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Mr. Willis Goes to Washington

(Or How I went to the White House to perform Shakespeare to the President and Laura Bush)

 

Look…  if you had one shot,
one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted,
in one moment,

Would you capture it…
or just let it slip?
You… 
You can do anything you set your mind to, man.
(Eminem)

 

May 2005:

New York is at its best right now.  The weather has not yet turned hot and humid.  The air conditioners on the subway are more a chilly annoyance than a blessed relief.  A couple of New York cops join my subway car.  One of them takes off his hat.  I notice that he has a picture of one of the Catholic Saints taped to the lining.  The other cop follows his lead.  There are no saints in his hat, only his wife and child. 

 

I returned from England to begin rehearsals - not for Aquila's Twelfth Night, but for The Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s “Dream” and Oberon.  A breakdown in negotiations between my agent and Aquila apparently.  I remain sanguine and calm, much to my surprise.  Life is leading me where it intends.  I am pleased to be working with director Allegra Libonati again.  The rest of the cast are frighteningly young, but wonderfully talented and cleverly cast.  In the physical warm-ups and games, I throw myself around like a teenager. It would be sad, if it wasn't for the resurrection once more of Aquila's Comedy Of Errors looming on the horizon. Physical fitness continues to be imperative for me to take on these roles.  The most taxing physical show I have ever done, man or boy, is to be part of the LA Festival in July and August. 
During a break in rehearsals I check my cell phone messages.  Good news!  My old comrade in arms from The Man Who Would Be King and Aquila’s favorite leading man and musical composer, Anthony Cochrane, married his delightful fiancé Jessica Teal Perlmeter in a small ceremony held at Dunvegan Castle on The Isle Of Skye in Scotland.  His long message happily describing the ceremony makes me smile for the rest of the day.  “Daniel Dravot” has finally found his treasure.

 

 

Oh England! A trip to England after a year. How do I feel about the country of my birth?  I dash around in a whirlwind of meetings, dollars disappearing alarmingly quickly with the poor exchange rate. I feel like Scrooge being taken around by Ghosts of past, present and future.  Little snippets of their existence, friends and family recounting the past, their present lives and hopes for the future. So many different people in such a short time. It gives my time there a vividness but also a touch of surrealism.  All the time I try and gage my feelings to the country of my birth. I am unsuccessful except in noticing a tired, more cynical attitude, and of course the service is as dreadful as it ever was.

I return to Rada for the first time after 21 years.  Now I am the ghost.  It is has undergone renovations that make it almost unrecognizable.  The two places that remain unchanged are the entrance hall and the stage of the Vanbrugh.  Emily Bennett, who I taught in South Carolina, is there on her second year.  I am so shell-shocked that she takes me to the Marlborough Arms – the pub where all the students, past and present, go to drink and talk - to recover.

I go to Hastings. I find I am still Uncle Dicky to my niece and nephew. They are excited to see me. We play Power Rangers in the garden.  I swim in the sea with my seven year old niece Imogen. She’s impressed. I swim wearing all my clothes.  My own children continue to mature, but some things stay very much the same in their lives.  Unfortunately. 

On my return I am kept in secondary immigration for an hour and a half. I am not told the reason. In the interrogation room, an officer looks at me and frowns.

“Your passport has been stamped so many times over the years.”
“Yes it has”
“Why didn’t you go with your wife and ask them to resolve this.”
“One, that was not what I was asked to do, and two, when we did that very thing two months ago, we spent  eight hours over two days waiting in the Newark Office of Homeland Security for an answer.”
“And what happened?”

“Nothing happened.  They stamped my passport.”

 

***

 

 

 

In April I took the train to Vermont to teach a week-long Shakespeare workshop to students of the Addison Repertory Theater.  This all came about through the endeavor of a wonderful woman called Terry Close.  Terry is one of those women who just never stops, using a sharp intellect to question, motivate and inspire.  I first met Terry when she came to see The Man Who Would Be King.  It was in the fall of last year that she approached me to see if I would have an interest in teaching a week-long Shakespeare workshop.  The ART is run by Candace and Steve, two people whose amazing enthusiasm burns a bright torch for the arts and theatre, where perhaps there would only be darkness.  We all of us then worked on applying for a grant and, much to my delight, not only was it accepted, but I had no acting commitments that clashed in the best time slot that suited the students.

 

The week turned out to be a wonderful and surprising experience for me.  I was completely captivated by the students and their passionate enthusiasm.  I felt I was there not as a teacher but as an actor passing down knowledge.

“Enjoy yourselves with the language.  Let it work on you and through you.  Transmit the words to the audience.”

