Theater Reviews for London’s West End: The night of the iguana & The Lehman trilogy

The goal, Covid willing — which it wasn’t — was for me to be in London this January of 2022, writing brand new posts. Instead, I’m catching up on the backload of half written ones that were waiting to be finished. Yes, I know, I’m seriously behind in these blog posts, as I’m writing this 2019 one over two years after the fact  …. Remember when we used to tell ourselves that if only we had a few weeks off with nothing to do how we’d catch up on all those tasks we never got to… yah it wasn’t that….

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One of the great joys of the London stage is that at some point or another, like broadway, the great and renowned actors of the screen will want to tread the boards, and this is where they often do it… but at a way that offers far more affordable ticket prices than in what you’d pay in NYC (let’s hear it for government subsidy of the arts!). A while back I talked about the play Sweat, which I saw in London in 2019 starring a lesser known but highly recognizable actress of American movies and TV, Martha Plimpton.

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While she may not be as well known as others, she represents the modern generation of a Hollywood royalty family that stretches back to the 1930’s.

In this post I’m going to talk about two other plays I saw in London back in the summer of 2019 starring famous actors that till then I’d only ever seen on the screen.

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On August 21 of 2019 I went to see Clive Own play the leading role in the classic Tennessee Williams stage play Night of the Iguana (later made into a film staring Richard BurtonAva Gardner, and Deborah Kerr)

E471B7B9-DBDE-451C-8957-02929837B7D3.jpgAnyway, Clive Owen… drool. Granted, he’s not one of my favorite actors but he has always had a sort of bad boy smoldering sexuality that is undeniable, and this was a great play for him to be in… because the lead calls for just that sort of character.

Overall the play was good, his performance was VERY good … although there were a few places in the show where I guess he got distracted or something because he dropped out of character and resorted to just delivering lines (what’s referred to in the business — I have more than a few professional friends who work in it — as phoning it in) but for the most part he was so good that I was able to forget I was watching a play, and instead felt I was watching events as they happened.

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When you first came in to find your seats there was a soundtrack of jungle noises playing in the background and all around us, and there was no fire curtain hiding the stage. Initially I thought that who ever was in charge of the stage design required a pat on the back, although I ultimately decided it wasn’t quite as amazing as they seemed to think it was (I’ll get to that later). The stage held a handful of broken down huts which we soon learned were hotel rooms in a jungle atmosphere, that was supposed to be located up on a mountainside overlooking the ocean. Those steps leading up from the orchestra pit, in the picture above, was how new characters, who had supposedly arrived by boat climbed up the side of the mountain from the beach to said hotel …. and we who sat in the ‘house’ were supposed to be the ocean view they spent most of their time looking out at when not looking at each other…

Before the show started, as those of you who read all my theater posts know that I regularly do, I was taking photos of the empty stage from the vantage of my seat — to show where I was seated and a sense of the theater space, when staff stopped me saying it was “protected”(??). Thing is, it was exactly the same stage shown in the advertising images located out in front of the theater… If my concern was the set design rather than where my seat was relative to the stage, I could have just taken photos of those ads … so I found this prohibition needless, and a bit bizarre (kind of like worrying about your daughters chastity when she’s already pregnant). Not to mention their whole approach of dealing with it was just “unfriendly.” There wasn’t anything all that AMAZING or innovative about the set, other than the fake rock cliff towards the back of the stage… in fact it reminded me a GREAT DEAL of the Louisiana part of Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney … so really nothing innovative of worthy of trying to protect. (And I wasn’t the only one they tried to stop… staff was running around and yelling at a bunch of different people who had taken out their cell phones to take a snap.)

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Anyway, As you can tell from the above photo my seat was VERY good, 7th row almost dead center relative to the stage… and… looking up you can see ….

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I was about a row or two in front of the balcony overhang, so there was no reverb issues with the sound as it bounced around hard surfaces. And this really good ticket was purchased last minute — as in the day before — at a discount from the Txts booth in Leicester Square that I’ve spoken about REPEATEDLY.

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Right before intermission a rain storm broke out as part of the show (the story being located in the tropics), and rather than it just being sound and light effects, there was actual rain falling all over the stage. And I’m not talking just a line of water at the back of the stage either … Clive Owen stood IN it and got drenched by it (yes objectification was real — did I not mention DROOL and how sexy he is) … during intermission I walked up to the stage and you could hear the water dripping off it… not sure how they pull that off without water damage to the stage or folks slipping…. THAT would be interesting to know about but there was nothing visible from the house to answer that question….

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The Next show I saw is one that I’m HAPPY to say is one of the first NYC productions to be reopening in the time of Covid — a limited run that will then travel to L.A. and then on to San Francisco…. and I STRONGLY suggest buying tickets for it if you can.

This was, The National Theater’s production of The Lehman Trilogy. Yep its about THOSE Lehmans, the three brothers who came to America to find their fortune and ended up creating the Lehman Brothers firm, the investment bank that became one of the leaders of the financial world, until it ultimately collapsed, and almost took the entire global economy with it….

 —– Tangent on the collapse of Lehman Brothers
As a former business school professor I think it’s important to note that the collapse happened after the three generations of family control had been handed over to a corporate bureaucracy. Anyone with an understanding of successful multigenerational family owned companies knows that this is a regular process. Companies of this sort are created by an individual — or as in this case a group of siblings, who then usually pass control onto their children. This only happens after he/or she, or they, have personally trained this next generation over the course of their childhoods to takeover the business… usually having them do odd jobs of increasing importance up through their adulthoods that are intended to prepare them and imbue within them a deeply understood awareness of how and why the business is successful. This 2nd generation however tends to not then go on to train their own children as deeply in the ways of the business — often because they resented what their own parents forced them to go through — and instead allow the kids to choose for themselves if they want to be involved — which usually they don’t… and these kids even if one or two of them DOES show interest, by the 3rd generation opt to hand over control to business school types — folks who almost never spent a day working in any factory, let alone choosing to train up individuals who came up through the ranks of THAT company — sending over talented employees off to business school for instance, with the understanding that they were being prepared for management positions (and even if they were they might not have the sort of FAMILY kinship required to keep them in the fold once so invested in). Instead, the heirs of the fortune tend to be disinterested, and prefer to just reap the benefits of the family money and hand over full control to business school graduates with no personal investment in the future prosperity of the company — and once that happens it’s fairly rare for the company to continue to be what it once was, so that at that point decrease of influence to the point of collapse becomes commonplace.  —– end of tangent

That said, the play is not about that collapse and how or why it happened, rather it’s about family, tradition, and legacy, and as such is far more Universal and meaningful. Because the brothers were Jewish immigrants to the United States, recently arrived from Eastern Europe, it helps to bring more depth to the story if you know a little bit about what those traditions are…. although it’s not obligatory. While watching the show I found myself explaining things to the girl seated next to me who was Asian and had no idea why they kept doing things like reaching up to place a kiss on a doorpost, or broke into some Hebrew (praying).

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My cousin, who used to work for one of the major theatrical charities in London, the Mousetrap foundation — they use the profits from London’s longest running hit (excluding a gap for Covid, it’s been playing nonstop since 1952), to introduce school groups from lower income parts of town to the joys of live theater, and as such she continues to stay up to date on what the best shows are in town, and she strongly suggested this one (although she warned they might be fully sold out). As such, I so wanted to see it that I did something I almost never do, and bought the tickets full price… (I tried to get them at TXTs but they laughed at me. I had to buy it at the theater’s box office, and was able to find a good single seat a few weeks out, the week they were due to close).

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I was about in the 5th row, in the center of the row

This left me worried at the time because the day before I was supposed to go London was in the low 90’s F (33.9ºC)  and the day I was scheduled to go was supposed to be as bad if not worse (in fact that day London and Orlando Florida were having the SAME WEATHER, that’s just WRONG). Thank you global warming …

This might not seem like a big deal to average American Theater goer, but the theaters in London, for the most part are NOT BUILT for hot days — especially the older ones — They have limited if any ventilation and most do NOT have any air conditioning. I am one of those people who is great when the temp is in the 60º’s but suffers horribly in anything above 75º — and these theaters with the lights and the people can heat up into the high 80º’s on a hot day; as such, I am incapable of ‘enjoying’ myself in an overheated room… especially ones with no ventilation… and these old historic theaters in London fall into that category. Normally, I buy tickets a day or so in advance, and know what the weather forecast will be, but in this case I had to buy it over two weeks in advance, so there was no way to know.

I took the tube to get there and that had been like a freaking oven, and then I was running late so I had to run to get to the theater, all of which left me radiating heat. So I was SERIOUSLY worried that the heat in the theater would make me feel so sick that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the show, so I was thrilled to discover that the Piccadilly Theatre in London has air-conditioning! Not only that but it was set to keep the room comfortably cool.  I could hear the system going on and off, and every once in a while the room would heat up just enough that I would start to feel uncomfortable, only to hear the fans comeback on and feel the temperature drop just enough for me to stay focused on the show instead of the sickening heat. (Unlike US theaters, they never over did it so that you wished you’d brought a sweater to the theater in the middle of summer.)

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I can’t remember why, but for some reason I was running really late, and was worried they wouldn’t let me in — British theaters can be sticklers about late comers especially if you were sitting front and center like I was going to be — as always I got a GOOD ticket, that put me just off center and maybe 7 rows from the state, but to my luck …. when I arrived there was a huge line of people standing outside waiting to pick up their tickets –even though the play was supposed to have already started, so I was just damn lucky. I arrived so late however that I wasn’t able to do my normal photo of me holding my ticket and showing the stage in front of me; the photo above of me in front of the theater was from after the show was over — hence why it was already dark. Again a photo I would normally do BEFORE the show started.

The Play is based on a Novel, by Italian author Stefano Massini, available in translation

All that said…. This was quite possibly one of the very best most amazing plays I’ve EVER seen in my 58 odd years of regularly attending the theater!!!! It was an acting Tour De Force … all of the 185 roles were played by three British character actors, excluding the final scene when the family no longer controlled the company and suddenly there’s a collection of faces we’d not seen before… Let me repeat that almost ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY FIVE separate roles, including men and women, which up until the final scene of the play are performed, by only THREE MEN …. and every single role is clear and distinct. If you’ve never respected the title of character actor, you will now. These are not movie stars who are basically the same character in every film or TV show you’ve ever seen them in, these are ACTORS. (This is why saying you need to be gay to play gay is kind of problematic, and diminishes the craft of acting… actually obliterates it. Keep going in that direction and from now on no one will have to develop their craft because you’ll have to be the thing in order to be allowed to play the thing.)

