Who Knows Where the Time Goes? -

A whole month has mysteriously slipped away into the silent realm known as “shows done”. How did that happen? We were in New York, now we’re in Nashville and in between times we’ve been in a lot of other places. For any patient person out there who hasn’t given up checking this space for updates, here is a bird’s eye view of our recent peregrinations (click on the photos to see the full gallery from each part of the tour):

We left New York in mid March and the pouring rain. Very hard to un-velcro ourselves from the Lincoln Center which had begun to feel like home. Good news is the shows went down so well they want us back. We spent a week in New Jersey, which was experiencing really bad flooding. Our shows in New Brunswick were nearly cancelled due to power cuts, but the energy company, who happened to be sponsoring the shows, managed to get things going just in time.

Techies at New Brunswick State Theate being giants

From there we drove to Woodstock, Vermont (no, not that Woodstock, another one) where we stayed in the nicest hotel you can imagine and had some great shows in the Town Hall Theater. Woodstock is a picturesque little town with covered wooden bridges and quirky shops. It was Rick’s birthday while we were there – celebrated in style with oysters and a tennis lesson. The weather was unseasonably wonderful – there was still some snow on the ground but the sun shone all the time we were there.

Covered bridge in Woodstock, Vermont

On to Burlington, Vermont where Rick met up with two cousins he hadn’t seen for many years and their lovely families. Thence to the town of Roxbury, New York in the Catskills. Sleepy village but a lovely venue with staff to match and very appreciative audiences including some real life Elzeard Bouffiers, deeply involved in reforestation projects in the area.

Roxbury - click here for more pics

Clued-up question and answer session in Roxbury, NY (note pretty leaf lighting on the white proscenium arch)

Back in the car and heading for Hudson, New York, where we stayed at the beautiful Country Squire Bed and Breakfast.  We had a great time at Stageworks, a theatre that reminded us of the Netherbow in Edinburgh, as it used to be back in the old days, to standing ovations.  This was organised by Gary Schiro of the Hudson Opera House. According to the guide books, Hudson had been an important centre for shipping and trade, but early last century it had gone into a decline and become a “mob-run den of mayhem”. It is now what is known as shabby chic, with lots of antique shops and good restaurants. One of the cool towns.

Hudson - for more pics click here

Stageworks' 99-seat theater in Hudson, NY

It was quite cold there. But a few hours later we were in Texas and roasting. I couldn’t believe we were in the same country. And some Texans tried to convince me that we weren’t. The Lutcher Theater in Orange Texas is a phenomenon. The gift of a wealthy local family (who, ironically, made their money from the timber trade) it is an seriously well-equipped place, and attracts the big names. It is probably the biggest space we’ve played in, though they restricted the audiences to around 200. On the first evening after the show, we took part in a community tree-planting event at a local Methodist church. We fell in love with the East Texas audiences who were really appreciative, and the hospitality of the staff was second to none. Special thanks are due to Jim and Lynae. We even got a special guided tour of Orange’s beautiful Shangri-La Botanic Gardens (endowed by the same family as the theater) including a boat trip on the bayou, with Mike, the director of the garden as our guide.

Orange, TX - for more pics click here

Community tree-planting event in Orange, Texas

On to San Antonio, where we met up with Michael and Teresa Holden, our wonderful agents, plus their staff Sarah and Stacy, (who have doen a really brilliant job of organising this tour) and some family members. We were in a big theater again, with a slightly over-ambulatory audience. We arrived at our hotel tired and a little crotchety after a long day on the road, and as a result of my (Richard’s) slight disgruntlement with a noisy ventilation system in our otherwise very acceptable room, we were upgraded to a palatial suite with jacuzzi, separate living room and a balcony overlooking the town square and river walk. San Antonio is like a cross between Amsterdam and Cambridge given a Mexican makeover.  On the second morning the sky was slightly overcast for about half an hour. Ah well, into every life a little rain must fall.

San Antonio - click here for more photos

San Antonio's Riverwalk

The tour had been fairly relentless up till now. Time for a break. Michael and Teresa took us out to their ranch in the Texas Hill Country near Austin. We now have a new definition of peace and quiet. They showed us around, cooked us a lovely meal, and then the five of us sat in the hot tub beneath the stars and talked of this and that. The next day, after a real Texan barbecue in Llano, The Holden’s took Rick into Austin for the weekend, and Elspeth and Richard headed back to the ranch for three more days of utter tranquility. We all met up again in Austin a few days later, well rested (apart from Rick) and the team set off for Madison Wisconsin for shows at the Overture Center for the Arts.