 

I had spent a wonderful three weeks in preparation and got completely lost in the background and history of Shakespeare’s amazing era -  The change of religions - three times in twelve years - the first playhouses, Elizabeth 1, the Armada, Marlowe, Johnson, the New World, St James Bible, Luther, The Spanish Inquisition, the plague…
Elizabethans believed in a Great Chain of Being, meaning everyone had their place in the structure of the world. In theory, there were but two classes of people: Nobles and Commoners. In practice, there were a huge number or gradations of both classes. These gradations were thought of as parts of a Great Chain of Being, which extended from God down to the lowest forms of life, and even to the trees and stones of the earth. This Great Chain, first described by St. Thomas Aquinas, was what held the world together. The Great Chain was as follows:

 

God
Angels
Kings/Queens
Archbishops
Dukes/Duchesses
Bishops
Marquises/Marchionesses
Earls/Countesses
Viscounts/Viscountesses
Barons/Baronesses
Abbots/Deacons
Knights/Local Officials
Ladies-in-Waiting
Priests/Monks
Squires
Pages
Messengers
Merchants/Shopkeepers
Tradesmen
Yeomen Farmers

Soldiers/Town Watch
Household Servants
Tenant Farmers
Shepherds/Herders
Beggars
Actors

Thieves/Pirates
Gypsies
Animals
Birds
Worms
Plants

Rocks

 

I like being that far down the chain.  Close to the thieves, animals and plants, on the outside of society suits my actor psyche.   Our job, as I see it, is to be shamans of the tribe. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."  Soon, I was to be catapulted into the world of our modern day’s highest link on the chain, and Shakespeare would give me that access…  but more on that later.

 

****

 

It's about a 40 minute ride on the subway to midtown Manhattan from the northern edges of Washington Heights. My traveling to the theatre was eased by Robert taking his new BMW mini into work. Otherwise to get to the lower East side meant changing twice to get across town. Or not. My routine was to take the Number 1 train down to 23rd street and walk across from 7th Ave to 3rd Ave and up to 24th Street. A good 15 minute walk which gave me a taste of New York bustle without having to endure the rush hour nightmare of 42nd Street station.

 

This particular day I was reading my book, but within five minutes my eyes were dropping and I gave myself over to sleep. Two stops further on I opened my eyes and saw a mother and a young girl step inside. The girl was aged about four years old. Searching around the carriage, the mother moved to one seat away and sat the child down next to me. One of the things I have noticed is how reluctant people are to take an empty seat next to one I'm sitting in. I used to think I was being paranoid, but it has happened so often over the years that now I am unsurprised. I have no idea why this should occur... May be I'm scary!

 

The little girl glanced up at me and I smiled back and closed my eyes again. Later I awoke. I became aware that a tiny hand had placed itself just above my knee and a small head was leaning against my left arm. I debated whether to move her, but decided that if the mother wasn’t going to, there was no need. The effect it had on me was quite alarming. Images flashed back to me of my daughter and son at the same age. The strong paternal feelings flooded back in a vivid lucid cyclorama of images: Carrying my children to bed. My daughter on my shoulders. Wrestling with my son. Dancing to Carmen. Playing Peter Pan's flying game. Being a monster. The little girl had just decided that I was a comfortable pillow and ...I suppose comforter. Eventually her mother gathered her up. The little girl smiled briefly at me as she followed her mother leaving me bemused and contemplating that if there may be a day I might consider having more children...

 

… If ever I had the economic, emotional stability and a permanent home in which to raise them.

 

***

 

 

 

Spring is coming. I go running six times a week. After a falling out with my gym, I run outside. Well... not just because I fell out with them. They have no branches this far north in Manhattan. So it makes more sense to economize and keep fit without the stimulus of a gym environment. I am lucky to be living so close to Fort Tyron Park and Inwood Forest...and the river. On this part of New York, the ground rises steeply up from the Hudson water. On the New Jersey banks there are cliffs. This side there is Fort Tyron Park with the Cloisters Medieval Museum standing imperiously on the hill and Inwood Forest or 'the Wild Wood' as I call it. A young girl was murdered there a couple of years ago and the whole of Manhattan was shocked. It is a sign of the times that the city, once a centre of violence in the 70s and 80s, should react in this way. A friend of mine who visited Times Square in the 80s was helped by a New Yorker onto the subway and was told it was not safe for him to travel after 10pm. My reaction has always to take New York as I find it - no matter where I am. Otherwise one can become imprisoned in one's own mind with fears fuelled by a media that is really only interested in the negative violent stories of the day.

This area has a wonderful energy fuelled by a predominantly Dominican Republican population. It's gritty and dirty, but there is a real feeling of community here.

 

I stopped in at our local pizza place one night. As I waited for my order, I got to know Frank who owns the joint. Frank said he came from "Roma". He pointed out his son working in the restaurant. “He wants to be an actor.  I tell him this…understand that life is hard.” I looked over at Frank’s son. I saw a smiling young man who thought that life was pretty easy. Frank talked about the area with great affection. "Dominican Republicans - nicest people in the world. I love them. I got nothing to say but good things about them. I love it here. So you come by or order a pizza, and I see you alright. Pizza is best here." He tried to give me the meal I ordered for free but I insisted on paying him. Frank became a new friend.

 

Another Frank is Franklin our super. Dark and good looking, he could be an actor - he may well be, but his other job is superintendent of our building. Unlike a lot of supers, Franklin actually responds to your needs when you're in trouble. When I turned on a tap in the kitchen and water cascaded onto the floor, Franklin and an old Dominican who I call Fred came round the next day and fixed it within 20 minutes. The super is king in New York. He or she is the person everybody will want to know and be their friend. Franklin and I just had a chat down in the laundry area which is located next to his office in the basement. Yesterday we had a day of Spring-like weather. Today it was cold and wet. I said I was looking forward to the summer.

 

"Yeah and then you'll be complaining about the heat."

 

"May be, and I expect the noise will start up because everyone is so happy."

 

"Oh don't get me started..."

