attend, and what could be worse than standing around with relative strangers making small talk about who's gone bald [me], and who hasn't). So while I've anticipated this part of the tour for some time, it's distressing to see the economic deterioration of so many of the little towns we drive through; poverty and abandonment are everywhere. These are the small, rural communities that are getting left behind, drying up like the creeks that run through them, most now beyond the political rhetoric of both parties. Landscapes, whether economic, social, or simply physical, are driven by change; that's a fact of life. Driving through these towns though, you get some flash at least of the demands those changes make on real people in their daily lives. They're only images, frozen for a moment, and then we've moved on; but the pain they suggest stays with you long after.
Then we crest yet another small hill and suddenly there they are, on the horizon, the mountains; still impossibly beautiful, and as powerfully moving as I remember them thirty years ago when I first made this trip. We pull into our hotel, a Residence Inn on the east side of Colorado Springs, the part of the city that has grown most substantially since I was student here. We unload, and most of us go about the business of renting cars. For logistical reasons on their parts, two of the three venues we were meant to play here have canceled their performances, so we have the next three and a half days off to ourselves. We will be performing Friday night at Peterson AFB, then after another day off on Saturday will continue south to New Mexico. The break comes at a great time in the tour; we can all use a little time away from the bus and from each other, no doubt, and God knows this is a beautiful part of the country in which to do it. Sonja and I spend the next few days traveling in Colorado Springs and the mountains nearby, manage to catch friends performing in the Misanthrope at the Denver Center, and generally have a fabulous and relaxing time of it.
We come back on Friday to receive the good news that Peterson will not, in fact, be our one outdoor venue. It is October in Colorado; it's been wet and in the high 40's for the past couple of days, and as we load into the bus Friday evening to travel to the base it's raining again. On the down side of things, we're performing in the gym that makes up part of their fitness center...yes, another gym. But to our surprise and delight, when we arrive and walk onstage for fight call, we're greeted by the slightly surreal image of black scoreboards, orange hoops, white folding chairs and bright blue industrial carpeting over three quarters of the wooden floor. That's right, someone has gone to the trouble of laying down hundreds of square feet of neon blue carpeting for the event; where it came from or where it's going after our performance is anybody's guess. With the lights up the colors make it feel like we're doing the Circus Macbeth, but the good news is that acoustically it's a life saver; the carpet makes a huge difference. Buoyed by being inside, and glad to be back to the play after our long break, we do a first rate show.
Sunday morning we begin the last leg of our trip, traveling down into New Mexico to Clovis and Alomogordo. The weather has finally turned colder and more like the seasonal changes we're beginning to see outside our windows. Crossing Raton Pass near the northern border with Colorado, the muted browns, reds and grays of the sage and pinion are especially beautiful. We are headed to the eastern part of the state, and I spend most of my time on the bus preparing for the "outreach" that I'll be running tomorrow when we perform at Cannon AFB. During our repertory season at ASF, as part of our outreach to our own community, our dramaturge and MFA program faculty member, Dr. Susan Willis, frequently does what she calls "Bard Talks". Before the performance of any of Shakespeare's plays, she will spend fifteen to twenty minutes with whoever wants to participate, discussing aspects of the play and our production of it that they as audience members are about to see. It's a very popular program, and Susan does it brilliantly.
Well here in Clovis the powers that be have requested a bard talk, and Susan has been kind enough to ask me to do it. At least it seemed that way to me back in September; it feels a little different now, knowing that Cannon AFB is where we're performing in the aircraft hanger, and that most of our audience won't have a great deal of background in Shakespeare, or in theatre for that matter. The next day several of my colleagues take no small delight in pointing out that the base newspaper has highlighted "the lecture on Macbeth and Shakespeare that is to take place before the performance itself".