Imelda Staunton, Adrian Lester, Damian Lewis and more at The Lehman Trilogy  West End premiere | WhatsOnStage
Left to right: Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley   That said, this is NOT my Image, borrowed from: https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/imelda-staunton-adrian-lester-damian-lewis-lehman_49127.html

So the famous actors I got to see were: (left to right) Ben Miles, to be honest this guy sinks into his characters so fully that I totally didn’t recognize him till I checked his imdb. He’s one of those British Actors that Americans are less familiar with. Of all the shows he was in, I think we in the states would most easily recognize him as having played the part of Peter Townsend, the boyfriend of Princess Margaret in Netflix’s international hit, The Crown), that she was having an affair with, and who when he left his wife the corporation kept finding excuses to keep her from marrying him, until he finally gave up and married someone else.

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Simon Russell Beale (the guy in the middle & below) tends to show up in the sort of historical stuff the BBC is best known for, Americans would best know him as having been on the Showtime series Penny Dreadful and as the Baker’s father in the star studded movie version of Stephen Sondheim‘s Into The Woods, with Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick.

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The actor to the right is probably the one most Americans will most easily recognize, although odds are you never knew his name. The man has been in a LOT of things, He’s currently the Archbishop in Hulu’s The Great, about Russia’s Cathrine the Great; He provides the voice of Pogo (the talking chimp) in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, he played Elliott Schwartz in the classic show Breaking Bad, was Nigel Nesbitt in the series Suits (best known as Meghan Markle’s claim to fame before she married Prince Harry), along with a bunch of other roles in popular shows and movies. In fact in the Lehman Brothers Adam Godley did a one character in a scene towards the middle of the show that I will never be able to forget and I wish I could hit the rewind to see over and over and figure out how he did it; the man aged right in front of us from young to a wizened corpse on the table, and did it so believably that the audience couldn’t but break into a standing ovation in the middle of the show.

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Anyway, if you ever have a chance to see this show, I strongly suggest it, even more if you’re lucky enough to see it with these specific actors.

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London’s West End production of: Waitress (good, but not better than the movie)

Waitress has, since the movie version first came out in 2007, been one of my very favorite films — as in I bought the DVD and have watched it repeatedly. So when I heard that someone had revamped it as a musical I was both hopeful and skeptical. Back in its good old days, Broadway would turn books into plays, which then might be turned into musicals; nowadays its successful movies that tend to get the musical treatment. When I saw that it was playing in London (and pretty much daily available at a discount at the TXTS booth) I knew I had to see it.

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During this trip I saw more than a few shows that were based on movies… which seems to be the new broadway trend …. and for the most part while they’re all enjoyable… in pretty much every case … with the possible exception of maybe the production of Disney’s the Lion king … I think it’s safe to say that you should probably consider saving your money…

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For me, London is kind of like a second hometown to me. It was my dad’s hometown, and we used to spend most of summers there until I was about 12 years old…  and always for me, London has always been about going to the theater! My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three. So rather than posting a lot about seeing the town my posts from here are for the most about the shows I’ve seen. The second show I saw this trip saw: Waitress, a musical remake of one of very favorite films (I own it on DVD and have watched it repeatedly)…. but that said, while it’s a cute piece of fluff… the movie was MUCH better…

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That said … first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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Kind of a cute thing: restaurant order slips were used for patron’s feedback after the show

In the movie starred Keri Russell as the waitress the show centers on, who is dreaming of trying to escape a horrible marriage, who finds solace, self esteem — and a possible exit strategy — in her love of and brilliance at inventing pie recipes.

[Going MASSIVELY off topic here… but bear with me]

Russell, for those who don’t know her, began her career as a child actor, and was one of the many members of The Mickey Mouse Club ensemble during the 1989 to 1994 years (alongside other such stars of today as: Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, etc.). However, she is to this day most highly identified, not for that but rather, with her breakout title character in the US TV show Felicity, (which played from 1998 — 2002, 4 seasons, just like 4 years of university) a coming of age story about a top student who had her whole life planned out for her by her parents, and in an act of rebellion she at the last minute refuses to attend Stanford U. as a premed, in California, and instead chases cross country after a high school crush who is going to University in New York City, who when she gets there turns out to not even know her name. So of course the following four seasons were all about her growing up and finding herself, until she finally leaves University and begins an adult life. [If you do watch the TV show, pay close attention to the side characters. Whoever the casting director was, this person had a keen eye for talent; there’s a LOT of actors who would go on to be famous who had their first tiny roles in this Felicity.]

In it Russell became almost more famous for her hair than her acting, which based on the scuttlebutt of the day, if it is to be believed, bugged her to no end. At the time there were constant gossip stories coming out about how much she was wanting to be considered a serious actress, and hated the superficial fixation on her hair rather than her acting, to the extent that while the official story was that the producers came to her about cutting it… the leaked gossip was all about how she in fact had BEGGED the producers to allow her character to change her look.

This resulted in something of a NATIONAL SCANDAL if you can believe, and a bit of a dive in the ratings comparable only to the effect on Veronica Lake‘s career in WWII when she changed her signature peek-a-boo hairstyle in support of the war effort.

I’ve looked, and if you follow Russell’s relationship with her hair, since Felicity (1998– 2002), she’s never worn it natural again [link includes a hairstylist talking about how the first thing you down when working with Russell is to straighten her hair], all of which tends to support the leaked versions over the official ones (Russell hates her own hair) … To this day she’s ALWAYS straightens it. Seriously, am including LOTS of clips of her on camera and her curls are at the minimum relaxed in every clip; and its her refusal to wear it natural that in my opinion is what continues to make it a topic of discussion 17 years later. In the Waitress role (2007), a role that to be honest wasn’t ALL that different from her Felicity role — in fact she’s pretty much type cast (the sweet but super serious girl next door who’s seriously lost and trying to find herself), if you look at her hair you can sort of see a compromised semi straightened look. And if you look at all her roles between 2002 and 2013, she had a heck of a time shaking her Felicity type casting.

That said, its a look and character you’ll almost NEVER see in the role that currently has made her famous again, the long running FX spy thriller (2013-2018), which has won 18 Emmy nominations and four Writers Guild of America Award for Television: Dramatic Series award nominations for its writing (this is a GREAT SHOW, definitely a must see)… where Russell plays one of the co-leads of the The Americans, two deep cover Soviet KGB officers who pose as happily married couple living in the Virginia suburbs (near D.C.) by day while working as Russian operatives at night.

[Note in this 2019 Youtube compilation of her interviews for a famous US morning show, the editors STILL in 2019 focus on discussions of her hair and her Felicity character!!]

Her Felicity/Waitress character is almost completely absent from her role of Elizabeth (Nadezhda) Jennings, as in she only shows up in scenes of the character’s early life in Russia before she was trained to be a spy.  Russell’s character’s husband, Philip Jennings (whose Russian name is Mikhail, but goes by Mischa); in this new show is played by Matthew Rhys – who in real life is Welsh (with a thick accent) and is now Russell’s real life husband – they became involved (2014) and then married (2016) during filming

Returning to the film version of Waitress:

Alongside Russel was a woefully miscast Nathan Fillion in the role the obstetrician her Waitress character goes too when to her horror she discovers she’s pregnant. Their both married, but find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other and begin a torrid affair. Or at least that’s the story of Waitress. While I love Fillion, he just wasn’t right for that role, at least not when cast with Russell. In order for the story to really work, his character and Russell’s needed to have overwhelming sexual chemistry that was palpable even on screen, even if their sex scenes were supposed to be funny verging on ridiculous … but they just didn’t have that, so it all felt horribly forced. But for Russell’s performance, she was perfect in the role, the movie might have not done anywhere near as well.

[That said Fillion was PERFECT as Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds on the cult TV show Firefly along its followup film Serenity,– a character which made him a nerd G-d!!!! Although cancelled after only one season there’s isn’t a nerd I know who has not watched it so many times that they have bits of it memorized.

One of the show’s major problems was the TV executives couldn’t figure out how to pigeon hole it. They sold it as drama, Notice the really dark feel of the preview above, when in fact had more of a dark sardonic comedic feel to it, along with a real sense of a tight knit and loving family among the crew-members of the ship — all of whom were led by Fillion’s character.

Like I said it was such a cult favorite that they were able to get the funding for the big budget film called Serenity, which finally put some closure on the story lines. Unlike Russell who seems to have spent a lifetime trying to escape Felicity, Fillion has described Firefly as the best acting job he ever had. He is also known to non-nerds as the title character Richard Castle, a modern day version of his Mal character, on the long running TV show Castle — which offered up A LOT of inside jokes for Firefly fans who all realized he was playing the same character again, just to prove that point of what a cult classic it was and how much Fillion loved that role.]

—> RETURNING TO THE LONDON PRODUCTION!!!!!

Initially part of what drew me to wanting to see the stage show in London was the fact that it was starring Katharine McPhee in the title role — a woman was the runner up on the 5th season of one of my favorite shows, American Idol,

who went on to be central character of another of my favorite shows, the ensemble series Smash (about the making of a fictional Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe),

where she plays an unknown… the epitome of the sweet and modest ingenue, who through sheer talent and stage presence becomes the co-lead in a musical when the producers ultimately can’t choose between a more experienced actress and the ingenue (spoiler: it’s a predicament they ultimately resolve by using BOTH actresses — who we come to love — to play different aspects of Marilyn — the character she created for the screen vs her internal more human reality)

HOWEVER, McPhee was only playing the lead during my first three weeks in London, a period where I was busy with stuff like getting re-acclimatized to being in London after many years — I have this weird relationship with rapid transit systems where it seems to take me a few weeks of being in a place before I’m willing to use them, and was focused on MUST do tasks, like renewing my British passport, catching up with family, etc., before want to do ones…

… BUT by the time I finally dragged my ass down to the TXTS booth the first time, her final performance in the role was already over — and when she left so did most of the other leads (in the video above). I’m someone who watches TMZ‘s podcast nightly (if it starts off with the Kardashians I’m asleep in minutes), so I knew that McPhee had quit the show in order to marry one of the world’s most powerful music producers, David Foster (who’s a good 34 years older than her) — they literally got married like the next week (it was all over the gossip news). So I didn’t get to see her on stage after all…. other than via the above videos.