 

We have various interesting noises around the apartment. A floor below is the man who practices his trumpet. Thankfully he's very good. Above us is the hip-hop boy. The bass beat can happen at any time, but so far only really goes on for half an hour. There's another rapper who turns on his music at 7am to wake up. There is a drummer a couple of floors up and somewhere in the building someone has - believe it or not - a rooster, which will crow at any time of day or night.

 

This morning the rapper woke me at 7am and so I ran early. There is something wonderful about living in a city but being able to run along the banks of a river. Here, the river is quieter in terms of traffic, but still massive and powerful.

 

The Hudson River is the defining natural feature of a major region of New York State. In 1609 Henry Hudson, an Englishman sailing for Holland's East India Company, captained a Dutch ship up this river in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. He referred to the river as the "Manatees." The Dutch officially named it "River of the Prince Mauritius" as they colonized the valley. Hudson's name wasn't applied until 1664, as England tried to legitimize its takeover of the region. The English argued that since the explorer was a subject of England's king, Hudson's river belonged to them, not to the Dutch. Of course, native tribes had named the river long before Hudson's arrival. One of their names - Muhheakantuck - means "great waters in constant motion" or, more loosely, "river that flows two ways." It highlights the fact that this waterway is more than a river - it is a tidal estuary, an arm of the sea where salty sea water meets fresh water running off the land.

 


As I run, I look across this flowing mass of water.


I run.

 

One side of me is the river. I run and imagine its route all the way inland up to Albany the state capital and beyond. On the other side of me is the Wild Wood rising high up on ancient rock formations. At its base is the main railway line north out of Manhattan which can carry one far up to Toronto and into northern Canada. About ten minutes into running something clicks in and I go into automatic pilot. I am aware of running on my own energy. That is I feel the central force within me, my inner core if I can say that without sounding off my head. I recognize it as not only my inner drive, but also the well-spring of all my emotions. It is the emotion pool used for anything creative. It hasn't changed that much since I was a boy. I suppose in fact it shouldn't change. It may get buffeted around by life's dramas and tribulations, it may get hidden for its own protection, but the essence is the same as I remember when I was boy of three with my

favorite green cord jacket exploring my new world.


***

 

 

 

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when we embarked on Utopia Parkway. The latest Aquila offering to New York City was renamed "A Very Naughty Greek Play". The piece was a musical based on "The Wasps" by Aristophanes. We took an older adaptation of Wasps and updated it, throwing in a bucketful of politics. The publicity for the show was typical Aquila. Punchy and eye-catching.

 

"It tells the story of the political battle between father and son." So read the Aquila press handout. "The father, obsessed with his democratic power, serves a bombastic, rabble-rousing, xenophobic politician who controls his people via sound byte, championing simplistic moral values and the concepts of 'freedom and liberty.' His son is appalled by what is happening to the father, and attempts to cure him of his vile affliction with the temptation of the 'good life' — swanky parties, fine food and wine, fashionable clothes and witty repartee. …Everything goes terribly wrong, with comically disastrous results. Aquila is getting back to the original spirit of Aristophanes with a play that is politically offensive, lewd, rude and very naughty."

 

I was brought in last to the cast to play the son - age cannot whither him - and it was special because I was once more working with Robert (Richmond) but this time he wasn't directing me, he was acting. We hadn't worked together since the early 90s, when we set up the Merriman Theatre Company together. It was also special to be working with Tony and Alex again. Much Ado About Nothing in 2001 was the last time we had been all involved in the same production.

 

AVNGP was going to be something of a challenge. We were to write it in three and a half weeks. As a musical, its original translation was to be totally rewritten. It was a four hander which had us dashing around the stage like twenty somethings.

 

The rehearsals were an interesting process. We would read the New York Times the previous night, and in the morning bring in stories that caught our eye and which we thought were politically apposite to the play and to our present moment in time. As I have said before, I try to remain apolitical. I don't know if that's possible, but I try. I feel uncomfortable about actors making a stand on political issues. I always thought our job was to hold the mirror up to nature. I think if you want be political, let it speak through your work. The rest should be silence. Of course one has personal opinions, and some of them are decidedly political, but I always think it best for actors to keep their political views or any views for that matter to themselves. Again, in my opinion, we are the shamans of the tribe, not the chiefs.

 

A Very Naughty Greek play was - without any doubt - a political play and a comment on the present political climate of this country.

 

When it came to the reviews, the one thing that stood out was that the politics was hardly mentioned. This seems to be a sign of the times. May be the liberal left are too depressed to summon up the energy to give the political satire that laced our play the space it warranted. A lethargic attitude to things political seems to be in vogue. Certainly the New York Times reacted with indifference. It wasn't a bad review, but not a great one either.

 

A few days later the New York Times’ top reviewer would show himself to be out of touch with popular taste by dismissing the new Monty Python musical 'Spamalot'... Ben Brantley described it as 'silly' and called it “a celebration of inanity... will find a large and lucrative audience among those who value the virtues of shrewd idiocy, artful tackiness and wide-eyed impiety. That includes most school-age children as well as grown-ups who feel they are never more themselves than when they are in touch with the nerdy, nose-thumbing 12-year-olds who reside within."

 

As the theatre turned people away from its doors and people clamored at the box office for tickets, the New York Times ran an article describing how the musical had found ‘a rare, highly prized Broadway demographic...  a new mother lode in its audience, the straight young male.’ Brantley's words were in danger of sounding an elitist snobbery that was out of touch with the modern audience.