Austin - for more pics click here

The Holden and Arts crew: Sarah Saltwick, Stacy Meshbane, Michael and Theresa Holden

Madison is a beautiful city, and the Overture Center for the Arts is a splendid place. I think for the first time ever we had a standing ovation from an entire audience. In fact all the audiences were extremely appreciative. It seems like a real theatre-going town. We also got to attend a great Bluegrass concert. There was one hazy day that may have had something to do with a trip to a Karaoke bar. I really don’t remember very much. It was cold again.

Madison - for more pics click here

Richard and Rick with Tim Sauers, The Overture Center's wonderful Education guy

And then we flew to Florida and it wasn’t anymore. We stayed in the same hotel for the best part of a week and performed at three different venues. In Clearwater we were playing in the Ruth Eckerd Hall, at the same time as David Gray (remember him? Babylon etc), though not in the same space. (Obviously).  Susan Zelenka and her staff went out of their way to make our stay a joy. Rick’s parents, Dick and Bobbie, drove up from their winter quarters in Fort Myers to see us and we all had a superb time. Oh the stories…

Florida - click here for more pics

Rick with parents Dick and Roberta Conte and family friends Carol and Jim West

At our last show in Tampa a ten year old boy came up to Richard after the show and said “So how old was Elzeard Bouffier?” I said “Well, he was 89 when he died.” And the boy said, “Yes but how old was he before he died?”

I’m still thinking about that one.

Elspeth and Richard went to visit Richard’s cousin Kevan out beyond Orlando and had great fun playing games with Kevan’s son Brendan. These included various riotous shoot ’em up games and a bizarrely traditional game of hide and seek.

Florida - for more pics click here

Richard with cousin Kevan and his son Brendan

And now we’re somewhere else.
Ah yes, Nashville.
And it’s Saturday.
No shows no drives no flights.
Time to catch up with the blog.

Celebrities are People we Celebrate -

Celebrities are everywhere in New York. And California for that matter. And we’ve had the whole Oscars thing happening while we’ve been here too. Our very own celebrities, though, are the people we’ve been meeting on our travels who we appreciate & celebrate, people who enhance our journey in so many ways.

Here are some of our stars – in the now-familiar 5-chunk blog post. In a busy world this seems to help both me as blogger to serve up and you as reader to digest. (And let’s just pretend – lazy snackers & grazers that we are – that five-course meals are what we eat all the time.)

1) Funny Guys & Film-Makers

Rick Conte is indisputably The Funny One in the cast of The Man Who Planted Trees, which has got to be a big part of why this show has such longevity (4 years old in May). So, few surprises perhaps that Rick’s LA-based high school buddy Eric Hunter is now a stand-up comedian. (Here’s Eric’s MySpace page). Eric and his groovy wife Michelle were great fun to hang out with on more than one occasion, most memorably taking us to TNT or Tuesday Night Thunder, an improvised comedy night in Hollywood where Michelle and her quick-witted team were performing to a full house of hooting, hollering Hollywooders.

Rick, Eric and Michelle

Rick, Eric and Michelle

Etana Jacobson, a friend of Elspeth’s from Edinburgh University days in 89-90 also joined us that night for laughs – and beers and Malibus at a warped kind of English pub on Sunset Strip called The Coach and Horses. Etana gained Man Who Planted Trees karma by filming several performances at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2007 and is working now both in films and as a writer for video games. While Rick was rollerblading in Santa Monica and Richard was reading a book at a cafe by the shore, Elspeth and Etana saw the sights at Malibu’s Zuma Beach: surfers, dolphins, hawks circling with still-twitching prey, clifftop abseilers, a stunning sunset and a beachwear (then a no-beachwear!) photoshoot.

2) Bookers & Fans

It’s fair to say that most people who book The Man Who Planted Trees do so because they are in favour of it and that most audiences who see the show leave pretty happy . But we’ve been especially impressed by the enthusiasm of certain promoters – Jason and Peg, this is for you guys, are you ready? – and there have been some folks who have come back to see the show again and again – Ethan and Leslie … we’re talking about YOU!

Jason Holland, Manager of Education Programs at Orange County Performing Arts Center and Peg Schuler Armstrong, Production General Manager at the Lincoln Center Institute both signed up their esteemed organisations to have us after they’d seen the show at the IPAY showcase in Cleveland in 2009. (Freezing, it was, freezing!) Not overlooking the many other super people we met in Ohio, there’s something really nice about hearing from Peg, “Say Hi to Jason for me” and Jason in return sending us to New York with hugs for Peg. Jason and Peg reminded us that there is an active and friendly network of clued-up people in the USA who appreciate live theatre and the need for high quality provision of arts education. Long may IPAY – and other artsy orgs – keep that aim to the fore.