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That said, when I first got into the theater, all excited to see the show, the level of ‘kitschy’ things going on in the waiting area for the show was kind of overwhelming, there were the aforementioned restaurant customer order slips displayed with comments from former patrons of the show

 

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And at the obligatory bar where there’s normally a variety of snacks and drinks, they had mini pies in glass jars for sale… I tried the chocolate and salted caramel pot which the girl working the counter said was the favorite of the staff… but I thought it was actually pretty nasty tasting… very super sweet and chemicals even though the ingredients promised it was all natural (except for the Oreo cookie bits)

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And then once inside the auditorium the fire-curtain had been designed to look like a cherry pie lattice and along each side of the stage were those rotating pie displays like you see at diners (imagine them rotating). Like I said, sort of kitschy overload.

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That said, my day of show purchased tickets offered me amazing seats, three rows from the stage and smack in the middle of the auditorium. The show was, as I said before, not AS good as the movie (although I think the guy cast the lead’s love interest was a way better choice than Fillion had been) but that said it was a fun little piece of fluff with a few good songs.

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At the end of the show they did something I had not seen before or since, they had staff members standing at the edges of the stage actually TELLING us we could go ahead and take photos of the standing ovations.  Other shows do NOT allow it, and some will even try to stop you from taking pictures of the stage before the show has even started…

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And then after the show was over, they provided an even MORE opportunities for taking photos as we were leaving, with staff posing as waiters at a diner alongside us… and … as you can see in the photo, were explicitly asking us to PLEASE post those photos to social media after we had gone home. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f46.jpg

All that said, while it was a good time… I’m sorry to say that if you LOVED the movie you’ll probably enjoy the musical, but I doubt you’ll love it. If on the other hand you’ve NEVER seen the movie (and hold it in a warm fuzzy place in your heart), than you might enjoy the musical more than I did.

London’s National Theater’s reimagining of the play “Top Girls”

Top Girls is a play in four acts written by Caryl Churchill who is considered by some to be the UK’s leading socialist-feminist playwright. Her works tend to explore topics such as gender construction (a topic that I’ve spent a lot of time teaching), sexual politics (a political theory named after a book that is obligatory reading for anyone studying feminism) and abuses of power. The production I saw was put on the London’s National Theater, and took some research to try to understand because of choices made by the director that resulted in confusion for people (like myself and my cousin) who had no knowledge of the play in advance.

First produced in 1982, and is set in 1980’s Britain, it is the type of show that tends to be done in smaller venues — or in US parlance, it’s the sort of off off broadway type of show that is intentionally NOT intended to be commercial, and as such in general will only appeal to hard core theater aficionados who like their shows to have a political message, and the actors performing the parts.

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Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I advise everyone to check out the Txts booth in Leicester Square as a matter of course. One of the exceptions to this rule is anything put on by the National Theater. Their tickets should be purchased either online or from their box office, because they’re already government subsidized and are never discounted further.

Sadly, I completely forgot to take any photos for this play or of the theater… not even my obligatory one of me holding the ticket. There are however no shortage of press release images of the production on google (follow this link). In my defense, at the time I was suffering a serious case of the dizzies, was staying at my cousin’s (from my dad’s side) place way out the suburbs, when a cousin from my mom’s side informed me she was in London and suggested I buy tickets for this play and we could meet up there. I knew NOTHING about the show going in. Because of the dizzies, going there alone from his place out in the suburbs was not in the cards, so I convinced him to come along and he drove. As luck would have it, my other cousin was nowhere to be seen, and didn’t bother returning any of my txts till well after the show when we were well on our way back home.

The first scene of the play I found quite compelling. It involves the central character of the play — a modern British woman, Marlene, who’s just been promoted to the head of her office at a job placement agency, who is throwing herself a celebratory dinner party and has invited as her guests famous women of antiquity. (One is forced to wonder if maybe she has no real life friends to turn to because she’s been so focused on her work.) So not only did the play delve into issues of gender construction and feminist issues, but did so on a backdrop of women from different points of history, and different cultures… so RIGHT up my alley so to speak.

Her first guest to arrive is Isabella Bird, a woman out of history that would be familiar to most of Churchill’s British audience members, as they’re most likely the sort of highly cultured and educated sort who watch history shows on the BBC and probably attended University (like I said, off off broadway). This second character in effect is setting the scene for all of the following characters that might be less familiar to the show’s audience. For those who don’t know her (lord knows I did not, but my British cousin claimed he sort of remembered who she was) Bird was an independent woman traveller, writer and photographer from 18th century England. She was a prolific travel writer with 28 titles to her name, which include: The Englishwoman in America (1856) — her first hit book which was based on all of the letters she’d written home about her travels, and was followed by other like works such as Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: Travels of a Lady in the Interior of Japan (1879), and Among the Tibetans (1894) — that were again based on her letters home. Most of Bird’s titles are still in print, and her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is even available as an Audiobook! This tells you relevant her works still are. Since her death, she’s had numerous biographies written about her, and has even has a series of Japanese manga about her called Isabella Bird in Wonderland, which focuses on her visit to Japan.

Her arrival in the play is shortly followed by the arrival of another historical figure, who is much more obscure, Lady Nijo, one of the Japanese Emperor’s concubines from 1271 to 1283, who later became a nun and wrote her autobiography. The book wasn’t a hit but had historical value, and as such one remaining copy (a 17th century printing) was discovered in the Emperor’s family library in 1940 and then republished under the titles The Confessions of Lady Nijo and also Lady Nijo’s own story; the candid diary of a thirteenth-century Japanese imperial concubine.  I searched Amazon and found these both of these titles still available for sale there, but no one biography.

The third guest was one I HAD heard of, Pope Joan. YES, you heard me, Pope JOAN (we don’t know what her actual name was)…  While the church denies that she ever existed, and to this day many historians discount her as myth, her story is well known and her possible existence helps to explain some weird things. Such as, there’s a VERY odd part of the Pope’s swearing in process — the existence of which makes no sense whatsoever, UNLESS she had existed. The story is that a woman fell in love with a priest, and was convinced by him to dress as a man and to join the church during the Middle Ages, so that they could stay together. Apparently she was so smart and capable, that she managed to rise to the top position (top girls anyone?), but had the bad luck to go into labor in the middle of religious procession. According to the character in the play, the robes helped hide her condition and folks just assumed she/he’d gotten fat. Her gender now discovered she either died in labor or was put to death, the play opted for killed. As a result, the whole path of that procession has been changed to avoid the street where she supposedly went into labor (one thing explained).  But the oh so odd part of the popes ritual swearing it helps explain, is that he has to sit on a contraption like a toilet seat with no bowl underneath, while he has his genitals inspected, to make sure they’re there… and more importantly, are of the right sort. Many people believe she was Pope John XX, which explains why this title is sometimes referred to as the missing pope (there’s nothing about that pope in the books, but the church has come up with a rationalization for the discrepancy)…

The fourth guest to arrive is, Dull Gret (also known as Mad Meg), a woman from Flemish folklore, who doesn’t have much to say, which makes sense as she’s a character from a 1563 oil-on-panel painting by Pieter Bruegel (the elder). In fact his painting of her, Dulle Griet, is one of his most famous works. Here she is depicted as a woman who is leading an army of other women in an attack on hell itself.

The final guest is another character from European folklore, Patient Griselda.  She was first written about by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his famous and influential work (I had to read it for a history class, it actually helped to spark a revolution) The Decameron. The story is by our perspective horrific. All British audience member should be somewhat familiar with her tale as one of the books Boccaccio’s work helped to influence was Chaucer‘s famous work, The Canterbury Tales, where she also appears. The basic story is that she’s a lower class woman married to an upper class man, attracted to her beauty, who over the years puts her through a series of horrific and mentally abusive tests of her patience and devotion to him… all of which she passes. At the end, her sufferings are rewarded. (It’s enough to make a modern woman gag.)

Once the dinner is over we are taken to the employment agency where Marlene works, and we meet her co-workers and some of the girls who are there applying for jobs. This scene is so incredibly different that it seemed like we were almost in a completely different play. It felt VERY disconnected. Later, after me and my cousin got home, I started researching the play and learned that in the original version, all the new characters that are introduced were SUPPOSED to have been played by the same actresses who had done the previous characters.

At this point the curtain comes down and the audience is released for an intermission. When we returned the next act, which at first seems to have nothing to do with what came before, and as such feels utterly disjointed. It’s two girls talking. And therein lays the problem with this production… Initially it was written so that the women who played the historical characters are then ‘re-cast’ into the modern day as other characters, and the fact that it’s the same actresses playing them helps to link the characters of the women we met before into these new modern day characters… Marlene is the only character that stays the same through the play.

In the later scenes we learn she is completely disconnected from her family. She and her sister no longer speak, and her sister’s child is biologically Marlene’s, who she had abandoned in order to become a “Top Girl.” All of which helps to explain the focused determination that got her there, but how that success had a cost in her personal relationships… which may be why when it was time to celebrate her achievement, her only companions were women from books and history.

However, because this production chose to expand the number of actors used, all of that subtext got lost. Both my cousin and I, who had never seen the original productions and knew nothing about the show going in, left the theater more than a bit confused. We debated it’s meaning the whole trek home to his place, and the next morning again over our breakfast. So if the point was to make us think, it was successful… but we both found ourselves independently going on to the internet to try to comprehend what we had just seen, because it was FAR from self evident based on the production.

To that end, while doing additional research for this article I found a BBC online University video that includes not just the entire play, but a preamble discussing it and an interview with the playwright. The downside of this video is that you don’t really get to enjoy the play and then hear a discussion of it, rather the ‘instructor’ inserts commentary right over the actors speeches…. which are hard enough to make out as one of Churchill’s favorite techniques is to use over-speaking…  multiple actors talking at once (the fact that she has the Japanese character doing this as well shows how little she understood Japanese culture, in my opinion).

I then found THIS 2nd rendition of it on Youtube, put on by a theater group in Seoul South Korea made up entirely of English speaking expats, of the ENTIRE play… all two hours of it.

But in this case it was recorded in a very low tech manner, so that you’ll need to strain to hear the actors … again.

Theater in London’s West End, The production of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Sweat” and accessibility issues in the Gielgud Theatre

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). One of the many shows I saw this year was, Sweat (2017, Pulitzer Prize Winner) staring Martha Plimpton of the Carradine theatrical royalty family (getting to see your favorite actors live on stage is always an added treat).

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So… I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again … first rule of London theater is, as taught to me by my parents… unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase). This show for instance had great reviews, but I was able to get the tickets at a discounted price, even buying them 2 days in advance.

Sweat: The Play — GREAT play, but in a bad theater space for anyone with mobility or hearing impairments 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f27.jpgSweat, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was my first non-musical this trip. Its a fictional play based around economic dynamics in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania in 2011, when the United States Census Bureau, declared that because of the loss of heavy industry to offshoring, it had become one of the poorest cities in America. It is a show that is both funny, and highly disturbing.