 

Our play had the same kind of humor, but was influenced by the slightly more modern British comic Vic Reeves. We found that in general the younger the audience, the better received was the play. This was mainly because the younger audience members were more willing to accept the craziness, and also more willing to come up on stage. Audience participation was a big part of the show, which always gave it an unknown quality. It also made the audience a vital part of the evening. I suppose I hadn't really done anything like it since pantomime, but really the two genres were very different.

 

One Saturday night a punter flew across the stage as Robert went to pull him into the action. He was very drunk, a fact that wasn't obvious to us at first. It was only when he grabbed the inflatable shark and started smashing Robert over the head with it, that we realized we had a problem. Eventually Robert managed to cajole him back to his seat before the theatre's front-of-house staff, assisted by Wyatt, our lighting operator, did a great job of removing him from the premises.

 

We turned out to have a mixed bunch of reviews. Backstage - the US version of 'The Stage', except slightly more respected - rather surprisingly adored it and got exactly what we were trying to do. It explained how Americans interpret the word 'naughty’ as compared to the British association, something nobody had mentioned before.

 

In the end I was very proud of the play. We had put ourselves out on a limb and despite the lack of time, come up with an entertaining show that Chris Hedges - former New York Times reporter, now author and prominent liberal - called "Aquila's courageous adaptation ... This is theater no corporation will ever sponsor, which is exactly how Aristophanes would have wanted it."



***

 

 

Robert, Aquila's associate director and my friend and fellow actor, was a little distracted during the run of A Very Naughty Greek Play. He and his wife Dionne were expecting their first child. In preparation and celebration of his impending arrival, they threw a baby shower. Showers seem to be a uniquely American experience. You can also have bridal showers, wedding showers and probably many other types of showers. The event is where people come and shower gifts on the guests of honor. This was a unique baby shower because men were invited as well. With the feminine cries echoing around the apartment after each unwrapped present, one could understand why. As Robert rightly commented afterwards, we could have held the event down at the theatre since it was the Aquila family that was mainly present.

 

A few weeks later on April 1st, Dionne gave birth to Toby Bourne. He arrived with a full head of thick black hair and according to Robert a striking resemblance to his grandfather, Bob. As Peter's wife Desiree is expecting a girl in August, the Aquila dynasty seems assured for generations to come.

 

***

 

 

 

This was my first experience of a New York winter. The last three years I have been on tour. It turned out to be not so bad. It's a lot colder than the UK, but it's a crisp dry cold, and I liked when the snow fell. Winter means winter over here. March however dragged on, and ironically seemed to provide the coldest weather of the whole season. And then suddenly it was gone and overnight the temperatures shot up to the mid seventies. Our neighborhood of course being Latino erupted into joyful celebration. Old men were on the sidewalk at a table playing dominos, the younger men gathered around a car with a sound system blaring out Latino beat music, the teenagers gathered around their own local apartment blocks and beat out different drum beats on various adapted noise makers. The whole area was a festival, alive with the happy sounds of Samba, hip hop and Salsa.

 

Winter was over. Spring had arrived.

 

 

 

***

 

I’m not even sure how it came up in conversation, but just the other week I was talking about my career. (I pause to snort a chuckle. Career? A misnomer for an actor, I always feel.) I said I felt privileged to still be doing what I had grown up always wanting to do. As for the – er - “career” - well … To be honest it had never gone the way I had imagined - to be happily ensconced with the Royal Shakespeare Company performing Shakespeare and other plays for the rest of my life. However, the way it has turned out is, I suspect, a far more interesting, eclectic and rewarding experience than if I had returned to my birthplace and the hallowed spaces of the Royal Memorial Theatre, The Swan and - last but not least, the actors pub, The Dirty Duck. The work may not have come in a constant flow, but the work when it has come has provided me with the most wonderful parts and plays and taken me all over the world. To take just the last six months as an example: I performed the Australian journalist Dick Wagner in Stoppard’s Night & Day at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia where Tom Stoppard himself, who in one recent poll was voted ‘our best living playwright,’ saw the show and took us out for a drink afterwards where we discussed cricket and the upcoming Ashes series. Soon after I was cast in a guest lead role in the long running NBC series Law & Order and found myself filming in the middle of Times Square one cold winter night, wearing clothes that would have cost my entire theatre wages in Philly, walking out onto a red carpet, with stretch limos, paparazzi, screaming crowds, spotlights and bemused New York onlookers to shoot the opening shot of the episode. Recently, I not only completed a run of my first Greek play, but my first play with a modern political agenda in which I satirized the liberal intelligentsia.

 

What would life throw up next? It may be just my way of coping, but I look on it as my own personal screenplay. Life seems to provide me with adventures. Not all of them have been happy experiences… indeed, some have been devastating at the time, but never have they been dull. This time my life writer surpassed him/her self.

 

When Robert phoned to ask if I would like to go with the Aquila Theatre Company to the White House, I laughed.

 

Are you joking? Of course I'll go!!

 

Well apparently some people are finding it a little difficult… political views and so forth…

 

But it’s not about being political surely…it’s just the honor of being asked to perform at the White House?!

