Chicago Part One

…And a warm welcome back to my blog on Sancho in the U.S. I arrived bleary eyed and braced by the cold air on the 15th. Everything I’d heard about Chicago lead me to believe that my saliva would freeze if I even opened my mouth to hail a cab here, but, no. Strange to say that Chicago is experiencing an unusually mild February. My usual London winter gear is all I’ll really need here. Good news.

I always thought they called it the Windy City because of the biting wind blowing off the immense Lake Michigan. Some well-informed local corrected my misconception: it was really because of the hot air spouting out of the mouth of the local politicians here. Who knows which one is true?

I was met at O’Hare Airport by Dan Hess, Company Manager, and his warm welcome extended to taking me to meet some of the leading lights at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the Navy Pier area. A marvellous location set on the frozen and immense Lake. Boats are locked in by the ice and it really does look like you could walk on water here! Barbara Gaines, Artistic Director here since 1986, was warm and welcoming. I felt, just as I have in all the theatres I’ve visited here, like I was coming to a place that both desired and actively encouraged innovative and original work. It was going to a great way to end this run.

Dan took me down to the main stage which is built on an exact model of the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. So exact is it that I had immediate flashbacks to my first stint at the RSC way back in 1990. Beautiful wooden circles rise three stories and overlook a thrusting, intimate stage. The Othello, directed by Brit, Jonathan Mumby, was being loaded in. I’m seeing it this afternoon and looking forward to that with great anticipation.

So, to my two massive highlights of the week so far… About 15 years ago, the late, great actor, Alex Giannini, had encouraged a group of actor friends to start an improvisation group. Having worked with founding member, the late Del Close, and using his book, Truth in Comedy, we began sessions at the Drill Hall in London. Private. No audiences. Just for us. Wonderful. We had little idea that a group of 6 actors would turn into 25. And I had no idea that it would be the start of me leading these workshops and changing the way I approached all my subsequent work. It was also the start of my teaching other folks the same techniques of spontaneity and freedom of thought. It was truly life-changing, and I have my late friend Alex to thank for that.

Alumni of the Second City Theatre, which has been going since 1959 include: Alan Alda, Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, Amy Poehler, John Candy, Shelley Long, Steve Carell, Tina Fey and the Belushi brothers, to name a very few... Second City troupes are regular contributors on Saturday Night Live, the seminal satirical show on U.S. TV. So it was with great excitement that having asked Dan if I could see a gig that night, I was given not only great seats but the whole VIP treatment. Peep Show is very popular amongst comedy folks here and that gave me a lot of kudos. Not only that, but I was asked to be part of the final, totally improvised set! You can read a little more about this on my facebook page Ignatius.Sancho. Those of you who’ve seen that post already know how high I was after that gig. Thank you, Second City and thank you, Alex G.

The next afternoon I had the flattest dress rehearsal ever. Where was the buzz of last night? Where were my co-improvisors? I felt like I would never want to go on stage on my own again… But…good old Doctor Theatre and good old MASSIVE EGO soon kicked in and the night’s performance was one of the most rewarding. Another smart, warm and emotional American audience. Is it weird that I get moved by seeing people in the audience being moved at the curtain call? I guess they’ve empathised with Sancho and I in turn must empathise with them. A beautiful, human transaction that keeps us social creatures together and, indeed, sane. The compact space at the top of the Shakespeare Theatre, seating around 200, helped to bring SANCHO down to an intimate level. It’s good to know that the play can take a 400 and a 100 seater venue. Right off to watch some jealousy and madness. Well, what else should one day on an afternoon off in Chi-Town?

And that's it for 2015!