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I was looking forward to seeing it in large part because it was a chance to see Martha Plimpton, live on stage. I’d had the good luck to meet her (as in have an actual conversation with, back in 2006 while sitting on a tram at Disneyland waiting to go back to the parking structure — YUP, once again at a Disney park, there’s a trend here), and seriously enjoyed a lot of her large and small screen roles, but this was going to be the first time to see her on stage. That said, she did NOT let me down… granted, its the sort of role she tends to get cast into fairly regularly, a course working class girl or woman — so she’s had plenty of practice. This typecasting is ironic as she’s third generation acting royalty; her paternal grandfather was one of the best known character actors in Hollywood starting back in the 1930’s, the GREAT John Carradine. He was one of John Ford‘s go to actors, but was also in classics like the Grapes of Wrath and the Ten Commandments). Her dad is Keith Carradine (whose IMDB of roles in major films is as long as your arm) even those she chooses to go by the less known last name of her mother,  Shelley Plimpton (who is also a well respected actress in her own right) — probably to be better able to try to stand on her own merits. And, even her uncles, Robert Carradine, who was best known for his  Revenge of the Nerds series of movies, and the late David Carradine, who was best known for his lead role in the 1970’s TV classic Kung Fu, (and his ignominious death by autoerotic asphyxiation in a Bangkok hotel room’s closet in 2009) are/were both well known working actors. Even her aunt, Ever Carradine, is one of those actresses you instantly recognize even if you can not name her, and currently can be seen in Hulu’s major hit, The Handmaid’s TaleSo, like I said, Acting royalty.

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I won’t spoil the play for you other than to say its got the kind of juicy roles in it actors love, and even though I tend to prefer comedies or musicals over serious plays with a political message, and a really disturbing ending.  I genuinely enjoyed and was moved by the performances. I was lucky because the play (which has bounced around a bit) was in the middle of a six week scheduled run at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. Even though it was was very well reviewed, I suppose its serious nature turned away most London tourists, and as such I was able to get pretty good tickets at a discount. HOWEVER when I got there I found that the salesperson had screwed up a bit… I’m always clear about wanting to be in the stalls in FRONT of the balcony-overhang. When I got there I found I was well behind it, towards the back of the stalls. I HATE this because there’s almost always a slight reverb effect as the actors voices bounce off the walls, and you often end up listening to sound from speakers in addition to the actual sound from them… so I complained (the advantage of arriving to the theater early). I was HOPING they’d move me up in the stalls (there were plenty of better empty seats) but the Manager said if I wanted I could move to the balcony where they had some open first row tickets (at same price point), so I did that.

Two things about the theater the play was being shown in … Firstly… like a lot of old things in London, while the Gielgud is very beautiful, it’s also a complete disaster for anyone with severe mobility issues. While the UK has disability rights legislation on the books, implementing them has been a major issue as a result of the historic nature of most of the buildings. This one, for instance, was built back in 1906. It was originally called the Hicks theater, and then the Globe, before receiving its current name in 1994.

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There are stairs everywhere, not an elevator in sight (there might be some backstage)… and they’ve NOT installed ANY ramps — not even where they reasonably could have, and GET THIS… the disabled bathroom is just through the doorway in the picture above, and you have to negotiate THREE steps to get to it… like I said, NO RAMPS … While there is a ground level door off to the side of the theater… even if you in through those side doors you STILL have to negotiate stairs to get to the handicapped bathroom!!! It’s absolutely imbecilic, and handicapped are relegated to the balcony as the stalls demand you negotiate a lot of stairs. The most recent refurbishment … when I assume the aforementioned bathroom was installed was in 2008, so you would THINK they’d have come up with a better work around for the disabled, but I guess not.

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That said, while the theater offered a sound system for those with hearing issues, the sound coming out of it was actually WORSE than the sound from the stage. The Actors in the show aren’t wearing microphones, so they’ve got those hidden around the stage, and by the time the actors voices reach them, they’re distorted by reverb far worse than what you hear live.

Come From Away: The Musical based on the happier events of 9/11 … LOVED IT!!!!

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). The third show I saw was possibly my favorite. I LOVED Come from Away!!! Honestly I saw a LOT of theater during this trip and this was my favorite show so far. I loved it so much that I not only bought the entire album (and listened to it a few times) but I went on to  social media and told all my friends they HAD to see it, and am considering seeing it a second time.

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If I can’t see it again in London I MIGHT even try see it in Toronto (where it’s also showing as an extended stay because — well how many hit musicals are about Canadians?) if I can swing a trip up there. The show was originally a conceived of by the Associate Dean of Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. He contacted a husband and wife writing team who had already done a show he knew of, and sent them to Gander, Newfoundland, where a ten year reunion was about to take place for the 7,000 airline passengers — who had been diverted there during the events of 9/11 (because US airspace had been closed to all commercial traffic) — and the locals who hosted them on a moments notice.

The intent was to interview them, collect their real life stories and from it to construct a show about the what happened during 9/11 from a different point of view, a more uplifting one. (The above video is the writing team and the Dean talking about what they created and why.) The show was first produced as a college production, but then was quickly picked up various small but influential theater groups, working up the food chain so to speak. However, before it opened on Broadway on March 12, 2017, and became a critical and box office success, the cast and crew brought the show to Gander itself.

Come from Away came to the London stage in February of 2019… and I saw it in July of that year.

With only a few exceptions all the actors in the above performance were the same ones that I saw. As this next video shows, the show which only won one Tony award, after being nominated for seven, including Best Musical in New York, the show went on to win FOUR Olivier Awards for its London production.

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My ticket, which was purchased the day of show was pretty spectacular… I was in fact almost sitting TOO close, but it was wonderful. As luck would have it two Canadians were sitting besides me, and since I’ve spent more than few months in Canada at this point, we were able to jointly laugh at a lot of insider jokes that you won’t quite get if you don’t know Canada.

While I loved pretty much every song in the show, although hands down my favorite one was this one (again the video shows same actress I saw perform it)

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So… I’ve said this before, but in case you’ve not read that post… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

London West End’s production of: Matilda, the Musical – not my favorite

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). Matilda is a show I’ve been wanting to see for a while, so I was excited to see discount tickets available there. Its based on the Ron Dahl classic children’s novel, I’ve read it more than once, and the songs were written Tim Minchin who I’m a huge fan of and have actually written about before, AND its award nominations and wins are as long as your arm… so I was seriously looking forward to this…. but … not so much, sadly.

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So… I’ve said this before, but in case you’ve not read that post… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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So, like I said, the second show I saw was Matilda, a hit broadway show based on the Ron Dahl story — that was also made into a movie — of a scary brilliant little girl born into a family that that places no value on being educated, especially with regards to women. Matilda not only has taught herself to read by the time she’s able to walk and talk, but by the time she’s old enough to attend school she’s already reading Dickens and Tolstoy in the unabridged versions. I really wanted to see this show because the music was written by one of my favorite comedic singers, Tim Minchin, who wrote the song I referenced in my other post about the Loud Fence in Ballarat (a protest against the Church’s sexual abuse scandal).

All of that said, I none the less found myself getting a bit bored and irritated while watching this show… It does have some VERY good songs… good enough that I downloaded them (the good ones) from iTunes, in particular I loved this song:

but on average I wasn’t thrilled by the rest of the show (quite a let down because like I said, huge Tim Minchin fan). This song for instance really didn’t do it for me, even though it is in fact better (in my opinion) than some of the other ones….

That said what really annoyed me the most was when the show went completely off book, creating a new storyline that didn’t fit and added little to the story — which is kind of a children’s classic. This was a series of vignettes of Matilda making up a story for her favorite librarian. In fact the ONLY justification for it I could think of was that MAYBE they were concerned about the child employment laws and how many minutes the child actors (other than Matilda — I have got to think there’s some special case written into the law for the leading character) would be on stage.

London’s West End production of the “BOOK OF MORMON: The Musical” — Totally worth it!

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). The first show I saw this summer was the Book of Mormon, a show I’ve been wanting to see for years and have watched as much of it as I could find on YouTube… not to mention listened to the album.

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So… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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The First show I attended this summer was Book of Mormon, a show that I think pretty much everyone has heard of already… its been on stage nonstop since 2011, and was written by the same group of guys who do the cartoon series South Park. This of course was a show that at this point I’d listened to the album a few times and seen so many clips of bits and pieces of the show already… such as the following

… that I knew pretty much what I was paying for well in advance, but… all that said, I STILL wanted the experience of seeing it live on stage (because there’s no substitute to the energy of a live performance.

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MAJOR theater girl SQEEEE! 2017

That and I have (ever so briefly) MET the actor who played one of the lead characters in the original broadway performance of BOM a few years ago…The picture above is me at Epcot in 2017, where I had the mind blowing experience of recognizing these two HUGE stars of the Broadway stage as they walked right past me (oh my G-d! is that? It can’t be… IT IS!!!). On the left is Andrew Rannells, who played one of the aforementioned leads in the original cast of Book of Mormon (the guy singing in the video above), and on my right is Christian Borle.
[Slightly off topic: but if you don’t recognize him, Borle (the guy on my right), is a two-time Tony Award winner and is actually the bigger star by far. He is probably best known to non-Broadway nerds for the TV show Smash … [Note: if you watch the video pay note to Katherine Mcphee, the central girl in this video, as she’ll come up when I discuss the show Waitress]

where he played the long time writing partner of the character played by Debra Messing. Also I have to flex my theater nerd knowledge by mentioning Borle is also the ex-husband of Sutton Foster who is possibly the BIGGEST star on Broadway these days, as well as the lead in her own hit TV show, Youngerwhich was just renewed for its 6th season. (Borle actually had a small part on her show playing a romantic prospect)

Rannells (the other guy in the photo, and more on topic) has been nominated for, but has not yet won his Tony. (I really enjoyed his recent small but pivotal role in the movie A Simple Favor, with fellow theater nerd Anna Kendrick). All that said, Borle only allowed the picture of the three of us to be taken on condition that I didn’t post it to the internet for at least one year. This made me sad, but it was a request I found utterly reasonable as stars have stalkers and people posting real time photos of meeting stars to the internet can lead said wackos right to them. ]

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Returning to the Book of Mormon, in spite of buying the tickets THAT DAY, I managed to swing tickets in the stalls in row F (6th row), just a bit off the center of the stage. And although it wasn’t discounted, it way cheaper than it would have been in the states. I really liked how they made the edges of the stage look a bit like the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake, which I had the pleasure of visiting back when I was in my 30’s (for some reason I don’t have any pics of it). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f3b.jpg

One of the funniest things about Book of Mormon is how they are able to mock the Church of Latter Day Saints without having to tell any lies about them. They really do believe this stuff (that said none of it is any more ridiculous than any other religious beliefs, if you really think about it). That said, the show really lived up to my expectations and there were all sorts of nuances to the show I had missed because the record albums and the clips I had seen don’t cover the WHOLE show… bits and pieces are always missing unless you see it live.