 

It all started with a phone call asking Aquila if they would like to perform at a dinner that George and Laura Bush were hosting in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday. Last year Aquila participated in the NEA’s “Shakespeare in American Communities.” This meant we received a grant towards the touring costs on a tour that took us all over the US to over 60 cities ranging from Bermuda, Los Angeles and Alaska. During this time the NEA learnt about the company, saw the productions and liked what they saw. But being asked to the White House was something that no one had foreseen. It seemed that Laura was throwing a private dinner. The theme of the evening was Shakespeare’s birthday. At Peter's instigation they were offered a show with six actors and a part of Much Ado About Nothing with costumes and music. Much Ado was our big New York hit. It featured 60s Bond style music. The men were dressed in very sharp black designer suits complete with bowler hats. The girls were dressed top to toe in shiny skin tight black pleather! So pictures and reviews of the show were sent to Washington. For a while there was silence, and we wondered if perhaps the White House had changed their minds. It began to seem if it was all a dream. Then with about two weeks to go before the event, the White House called. They apologized for the delay, but they had been seeking Laura’s approval for our visit and had not been told about her surprise trip to Afghanistan. The go-ahead had been given. It was all systems go.

 

Our rehearsal period was two full days the weekend before the Wednesday we were to perform. Tony, Lisa and I were to reprise our original roles of Benedick, Beatrice and Don Pedro. Robert was to play Leonato, Todd Batstone Claudio, and Kathryn Merry, Aquila’s Desdemona last year, completed our cast as Hero. Nate was to come along to run the show’s sound, Jessica, (the new Mrs Cochrane), to operate lights, and Peter and his lovely wife Desiree, who had been invited to the dinner before the show, made up our party. The guest list was a secret, but we were told it was a small private dinner for about 60 people. Robert adapted the script and it was decided to give them the main storyline up to the end of the arbor scene. This included the beginning dance – modified and shortened, the first scene, Benedick & Claudio, the masked ball, Benedick’s soliloquy “I do much wonder” leading into the arbor. The arbor scene ends with Beatrice calling Benedick into dinner after Benedick has been fooled into thinking that Beatrice is in love with him. We ended with Benedick’s soliloquy that follows – "the world must be peopled" and finished with Tony’s brilliant 60s hip rendition of the song Sigh No More Ladies.

 

And suddenly the day was upon us.  An early morning meet at Penn Station.  And then we were on board the train to Washington and the President.  The White House put us up at the swankiest hotel in town, the St Regis.  If you were important, but not quite important enough to receive the invite to stay at the White House itself, this was the hotel where you’d be put up.  We had just about enough time to shower, try on the fluffy white dressing-gowns and grab a bit to eat before we were once more traveling in the White Van being driven by the ubiquitous unsmiling security man.  Another security man with a sniffer dog wandered around the van, opened up back doors and checked the luggage. 

 

Our driver turned to the man manning the gate. “This is the entertainment for tonight,” he said laconically.

 

We drove through the outer gates, turned right and were now outside the famous outer fence of the White House Façade where various tourists were peering through and taking photographs. Instead of being taken to the back door or the tradesman’s entrance, to our astonishment we turned left and up to the front gate itself.  With a nod of recognition to our driver, we were let through and made our way up the driveway and to the front steps of the sun-kissed White House. It was a glorious spring day. Out of the front door floated an attractive blonde woman. Missy, the organizer of that night’s festivities, was dressed for the weather in a bright flowery dress that looked straight from the swinging sixties.  After greeting us all she led us up the steps and through the front door. 

 

For two hundred years, the White House has stood as a symbol of the Presidency, the United States government, and the American people. Its history, and the history of the nation’s capital, began when President George Washington signed an Act of Congress in December of 1790 declaring that the federal government would reside in a district "not exceeding ten miles square…on the river Potomac." President Washington, together with city planner Pierre L’Enfant, chose the site for the new residence, which is now 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As preparations began for the new federal city, a competition was held to find a builder of the "President’s House." Nine proposals were submitted, and Irish-born architect James Hoban won a gold medal for his practical and handsome design.

Construction began when the first cornerstone was laid in October of 1792. Although President Washington oversaw the construction of the house, he never lived in it. It was not until 1800, when the White House was nearly completed, that its first residents, President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved in. Since that time, each President has made his own changes and additions. The White House is, after all, the President’s private home. The White House has a unique and fascinating history. It survived a fire at the hands of the British in 1814 (during the war of 1812) and another fire in the West Wing in 1929, while Herbert Hoover was President. Throughout much of Harry S. Truman’s presidency, the interior of the house, with the exception of the third floor, was completely gutted and renovated while the Trumans lived at Blair House, right across Pennsylvania Avenue. Nonetheless, the exterior stone walls are those first put in place when the White House was constructed two centuries ago.  There are 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 6 levels in the Residence. There are also 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators. At various times in history, the White House has been known as the "President's Palace," the "President's House," and the "Executive Mansion." President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the White House its current name in 1901. The Entrance Hall we now stood in was a mixture of cool white marble and red carpet. Herbert E. Abrams' portrait of George Bush hangs in the Entrance hall as does Aaron Shikler's portrait of John F. Kennedy.