21/12/16

All good things must come to an end. And this US run has been just that; a very good thing. I am very grateful to my team of artists who have helped me feel surrounded by excellence and friendship. The Tims, Smith and Boyd. Anshu, my stalwart lighting assistant, who was rather slumming it working with us as he is a fully fledged theatre designer in his own right. Lucrecia who I cannot thank enough not only for her brilliant lighting but also for her heartfelt encouragement to me as the actor. Ben and Michael, not able to join us on the US leg but missed and constantly complimented by members of the audience wherever we went. Linda, worked miracles with time and resources, making a ‘rough theatre’ show feel like a lavish costume drama at times. And Pam, our latest team member, solid, funny and efficient. And last, but not least, my invaluable co-director, dramaturg and pal, Simon ‘Boy Genius’ Godwin.

Our next stop will be the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre for the Chicago Shakespeare 400 Festival from the 17th to the 20th of February 2016. The windy city, they say, and expected to be absolutely freezing…more like minus 15! I’ll restart my blog entries around that time.

In the meantime, may I wish you all a wonderful, peaceful and love-filled Christmas. A brilliant start to 2016. And all my gratitude and appreciation for following my intermittent ramblings.

“Yours,

As you behave…” x

BAM, New York

I’ve feel like I’ve been in the US for ages. So much so, that I have to think twice about writing the date in UK style, DD/MM/YYYY. Of course, it goes, MM/DD/YYYY, here.

On Thursday, at BAM, we filmed the show for the education department. A wonderful set-up with 4 cameras. Ben Cohen, from BAM was producing it. We had an audience, made up of employees of BAM, numbering about 30. They were wonderfully attentive and generous. We had to repeat a few moments and they gave a seemingly spontaneous response despite the fact that they had seen the sequence before.

Many of these folks were at a BAM gathering hosted by Bryan Dorries the week before. He works with a company called, Theatre of War, who go into arenas after conflict, or potential conflict, and gets the parties to talk to each other. In BAM’s case it was a forum for staff to see a bit of SANCHO, the Prologue, and tell folks what they found truthful in their own lives from the presented piece. It was very powerful and therapeutic for many. They spoke articulately and openly about the way they are seen in the organisation but also in their daily lives. The Black and Hispanic members of staff were the most outspoken, naturally. I was really very impressed with BAM’s commitment to truth and openness. Hats off to them for genuinely caring. That feeling resonates throughout the entire building.

After the show on Thursday night, Bryan, hosted a post-show Q&A. The questions were, as usual, direct, powerful, and sometimes difficult to answer. Like the lady who asked why we still need to talk about the same issues of equality. And why is there still an over-emphasis on black suffering in discussions of history. No easy way to respond to that. My answer has to be the family therapy approach, of talking about our issues one with another. Only then, I believe, can we move on. Having told the truth to each other, and reconciled ourselves to having a future together. Tough, real questions…

The highlight, however, of this talkback, as they call them here, was that I was able to re-tell my story of how I first came across Sancho. Gretchen Gerzina’s book, Black England. Called Black London in the US. And then, joy of joys, I got to introduce Gretchen to the audience as she was there; greet her physically for the first time; and lead her on to the stage to talk about her book! Extraordinary, doesn’t cover it!!

Over the last week at BAM, I have met three Sancho/Black England/Black depictions in art scholars and obsessives. A lecturer at Yale, a researcher and producer at Harvard and for various TV companies, and a Yale based researcher and historian. Next year I plan to speak and meet with all of them to see if there isn’t something we can’t cook up together.

All in all, a more rewarding tour than I could ever have imagined.

I’ll send the final entry of the year in tomorrow and sign off till February and the Chicago Shakespeare Festival, from the 17th to the 20th of that month.

Thanks for staying with the journey so far.

 

Easton, Pennsylvania

One week later. So much has been packed into the last week that I haven’t had much time to write. But a quick summation might be interesting.

Easton, Pennsylvania...First of all, the local radio station WDIY had interviewed me the previous week and I was so impressed with the couple who presented the drive time programme. They are Kate Scuffle and George Miller. They had previously run a local theatre company and were incredibly knowledgeable and interested. They filled me with a confidence that the play would be well received here. And it turned out to be true.