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One of the “cool” things about the British Theater, pun intended, is at intermission they ALWAYS bring out little things of ice cream in multiple flavors that you can eat in your seats rather than being forced to finish it down in the lounge. This place also had water in recyclable and resealable cans, which I thought was pretty good.

Shopping at The Green Room; Stratford Canada

I just dropped $280 US on hats (it was like $350+ in Canadian dollars) in an easy to overlook store in Stratford Ontario. As I’ve said previously, Stratford is town that for the most part you go to for the Theater… that said, BECAUSE the theater draws in a regular stream of affluent well educated tourists from all over the world — the sort most likely to be interested in traveling vast distances for a really good Shakespeare/theater festival — it is able to support much better restaurants and stores than you would normally expect to find in a small Canadian town. The Green room is just such a store.

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NOT a photo I took, this is borrowed from Wikipedia

I had walked into this The Green Room MORE than a few times over the last two years without ever appreciating it. I would walk in, see the shoes and the stocking and such that are displayed up front (making me think it was mostly a shoe store), and then because of how dark and badly laid out it is, I missed most of what it had to offer and just walked back out. (Keep in mind, I taught marketing for many years; and as a former art major, how shops were laid out/curated — so as to to help or hinder the customer experience — is one of the things I would focus on with my students).

In a way the store reminds me of those old fashioned mercantile shops that used to exist back before professional store designers became a thing. It’s badly lit, has way too much stuff so that very little of it can be well displayed, but EVERYTHING you might want or need can be found crammed onto it’s shelves.

The Green room is a store that the fashion Icon Iris Apfel would LOVE (if you aren’t familiar with Iris, and think you give a damn about fashion, then you really should study up on her — she’s a legend in the industry).

One of the things Iris is famous for is she’s not a fan of spending more than she needs to, she’s a notorious negotiator, and she’s as likely to pick up accessories for her legendary collection (MUSEUMS have shown her outfits) at a street market as at Harry Winston’s (a name some of you will only recognize from the Marilyn Monroe’s version of Diamond’s are a girl’s best friend).

I think Iris would love the Green Room precisely because finding anything in it is an act of drive and perseverance, so that when you do find things you feel a real sense of achievement, in that you can honestly say to a friend who has herself been into the store 100 times…  “Look what I found in the Green Room!!” and for the most part they only have 1 of everything, so if you got it, your friend can’t run in there and get one for herself

…  In part the store has the same problem that the Louvre, which I have often described as the worst curated museum in the world — although I’ve heard that they’ve been working on improving that. The Louvre has reputedly 38,000 objects in their collection, and they insist of displaying ALL of them at once, so that the walls remind me of a game of Tetris… with only very special pieces like the Mona Lisa being hung with enough clear wall around them to allow you really appreciate them.

…. it overwhelm’s the brain.  And, it’s not a fashion store so much as it is a bit like British chain Accessorize. It’s a store that sells all the stuff that goes WITH your clothes: ie., scarves, jewelry, shoes, purses, belts, etc. Only it’s MASSIVE store that winds it’s way through a maze of rooms… and  …. Downstairs in the basement (I was there 6 times before I found the stairs down, which are way at the back of the main room…  they have a massive collection of hats at reasonable prices ($30 – $50 Canadian) many of which look structured when you wear them, but yet can be packed flat — so GREAT for my lifestyle. (Clearly whoever did the buying kept in mind that the ladies who fly into town are much more likely to leave having bought a hat, if they can then shove in a suitcase.) Let’s just say that I went a little bit nuts with the buying.

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When I told my friend Dayna, who I’m currently staying with, about my splurge she was like, “Oh yah, I LOVE that store. I call it the jeans and a white T-shirt store” in response to which I looked at her quizzically … “I mean, you go in there wearing just jeans and white t-shirt and then buy all the accessories you need to express yourself from them”

Day 1 @ Stratford Canada: a walk by the river, or “To many ducks in a row”

I have once again returned to Stratford Canada for my 2nd season of attending their world famous Shakespeare Festival; this time I bought tickets to MOST, but not ALL, of the shows. Last year I learned that the festival organizers seem to want to make most of their dramas “politically relevant”, and I was SO bored out of my skull by most of them (I found that they tended to be heavy handed and preachy in their politics — I am not a big fan of paying money to get preached at), that I decided to just not buy those tickets this this time around. This year I will be seeing all comedies and musicals.

Happily, I am once again able to stay at the home of a my friend, Dayna Manning, who (as I mentioned previously) is a not only a solo recording artist (since she was a teenager), but is also (for the last few years) a member of the popular Canadian folk band Trent Severn, not to mention a teacher & music producer — which means whenever stay with her I get to hear lots of great music. (As lay in my bed, sipping coffee and writing this blog post, the band is having a rehearsal in her living room for an upcoming fund raising concert of Beatles music; and since Trent Severn will be taking part in the concert, Dayna has been happily focused on arranging their performances — and telling me all about it. Yah, sucks to be me — GRIN)

Yesterday was my first morning at Dayna’s, and we took advantage of fabulous weather and went for a brisk 1 mile walk around the river (see my post from last year). While we were walking, she mentioned to me how the city has started working to curb the size of the local duck population. Apparently, whenever they find a nest, they’ve been putting some sort of oil on the eggs that keeps them from hatching. The poor ducks don’t know this and rather than laying more, as they would had the eggs been stollen by a predator, continue sitting on them, but for naught. That said, when we walked past this, I was much better able to understand the concern of the city council.

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While the city nurtures their swan population (see my post from last year where I discuss this), and the Canadian Geese are just passing through… when you add the ducks to those two groups, well, that is a bit much. (The gutsy lady with the walker mowing down the swan gave us both a giggle.)

After that we walked past Stratford’s Art in the Park, a regular venue for local artists to show their goods to the affluent tourists that come into town for the festival (i.e., this is NOT a place to find cheap art, the prices take fully into account the demographics of tourist population — which is mostly affluent retired folks from surrounding major metropolitan areas, that are as far afield as Chicago).

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Among the artists was a glass worker, Brad Jesson, who Dayna said was a childhood friend. I have to say I was very impressed with some of his pieces, where he achieved optical illusions I’d not seen before within his glass marbles, paperweights, and pendents (none of the images on his page do them justice). My favorite work however were 2D prints on textured paper by Mathias Muleme where he combines his Ugandan and Canadian influences. Every one of his works captured movement in a way that’s actually very hard to achieve. If I had a home I’d be tempted to buy The Cello and The Soloist to display side by side, or on either side of a doorway.

For dinner I was able to get a 5pm seating at my favorite Stratford farm to table restaurant, Bijou. The food here is ALWAYS good (I became something of a regular last year), and from my perspective it has a massive advantage over the other restaurants in that one of the owners (the woman who works as their mixologist) is also a trained dietitian — I tell her my medical issues and she not only directs me, but goes into the kitchen to discuss it with the chef. If the dish that shows up doesn’t meet those medical requirements, she’ll take issue with it usually before I do.

Tonight I had as my appetizer a dish called: “Textures of cucumber” with smoked trout, goat mousse, puffed rice, and trout roe — where the cucumber was presented four different ways.

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And for my main I had Fishermen’s Stew: octopus, scallops, razor clams, ratatouille, couscous. The cook modified it to make it lower fat, because the clams were initially intended to be fried, but for me they steamed them. Also, there was supposed to be more couscous (not great for my diet), so they reduced the amount of that and added more veggies.

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I ended up having to get a To-go box and forego dessert, I was too full by the end and at least a third of the stew was leftover.

Finally I had theater tickets. Tonight I saw the Shakespeare classic, Twelfth Night, the play that partially inspired the movie “Shakespeare in Love” (which the festival produced last year as a play again, see that posting) a fictional tale about his creation of “Romeo and Juliet” which I have tickets to see tomorrow night.

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Initially I was stunned by just how empty the theater was. I had purchased the tickets at the oh so affordable, $30/pop sale rate, where you don’t get to choose your seats… and in spite of the fact that the place was only 40% or less sold, they put me up in the nose bleeds… but the balcony was sooooo empty that pretty much all of us ultimately moved into the first 3 rows center, irrelevant of where we’d been put.

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Pictures taken JUST before the lights dimmed and the show started

If my mother had been alive she’d have insisted I move downstairs, there was no shortage of empty seats in the most expensive seating areas. Once the show got going I began to understand just WHY the place was so empty… Dayna had warned me earlier in the day that the production was ‘lack luster’ and light on laughs, but I decided she was (per usual) being kind.


It was, at best, ok.  I’ve seen the show done numerous times, and better; and, that would include high school performances of it. The first half was so slow I was almost dozing off but it picked up in the 2nd half, with a rousing finish (but for the one horrible performer). 

A few of the actors turned in really good performances, but … NOT however the girl who played Viola; and that was kind of the whole problem, since her’s is, essentially, the central character to the whole play; not only was she not believable in the part, but she kind of tripped on her lines so that they lost meaning. That said, The guy who played the duke was very good, and the the actor who played the fool was REALLY good (he’s the one in the picture). Everyone else in the cast turned in decent to respectable performances… but … that said…  when your leading actor is turning out a weak performance … well…..

Pennsic War: a two week, geek, camping retreat in Slippery Rock PA

The Pennsic war is a two-week-long yearly event held in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania  organized by the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a medieval reenactment group. Having just completed its 46th year, it regularly draws between 10 and 15K geeks (who have a passion for all things medieval) from all over the world to fight, meet, and frolic… and of course SHOP… the latter being why I wanted to go.

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On that topic, according to one of my friend, this two-week event generates about 40% or more of the county’s tax revenue… so the local government is VERY willing to do whatever is necessary to keep these SCA folks happy (police support, etc).

I will say this, my Pennsic experience got better daily. At first I felt like a fish out of water, depending on the one or two people I knew from before to help guide me. However, the more I got to know people and make new friends and developed a better sense of what was going on, the more I enjoyed it. I had intended to just try it out this once, so that I could say I had, but after the fact I’m seriously thinking its going to be an event that I will be attending with regularity.