 

Dominating the hall was the Grand Staircase which is often used on ceremonial occasions. Before state dinners, the President greets his guests of honor in the Yellow Oval Room; then they descend the stairs to the East Room where the other guests are gathered. It was the East Room we were now led into and where that night’s performance was to take place.  The East Room is the multi-purpose room. Over the years it has been the site of weddings, funerals, press conferences, receptions and receiving lines. In April of 1865 the East Room was filled with people, but this time they were mourners surrounding the body of President Lincoln after he had been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Seven Presidents have lain in state in the East Room, including John F. Kennedy in November 1963.  Upon occasion, President Woodrow Wilson turned the area into a movie theater, and Jacqueline Kennedy used it as a theater for the performing arts. President Nixon said goodbye after Watergate in this room. President Bush has used the East Room to sign significant pieces of legislation, such as the tax relief act, as well as a place to communicate his policies and initiatives. He and Laura have also hosted many performing artists. 

 

As we entered we saw the room was ready for the evening. Chairs had been set out in a large semi circle in front of a stage  - a long platform raised about a foot off the ground.  Large golden curtains hung from the windows, the famous gold curtains which one has seen throughout the years on numerous televised state occasions and in photographs ranging from Kennedy to Clinton, and now Bush.  A large replica painting of George Washington hung on one wall. It is one of several replicas painted by Gilbert Stuart of his "Landsdowne" portrait. It is the only object known to have remained in the White House since 1800. The room had a golden glow suffused with white 18th Century elegance.

We had one and half hours scheduled to rehearse and immediately set to work, testing the space, the acoustics, the entrances, and the dynamics of the stage we were working on.  I kept looking outside at the white pillars just to do a reality check. We were, after all, inside the holy of holies in the American psyche.  No Shakespeare had been performed here since the time of John F. Kennedy.  I mean, for Christ’s sake, actors have the reputation of shooting presidents. It’s surprising they let any of us near the place.    Perhaps we would disappear, never to be heard of again. Or perhaps someone was planning a coup d’etat, and Much Ado, with its background of soldiers returning from the wars, was serving as a signal to his hidden supporters.  

 

One occasion on which Shakespeare's company, then known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, are known to have performed before Elizabeth l was 24 February 1601. This was at the Queen's express command and was a consequence of an earlier performance. Just over a fortnight beforehand, the company had staged a private presentation of Shakespeare's drama of the forced overthrow of a king, Richard II. The audience was composed of supporters of the Earl of Essex who, following a failed campaign in Ireland, had fallen from Elizabeth's favour. The next day the discontented Essex led an armed uprising which ended in farcical defeat. Essex was thrown in the Tower of London and executed on February 25. Elizabeth clearly decided that if the company had played to Essex on the day before his revolt, they could play to her on the day before his death.

 

We asked who was on the guest list. Missy informed us that they included Governor Pataki of New York, the writer Tom Wolfe, and the Czech President, playwright and famous dissident Václav Havel.  My nerves tightened up a notch.  The only comfort I took was I had been in similar, and, in some cases, far more nerve racking, scenarios with Aquila.  The creative team had put the company’s actors through many last minute changes or unusual situations. There are many tales and always the actors of Aquila managed always to pull it out of their asses.  In fact the only problem with working for other companies is that it can seem dull in comparison. You work at half the pace, you are called for half the time, and there are no last minute changes or creative megalomania and pyrotechnics.  A presidential performance for 20 minutes in the White House?  No problem.

 

Eventually after a run-through and last minute tweaks and tinkering we descended into the basement.  It was there that the dressing-room was to be found.  A large mirror covered one wall.  Around the other walls were photographs of recent famous performers who had also performed in the East Room.  The hospitality food was also waiting, not that any of us were that hungry at this point. Our eyes immediately were attracted to the large cookie platter.  On top of the pile of cookies were three larger models that had been shaped into a Stetson, a cactus and a cowboy boot.  Across the Cactus was written ‘Texas’.


The marine who was looking after us was a young man in his twenties who had been in the air force.  He informed us that George had hardly entertained at all there during his first term, and that it was Laura Bush who had insisted that they hold more dinners and parties.  We questioned him about the President. 

Had the President talked to him? 
Yes, he had spoken to him twice. 
What did he think of him? 
The President is smarter than people make him out to be. Sure he’s not the greatest public speaker, but you get him one on one and he has no problem at all.  He’s pretty charming and personable.


Time moved slowly.  Peter gave us one last pep talk and then he and Desiree left to join the dinner. We paced the floor and tried to fill in the time by lightening the atmosphere.  It didn’t seem to do much good.  Suddenly there seemed to be a lot at stake.  … who knew what politics were involved around this evening’s dinner and entertainment?.  We dressed slowly, unwrapping our suits from the dry-cleaning bags, the girls sliding into their pleather catsuits.  Did the White House really know what they were getting?  Lisa was worried because having seen the seating plan and knowing exactly where George and Laura were seated (front row to the left and three feet from the stage) she suddenly realized to her horror that one bit of choreography would have her wiggling her bottom right in front of the President’s face.

 

 

Once dressed, we were taken past bemused White House staff and up to the Map Room. The Map Room, used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a situation room from which to follow the course of World War II, now served as a private meeting room for the President or the First Lady. Today it served a group of nervous actors. Amongst the plush furniture we had one last quick line run.  We noticed that secret service men seemed to have been placed outside the door.   The president at that moment was being very friendly with our producer in the Blue Room where the dinner was being held.    Later he spoke to Tom Wolfe and introduced himself. This was the inner sanctum. It didn’t matter who you were to these people, the fact that you were even in the room gave you the golden keys to the star chamber of power and influence.

 Govoner Patack was next...Our producer explained we were a company from New York and we hoped to make New York proud that night.

