Each seat on the US Airline plane has a satellite phone which also doubles as a remote control for the in-flight entertainment. The stewardess sells earphones for those at $5 a pair. Having just realised that there is a mix up in my schedule - my arrival time at Davidson was mistaken for my departure time - and that I won’t be there in time for my first talk, I briefly consider calling Bethany or Ginny from my satellite phone. But then I think – a) they are probably all still asleep, b) the more sensible members of the RSC (such as Ginny or Sarah) might be scandalised by such an extravagance, c) they’ll probably work it out anyway and think of a contingency. So I decide to buy a pair of earphones instead.
These are the things I did during the eight or nine hours on the plane: attempted holding a conversation with a businessman who runs a coaxial cable production company in Charlotte, moved away from businessman in pursuit of more legroom, watched a BBC 24 movie-bulletin, ate a meal, listened to an in-flight entertainment relaxation tape, slept, read sonnets, brainstormed ideas for sonnet theatre project, ate another meal, listened to more in-flight entertainment CDs, made more notes about the teaching of Shakespeare to uni students, particularly enjoyed Miles Davis… Panicked when realised I forgot ear-filters in my suitcase, but resigned self to the prospect of post-flying deafness…
It was a relief to see a banner with my name as soon as I came out through the arrivals. Don, my host, is a retired college professor with an air of wise serenity, who I warm up to immediately. He was a molecular biologist and tells me a story about his research. Spiders, when they are young, live in a community. They carry yolk from the eggs that they hatch out of in their stomachs, and when the yolk runs out they leave their communities to start living on their own and spinning their own webs… Don was really interested in what makes spiders leave their communities and become loners. I am fascinated by this and notice the analogy with humans. Oh, yes, says Don, it’s analogous to entire political systems – it proves that socialism cannot exist…
Next, we talk about England and Europe. Don reminisces about the first time he visited. He was a choir boy and was selected to come with his choir to Edinburgh. They also went to Frankfurt and this was in the mid-1950s when Germany hadn’t quite recovered from the war yet… It feels strange that Don is a link to such a distant time and place – he himself certainly doesn’t look seventy.
When we arrive at the Guest House in Davidson – I am utterly mesmerised by the grandeur of the interior. There is a large hall, and a massive reception room with a dining and seating area (and a grand piano) on the ground floor. On the upper floor – yet another football pitch of a landing. I am led to my room where I find a big hamper on the dressing table and a note from Bethany. Not much later, Ginny materialises in front of my door – I jump up and down for joy – and gesture at my lovely room. She tells me to wait till I see hers, but first we need a briefing meeting.
Bethany and then Melanie join us in a reading room downstairs as Ginny talks me efficiently through my time-table. They are about to have a meeting and I am really impressed by the fact that Mel proves it is possible to walk around in flip-flops in February in North Carolina. I don’t dare attempt a similar feat however, but put on my coat and my boots as I go to find Merryn and Endy.
They are meant to be doing an acting class for a self-selecting group of students at the Student Union. As no one turns up for a while, they decide that it is probably not going to happen and decide to walk me back – but include a brief visit to the theatre. Gemma is in the middle of the tech for the show she is putting together with the students, but looks remarkably bright and cheerful. We catch her during the break. Reluctant to leave the room because the students have been giving blood outside, she is chatting to Professor Cynthia Lewis. Cynthia has her leg in a plaster cast. It all feels a bit surreal – but then again I might be experiencing a mild jetlag.
Later on Merryn takes me to the local coffee shop. Davidson is a tiny little town with a total of five shops (one of which is a wedding dress shop). The coffee in the coffee shop is remarkably good however – and Merryn tells me stories about the shop’s owner and his links to Columbia etc, etc. He seems to know all the locals and every so often he mentions a girl called Christina.
Like in a proper American movie, we meet Christina in passing at our next location. She has big curly hair and is riding a bicycle. She seems ever so slightly reticent, but very pleasant. They agree to meet later and we walk into the local library where Nick, Merryn and Endy will be doing a workshop on playwriting.
He starts us off by asking us to tell each other stories about our names. There are a few really good stories in the room but my favourite was Endy’s. Endy had a friend called Bridget whose parents had her in order to try and save a relationship and named her accordingly. Endy’s parents also had Endy in order to save their relationship, but Endy’s name certainly turned out to be auspicious.
