A Yankee’s UK Homecoming

Standing in front of my old flat at Nunes House (14 North Parade) in Bath.

Standing in front of my old flat at Nunes House (14 North Parade) in Bath.

I’ve been an anglophile for as long as I can remember. It may have all started with a book my grandmother gave me about life in the medieval castle when I was five or six, but maybe it started even earlier than that at some time before memory when I first saw Mary Poppins and Bedknobs & Broomsticks and was enchanted by this place that seemed to be dominated by quirky, magical mother figures.

I dreamt of visiting throughout my teens and the day finally came when I was 20 and studied at Advanced Studies in England in Bath. I attended their summer programme which lasted five weeks – clearly not enough time, especially since I spent so much of that time in study.  So, two years later, I applied for their graduate internship, and, after graduation from Denison, moved back to Bath for an entire year.

That year was a transformative one. My first job out of college and I got to work in England as part of a delightfully sharp-witted staff, where I wrote a newsletter for the students and chaperoned their weekend trips all over the UK.  I have never had nor never will have another job that was so perfectly suited to my passions or disposition.

Lounging in front of the Royal Crescent, Bath, on a beautiful, blustery day.

Lounging in front of the Royal Crescent, Bath, on a beautiful, blustery day.

For that reason, I feel as much at home in England as I do in my native Midwest, USofA, and though I say England, I suppose I really mean Bath. After my initial summer experience 17 years ago and my year here in 2000-2001, I’ve come back to visit five times already, which averages to once every three years – and that doesn’t feel like enough.

That was what motivated me to look for study-abroad/professional-development opportunities in the UK, actually, and as soon as I saw the Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance programme listed on the Globe Theatre’s website, I got goosebumps: “That’s it!! That is the perfect programme for me!!” It will finally give me the chance to know London as a resident, even if the time is brief. I’ve only passed through London here and there as a tourist; although I can’t imagine it will win my heart the way Bath has, I’m hoping it will also begin to feel like another of my home bases.

Making new memories (in Tetbury, a town in the Cotswolds) with an dear old friend, Barbara.

Making new memories (in Tetbury, a town in the Cotswolds) with a dear old friend, Barbara.

It’s funny. I’ve been reading a lot about the Plantagenets in preparation for this trip, and it’s remarkable how much ground those kings and queens covered as they traveled through their realms. “Home” was never a single castle or palace, but one of the many they owned throughout their kingdom which crossed the Channel and included most of western France. For me, home is Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky and the rest of Ohio; New York, New Jersey and Connecticut; and Southwestern England. I own no castles (nor any property at all!) in any of these places, but I own a lifetime of experiences and memories that keep drawing me back to the same haunts and folks again and again, to revisit what was and who we were, and to keep the new experiences coming.

It’s good to be home.



The Shakesperience of a Lifetime

So I’ve been a total Shakespeare nerd for the past twenty-plus years and I can prove it.

(And no, it’s not because I used that stupid portmanteau in the blog post title…but it made you groan a little, right? ;))

I won the English award in 9th and 10th grade; the award certificates are lost to time, but I've held on to these beautiful collector's edition of Shakespeare ever since.

I won the English award in 9th and 10th grade; the award certificates are lost to time, but I’ve held on to these beautiful collectors’ editions of Shakespeare ever since.

It began with Romeo and Juliet in Ms. Tyler’s 9th grade English class, circa 1992.  I remember not being able to understand a damn thing, but really feeling smart because I was reading Shakespeare.  At that point in time, the words felt like a magical incantation, and it was a power I didn’t understand…but didn’t all young sorcerers begin with magic they didn’t understand?  Understanding, at that time, was a secondary pursuit.  Foggy meanings cleared up, however, when I presented my first Shakespeare scene: Romeo’s death.  After praising the quickness of the apothecary’s poison, I delighted in giving the audience the most drawn out death scene I could possibly muster.  It was fantastic.

Dedications on the inside (to confirm that I'm as old as I say I am and that I'm not making up "Hold out your cow bowstrings!"

Dedications on the inside (to confirm that I’m as old as I say I am and that I’m not making up “Hold out your cow bowstrings!”)