 

After what seemed an eternity we got the call to come through.  The plan had been to go to the Green Room which was an actual Green Room situated between the Blue Room and the East Room.  However since the doors from the Blue Room were open and we would be seen in the Green Room we were told to wait in the East Room.  We noticed that there were more secret service men in attendance now. We retired to a corner trying to reign in our increasing nervousness.  All of a sudden the big double doors opened and an old lady was led in.  We shrunk back into the corner wondering if the audience was arriving, but only the old lady tottered down the main aisle with her helper chatting amiably to her.

 

 “You see, here you are. Do you see?  You’re sitting next to Laura here.  Do you see?  You will be able to see everything from here.” 

 

The old lady turned towards us, smiled and waved.  We waved back and at that moment we were given the all clear to move, and with one more cheerful wave to Laura Bush’s mother we walked into the Green Room.


Our marine, probably sensing our tension, starting explaining the story behind the paintings.  Our thoughts however were focusing on the coming ordeal.  One of us asked if we would hear “Hail to the Chief” when the President entered the room.  The marine explained that a former president James Polk was a very short man.  So short in fact that no-one noticed him when he entered a room.  His wife, Sarah Childress Polk, was so annoyed by this that she ordered that the tune which she had studied as a young girl be played every time he entered a room on formal occasions, thereby gaining the attention of all present who would then look down to see the President passing amongst them.

 

I snuck a look into the Blue Room out of curiosity but also to sample a quick sip of the vintage wine that had been left in some of the glasses.  My fellow actors were appalled, but the wine waiter who was clearing away the remains of the dinner smiled and asked me if I enjoyed it.  I had, very much indeed.  It helped take the edge off the nerves that now were trying to take over.

And still we waited. Even more secret servicemen appeared.  I became aware of another feeling that pushed its way among the nerves.  That dressed up in our suits and bowler hats and with the girls in their pleather what we were doing seemed frivolous and inane when faced with a man whose country was at war and who had the ultimate power on earth.

 

Finally the signal was given…

the music started…

 

… and Tony, Todd and I strode into the room. 

 

The first bit of choreography had us walking on to the back of the stage with yours truly placed centre.  We then turned, strode downstage like models on a catwalk, stopped and took in our audience.  Peter said later that he particularly enjoyed what I had done at that moment.  Apparently I looked all around the room and then stared down at President George W. Bush seated just three feet away.


I noticed that George and Laura were smiling.  The smiles broadened when on the next phrase of the music, the drumbeat kicked in and Lisa and Kathryn slunk across the East Room stage oozing potent sexual mystique and feminine pleather-clad power. 


And then we were off. 


The laughter was light at first, but as people in the room noticed that George and Laura were having a great time, it became louder and more frequent.  It was wonderful to hear Shakespeare’s words take effect because, for all the gimmicks, it was the language which ultimately was the star of the evening. We could feel the distinguished audience not only delight in the witty banter of Beatrice and Benedick, but also in the surprise they felt at the timeless immediacy and modernity of the words. 


If we wondered if the President understood it all, then a moment in the arbor scene gave us the answer.  Benedick is explaining to the audience why he has changed his mind about being a bachelor for the remainder of his life.  “Does not the appetite alter?” he asks them.  When he went on to say, “A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age,” we heard one loud famous chuckle from the audience.  George’s  laugh was of recognition.  If rumor is to be believed then the meat in his youth was somewhat exotic.


The show galloped along, buoyed by the audience’s enjoyment.  Tony as Benedick was playing – as they say in soccer parlance – ‘a blinder’.  All afternoon he had the look of a man about to fight a major battle, his face a picture of taut nerves and deep concentration.  Now all that energy was released into a sure-footed and brilliantly timed comic performance that we danced around and fed like lesser satellites.  The result was a joyful entertainment that could have easily stretched to another hour without anybody noticing or caring about the time.  Not once throughout the twenty minute performance did the President fidget or look bored. He and Laura sat smiling, looking enthralled throughout. The rest of the audience followed their example. Even Tom Wolfe, in his white suit, seemed interested.


After the last freeze, we broke downstage to take our bows. Tony brushed his arm past Lisa’s head and her platinum blonde wig flew across the stage.  Lisa screamed and I burst out laughing.  The president and the rest of the audience delighted in the chaos of the moment.  Peter stepped up onstage and joined us for the second set of bows. 
Then a slight hiatus.  We had been told that the President might join us and say a few words… or he might not.

 

“What if he doesn’t,” said Lisa worriedly, “how do we get off?”

 

But with a little nudge from Laura, the President came up on stage and shook our hands.

As he gripped my hand, his eyes - small, bright and alert - met mine.

“Pleased to meet you.  Thank you for coming.”

His body language was interesting.  With the men he pulled himself up to his full height, 5ft 10ins, came into the space that is usually reserved for intimate friends and relations, firm grip of the hand and eyes level meeting the object of his attention. With the women it was the same approach, but he would lean forward when invading the inner private space.

 

When he came to Lisa, the eyes twinkled and he leaned in close. “And it is especially nice to meet you.  Thank you very very very much for coming.”


Lisa laughed.

 

 “I liked him, she said later. “It’s very confusing."


