Winding It Up
Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Monday, 27 August 2012 18:55

    Well, our adventure is drawing to a close. Tonight, in Perth, is our last night but one in Scotland. The good luck we've had with weather all trip long has worn a little thin-- it started raining when we reached Inverness Friday evening, and much of Saturday was wet as we visited the Cairngorms; then, after a dry day yesterday, which gave us nice weather to see the Falls of Bruar (immortalized by Burns) and the fascinating Scottish Crannog Centre, it rained pretty constantly today. But we do have a promise of fine weather tomorrow, which should carry us by Lochleven Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned, and down to Dumfernline, our last stop before flying home on Wednesday.

    Our three days on Lewis and Harris were certainly a high point: not only the much-heralded standing stones but some amazing moorscapes, and unexpected pleasures like the exhibit of preserved "blackhouses," thatched dwellings where the islanders lived alongside their livestock, this one still inhabited as late as the 1960's:


    Thursday we returned to the mainland, taking the Caledonian MacBrayne car ferry back to Ullapool:

    ...and the next day we visited the Knockan Crags geological site on the fringes of Assynt, an amazing stretch of country that offers views of Stac Pollaidh and my favorite mountain in the world, Suilven:

    Then Friday night took us to Inverness, where we stayed again in the tower room at the Ivy Bank Guest House, which our friends Anni and Jarion had introduced us to years ago. The last couple of days we've dawdled south, winding down. We did get to visit the Osprey Centre on Loch Garten, though we'd just missed the ospreys themselves, who had migrated south towards West Africa just five days before. Yesterday's demonstrations of Iron Age crafts at the Crannog Centre were another highlight. But we're running out of steam a little, and our thoughts turn toward home, to our house, our work and our cats. Once again the old rule seems to be borne out: no matter how long or short the journey may be, by the time it's ending you're just about ready to go home.

Out On the Edge
Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Wednesday, 22 August 2012 21:12

     Well, here we are on the Isle of Lewis, which is just about as far northwest as you can get and still be in Europe. I figure us to be slightly closer to Iceland than to Paris.

    This was kind of the high-water mark of our post-Edinburgh trip, for me at least-- I've been hungering for many years to see the standing stones at Callanish, which many regard as superior to Stonehenge, and we're here at last.

    We left Oban on Friday, and after driving through Glencoe in cloud and drizzle (as it's been every time I've been there), and having a pub lunch in Fort William, arrived in Fort Augustus in the late afternoon, at a wonderful guest house run by Mrs. Jenny Mackenzie, the Old Pier House. Friends, if you're going to be making a trip to the Highlands, make this magnificent place by the shores of Loch Ness a centerpiece of your visit! A lovely working farm with horses and Highland cattle, with the charming, multilingual Jenny fully in charge (though she'll be handing operations over soon to her strikingly handsome grandson, Ossian, who is in training to take the place over):

        Then next day we returned to Skye, where we renewed acquaintance with the great and informative Clan Donald Centre and with our hosts in 2001, Alan and Barbara Christie at Swordale House. Remind us to tell you about the hilarious Tattie Bogal scarecrow festival around the Talisker distillery, of which we took way too many pictures to post here! After a second night in Skye we embarked on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry for Harris, where we spent the night and then a happy morning driving a loop around the south part of the island, seeing beautiful beaches, stark moorland landscapes and the charming 16th-century kirk at Rodel:

    And then yesterday arrived in Lewis, with its beautifully preserved Iron Age broch, surprising beaches:

    ...and of course, those evocative, haunting, mysterious standing stones:

    Ferry back to Ullapool on the mainland tomorrow. I'll post again from the Highlands on the weekend...

Day 3 on the Road
Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Friday, 17 August 2012 05:16

    Three days now since we left Edinburgh on our Highland/Island jaunt. First of all, I have to say that our final performance went really well, and we had our biggest house by far for it-- maybe an audience of about 25; so it feels as though we ended on a high note. Most of the Universal Arts staff attended one of the last three performances, and they were lavish in their praise of the show; so that did something to redeem our frustration with some of the very small houses earlier. Michael and Jeffra and Jannie and I had a farewell supper at a nice little bistro and than we attended a folk concert by the Scottish activist singer Dick Gaughan, whom Jannie and I greatly admire.

