This past January four classmates and I took advantage of one of our MFA program’s best opportunities. We spent the final week of our winter break in London studying and seeing theatre, eating rashers and beans for breakfast, and generally trying to soak up the city. Visiting London while studying theatre is akin to traveling to Italy when studying sculpture, or to France when studying Champagne. Especially when you consider Shakespeare so obsessively -- as we do here at The Old Globe/USD -- England feels like the bedrock of our theatrical culture. The MFA London trip, then, is ostensibly an immersion trip geared toward as much exposure to that theatrical culture as possible. What I discovered is that despite all of the city's theatre, art, architecture, and astounding history, perhaps my most profound discovery was one that resounded much closer to home and reminded me of just how good I have it back in the good ‘ole US of A.
A happy coincidence of this year’s trip was that Tom McGowan, one of the fantastic actors whom with we worked at The Old Globe over the summer, was across the pond at the same time as we. In fact, Tom left for London shortly after ending his contract at The Old Globe, where he phenomenally played Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. So he was well tucked in by mid-January, nearing the end of his run as The Wizard in Wicked on the West End. We found Tom waiting for us at the famous Neal’s Yard cheese shop on one fittingly rainy Friday morning.
My classmate Ally Carey had arranged the meeting and Tom planned for us a walking tour of...where else? Southwark! Southwark is one of London’s oldest neighborhoods, situated on the eastern shore of the Thames. It remains a bustling borough of food shops, art museums, theaters and pubs. Not only does it fittingly house the functioning replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre -- the last stop on our tour that day -- but also Tom’s very favorite London food spot: Borough Market.
Three things are truly memorable about this special part of our London adventure. The first is the grilled cheese sandwich. Yup, that’s right. I flew all the way to London and all I remember is some cheese between bread. Good food in London does not always abound so when something hits the spot, it stays with you. After sampling some amazing brie from Neal’s Yard, we followed Tom into the crowded, odiferous market for lunch. There we had our choice of any British delicacy we could conjure, but first things first -- Tom treated us each to what he promised to be the best grilled cheese sandwich in London. As it stands my classmates and I saw eleven plays in ten days during our trip, so there wasn’t time to test Tom’s claim. I, for one, take his word for it. If there’s a better tasting sandwich, I don’t need to know about it. Find some good London food that’s not bettered and fried -- check!
The second thing that stood out was our walk along the Thames with Tom, in the rain, which took us to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Tom pointed out lots of Southwark’s fascinating nooks and crannies which pock-marked the riverside stroll. One piece of history stood out. Even though I had visited the Globe over a decade ago while studying abroad in undergrad, I don’t remember learning this at all. Tom told us that the reconstructed Globe does not stand in the same location where Shakespeare’s Globe really stood. It burned long, long ago (1613 I think). It was then rebuilt on the same site, but that theatre closed in 1642. After that, rebuilding again in its original location would be rather difficult as that site became the base of the (rather major) Southward bridge. There is now only a placard marking its original location. Of course, they talked about the placard and the fact that the new Globe is built so many hundred yards away from the original location on the Globe tour we took later, but I remember hearing it from Tom. What I do remember from the tour, and what was more surprising that I didn't remember from my first visit in 2005, was the story of how the new Globe was built.
When Sam Wannamaker, an actor from Chicago visited London in the 50s, he made his way to the East side of the river hoping to find where The Globe Theater stood. Finding only the marker and shocked that no greater monument to this monumental structure existed, he set out to have it built. (He had been blacklisted in the states and needed a good excuse to stay in London anyhow.) The fact that we can pay tribute to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and see plays in a “Wooden O” so like the one in which they were originally presented is all thanks to whom? A Broadway actor from the Midwest who cut his teeth doing summer Shakespeare in Wisconsin. You’re welcome, Britain!
The final truly memorable thing about my class’s tour with Sir Toby Belch is simply that fact that Mr. McGowan took the time to meet with us at all. It is that generosity of spirit and willingness to commune that really sets artists like Tom apart. It could be very easy for the Old Globe’s summer actors to write-off the MFAs as merely “students” or “non-professionals.” There’s no fault in it when that happens. Some of these actors are very busy, very famous people who, like Tom, have worked very hard to get where they are. Some of us don’t have two lines to string together in the summer shows. We can get overlooked. The truly astonishing part about my classes’ summer experience is that I can’t imagine a single job-in actor we worked with who wouldn’t have done the same thing as Tom. The cast members of both Twelfth Night and A Comedy of Errors truly took the time to get to know the MFA actors as individuals, fellow actors, and in many cases, friends. The kind of friends that you simply must get together with when you are both far across the sea.
My wife Emelie was able to come with me to London and she came with us on Tom’s walking tour. Tom had only met Emelie briefly once before, but no one made her feel more welcome in London than he. It’s such a simple gesture, to give of yourself to others, but it’s one that is so often overlooked by us all. Not only did I have to travel all the way to London for a top-notch cheese sandwich and to learn about the true impact of American actors on the British stage, but it’s there that I was reminded of just how good my fellow MFAs and I had it this summer to work with a group of such gifted and truly gracious actors. Cheers for that, Tom.