In Iceland: Day Nine (Post Two)–A Day in the Life of the Shakes360 Group

This place is breathtaking—it’s almost worthless to write that, it’s so inadequate to describe the awe-inspiring landscape we’ve been exploring all week.

Hellnar 1 Orton
At Hellnar, on the southern end of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Hellnar 6
At Hellnar
Hellnar 3
The astonishing rock formations at Hellnar
Hellnar 5

Right now, there’s a severe storm all over the country—wild winds (almost hurricane force), intermittent sleet and freezing rain yesterday, and today just loads of rain.

Since Friday, we’ve been tucked up at The Freezer, a (fantastic) hostel and theater/performance space on the tip of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, in Western Iceland. Imagine us at one of the tips of the western edge of the island, sticking out into the North Atlantic Ocean as a storm rages.

Iceland iPhone Dump 2 017
That’s the town of Rif, right by my finger, where The Freezer is located. Just hanging out in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, like you do.

Conditions couldn’t be more appropriate for King Lear. The sound of the wind around the building (an old , concrete fish processing plant that’s been made terrifically cozy in its new life) is ferocious—loud enough at times to make us feel that our Lear really is wandering in the wildness and wind, even when we’re inside.

At one point, several of us—Catharine, Katie, and Roz (King Lear, Kent, and the Fool), Maya (our assistant director) and I—ventured out to rehearse the storm scene in the storm, to see what that was like.

Rehearsing the storm in the storm 2
Rehearsing the storm scene in the actual storm.

The wind was brutal, but also gorgeous and invigorating—so strong we could lean back or forward into it and be held up by it for more seconds at a time than would have seemed possible if we weren’t actually experiencing it. It was breathtaking in the most literal sense—Maya said to me that it was a strange feeling not to need to inhale, because if you were facing into the wind and opened your mouth, the air found its way into your lungs with no assistance.

We walked out to the sea wall in this tiny old fishing village, and we climbed it to watch the dark sea whipping wildly up to the edge of the rocks. We found our way up a grassy hill to a place where the lava rock formed tide pools, and we could see the giant boulder-pebbles of the “beach” below us.*  We ran the storm scene there, Act 3 Scene 2: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!”

Rif in the storm, fish processing plants, sea wall
A view of the fish processing plants of Rif. The harbor is out of the frame to the right, and the stone wall on the left is the sea wall.

The first time we ran the scene (actually, that was back in front of the hostel, when we first got outside), something about the intensity of the storm and the work of the actors combined was powerful enough to make me almost cry. (Admittedly, this is not a difficult state to induce in me, especially out in nature.)

Still: The way that Lear alternates between rageful bluster and the deflated, exhausted demeanor of an old man, drenched and winded by the storm and realizing that he’s losing his wits; the Fool’s tenderness and concern for Lear; Kent’s care for both Lear and the Fool, even after Lear’s betrayal of him. The sense that the wind might actually knock you down or set you aloft at any moment; the feeling of sleet blowing so hard and fast into your face that it feels like tiny needles being shot at your skin. All of it together = me, all choked up.

Walking back, we were heading into the wind, far more exhausting and disorienting than on the way out. And then, as we labored to cover the very short distance back to the hostel, we spent a moment leaning into the wind again, when I noticed that it was actually holding us up for too long, somehow, and it started to feel more dangerous than it had in the first twenty minutes or so that we were out. The wind picked up so quickly—there was no time to notice it happening, it was just suddenly that much stronger.

We made it back without a problem, of course, just really tired. Maya remarked to me that she could see why Lear was so exhausted out in the storm.

While we’ve been here, we’ve been taking turns making dinner for the whole group of us. That’s been fun, and delicious, if challenging in a wee hostel kitchen with minimal cooking equipment.

The hostel has provided us with food for breakfast (at an extra cost), and we’ve been starting each morning in communal  kitchen chaos before rehearsal begins around 10:00am. I’ve been spreading the food out on the kitchen table, and everyone crowds in, pouring bowls of cereal, or making toast, or gathering salami and cheese and eggs and vegetables on plates. There’s coffee and juice and a too-large crowd, and it’s a cheerful way to start the morning all together.

Yesterday I tried to make a banana cake that I’ve made many times now, because we had a number of bananas that were past their prime. Between using an unfamiliar gluten-free baking mix, approximating measurements (no measuring utensils at the hostel), converting some of the measurements from tablespoons to grams (the butter!), and using a European oven with temperatures marked in Celsius and a mysterious knob that seems to control the portions of the oven where the heat is centered (maybe? I still don’t really know)…let’s just say the cake was very tasty, and very…not what I was aiming for. Happily, college students are remarkably forgiving when you’re making them snacks.