    Then, Tuesday morning, I drove Mike and Jeffra out to the airport to catch their flight to Dublin, where they'll be for a week before moving on to see some shows in London ( Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe, possibly War Horse if they can get tickets). I was glad to bid goodbye at last to Edinburgh's traffic and road closures...

    I should also mention that the morning of our last full day (Monday). I was inspired to climb Arthur's Seat, the high tor at the eastern end of the city. Fairly strenuous, but I managed it in under an hour. Marvelous views even though it was a little hazy; inspiring to be able to look down on the Palace of Holyrood House and even the Castle:


    Jannie and I set out before noon and by mid-afternoon we were on Loch Lomond, quite near where my family stayed on our trip to Britain in 1957:  


    Then Wednesday we toured the Kilmartin Vally in Argyll, which has a rich assortment of standing stones, chambered cairns and henges dating back 5000 years:


    And that night brought us to the charming port of Oban, the departure point for many of the ferries that run out to the Inner and Outer Hebrides, where we've stayed two nights. The weather has cooperated for the most part, though it's pouring down as I write this Friday morning. Well, as Jannie remarked, ideal conditions for visiting Glen Coe today!


Closing It Out
Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Monday, 13 August 2012 06:49

    Our final performance is today. Our audiences have improved a bit, and some very enthusiastic responses from some knowledgeable people have reaffirmed our belief in the appeal and value of the show. It's likely that this is the last time I'll be performing it, for the foreseeable future at least. I've grown tired, not of performing the show, but of promoting it-- the amount of work it takes to reach an audience who is interested enough in poetry and the history of letters to make it worth presenting. So I'm ready to turn the page and move on to other things.

    The experience of being in Edinburgh as part of the Fringe and performing the show here, even to small audiences, has been exhilarating. All four of us agree that it's an indelible experience none of us will ever forget. As to whether we were able to take the Fringe by storm, with producers elbowing each other out of the way for the privilege of taking it to the West End, Broadway and a subsequent world tour... well, the Olympics ended last night, and I feel like the (hypothetical) Latvian shot-putter who finishes somewhere in the bottom five, miles out of medal contention: it was an honor and a triumph just to participate. And after watching the closing ceremonies, I can affirm with Eric Idle: "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (whistling of jaunty tune).

    We've taken advantage of having the car for a couple of day trips: on Saturday all four of us took a run down to the Border Abbeys some forty miles to the south, where we visited Melrose:


...and Dryburgh:

    So tomorrow, we go our separate ways: Michael and Jeffra to Dublin and then to London, Jannie and I to the Highlands and the Islands. Occasional postings will follow for those who want to see the Hebridean scenery-- but the Edinburgh Experiment is almost over. We'll leave you with a few more scenes from the party on the Royal Mile:


    God b'wi'ye, dear friends. hope you've enjoyed the ride.


Jannie's York Adventure
Written by Jannie Dresser   
Saturday, 11 August 2012 22:40


My three day outing to York included visiting the parish church at Rowley near Cottingham and Hull. The small village of Rowley lost most of its population in 1638 when they followed their minister, Ezekiel Rogers, to the New World (Massachusetts) to set down Puritan roots. It was oddly soothing to be in the landscape of my 11th-12th great-grandparents, a rural and agricultural area with many farms and pastures. No ghosts from the past visited me, although I was chased by three horses in a pasture that I stumbled across trying to find the poorly marked "public path." 


From Rowley, I took the train to York, where I had a lovely interaction with my Belfast cab driver who was glad to meet a "liberal American." At York, I was treated to a production of the York Mystery Cycle of plays performed in the abbey ruins of St. Mary's Church. (This was a lovely birthday gift from Julian.) 