The 14th of December was the 235th Anniversary of Sancho’s death. We were playing Lafayette College in Easton. We had a special round of applause for Sancho at the end of the performance. Very touching. I also met a wonderful lady who has done some amazing research into Lafayette College’s history. Diane Windham Shaw, Director of Special Collections and College Archivist. A pair of African-American brothers, David and Washington McDonogh, were sent by their owner, in the early 1800s, to the college in order to have them educated and sent as missionaries to Liberia; the African colony that the United States had set up on the West Coast of that continent. One brother, Washington, conformed to his owner’s wishes. David, however, rebelled, and since they had both been freed, decided to become a doctor instead. He is honoured with an abstract sculpture on the college’s campus. Check out their story online.
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A couple of coincidences are worth relating from that trip to Easton…

Pam Salling had joined us as Production Assistant. She is a native of Ohio and has worked with Tim Smith on THE APPLE FAMILY PLAYS, European Tour. A brilliant addition to our team of Sanchonettas. She is a pretty great navigator, too, and helped Tim get us from Pittsburgh to Easton. The drive was uneventful, except for the pure Americana of a roadside diner, where Pam, Tim and Anshu had full American Breakfasts. I had scoffed my large breakfast in the hotel before we left so I stuck with my usual rooibos tea…brought my own teabags, naturally…

So far, so normal. Then, as we approached Easton, Pam directed Tim to the Larry Holmes Drive exit. Wow, I thought, "...he was from here?" Larry Holmes was heavyweight champion toward the tail end of Muhammad Ali’s career. But the first coincidence of the day occurred when we realised that the new statue to Mr Holmes was being unveiled that afternoon by the man himself, plus the great man with the extraordinary hair, and world famous boxing promoter, Don King, was there, too! Surreal and unexpected.

For coincidence number two, we had dinner at a restaurant called Maxim’s 22. I asked our friendly, well-informed waiter, Anthony why the restaurant was so called. It turns out that Maxim is the name of Josh Palmer's, the owner’s, son. Their home address is 322. Josh’s father and grandfather were No. 22 in their football team, his mum, ran a triathlon as No. 222. Josh and his wife Liz were both born on the 22nd. But that was only the start of the bizarre coincidences.

I pointed out to the waiter that my birthday is also on the 22nd. Pam then turned to me and said that her birthday was the 22nd, too. And finally, Anshu, sitting on my left said that his birthday was on the 22nd day of the month. Crazy, eh? But wait, that left the Tims, Boyd and Smith, sitting opposite us. Tim Boyd’s birthday was, yes you’ve guessed it, the 29th. Boo. And Mr Smith’s the 7th. Ahh…but wait, says, Tim B, “If you take 7 from 29, what do you get..? 22!!" Even Anthony was freaked out by this time, so we decided never to speak about it again. Spooky.

After the show we travelled to New York, now joined by my co-director, Simon Godwin. Next stop, BAM.

 

Pittsburgh Performance

Last night’s show was a lot of fun. The audience was thoroughly diverse in age and ethnicity and the sense of focus, sharp. The reaction to the tensions and revelations at the end of the play were vocal and surprising. A round of applause for a prop, albeit a vital one to the plot, tells you that you are not performing in front of a British audience. I can’t imagine Hamlet getting a round of applause for the revelation of Yorick’s skull at the National Theatre! A clever, funny and generous crowd at The August Wilson Center. Of course, the thing that thrilled me most was that my favourite music artist, Gregory Porter, had played the same space only a few weeks before. Maybe I’ll get to swap Pittsburgh stories with him one day… My poster at The August Wilson is amusing. They bill me as, ‘The Royal Shakespearean Actor Paterson Joseph’. Please address me as such in future… The Q&A was stimulating as always and I don’t think I’ve could have wished for a better kick off for what is to come. So far on this US leg of the tour, I’ve often been left with the wish that I was staying in each place a little longer. So much to discover. So encouraging to sense the hunger for this unique tale.