There was a woman next to me who seemed very keen on having a conversation afterwards. She is a former actress who is writing a play and whose son had been converted into a playwright thanks to Nick’s exercises. She is also very keen on talking to Endy about her play and a particular tribe she has been researching which she wants to take Endy to visit… After a while this perfectly innocent conversation does begin to acquire some strange undertones signifying perhaps a pathological loneliness of Davidson’s non-student population…
By the time Endy and I arrive there, the Brick House – the only bar in Davidson – has stopped serving food. I fancied just a salad to diversify the kind of dry airplane diet I’d been on all day. We join Nick and his friend and Merryn and Christina and I get a chance to learn a bit more about her. A former Davidson student, Christina has decided to return to her first love - music. She is applying to study music at Berkley and is likely to get in. In the meantime she is staying here and visiting England from time to time. Christina is originally from Panama and comes from a large family, not all of who understand her passion for music. She is an Aries. Merryn is a Sagittarius; Nick a Taurus and Endy is a Libra. I spend most of the rest of the time in the bar chatting to Endy about her boyfriend and about matters of the heart in general.
Ginny presides over the breakfast table in a way which is thoroughly admirable and a perfect model of good management practice. She is firm but polite, giving everyone a space while also driving the agenda along in an efficient manner. I appreciate the experience immensely and intensely…
First in the never ending time-table for today is a visit to a local school. I feel several steps behind everyone as I am still delighting in things that they’ve all grown sick and tired of or just started taking for granted – such as the super-powerful showers in the bathroom, everybody’s unrivalled kindness and enthusiasm, Davidson’s extra-terrestrial peacefulness. They’d all been to the Davidson school some time ago and we (Nick, Keith, Mel and I) are now here on a follow up visit to see the kids’ performances of the Dream and Julius Caesar.
For some strange reason I am reminded of my own school as we sit in the gym, munching on the Headmistress’s cakes, surrounded by eager parents and waiting for the shows to start. I’m thinking of how (dis)similar it is to my childhood experience while also recognising the image of an American school from films and TV series. It turns out we’ve been waiting for Bobby Vogt – the Davidson College President – as the Schoolmistress really wanted to thank him formally for this opportunity before she displayed her diligent pupils. There are going to be four different groups of kids doing four different scenes from each play and one of the groups would be joined by a young teacher who has had to step in instead of a kid that didn’t turn up today. Wrapped up in random bits and pieces of costume, the first group proceeds to compete with an exceptionally loud air-conditioner. Keith, Nick, Mel and I are all focusing on a different group as we are going to have a mini-feedback session with each group following the performance.
The kids are adorable – extremely open and bright. We discuss the themes of the plays and how they dealt with the language, the subject matter and their characters. I am particularly impressed by the 9-year old protagonists of Julius Caesar who – when pressed – can draw very meaningful parallels between this play on the one hand and their relationships with their siblings, as well as contemporary films, stories and video games on the other!
Amy drives us back to campus immediately after the session as we are all whizzing off to the next event on our schedules. Mine is a talk with a group of Non-Fiction Writing students. I am meant to talk to them about theatre reviewing. We all sit in a circle, in a windowless room and in those chairs with a flap on the right-hand side for taking notes. I’m slightly overwhelmed by the experience of being in an American classroom (again because of the intense accompanying feeling reminiscent of having stepped into a movie), but the students are all wide-eyed, enthusiastic and full of anticipation. This certainly sparks off my own enthusiasm and by the end of the hour, we’ve all had a productive, interesting and entertaining time.
Over the next few days we would be having a whole range of equally stimulating, extraordinary and thoroughly memorable experiences. A coffee afternoon with a Gay and Lesbian society, a pizza evening with a Religious and Philosophical society, a posh lunch with the board of the college (at which I munched on salad while entertaining Mr Burger King), Gemma's show, a less posh banqueting lunch with a selection of local high school kids and eventually a party, which started off with a gig by Ellen Cherry... But what topped it all for me was just a simple shopping trip with the composer Keith Clouston and our lovely hostess Amy to a mall in Charlotte - the trip itself resulted in almost no shopping at all, but we had some cakes and a lovely time.