SO, what is Pennsic? I found a couple of TV segments that were done on it, and since I didn’t shoot any video while there, I’ll suggest you watch these (if you’re interested)

I also found these two 20 minute ABCNews.com go-stream that covered the Pennsic held in 2015

http://abcnews.go.com/video/embed?id=32849773
ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

Some back story: I’ve been what I like to refer to as SCA adjacent since college. When I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin — Madison, while checking out the local Irish pub (my father’s side of the family being British) I met a group of folks who were sipping beer and singing funny drinking songs (something most Americans never do). It turned out they were the local contingent of the SCA, a group I’d never before heard of but which sounded like something I’d enjoy, so I started to hang out with them on a regular basis. At least, I hung with them until I got in a bit too deep, and as a result of some serious drama, decided that in fact they were a pretty dysfunctional and unethical group of people (long story) who I wanted nothing more to do with.

That said, over the last 30 odd years, I have repeatedly found myself dating or being friends with any number of SCA-type folks from other parts of the country (or in their parlance “kingdoms”), who have repeatedly assured me that the particular group that constituted my first contact with the organization actually had a really bad reputation with the society at large; and, more to the point, should NOT be considered by me as reflective of the whole (every time I describe the drama to them they’re horrified by what happened) ….

Going forward, while I have repeatedly found that on an individual level most SCA members are exactly MY sort of people; I have since then avoided getting too close, or too invested, into that culture — because as an adult my willingness to deal with drama is significantly lower than it was as a teenager — and the SCA seems to breed drama. Additionally, I tend to find that the SCA as a group has too many members who behave like “big fish in small ponds”… for my liking… something I generally only put up with when forced to, like at work (Academia REEKS of it).

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[Oh, and a note: SCA people create persona’s for themselves. They have who they are in real life, and then they have the character they play within the organization. In real life they are any and everything from folks who are in the military or academia, to Hollywood producers (an old High school friend of mine who started out as an animator but has since gone on to become a successful producer and director of animation — The Simpsons, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Monster High, Hot Wheels, etc — still likes to occasionally dress up in armor and thwap other folks over the head with his broadsword as a form of exercise, although he hasn’t as much time for it as he used to), and of course there are more than a few Silicon Valley types (from NASA to Facebook engineers). In the SCA they take on new names, which have to be historically documentable (as in folks in that time period may have had a name like that… and there are ‘experts’ in the organization who have to “OK” your choice), and create story lines for who their characters are.]

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A group of SCA folks who have opted to be Romans (early medieval period). There are a lot of Romans at pennsic — I dressed as one myself — because the clothing makes significantly more sense on hot Ohio and often humid days than that of the late medieval period clothing, when the mini ice age had begun.

Once at Pennsic, individuals will bond together as communal ‘camps’ that take on many forms. Some consist of friends who want to camp together for two weeks every year and may, or may not, come from different parts of the country; but other camps form around how those members want to ‘play’ the game so to speak, with the campmates all playing characters from the same time period, etc., and/or staying in firmly character for the whole two weeks.

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That said, political correctness is only just starting to creep in: as in at Pennsic I saw a whole camp of folks of European decent play acting that they were Japanese, etc. —

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and, as I finally get around to completing this blog post — a good 6 months after the event (it’s been a slog to get it finished) … there is currently a major brew ha ha going on in the SCA around a historically accurate garment worn during a coronation ceremony that had exactly the nordic symbols that Hitler co-opted as part of Nazi iconography.  (The aforementioned article is worth reading because while discussing the current bit of idiocy it fairly coherently explains a lot about the SCA royalty system, which personally makes my eyes roll — did I mention big fish syndrome?)

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A collection of Royals from the various kingdoms sitting court with their banners behind them

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So, keeping that my own personal context in mind, while the Pennsic wars were something I first heard about 30 odd years ago, and everyone whose ever been seems to have LOVED it, (the same way folks who go to Burning Man LOVE that, and it’s also on my to do list) … I had never yet attended either event until just now. Those of you who actually follow my blog, or are personal friends of mine, know that one of my priorities has been supporting a very old friend of mine who’s doing time in a Prison that is very far from where his family lives (which makes it difficult and expensive for them to visit). As such, I’ve been focusing my travels to the general vicinity of his Prison, so that I can visit him when possible. So while looking at the map and asking myself what there was to do in the area, I suddenly realized that he wasn’t all that far from Pittsburg, and since the central joke of the Pennsic wars is that whichever side looses is supposed to take control of Pittsburg (or was, it isn’t now that Pittsburgh has formed own kingdom), it stood to reason the event MUST be somewhere in that vicinity…. SO, I on my Facebook account declared my interest in attending this year, and for the first time, and asked if any of my friends were intending to go as I was sure it would be a lot more fun to go WITH old friends rather than show up all on my own — but that I had no intention of camping at the event and intended to, as usual, rent an Airbnb close by (historical authenticity be damned, running water and air conditioning are GOOD things).

Immediately, a ‘old Facebook friend’ by the name of Greg messaged me, and told me that he goes every year and that I could go with him (couldn’t remember why he was a friend till he told me we’d gone on a date about 10 years ago and had been unable to schedule the next date — yah, kind of embarrassing). He explained that and in order to get more room allotted for his tents and that of the group with whom he camps, he always pays for “ghosts,” i.e., entrance fees for people who aren’t actually attending — and that since I intended to Airbnb anyway, this would be perfect for me. This way, I would NOT have to pay the full camping fee of around $200 to attend for the whole two weeks, and instead would only pay around $65… and that it would be nice to have a friend make use of it. So I was going to essentially go as his guest, and was welcome to consider his camp group as my own… which I did and made many new friends in the process.

Peace Week
As Greg had warned me, the first week has lower attendance and is called Peace week (he had even suggested I might not want to be there that week, but I wanted to do the whole thing). During the Event he worked at what the SCA folks in their parlance call “Troll” but the rest of the world calls ‘registration’ and as such was able to help me through the process. The very first days of the event they allow cars to drive right up to their camp sites (once the event really gets going, that is no longer allowed unless you’re making a delivery of something heavy). You stand in line (via your car, or truck, or trailer, if you have one)…

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Cars lined up, waiting to get checked in, Saturday morning

During that day of the event the various groups lay out their camps within the segment to which they’ve been assigned, as designated by number and letter combination (see map below) — but then it’s up to them to set the specific geographic boundaries of their specific camps within those smaller areas (a process known as landgrab)… with any disputes being brought to troll, but it usually goes pretty smoothly as most of the camps have been using the same sites for many years now and are friendly with their various neighbors.

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and once that’s completed they start to set up camp, a process the that can take a few days to complete; personally I really enjoyed this part, it allowed me a way to get to know some of the key camp members — and I argue that as a newbie it was the best way —  by working together. I strongly suggest it.

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Setting up our public spaces, the living room known as “Big Red” because the tent is red (the only one, and visible from aerial shots of Pennsic) and our kitchen (which had running water), as well as communal shower for the folks who aren’t staying off site (like I was).

In the evening of the first day, on the suggestion of one of my camp mates, I volunteered to spend four hours helping with security. The SCA, and Pennsic, are volunteer organizations. All the people “working” security, or helping to organize the event, or log people in as they arrive, are all volunteers. As such, every single person who attends is expected to pitch in, although only a certain percentage ever bother. For three hours, 10pm to 1am, I acted as the 2nd person riding on a security golf cart (connected via walkie-talkie to the main tent) around and through the entire event — the first person was someone who was experienced at the job — making sure no one needed help of any sort. That night the temps dropped, so that ultimately it was so cold that we had to keep stopping to put on more and more layers of clothing, and to grab hot chocolates from this one ‘bar’ that sold them. By the end I was wearing my heavy dress, my woolen hood (see later in this post), my down vest, and a black velvet cape with its own hood over the first hood, and I was still freezing. I did however get to meet some nice people.

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The food court: they actually had some pretty decent food. There were all you could drink iced tea and soda (if you bought a $28 mug), veal stew in a bread bowl, and shrimp cocktails
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A motorized wheelchair camouflaged as a horse
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No, the SCA isn’t full of nerds, what makes you say that? These folks are all standing around playing Pokemon Go.

Once all of the attendees have unloaded their vehicles they are expected to move them to assigned parking areas, and leave them there…. there’s even areas for RV parking.

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In this photo, down the hill all the bits of white are the tents people have set up

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While the first week is designated as ‘peace week’ some fighting does happen. Fencers or archers (those who fight with light weapons), will compete with each other one on one or in small groups, in tournaments for awards and merit

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Archers are also involved in the major battles, and have to be “inspected” to prove they’re ready to do so.

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while those who are heavy fighters (broadswords) will practice, and go through a certification process to prove that they are fit and able to fight in the following week’s wars.

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In the evenings, various camps will throw parties, etc.
In the medieval period people brewed their own alcoholic drinks. In fact some argue that it was originally a woman’s task and it was only when men began to yank authority over that task away from women that the symbols of brewing (when held by a women) became evidence of witchcraft: i.e., the caldron, the cat to keep mice away from the grain, the pointed brewer’s hat, the ‘brewing’ itself, etc. (It’s a historical theory actually worth reading up on). As such, among the many medieval skills the SCA tries to revise among SCA members is brewing… and since a lot of SCA members also love to drink, a lot of these various parties held every night of the event are opportunities for the brewers to show off their recipes….

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Sign in front of another group’s camp — they had a full bar set up, with a high table and chairs surrounding a center set of taps where they served libations hand brewed by their own members

Other parties are more ‘culinary’ than inebriated … with the cooks of the group showing off their medieval recipes,

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My favorite party was a chocolate tasting… while other parties were doing alcohol tastings this camping group had in their front room a massive collection of different chocolates, flavors and brands…. and grapes and fruit to go with it… in their back room different members of the group took turns performing songs and theatrical pieces around the fire.

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While it wasn’t during the first week, the camp I stayed with has a tradition of doing a steak party which is invitation only, for obvious reasons…

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This bottom photos reminds me of Toulouse Lautrec’s “At the Moulin Rouge” painting, which hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago’s museum (my ‘alma mater’), and is one of my very favorite paintings. As a kid I always referred to it as “The Lady with the green face”

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One camp site brought in a band to perform, and served some really great food, and drink… a major investment

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Bagpipes, drums and belly dancers all jamming together… what’s not to like? And later a guy dressed as a jester deep-throated a sword

…  apparently there was this one really wild party down in what they called the bog (where there’s a lake and it gets flooded if it rains) where even held a slave auction of willing slaves (who usually ended up doing things like a camp’s dishes).