I had read the York cycle and other mystery plays when an undergraduate in English literature at Fresno State; these short plays dramatize Bible stories and were put on in the late middle ages by various craft guilds. For example, the joiners' guild might have sponsored the Noah's Ark story because it involved the construction of a wooden ark. The production I watched starred the son of Ben Kingsley ("Gandhi"), Ferdinand Kingsley, as God/Jesus who proved he will be as great an actor as his father. There were several professional actors in the cast but mostly the pageant was peopled by at least 80-100 locals, dressed in Depression-era clothing. The text was updated too, although a lot of Middle English was still used. 


The celestial spheres were played by women in whirling dervish costumes of rich solid colors. The stage, built on risers across the bottom of the abbey floor, had several trap doors from which the Devil occasionally popped up to earth to cause problems. There was lots of humor in the production, but as the Crucifixion story progressed, the play became more dramatic and somber, with an ultimate message of joy upon Christ's resurrection and visit to the Apostles in the upper room. 


I got a genuine feeling of what the popular entertainment was like in the 13th or 14th centuries from this tremendous pageant.


Three Days to Go
Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Saturday, 11 August 2012 06:17

    We're nearing the end of our Fringe run, and the excitement of being here is still undiminished. Our houses have improved a bit in recent days, and we hope to finish strong on Monday. We keep seeing as much theatre as we can, a mixed bag as always; a highlight was last night when Mike McShane joined us to see a Scots Macbeth-- a full translation into the Scots language (not dialect, as any true Caledonian will remind you). For the uninitiated, this is a parallel development from Anglo-Saxon, with some French and Norse influences, heavy on burred R's and guttural CH's; for us, who know the original well, not difficult to follow. It was a production of Edinburgh Theatre Arts, with an RSC connection of some kind, with good acting but minimal design, in a cramped, close church hall hung with black duvetine-- that's become something of a cliche in Fringe productions we've seen. Some of the poetry lost in paraphrase, of course, but a fascinating experiment in language and I got a big kick out of it.

    We've picked up a car-- a Toyota hybrid-- for the next phase of our trip, and I'm beginning to master the white-knuckled panic of negotiating Edinburgh traffic (with its unpredictable one-way streets and closures due to construction of a tram system) adding to the anxiety of left-side-of-the-road, steering-wheel-on-the-right driving which faces every foreign driver here. It's much easier once you get out in the country, and yesterday Michael and I did just that, visiting Cairnpapple Hill southwest of here, a Neolithic ritual and burial site older than Stonehenge:



    And also Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots:



    The city itself still fascinates us, with its diversity, color and energy. We're glad we were here for a day at least before the Fringe really got started, because we had a taste of the quiet before the storm; 24 hours later the Festival had transformed all of Edinburgh into a 300-ring circus. It's exhilarating, but one also longs to savor the city's pleasures in a calmer time-- on some future visit.

Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Thursday, 09 August 2012 08:35

    Well, let's face up to it-- in one respect, the trip has fallen well short of expectations. The attendance at our shows has been pretty wretched.

    This is common enough at the Fringe, and I was somewhat prepared for it. I've heard many stories of shows playing to tiny houses, but like Mark Twain and death, I always thought there would be an exception made in my case. But we have been playing to very small houses, and the hope that British audiences would be drawn to a show about one of "their" poets was clearly over-optimistic. Maybe I should have done Robbie Burns.

    The culmination was three nights ago, when curtain time came and went and there were no tickets sold. Silver lining: I got quickly out of costume and we nipped upstairs to see Wojtek the Bear, which Jannie had got to see but the rest of us were fated to miss because it plays in almost the same time slot. It was remarkable, with two very accomplished actors performing energetically, intensely and with an inspiring working relationship between them.

    Anyway, we're not downhearted. Those who are coming to see us are giving us very positive feedback, and we depend on them to pass the word along; and they've just opened the Half-Price Hut outside the art museum on Princes Street, where we're listed and where we'll be going each afternoon to hand out flyers and talk to people about the show. We hope to finish (relatively) strong.