 

Two Pittsburgh stories worth noting: Earlier this week, at the local TV station, KDKA, I was interviewed by the breakfast show hosts, Kristine Sorensen and Jon Burnett. They started with a clip from THE LEFTOVERS. My character in that show, Holy Wayne, gives hugs that takes people’s emotional pain away. Kristine asked for a hug, I duly obliged. Then Jon wanted in on the action and I stepped up. It was odd, but not unpleasant. But that was just the beginning of the bizarre and hysterical morning. The weather guy, an African-American dude, Ron Smiley (and he was, very) got jealous, I suppose, and he also wanted a hug. I was done and about to leave the studio floor when he asked me if I could stay till he was on air. He announced to Pittsburgh that we were having an unseasonably warm spell, and that, tragically, there wouldn’t be any snow this year for Christmas. For all those who were sad about it he offered this…me! I came up, hugged him for ages, then walked off camera without saying a word. It was truly surreal, and pretty wonderful. They ended the show by all hugging each other on camera… Only in America. Brilliant. If you look online they have the interview hug but not the other truly nuts ones.

 

The second tale is of two acts of unnecessary kindness; the best kind, I think. I had been for an early morning run along the local Allegheny River…and got lost on the way back trying to find the hotel! I was way to proud to stop and ask directions, ok? I’m a bloke, after all. And in this case a pretty sweaty, black bloke with a weird accent. Didn’t feel up to the challenge, so… I was too late for breakfast by the time I got back and asked room service for what I described as probably impossible: Porridge. (amer. trans: Oatmeal.) “No, sir,” said the very perky Chelsea down the line, “I’ll get that to you right away.” So far so American-commercial-speak. But to my utter surprise, when it arrived, Chelsea had designed a card, drawing three shooting stars in gold on it, and the words NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE. I was so blessed and charmed. But more was to come. Chelsea’s colleague, Marissa, had heard about my oatmeal joy, and decided to ‘top’ her by giving me the full works. So when I ordered some soup last night before the show it came with a free bottle of sparkling martini, and a selection of little cakes. And a note wishing me all the best for SANCHO! No wonder so many British actors are ‘emigrating’ here. We’ll all, no doubt, get impossibly spoilt in the process. Premier Inns take note?

 

Finally, to quote Sancho, “the joy to top all joys…” An article appeared this morning in the New York times. It was written by their London correspondent, ironically, and Roslyn Sulcas has written such a great, clear and flattering feature article that I suspect it will be better than any review I’ll get when we actually hit BAM next week! What a trip!

Easton and Pittsburgh

11th December, 2015

A busy time has left me little room for blogging. But tonight is the first performance of SANCHO in this pre-Christmas block so it’s time to get going again.

Tim Smith and I traveled to Easton, Pennsylvania at the beginning of the week and visited Lafayette College. We were greeted by Hollis Ashby who is the presenter at the William’s Center there. She showed us the theatre which was beautifully set out and looks so intimate, despite having a 400 capacity. Looks like half of that!

We had a q&a session at midday in the lecture theatre, and I was gently grilled by an audience of young, keen theatre students and audience members who already had their tickets booked for the show. Intelligent and articulate questions as always.

I traveled back to New York that night, and then on Tuesday had the great privilege of seeing Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female, Henry IV, at St Ann’s Warehouse. Little tricky to find, actually. They could do with a few more signpost…any signposts to direct tourists who don’t know the area. But it is really worth a visit. An old warehouse, of course, renovated and spectacularly fitting for this prison-set version of Shakespeare’s great history play. It was my second time seeing it as I’d watched it at the Donmar Warehouse, in London. It was perfect here, however, and Jenny Jules, not part of the previous incarnation, was outstanding. As was my old friend, Jade Anouka, as Hotspur. She played him better than I had, and I learnt so much more about the character than I had expected.

And so to Pittsburgh and tonight’s show… Today is The August Wilson Theatre’s turn to experience the story of our hero, Charles Ignatius. I love the reactions we are getting so far.