So, while there is some fighting during the first week, classes on all things medieval and or SCA related happen daily (I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t attend a single class session)…

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A decal on someone’s car: Slippery Rock is where Pennsic is held, and FAFSA is a US federal student aid program

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and peace week is also when some of the best pickings are available at the shops…. not to mention there were dances and parties at night. That said, attendance during this first “peace” week is usually well below the 10,000 people mark, and is usually made up of the folks who are the most serious about the SCA AND of course can afford to take that time off from work.

And for those of us who don’t care about the fighting:

For me, the DRAW really was NOT the fighting or the classes.  In fact I slept in during most of the hours when that occurred (I usually didn’t get there till 2pm). I took a few photos, granted, but honestly… not my thing.

What made me WANT to go to Pennsic this year was the shopping!

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Hey, I’m girly in SOME ways…  and I KNEW from what I’d heard over the years that the shopping at Pennsic was supposed to be GREAT (if what you’re looking for is not modern). The event is full of venders’ tents that HAVE to open up by Wednesday of the first week (even though attendance is still low), and there are as many as 250 different ones who tend to show up each year, all of which carry handmade goods that appeal to this demographic (historical nerdom such as myself). BECAUSE all of these goods are usually hand-made, no two things are exactly alike, and as such the early bird quite literally gets the worm.

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This store specialized in hand blown glass, using styles and techniques specific to various time periods and geographic locations

That said, you really SHOULD have SOME period clothing before Pennsic begins because it is highly frowned upon to be wearing modern clothes at the event. As such, before I got to Pennsic I was all worried that my clothing was not period “ENOUGH” to satisfy the folks who my friends have referred to as the “period police” (individuals who go around critiquing your clothes for authenticity, with comments like: “you’re combining 13th century shoes with early 15th century pants which simply would not have happened, and that tunic you’re wearing is Hollywood/fantasy garb, it’s NOT period.”  Some of these people take their historical accuracy very seriously. This fear was heightened by the fact that my host, Greg, a guy I’ve known for over 10 years, who even came to visit me when I was working in S. Korea, just happened to fall into that category.

That said, IF you come to the event as part of a group of friends, the odds are some loaner garb will be available — but it’s a good idea to check it out ahead of time.

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For instance, This young man is Chris, a guy who had never attended an SCA event before, and showed up with no garb of his own (but he’d been invited so they knew he’d be coming, and were prepared to help him out). He’s wearing his own t-shirt under a loaner tunic — the thing around his neck is proof of payment to be at the event. He had come to camp wearing a British style wool flat-cap … and struck me as the sort of guy who usually wears a hat (which he confirmed). As this was his first major SCA event and he didn’t have any garb of his own (and the loaner garb they had didn’t include any head coverings) I said to him “dude, since you always wear hats, if you’re going to be doing a lot of SCA you’ll need a historically appropriate hat!” As he’s a young struggling musician, I offered to buy one for him. We went looking for what was available, ran into a long time Facebook friend of mine who is one of these sticklers for historical authenticity (she’s got AMAZING clothes, all of which she has sewn herself), and she agreed with the right hat, you can actually fake the rest of the clothing and still pass as period…  so with her help (he decided to stick with his heritage, which is Spanish) this is the hat he chose — it’s Southern Europe — the sort you see in Shakespearian Italian dramas, Romeo and Juliet, that sort of thing. 

I however wanted stuff for myself, and can afford to buy it (within reason). As such, before Pennsic began I reached out to my friend Greg, and he directed me towards one of his favorite Pennsic vendors who also has an online store Historic Enterprises; from whom — since there wasn’t enough time to do a full custom ordered gown, I ordered what an off-the-rack mid 14th Century Herjolfsnes ”G39” gown size 12, that was SUPPOSED to have then been altered down to my measurements (because the only part of me that is size 12 is the breasts, while the rest is currently a size 8, and NOTHING they had actually fit me); I paired that with their 14th-15th century ‘London’ style, buttoned wool hood. When it arrived however they had simply sent me a size 12 gown whose ONLY alteration was that had been hemmed, in spite of my having sent them LOAD of painstaking measurements for the various parts of my body.

Like I said, the operative word was SUPPOSED to have been altered… the dress that arrived fit me like a tent. I was besides myself because the dress cost me $189.95 and I couldn’t wear it. Not only because of the size, but also because I had been very clear with the stores owner that I needed it for Pennsic, and that part of Ohio is VERY hot during that part of the summer, AND I am in menopause, so really I needed a summer weight linen which they promised it would be — but was not. (Why the SCA insists on holding the event there instead of a different rural location with a much higher elevation — not to mention a location with no risk of lime disease from ticks– I don’t know).

Because of my lifestyle, I had the gown sent to the home of a friend of Greg’s who was also going to be part of our camp, who lived near Pennsic and about 1.5 hours from my friend’s prison. The week I swung through to pick it up, he suggested I join him to an SCA event he was going to be going to. At it I was directed towards an SCA member who was a respected seamstress, and I paid her an additional $100 to do the alteration I had been promised by Historic Enterprises, which I picked up from her home a few days before the event.

Happily, I found that while Pennsic COOKS during the daytime (it can get very HOT), once the sun goes down the temperatures drop precipitously, making the gown and the hood usable. While the arms were still WAY too baggy, the now altered gown (at the cost to me of an extra $100) came in around my waist enough to be wearable — and, since I didn’t have the proper undergarments anyway, I opted to wear it over my camouflage shorts, so that 1) I’d have pockets, and 2) the gown would flare out a bit more at the hips as it would have with said undergarments.

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Suffice it to say, I was so unhappy with Historic Enterprises that I did NOT buy anything from their tent while at pennsic, and was actually too livid to even tell the owner how unhappy I was with them — even though a few people were pushing me to do it.

Of the stores that did visit, my personal favorites were (not surprisingly) the sellers of women’s clothing:

Firstly let me rhapse melodic about, Armstreet, is a Ukrainian dressmaker whom I first found online maybe 10 years ago selling her hand-made clothes on eBay (now she has her own professional looking online store).  While it should be noted that MOST of what Armstreet sells is more “Hollywood” medieval/fantasy than it is historically accurate … and as such isn’t REALLY SCA kosher… but in a pinch it’ll pass and most SCA people won’t make much of a fuss about it.

Back when I first found Armstreet, you chose from various images she posted to eBay, and then sent her your measurements for custom-made outfits that looked about like what the photos had, but never exactly. At the time she was by far, the cheapest way to go for medieval garb —- but since it was mail order from the Ukraine, you were kind of stuck with what arrived.

At the time, I was dating a guy who was seriously into the SCA and I needed garb to wear to events that I was intending to go to with him… so I ordered a few different basic dresses from her. However, between the making and the long distance shipping, by the time they arrived, he had become my ex-boyfriend; I only, finally, had a chance to wear them at this Pennsic (10 years later). The first is a black linen dress with patterned ribbing, which looks far more like a traditional Ukrainian gown than a medieval one:

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The second dress was basically the same, only white linen with gold and red edging, which in the photo below I teamed up with a vest I found at one of the stores (I forget which), a white turban (purchased from Revival Clothing who also had a shop at the event, only I wrapped it a different way from how they suggested), and a middle eastern necklace I had purchased over 10 years ago in Tel-Aviv’s Shuk ha’carmel.

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Me and an old friend from high school (we were in orchestra together), EmilySue (her SCA name is Amelie d’Anjou — it rhymes with her real one), who is wearing a brand new early Italian Renaissance gown a friend of hers made for her. We were in the Dance Tent (see below)

Was I authentically period… well no, and definitely NOT when compared to what EmilySue was wearing … but this is Pennsic and as long as you make a good effort MOST folks will let it go.

When I bought the vest, I had been wearing another Armstreet item that I had happily fond for sale on eBay about a month before Pennsic (again, more Hollywood than historic). As I mentioned above, I had intended to wear the gown from Historic Enterprises, but couldn’t because not only was it so big that I had to pay an additional $100 to get it altered, but it’s weight was far to heavy for the daytime weather. HAPPILY, I found this gown of very light weight linen, size small, for sale on eBay used for $76.00 including shipping, instead of the $129+ $21 for shipping new it was selling for on their site (as I post this it’s currently on sale for $94 + $21 for shipping)…

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trying on my newly delivered eBay purchase… never did wear the necklace — the long sleeves are apparently called tippets, and were only the “trend” for about 30 years (let’s face it, impractical), even though they show up in almost every medieval themed Hollywood movie

which armstreet describes as it’s “Medieval Linen Chemise Archeress” and had walked around the various first vendors to open shop looking for something to pair it with, till I found the above stripped vest which I THOUGHT might work equally well with jeans and a T-shirt, but have since decided it really doesn’t. While Armstreet was ultimately at Pennsic, they were one of the very last shops to open up, and even when they did open up I couldn’t find anything to go with it that I thought was better than the vest.

That said, I was happy to see that now Armstreet’s owner is now so profitable that she is able to ship both her stuff AND her staff to the US and set up what was one of the larger shops at Pennsic. It was nice to finally meet her, reconnect her to this dresses she’d made years back (back when she was just learning her trade), and to try on some of her new, and far more elaborate designs. There’s one dress their Lady of the Lake gown — also way more Game of Thrones than period, that I tried on at her shop, looked amazing in, and am trying to find the justification for buying.

I will admit however, as I keep finding her new stuff popping up for sale on eBay USED and in my size, it might be a while till I’ll actually buy much from her that is custom ordered and new; especially now that her prices are now far more dear than they used to be.

In fact about less than a week after Pennsic I found this dress (see below)  that while being from Armstreet was in fact period… for sale on eBay, used and in my size, and bought it — in a package deal that included a similar but different chemise, a thin medieval style belt (which I needed anyway, it’s secured through a loop rather than a buckle), and a matching cape — not in the picture — for $199 including shipping when the same package now would have cost me:
Chemise $104+20 shipping
Kirtle $179+34 shipping
cloak $149+ 42 shipping
belt $25 at amazon

So, $199 used including shipping used at eBay vs $457 new, not including shipping which I’m guessing would bring it to $500…  That said, I DID have to take it to a seamstress and pay her $40 to hem the length (it was the right length in the back, trailing on the floor, but too long in the front where it needed to be just above the foot… we had to take off 3.5 inches in the front and then taper it to the sides ).