After dinner last evening, we had a brief rehearsal, after decking out the theater space with every candle we could find. We ran through a large chunk of Act 3, all in candlelight, with the chair and fishing net hovel several of the actors built out of whatever they could find around the space.

Blurry rehearsal by candlelight
Blurry photo of rehearsal by candlelight, complete with the “hovel” the actors built from chairs and old fishing nets.

Once rehearsal was through for the day, Kate found a beaten-up old guitar, and we gathered together and sang for a while. By candlelight again, of course.

Hanging out after rehearsal
Hanging out after rehearsal, singing together.

Mark noticed that the sky seemed clear, and the wind had died down a lot, so he and Catharine bundled up and went out to scout for Northern Lights. They called us out after them when they saw some, but it took us too long to get all of our gear on and get down to the sea wall, and the lights had ended by the time we got there.

No matter though—the sea was beautiful and wild in the dark and the wind, and some sort of birds were gathered on the water and wheeling through the night sky, and the Big Dipper was bright and clear above us to the right. I have this memory of standing on a cliff along the Pacific Coast Highway in California, overlooking the beautiful, wild, dark ocean and freezing in the coastal wind, while the Big Dipper hung over a mountain to my right, and a cluster of lights from San Francisco were visible far down the coast to my left.  And standing on the sea wall in a tiny fishing village in the west of Iceland, windblown, cold, staring up at the same Big Dipper, I thought about how enormous and strange and incredibly beautiful the world is.

* These boulder-pebbles—I don’t know how else to describe them exactly—are an apparently standard feature of the coast here in Iceland. We first saw them a few days back, along the Reykjanes Peninusula. They’re rounded and smooth the way pebbles are, but enormous, all piled along the beach, thousands of them. They are, on average, a foot to a foot and a half in diameter? Enormous, and I can’t imagine how much they must weigh. When you walk over them, you have to be cautious, because you could easily lose your footing and twist an ankle in the space between them, but also because a rock will occasionally move, not as tightly packed into its fellow rocks as it appeared, and it would be easy to fall entirely.

An Introduction

The first post on a blog is always a little bit awkward and strange. I’ve written this one twice now–once I just hated it and trashed it myself, and once, my computer ate my homework (true story). This is the third attempt–and the third time’s the charm, right?

Iceland, in all its glory. Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.
Iceland, in all its glory. Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.

So at this point, I think I’ll let this link be the actual introduction to what we’re all doing here, and we’ll proceed from there. And if you’d like more information on Bryn Mawr College’s 360 program in general (and it is a really amazing program), you can check that out here.

An Icelandic "fumarole." Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.
An Icelandic “fumarole.” Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.

This blog will be about our rehearsal process for our April 2016 production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, about the way the show comes together from the technical and production end of things, about the work our students are doing with students at the EM Stanton School in South Philadelphia, and of course, about our upcoming trip to Iceland.

Iceland--it's amazing how beautiful snow and ice can be. Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.
Iceland–it’s amazing how beautiful snow and ice can be. Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.

Some of this blog will be written by me, Amy (I’m the production manager for Goodhart, the building in which the Theater Program is housed at Bryn Mawr, and I’m an alumna of the College). But much of it will be written by the terrific students involved in this 360 course cluster–after all, this whole blog is really nothing without their perspective.

I’m also  hoping that Mark Lord, Catharine Slusar, and Katie Croyle might share a bit here. Mark is the head of the Bi-College Theater Program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford and the director of our production of King Lear; Catharine is one of our other fabulous Theater Program faculty members, a professional actor, and our King Lear; and Katie is a recent Bryn Mawr alum and professional actor who will be playing Kent. The name of the actual writer of each post will be listed at the top of the post.

Astonishing. Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.
Astonishing. Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.

Right now, we’re deep in rehearsals for our production of King Lear, and we’ll be heading to Iceland on Thursday, March 3rd for some research, cultural exchange, and rehearsal in Iceland’s incomparable, dramatic, extraordinary landscape. Over the winter break back in December, Catharine acted as our advance guard, traveling to Iceland with her family to explore and make connections for us. Since then, she’s been working tirelessly to plan our upcoming trip, finding amazing places for us to stay and organizing all sorts of meetings and visits for us with Icelandic artists, college students, and middle school students. She also took several hundred photos (because, Iceland), some of which I’ve inserted for you above. Here are a few more, and you can expect many, many photos to come. Enjoy!

Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.
Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.
Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.
Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.
Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.
Photo credit to Catharine Slusar.