US Tour (Part Two)

3rd December 2015.
After a month’s break, SANCHO is about to have another outing in the United States. This time we’re playing two venues in Pennsylvania(The August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh and the Williams Center in Easton) and then a week long run for our New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).


I’m in need of a refreshment of my lines, I realise, to my dismay. I certainly hope the feeling that I have the play sitting, intact, in the back of my head is not a false one. I’ll have to do a run in my head on the plane over to the US on Saturday. Hopefully, I’ll be sitting next to a sympathetic fellow passenger!
I’ll be staying on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for the BAM gig. It is one of the oldest theatres in New York and a very prestigious space, too. The likes of Peter Brook, Robert Lepage and Pina Bausch, have played, and triumphed, in its three wonderful spaces.


I feel very privileged to be able to play BAM, as it is a well sought after venue for any international theatre company. In 2013 I was part of the cast that took JULIUS CAESAR there with the Royal Shakespeare Company. We were placed in The Harvey. A beautiful theatre built on the model of the aforementioned, Peter Brook’s, Parisian venue, Le Théâtre Des Bouffe Du Nord. All distressed walls and pillars, it gave our production, set in a fictional African country, a broken-down but holistic feel. As if the set, a copy of a rundown, African stadium, had always been a part of that space. Michael Vale, SANCHO’s designer, at his absolute best once again.
The audience came from all over New York and beyond; our talented company loved their time there. We were treated with such respect and support that I longed then to come back one day. I little dreamt that it would be so soon, and in a play of my own creation.


Finishing our JULIUS CAESAR tour at BAM after playing the mecca of acting, Constantin Stanislavski’s, Moscow Art Theatre, in Russia’s capital, couldn’t have been a better way to end our fairy tale year exploring what the actor, John Kani, of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, described with reverence as, “Shakespeare’s African play...” Taking SANCHO, the story of one of Africa’s greatest sons, to BAM will be a full-circle that I will be proud to complete.


The other great advantage of playing BAM, of course, is the fact that Brooklyn is such a vibrant, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Borough of New York. Walking down Fulton Street which leads to The Harvey, was like walking down Atlantic Road in London’s, Brixton. Proving that Brooklyn is one of NYC’s biggest, most vibrant, Afro-Caribbean communities. I’ll be playing The Fisher, where we held an electrifying symposium on CAESAR in 2013. What better place to end this year of SANCHO in America?

 

 

Washington DC Part Four

Saturday, 24th October.

Last night was the best show I have ever done in my life. I say that with no hint of exaggeration. It was relaxed, powerful and above all utterly alive. The audience were sophisticated, attentive and incredibly smart. I have never had so clear a reaction to the moments of melancholy before. The real emotions inherent in Sancho’s rather laid back style were exposed; the political story was as clear as a bell to them, and they let me know in no uncertain terms that they agreed with his desire, with his need, to stand up and be counted as a voting citizen.

Is it just because the people of Washington truly believe in the right to vote. And the power of this simple yet effective action? Who knows? It can be no coincidence, though, that the applause in Washington was palpably stronger here than anywhere else so far. I am incredibly happy. I know Sancho would be proud of himself.

Final show for this leg tonight. I know it will be hard to ‘top’ that first night show, but Saturday night’s performance will be entered into with the knowledge that SANCHO works beautifully with an audience willing to learn about something new and hungry for stories of politics and triumph.

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It’s noon and I’ve been invited by the cast of Antigone to play a warm up game with them and the crew called ‘Aisle Ball’. Never played it before but Finbar assured me that it would be fun. He also told everyone that I’m really competitive. He ain’t lying…I will win. I only hope Juliette Binoche stays out of my hitting range. We don’t want a cancellation on their penultimate night of performances, do we...

The great Kwame Kwei-Armah, actor, writer and Artistic Director of the prestigious Centerstage Theater in Baltimore, will be watching SANCHO tonight. Can’t wait to see my brother again. The last time we met was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013 when I was performing Julius Caesar there with the RSC. Seems I can only see certain mates on this side of the pond, and only in the theatre!!