Things were easier in 10th grade when we took a stab at Julius Caesar, then later made asses of ourselves with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The latter in particular opened up the fun of the language.  One of our classmates misremembered Bottom’s last line in Act I, scene ii, and in true Bottom fashion asked us to “Hold out your cow bowstrings!”; the actual line is “Hold, or cut bow-strings,” but the truth of the matter was irrelevant.  We liked our version so much it became a mantra for our English class.

In 11th grade we went to the sinister side of things with Othello, Macbeth and the darkly comic Taming of the Shrew. I played the First Witch that year in our class scenes, and I can still remember Act I, scenes i and iii verbatim. We had so much fun with the project that we decided a photoshoot in the backyard was necessary — and this was at a time when you still needed to buy film, then take it Walgreens to have your photos developed: that’s how serious we were.

12th grade was the year of Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest — and, because I felt ready, I read Twelfth Night on my own.  I also competed in the Junior League of Cincinnati’s Shakespeare recitation contest, performing Benedick’s monologue from Much Ado About Nothing (the Branagh-Thompson film version had just come out and I saw it in the theater!) and “Sonnet 29” (which is also etched permanently in my memory).

The hurlyburly is clearly overdone.  (circa 1995, age 17)

The hurlyburly is clearly overdone; that “robe” is actually seven black t-shirts strategically arranged. (circa 1995, age 17)

In college, at Denison University, I took “Shakespeare” during my Freshman year and purchased the Pelican Complete Works which has graced my shelves ever since.  In its table of contents I’ve kept track of every play that I’ve read and seen: check marks mean I’ve read it, pluses mean I’ve seen it performed, either live or on film.  At this point in time I’ve read all but six, and I’ve seen a version of nearly every play that I’ve read — most of them live.

When I studied abroad in Bath, UK, during the summer of 1998, I was swamped with work and didn’t have the time to travel that I would have liked, but I did make sure to get to Stratford.  A friend and I stayed the night in a bed & breakfast (first time I’d done that!), visited all the Bardolatry pilgrimage sites, and saw Measure for Measure and Romeo & Juliet at the RSC.  It was perfect.  I worked for the same study abroad program in Bath — Advanced Studies in England — the year after college, and as part of my job we visited Stratford several more times, and I even got to see King Lear at the Globe Theater in London…as a groundling…by choice.  (I wanted the real, gritty Elizabethan experience…)  I even brought my 12 year-old brother and my young cousin to the Globe when they visited.

Pelican Complete Works.

Pelican Complete Works.

As a teacher I’ve taught Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, The Tempest — and taken my students to see live performances of each.  In 2010 I traveled with students to London to tour the city; an entire afternoon was spent at The Globe.  It was my first time getting to see the inner-workings of the place, and I was fascinated — and I was glad to see that my students were as well!

With the fool statue in Stratford-upon-Avon.  (circa 1998, age 20)

A motley fool, and a statue in Stratford-upon-Avon. (circa 1998, age 20)

Which is why I am ecstatic to announce that I’ll be getting to know Shakespeare’s theater much more intimately this summer.  I am incredibly proud to tell you that I’ll be taking part in the Globe’s “Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance” program as one of the English-Speaking Union’s British Universities Summer School scholars.  During the three weeks at the Globe we’ll learn the latest techniques for teaching Shakespeare so that his works reach 21st century youth in a way that is much more accessible than the Age of Enlightenment literary exegesis that I grew up with (even though I have very fond memories of those heady early encounters with the texts).  I’m humbled and honored to have been given this opportunity by the English-Speaking Union of the United States’ New York branch, who awarded me a generous scholarship to make it possible.

With my students at the Globe, February 2010 (age 32)

With my students at the Globe, February 2010 (age 32, far right)

This is going to be such a monumental experience that it almost feels like a capstone to my lifelong pursuit of Shakespeare, but I’m only a third of the way through my career as a teacher, so this is really still the beginning.  Hamlet asks what dreams may come during the sleep that is death, and I have no answer.  But in the wakefulness of life, had you told me that I’d spend three weeks studying Shakespeare on his own stage (albeit a replica…), well, this is a dream I’d never even thought to dream — but I’m thrilled that it’s coming true.

Expect to see many, many updates on my Shakespeare experiences on this blog in the weeks and months to come.