My next favorite store (and based on what I saw people wearing, it’s a favorite with a lot of the Pennsic folks) is  Linen Garb from whom I bought this hand dyed (no two were alike) and embroidered (the design at the top) Roman style dress for $95. Not only is it beautiful (and something I could wear to a dinner party), but it is impressively cool on very hot days — and Pennsic can get both hot and humid:

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Same dress, just different sizes and pinned differently: The ‘dress’ is essentially a large tube of cloth, how you choose to pin it alters its appearance (you can even do it upside down, in which case it becomes a Roman tunic that comes to just above the knee)

I initially pinned it up (at the shoulders) — the cloth is essentially a large tube that you can wear multiple ways– with Celtic pins which the owner of Linen Garb was giving away with the purchase of the dress

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image is about to size

(single coil fibula pins that were hand-made by ThorThor’s Hammer another artisan owned shop at Pennsic which sells hand-made museum replicas of Viking and Celtic jewelry), but when I went to that shop to get extras (in case I should lose one) I ultimately decided to upgrade to their Spectacle brooch, which I felt not only better suited the dress, but also better obscured my bra straps:

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Displaying image at about to size of item: Because the dress is linen, it’s very forgiving about holes — this has a very thick metal pin at the back

and then I went ahead and teamed the dress and brooch with their replica Roman earrings (also made by Thor, but which aren’t shown on his website). For headgear, and to keep the sun off the back of my neck, I bought a purple gauze scarf, and a cheap plastic hair-comb, and had the two sewn together for me at the seamstress booth run by this woman, who I had met a few weeks before Pennsic at a dance event (where she was wearing the most amazing Tudor gown, all hand-made by herself).

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…. My orange necklace however was a Ukrainian necklace of amber which my father had purchased for me maybe 20 years before while on business travels there, but I had never before had the right occasion to wear.  (The green medallion I’m wearing is worn as proof that you paid your entrance fee to the event.)

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I later verified that I could also wear this to normal events, like to the theater in Stratford, Canada — where three different women complimented it, and more than that just scanned it covetously. My friend Dayna, who tends towards honest, said it looked amazing on me. I wore the same jewelry I wore at pennsic, but added the medieval belt that came with the used blue Armstreet dress, a black fedora and a pair of croc’s sandals.

For the previous year Linen Garb designs had made a tunic that I would have purchased, had it been available in my size (but it was not, which was probably a good thing). A LOT of people had it, and while it looks period, it was deceptive in that if you looked at it closely it had imagery from George Lucus’s ‘StarWars’ woven into it, including Storm Trooper’s helmets and the symbol of the resistance deceptively hidden in Roman like images … so this being an event that draws over 10k  geeks to one place, it had pretty much sold out quickly the year before (she had a handful left in XXL) even though they cost about $300 each.

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This guy combined is StarWars Tunic with a Lord of the Rings necklace … no geeks here, none at all

Boots by Bohemond, Didn’t buy anything from these guy, but my friend Greg did.

Midnight madness happens on the last day the shops are open, about 3 days before the event is officially open: it is the only night that the shops are open till late and they bring in electrical lighting. According to my friends it USED to be they had great sales that day, selling off items they’re rather not ship home… but not so much anymore (because they realized that people weren’t buying anything the rest of the time and would just wait for the midnight madness sales)

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I bought a used deerskin tunic for $95 ….. feels like butter and it looks fabulous.  It had been owned by the woman who owned the shop that sold it with her husband (one of them made it) and according to the hubby, I looked better in it than she had. They make their clothes from deer skins given to them by friends who hunt which they tan themselves, the bellybutton hole is actually where the deer was shot.

But of course, there’s more to Pennsic than shopping… although to be honest it’s what I did when I ran out of things to buy… well that and I tended to opt to stay late at Pennsic for the late night camaraderie and then went home to the Airbnb where I slept in, and tended to not get back to the event till mid afternoon.

There is general people watching, and the appreciation of the ornate costumes people come up with.

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A Chinese woman of the Han Dynasty & a woman from the early renaissance
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Two Vestal Virgins from the Roman period

And of course…. the happy side-effect of a large percentage of the men enjoying thwapping each other over the head with broad swords, is that there’s plenty of eye candy for us girls; I even saw a LARGE number of men in their 50’s, who still had it going on…. because swinging broadswords while wearing full armor is not for the scrawny. So, even if their day job is sitting around programing computers or teaching science — these are men are physically strong, AND they prefer their women nerdy. Nuff said…

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LOOK at those arms! I asked him if I could take this picture (even had him bend the arm to pop the muscle); he hugged me afterwards. I think I made his afternoon.

Although, as a noted before, there are also some highly athletic women who suit-up in armor and fight,

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War Week
The 2nd week, which is known as War week, is considered the “Main event” and is when the event really gets into full gear… attendance hits its maximum, of 10 to 15 thousand people, sometimes more…. and the main battles begin… at least up until Thursday morning, at which point the battles have been completed, and it’s as though a cloud of mild depression settles itself over the whole event, as people start to pack up to go home.

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for the women who want something that’s athletic but a “tad” less violent (emphasis on the tad)  ……. There’s Helga ball!!! (otherwise known as Rugby, with a cabbage as the ball)

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Helga Ball is based on a viking game; it is a type of Female Rugby, with a cabbage for the ball — 

To Play Helga Ball (Cabbage ball):
– Organize a team of 5-10 women. (Having substitutions is a good thing.)
– Each player must be over 18.
– Each team member should bring one or more paper or hygiene product for donation. (No monetary donations.)
– Points are scored by getting a cabbage through/past your opponent’s
goalposts. Two members of the Chivalry (or squires) shall serve as
stationary goal posts for each goal.
– All players must wear a dress. (Viking garb encouraged, but not required.)
– Players are encouraged to wear do-rags, heavy shoes/boots.
– Players may kick or dribble the cabbage with their feet, but may not touch
the cabbage with their hands or use hands to pick up the cabbage.
– Players may scoop the cabbage up in a skirt, apron, or do-rag, and move
the cabbage on the field.
– Tackling is not allowed, however “Group Hugs” are legal.
– Goalposts shall signal a “score” by raising one arm and yelling either
“Helga Ball!!” or “Olga ball!” to identify the scoring team.

Pennsic also makes an effort to be child friendly. I saw any number of young mothers with fair-haired toddlers in toe, and it was beyond cute:

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There are in fact a whole schedule of “family” activities, to include the kinds. For the older kids there is even a special massive children’s water Battle, that utilizes the Castle built for the adult’s war, and includes water balloons, squirt guns, etc

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Another one of the cool things at Pennsic is a lot of couples find each other at the event. Back when I was 18 and first learned about the SCA I remember people saying “if you can not get laid at Pennsic, you cannot get laid at all,” i.e., it’s a self selecting mechanism through which a certain kind of nerd (who might not have a lot of luck locally) is far more likely to find someone who thinks your over the top nerdiness is a good thing.

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I’m sorry, either you understand the embedded cultural references of these images or you don’t.

As a result, during war week, these same couples…. should they make it that far, will often choose to hold their nuptials — or at least one of them — at the event. Not only is it a place where your friends from around the country are probably going to be anyway, but it’s the ultimate theme wedding… even the guests are in costume… and it’s relatively cheap.

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An SCA wedding; as at all nerd events, there are knitters

And then finally, in addition to hanging out at the fire pit in the center of our camp with the other members of our “clan” (each camping group refers to themselves as clans) — which often included drinking, singing, and just getting to known each other, pretty much every night I would go spend a little time down at the dance tent.

Medieval Arts:
One of the ‘lost arts’ that members of the SCA painstakingly, from available documentation, try to recreate are the dances that were performed in the medieval period. My friend Greg, who goes by the SCA name of Gregory Blount of Isenfir, has actually been awarded an SCA “Order of the Laurel” from the kingdom of “Atlantia” — he grew up in for his knowledge of historical dance, and as a Silicon Valley Geek of the highest order — his expertise is designing and building search engines for handling big data sets — he has built a website to help anyone interested in historical dance.

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On the topic of Laurels: At Pennsic I met up with my friend EmilySue (seated on the stage, bottom right, with her light hair braided in a Swedish kind of hairstyle) at an evening event where her friend from the Central Kingdom (think Chicago), was being awarded a laurel for music. After this is when she and I went to the dance tent (see picture above)

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This young man was also awarded a laurel for dance by his kingdom, and was gifted the calligraphy scroll (or I think it’s called a writ) being held by the woman in red, as well as a having someone handmade him the black velvet cloak he’s wearing.

Of course it’s hard to write about what this sort of dance is looks like (hence the historical issues of trying to recreate it from written instructions), and I didn’t film it, so instead I found coverage by ABC of a previous year’s pennsic that is from the dance tent  (Although I will note that during my visit dance tent was usually closed during the daylight hours, so I’m pretty sure this was “put on” just for the camera crew)

http://abcnews.go.com/video/embed?id=32861137
ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

[So, on the topic of WHO are the sorts of weirdo folks who join the SCA, the guy playing the music for the dancers in this video, on what I THINK is a lute but don’t hold me to that, goes by the name of Master Avatar (you have GOT to love the pun inherent in that name), but in real life he’s an Aerospace Engineer, specifically he is a ISS Payload Support & Mission Science Integrator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. — And THIS ladies and Gents is an example of why I’ve always been SCA adjacent.]

I also found this video from 2015, which I find amusing as I now recognize a lot of the dancers, including the one guy who with the long hair and red hat who isn’t dancing… namely my friend Greg who is the person who allowed me to come as part of his group.

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Bottom right is my friend Greg, being a shark (his period appropriate shoes were at the shoemaker’s tent/shop being repaired, so he’s wearing bright red tennis shoes instead)

In addition to nightly dances there were also slightly more ornate “balls” which usually included something special in terms of a theme, or snacks, etc. There was one ball with a ‘let’s be silly’ under the sea theme organized by Asa (or at least I think that’s her SCA name — she was in the same camp as me, but only arrived during the 2nd week). She is the one in the pictures who is leading it while playing on the hammer dulcimer. My friend Greg, in order to be supportive, has donned a shark hat and floated around imitating a shark passing among the dancers — when he wasn’t stepping in and stealing people’s partners (which apparently is referred to as sharking). It was amusing. Someone later handed me a shark cap and I also walked around circling the dancers, but I don’t really know the dances well enough to be willing to try to “shark” a partner.

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This ball had a chorus of singers as well as musicians; geek fact, the girl in the light blue gown is the granddaughter of a Jewish/American Nobel prize winner in the area of economics (on the on-going question of why am I continually drawn to SCA folks)
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A performance of song

In addition to dance, music and song, there is an SCA theater group that puts on regular plays at night, that all are freely invited to attend:

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