    We continue to see provocative shows, along with a few misfires. Armada! the Musical, for instance, which i saw on a whim because I thought the subject matter was promising, turned out to be kind of a dog. But Mike McShane's show about an American stalker obsessed with the Queen was really well done; and the American import Re-Animator the Musical, which my old CMU friend Cynthia Carle is in, is a real hoot, a tongue-in-cheek Grand Guignol spectacle tenuously based on an HP Lovecraft horror tale (by way of an 80's cult movie), with the first four rows getting drenched in stage gore and other body fluids (they handed out black polythene rain ponchos for those up front; we prudently sat bak a few rows). Very professional production, clearly aiming for a second life (so to speak) after the Fringe closes.

    And we continue to enjoy exploring Scottish culture and history. We've been blessed with glorious weather the last couple of days, with a promise of a couple more dry days to come. Two days ago we took a city bus out to Rosslyn Chapel, familiar to the Da Vinci Code buffs among you:

    ...with the most amazing array of 15th-century stone carving inside, as impressive in its way as anything I've seen at Notre-Dame or anywhere else. Beautiful, atmospheric place. Then yesterday I took a morning train into Glasgow to look at the cathedral, the only one in Scotland not to have been wrecked during the reformation:

    Beautiful and unique, with a "lower church" under the choir which figures in Scott's Rob Roy. Also nearby, Provand's Lordship, a churchman's house built in 1471, with exhibits of the period inside.

    Today Jannie returns from York, having seen the Mystery Plays last night. Her guest posting will be next on this blog.

Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Monday, 06 August 2012 21:33

    One of the nice things about having our bedroom windows facing the Castle is that we get the Military Tattoo fireworks every night,




Show's Open
Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Monday, 06 August 2012 07:57

 First off, some snaps from the wild scene on the Royal Mile:



    We’re into regular performances now, and I’m feeling quite comfortable with the show, though the houses continue to be disappointing. We’re hoping for improvements from word-of-mouth, and there’s plenty of room for improvement… I’m going to hit the Royal Mile outside the Fringe box office today and hand out a bunch more flyers. Yesterday’s rain didn’t help, especially as our theatre is not in one of the hotbeds of activity like the Pleasance or Gilded Balloon which are already swarming with crowds; people have to seek us out. We have another showery day today, probably, and then a stretch of dry weather coming up through the weekend.

    We’ve been getting out to see more shows, and now some music events as well.  Jannie and I took in an indifferent version of Anouilh’s Antigone, and Michael and Jeffra an amateurish Beatles musical, Mod, both high school productions. On the more positive side: there’s a play about a famous Syrian bear, Wojtek, playing upstairs from us, which only Jannie has seen as she’s the only one not involved in the running of the show, and it plays in the same time slot as us. He’s something of a local legend—ended his life in the Edinburgh zoo, after service as an ammunition carrier in World war II (!) and she says it’s a terrific production. Then last night we saw a terrific Scottish band, Breabach, with two pipers and a gorgeous blonde fiddler, who also sang in Gaelic and occasionally popped out in front to do some spirited step-dancing.  

    Yesterday’s highlight was a side trip on a boat out of Queensferry (the “Maid of the Forth”) out under the iconic Forth Railway Bridge to Inchcolm Island out in the estuary, where there’s an abbey founded in the twelfth century. Beautiful location, extensive and very complete ruins of the monastic community—cloister, chapter house, refectory, kitchens, and a church that they kept expanding and elaborating up nto the 1400’s. We shared the boat with a group of Italian high-schoolers from Florence and their chaperone, which added to the festivity. Here’s the abbey as you first see it from the landing stage:

    Today Jannie leaves for her three-day side trip to Yorkshire, to visit her ancestral village—she’ll do a post about it after she returns-- and the rest of us are going to see Mike McShane’s show, Mon Droit, at the Pleasance Courtyard. Looking forward to that, as I haven’t seen him perform in years.

Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Saturday, 04 August 2012 09:05

We have two days of previews behind us now, and “open” today, though the distinction is academic. There will be no big-whoop gala with critics in attendance, loyal friends and drinks after, but we can hope for a better turnout than yesterday (four people in the audience) and a working light board—one of the interns accidentally wiped all our cues off the computer board and Michael had to wing it in performance. He did fine—there is not a lot of sophistication in the basic set-up in the tiny studio and we are only allowed eight instruments—but it was a relief later in the evening when we were told the show plot had somehow been retrieved. That at least saves Michael from having to go over there this morning and reconstruct it.

