20th Theatre Visit to the British Isles

This year (2015) marks our twentieth trip since we launched the UK Theatre course in 1995. This year also sees our 345th Anglonaut (UK traveler).

Initially we offered only a 2-credit, elective course, though students often added 2-credit independent studies in such subjects as history, art, English, creative writing, theatre, psychology, and communication. At some point we began offering 2-credit studies that combined with the basic course to fulfill core requirements. This was a popular option. Now, the course is taken for four credits and fulfills the aesthetics theme in the core curriculum.

BTH ladies at buckingham palace copy

Each year, a couple students add to the basic course a creative writing class called “Writing the City” (taught by Mark Wacome Stevick)—and they use London’s and Edinburgh’s distinct cultural and artistic offerings as material for original compositions of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. Some years Norm Jones offers independent studies in some aspect of theatre, and Jean Sbarra Jones offers studies in the visual arts.

student and kilted man

In years of yore, we traveled right after commencement, and our sometimes chilly itinerary included places like Dublin and Galway (Ireland), and in England Bath (with its Royal Crescent and Pulteney Bridge—twin to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence), Stratford-Upon-Avon (home to three very different theatres and to the Bard’s crypt), Oxford (with a cooling pause at the Inklings’ Eagle & Child pub), and Cambridge (there to savor an evensong at King’s College Chapel)—and, always, London. Day trips have taken us to Salisbury (tallest cathedral spire in the UK—at 404 feet) and nearby Stonehenge (big gray stones; little red poppies), to Ely (named for its eels, and home for a decade to Oliver Cromwell), to Coventry (with its massive Graham Sutherland tapestry behind the altar of the 1962 cathedral, itself verging on the ruins of the Nazi-bombed 14th-century cathedral), and, in Ireland, to the Aran Islands, to James Joyce’s tower in Sandycove, to Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, chaste resting place for the 19th century’s greatest English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and to the village of Kinvara, where Dawn and John Sarrouf got engaged and began scheming up Elijah and Esme Sarrouf.

In 2004 we switched to an August trip that included a week in Edinburgh to take advantage of the thousands of theatre, dance, music, spoken word, and nearly unclassifiable performances in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. There we see as many events as we can in one week: Jeff Miller manages three shows a day on most days (when he’s not supine in Princes Street Gardens). In the lee of the Castle of Edinburgh another engagement occurred, Norm and Jean’s, and soon after that spot was memorialized in a painting.

national theatre waitingWe’ve honed our approach, so we can offer a lot of culture for a little green. Classes occur in the morning, usually with a white coffee, often in one of the several lobbies of London’s Royal National Theatre, or in an atrium at the foot of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Students live in flats-with-kitchens in the hearts of these two capitols, and the afternoons are free for museum-going, Beefeater-watching, punting, shopping, picnicking—all of which are endeavored. Evenings find us in the front rows of the UK’s best theatres, in the living presence of the English-speaking world’s great actors—Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance and Maggie Smith, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon—and some terrific young actors, too, whose performances mark them as tomorrow’s stars.

John Sarrouf adds: “We’ve written poems in the graveyard on the Avon-thru-Stratford; quaffed with cast at the Dirty Duck; sketched the courtyards of Kenilworth and Warwick Castles; interviewed WWII vets at Lewis’ house, The Kilns; candle dipped at Tintern Abbey; haunted open air markets in Portobello, Cornwall and Penzance; twirled late night pasta Bolognese at Denise’s Restaurant. We were in a West End theatre when John Gielgud died, and the lights were dimmed, and actors came on stage after the show to tell stories of his work and influence. We sat next to Tom Stoppard for the first preview of the revival of The Real Thing, which went on to win the Olivier and the Tony that year. We saw the Shape of Things, and History Boys, and Closer, and Designated Mourner, and August: Osage Countybefore they became movies.”

group at tower london copyThe two-week trip is a crucible of culture and conversation, one that inspires the leaders for another year of making art, and impresses some life memories into the still-soft sensibilities of the students.

This trip couldn’t happen without the support and patience of the staff in the Global Education Office—present and past—for whom the trip leaders are extremely grateful.

Mark Stevick is an Associate Professor of English at Gordon College, Guest Professor at Gordon IN Orvieto and long-time Contributing Professor on the British Theatre Seminar.

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