When we arrive on base Monday night, the first thing that becomes apparent is just how large an aircraft hanger actually is. It's huge – really, REALLY big. Dressing rooms are again right behind the set, but for once available apace is not an issue, and there's surprisingly little bounce acoustically. But my larger problem is the layout of the space relative to the front of the stage. Because of the placement of the light trees, there is roughly forty five to fifty feet from the lip of our stage to the first row of seats, and I find out from our stage manager Mark that I'm going to have to do the bard talk from the stage itself; for some reason he can't leave the house lights on. So with this moat of darkness between me and these good people, with start-of-show lights full up in my face, I go out there to "have a little chat" with the folks about Macbeth and Shakespeare. Worst of all, here at half hour only the three school groups attending the performance this evening have arrived, so it's almost impossible not to feel like Mr. Hebron making the day's announcements over the PA system to each homeroom class. Mercifully, the kids are very well behaved, and do a great job of politely feigning interest as I ramble on about Gunpowder Plots, early seventeenth century witchcraft, and the real meaning of "equivocation". They give me a rousing, well-meaning round of applause as I leave the stage in a cold sweat. Having already died once tonight on that stage, Duncan's blundering into Lady Macbeth's lair has, this evening, an extra special resonance to it.
The next day is a travel day to Alamogordo in the central part of New Mexico, to Holloman AFB. We will perform twice here, our last stop on the tour, and the people are exceptionally kind and appreciative. We have the psychological advantage of actually playing in a theatre space on the base, and our audiences are large and enthusiastic. After our morning performance on Wednesday, the brigadier general who commands the base is generous enough to invite us to view the Forty-Ninth Fighter Squadron, which is made up primarily of stealth fighter jets. With the help of the commander in charge of maintaining the jets and one of the captains who flies them, we're given a full tour of two of these incredible planes, including the opportunity to sit in a cockpit itself. One of our company members respectfully declines the invitation to view the planes, for political and emotional reasons. I respect, appreciate, and even largely agree with his decision; but I can't help it, the nine-year boy in me takes over and I have to go play with the planes. It is a remarkable experience.
Our final performance on the road goes very well the following night; the show is focused and strong. We leave on Friday morning to travel across Texas and Louisiana, to arrive Sunday in Birmingham, AL for a week's residency at the Samford theatre there. I try to use the time to reflect on what the experience has meant, what others and I might have learned from it.
First and foremost, I was impressed over and over again by the straightforward kindness and generosity of everyone we met connected to the tour, by the enthusiasm of our audiences, and by the special effort always made to make us feel welcomed and appreciated. For someone who grew up protesting the war in Vietnam (at least half our company wasn't even born then) and the role of the military in society, it has been illuminating to meet these folks face to face. Whatever disagreements we might have over the role our nation is playing in the world today, this was a context, these evenings of listening to and performing Shakespeare's brilliant words, in which we met just as people.
And a wonderful thing began to happen. Your pre-conceptions, your long protected opinions drop away, and you begin to see similarities between these cultures, between the "us" and "them". While there can be no comparison to the sacrifices these men and women are willing to make, putting their lives on the line when called upon to do so, some of the other parallels are striking. Both professions, what we do on a daily basis as theatre artists and what a "lifer" in the military does, are poorly understood by our mainstream society, and that lack of understanding often engenders real criticism and rejection. Neither group is driven by financial reward, and trying to explain why we choose these two careers, once past the simple if true aphorisms of "self expression" on the one hand and "service to country" on the other, can be a daunting experience. Whatever lip service is given to supporting the arts or respecting the commitment to serve, most Americans keep us at a comfortable distance; the unspoken thought being: "Why in the world would he/she choose that lifestyle? Isn't life difficult enough without putting yourself (re: Mother, Father, Family, etc.) through all that?"
Perhaps that strikes at the heart of the matter, that it's not a "mainstream" decision. Maybe it's a common need to be part of something bigger than ourselves, a shared belief not just in the rhetoric of "values", but in what is possible when people working together honor that process itself as much as the end result. Again I don't mean to trivialize the journey any soldier may be asked to make. But if I learned anything on this tour it is what's possible when respect and trust are back in the room, when people stop judging each other and are willing to take the risk of understanding. Looking back over my notes from seven weeks ago, I wrote "Don't we always have more in common than we're willing to admit to?" I think the great gift of this tour, for me at least, was that two groups, with more in common than they might realize, took a chance at that understanding.
It has been my privilege and pleasure to work with the cast and crew of the NEA-sanctioned, DOD approved 2004 ASF Tour of Macbeth. A special thank you goes to Actors’ Equity for giving me the opportunity to opine on these pages. It was a great experience, one of which I am proud to have been a part. And I am very glad to be off the damn bus.