The President turned to the audience. He thanked us
for coming to entertain them that night.  Then he thanked Peter, for bringing his company to share the words of Shakespeare with them all.  He pronounced Aquila as Akeyla much to our delight.  My thought at that moment was of course he would pronounce it with same pronunciation as Tequila.  It made perfect sense…He went on to say that the company had visited 36 states, 64 cities over that last year bringing Shakespeare to the remotest parts of the country.
The audience laughed, prompted by a chuckle from George.  The White House was certainly one of those remote parts having had no Shakespeare in the building since Kennedy.

 


The President ended his little speech by thanking everyone for coming.  Then Laura came up and shook our hands and George called the White House photographer forward.  We all gathered around.  I stood next to Laura.  The President was between our two pleather-clad actresses.  With one more burst of applause we made our way back to the Green Room.  After brief congratulations, our marine minder appeared and went to lead us through the crosshallway.  Suddenly he stiffened and  stepped backwards forcing us to stop inside the Green Room doorway.  Through the half opened door I saw the President and his wife walk past.  They were still smiling.


“That was fun, wasn’t it?” Laura said, hanging on her husband’s arm, the intonations in her voice making it sound as if George had not altogether been looking forward to our visit.  George’s smile broadened.

 

“It sure was.”


They walked on down past the security men and towards their personal quarters. It was a scene straight out of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I have been around film stars and celebrities, but real political power has an energy all its own.  My last brush with it was dinner with Mo Mowlem at London’s Jo Allens, the former cabinet minister of Her Majesty’s Government. Strangely, the last time I felt the electricity that real power gives off was a brief honoree membership of the English gangworld’s South London Firm.

 

The marine gave us the all clear and we stepped out into the crosshall.  At that moment  - and a film couldn’t have staged it better - the big double doors of the East Room burst open and we were engulfed by our glittering audience.  Our walk downstairs proved a long one as one after another member of the audience stopped us to proffer their thanks and congratulations.  I wanted to stay and talk with them and find out the background of these privileged few, but it was obviously the end of the evening, for no after-show reception was on hand.  We returned to our basement dressing room, our spirits light and buzzing from the adrenalin of the night. 


After changing and packing up, we walked upstairs. The White House was empty except for the staff and security.  The cleaners were already on hand, making the entrance hall immaculate once more. We walked through the front door and out into the Washington night.


Later we celebrated over copious amounts of food and alcohol.  Everyone was was ecstatic. At the end of the night he raised his glass in a toast.We had entertained the most powerful man in the world and he genuinely seemd to have a good time.


I thought back to the King’s Men Company in the late 1500s and their visits to Hampton Court to entertain the Virgin Queen, when the poet from Stratford upon Avon’s words silenced the puritan backlash against Catholicism and players finally stopped strolling and actually had places called theatres, newly built, albeit outside the city walls, and when the English language exploded, a bible was written in English, and the greatest playwright transcended the politics of the time and lifted the spoken word to new heights.  A man not of his time, but for all time.  Perhaps today we had influenced the transfer of millions of dollars from the Pentagon to the Arts.  That was worth drinking to.  I raised my glass to the King’s Men’s most famous actors: Richard Burbage, Will Kemp, John Hemmings, and Henry Condell.  I raise my glass to the sweet swan of Avon, who from my birth has been a constant star shining through my life. 

“Let’s drink to Will,” I said.
 
“To William Shakespeare,” we all cried, and as one lifted our glasses high.


“Clever cunt!” someone added.

 

***


 

Postscript:

 

I stand with Lori in the Newark branch of Homeland Security.  The Green Card interview which could lift the restrictions and grant permanent resident status has finally arrived. Today the atmosphere is surreal.  There are no crowds of people waiting outside.  No queues to wait in.  No wait at all in fact. I had thought this day might never happen and I can’t quite remember whose idea it was to come to the States in the first place. Our interrogator and the man who will decide our fate seems to bear no resemblance to wily old Porfiry Petrovich. He is young, seemingly nervous, and has a stammer. We raise our hands and repeat  after Mr. Chang (it’s not his real name) - that we will tell the truth, the whole truth.  Lori has prepared a massive book, painstakingly prepared, full of photos of our married life.  At the back are affidavits from friends confirming the honest basis of the marriage.  Mr. Chang is impressed.  I notice that although Lori is doing most of the talking, Mr. Chang keeps his gaze firmly on my face.  I return the stare wondering what physical signs he is looking for.  I am under intense scrutiny.  Mr. Chang’s instincts are probing me, searching the hidden nooks and crannies of my mind.  Seemingly innocuous questions are asked.  Our replies seem to satisfy him, but Mr. Chang is not giving anything away. He continues to scan my face.  I return his gaze, opening myself up, inviting him in. I suddenly think his stammer is actually a brilliant disguise to make the unwary and the untruthful drop their guard. It is time to pull out the big guns.  I show him the programme from the White House and regale him with the story of our night there.  He is enthralled.  His face relaxes.  Suddenly with a flourish he grabs my passport in one hand and a stamp with the other.


“Mr. Willis,” he says dramatically, “I am now stamping your passport to grant you permanent residence of the United States.  The form with your fingerprints will be sent on to Albany.  You should receive your actual green card in three to six months.”


It has been nearly six years since I first applied.  It has been three years overdue for the restrictions to be lifted.  Someone says later that the next stop is citizenship, but the thought of any more bureaucracy in my life appalls me at this moment.  For now, I just want to savor the moment.


You can do anything you set your mind to…man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ice Palace