I'm quite happy how the show itself is progressing, as I become more comfortable through repetition; remember, I have never performed the show two days in a row before! I’m finding the emotions around the Elizabeth letters and the account of her death still very accessible, though I would expect that to diminish with regular repetition, and I’m feeling more and more freedom to relax into set pieces (“My Last Duchess”, “Pied Piper”) and play around with them a little.

We’re beginning to get out now and see some other shows. Jannie will do some “guest” blog entries to talk about what she is seeing; Michael, Jeffra and I started yesterday with two other events on the calendar of Universal Arts, our own producers. The Boat Factory is a two-man show about a couple of workmen in Belfast’s now-moribund shipbuilding industry (a long comedown from the glory days when they built the Titanic), performed in thick Northern Ireland brogues by two very capable actors. Then we saw a late-night performance of the Polish Teatr Biuro Podrozy doing their version of Macbeth, a one-hour synthesis with only scraps of Shakespeare’s text but heavy on symbolic action, with a nightmare scenario of brutality and ambition. This was performed in the open at the Old College Quad with effective use of fire—lots of it!—roaring motorcycles, a thudding synthesized score with an operatic intensity, nudity and some remarkable stilt-walking skills: the witches are black-hooded, white-masked, gaunt figures ten feet tall, striding around with great agility. The carbon monoxide factor was a little high—it struck me that combustion might be the single term that would best characterize the spectacle—but we liked its energy, intensity and recklessness.

We also connected with my dear friend Michael McShane, who is here doing a script of his own (as well as his usual improvisation and standup) and welcomed us warmly. He has secured us passes to the Pleasance, one of the major Festival producers, which will entitle us to walk-in privileges to most of their shows.

Enough for now!

Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas   
Thursday, 02 August 2012 05:58


    Today we had our four-hour tech slot, to get the light and sound cues in place for our show. Since we share the space with three or four other shows, the time we have to use the theatre is very limited, so we had to spend most of the time working on timing and problem spots—couldn’t fit in a run of the show, but we feel pretty confident with the content, as long as I can remember what comes next in the somewhat abbreviated script we’re doing here. The production manager, Richard Bell, is capable and supervises a small staff of young theatre interns, mostly from York University—doing it for the experience alone, most likely.

    We have worked out some of our challenges with the flat, finally starting to figure out the cable TV and the wi-fi connection—balky and slow but serviceable. We had had to do our e-mail and blog postings from the Starbucks round the corner yesterday. After that, the morning was taken up with finding our way to the venue, getting our props and costume over there, then picking up the postcard-sized flyers (5000, heavy!) and 50 posters from the printer and getting them back home. Jannie spent the afternoon, while we were teching, dropping off flyers at bookstores and the Museum of Writers, and got some posters up on the Royal Mile.

    We had a terrific tapas lunch at a beautiful Spanish restaurant near the theatre, Café Andaluz, where I felt very much at home (paella, patatas gratinadas, gambas al ajillo) and street food for a light supper just off Princes Street. Then there was a meet-and-greet for all the groups at the Hill Street venue, where I finally met the people I’ve been corresponding with for nearly a year: Laura, Tomek, Sarah and Martyna, who are the primary brain trust at Universal Arts Ltd.  All very friendly and convivial, with local troupes, a two-man show from Belfast, a couple of representatives from the Polish companies performing at the other venue across town, and ourselves, the most far-flung of the participants.

    We were prepared for a wet day from the forecasts, but there was only a brief shower while we were doing our put-in and it had passed by the time we took our dinner break. Today is dawning bright and beautiful, and likely to be dry all day. The humidity is pretty high, and we’ve found ourselves sweating a lot just from all the walking, though the temps are only in the mid-60’s. But I was prepared for far worse weather than this, from all the complaining the Brits have been doing.

    Our first preview, with butts in the seats, this afternoon. More impressions yet to come… 


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