Ethan and Leslie live in LA and came to see the show in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. They got in touch when they saw that we were coming to California and brought friends. And they came again for one of the weekend shows. There’s dedication! We are honoured and really grateful for your  support and enthusiasm.

Ethan and Leslie

Ethan and Leslie

3) The Music Makers

Christian Muthspiel, who we were lucky to meet at Montalvo Arts Center in California right at the start of the tour, invited us to come to hear him play in New York. And we did. And we were very glad that we did. At the Austrian Cultural Forum (an incredible modern building by the way, super slim, super high and highly noteworthy) we saw Christian led a quintet playing his recently commissioned pieces inspired by Austrian yodel tunes. Amazing! Rich swathes of muted brass suggested alpine meadows while the rhythm section carried me leaping over fences into electro-accoustic fluidity with Frank Tortiller’s vibraphones stilling the rushing waters and Christian’s sampled trombone sounds wriggling towards cymbal shimmers that came from nowhere and left the audience stimulated and delighted.

Christian Muthspiel takes a bow

Christian Muthspiel takes a bow

And the next night – treat upon treat – Christian’s performance of fur und mit ernst playing and sampling solo trombone and piano with recordings of poet Ernst Jandl reading his own work. This was for Richard and me (both performance poets with a keen interest in musical collaborations) the most exciting combination of poetry and music either of us had heard. A really thrilling performance.

At the reception following the yodel jazz, Bobby Previte the drummer and Andrea Kleine, writer and performance artisit, made sure we were aware of the culinary delights that the Upper West Side of NYC has to offer and planted the excellent idea for a road trip at the end of the tour.

Andrea and Bobby

Andrea Kleine and Bobby Previte

A very different musical highlight in New York City is The Meetles, a busking outfit who specialise in Beatles songs. They don’t wear mop top wigs. They don’t sing in pseudo-Scouse accents. There are usually a lot more than four of them. And they are Fabulous! You can see a video of them twisting and shouting subway goers into a frenzy here – and below, at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, this little girl demonstrates that All You Need is Love. And sparkly pink shoes. And permission to dance.

4) The New Victorians

Last time we were in New York, we were playing at The New Victory, Broadway’s children’s theatre (sorry, theater) as part of their Scottish Season. It was wonderful to reconnect with their Director of Programming, Mary Rose Lloyd and her super switched-on husband, Derek who is Production Manager at the groovy East Village performance space PS122 (where they filmed scenes for Fame the movie) and their lovely puppeteer pal Danna Call. (Here is some vintage 2009 footage of Mary interviewing Dog – brave woman!)

Thanks to the uber-able Laura Hamilton, who fixed us up with tickets, we went to see The Complete Works of Shakespeare by the renowned Reduced Shakespeare Theatre Company. And thanks to the fact that Richard and Elspeth were seated right near the front, Richard was perfectly placed to be ‘invited’ on stage to help dramatise Ophelia’s dilemma vis a vis Hamlet by repeatedly running across the stage, which he did brilliantly even though being on stage and not being quite sure what you’re meant to be doing there is a performer’s irksome anxiety dream, if not nightmare.

The show was superb and we highly recommend you to see this company whenever you get the chance. And they are such nice people too. Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin from the original cast were joined for this show by the peppy Matt Rippy. It was Reed’s wife Jane Martin who I (Elspeth) was most glad to meet, however. As General Manager of the company – and cast wife – she has many of the same multifarious jobs that I do. I’m going to take her up on her offer to give her a buzz when things feel too multifarious on the road. And I might also nick her job title rather than playing switch-the-hats with Stage Manager, Production Manager and Office Manager.

5) The Lincoln Instituters

So apart from the music and the Shakespeare and multifariousness, what have we been DOING in New York? Well, shows. Twenty of them – shows number 16-26 of this tour (and number 1116-1126 in total ever – approx) at the Lincoln Center Institute, which is a centre of excellence when it comes to arts education, particularly education that encourages a meaningful and deep appreciation of live art.

Richard and Rick answer teachers' questions at the LCI

Richard and Rick answer teachers' questions at the LCI

Pupils and teachers from many New York schools have come to see The Man Who Planted Trees having worked with their teachers and Lincoln Center Institute teaching artists to consider some of the themes and artforms it involves. And following the show, they’ve carried on with their engaged explorations. The range of ages who have been doing this has been amazing – from pre-kindergarten (an age we’d normally shrink from but were sweet, well-behaved and great) to 10th grade who are huge, almost-adult inner city teenagers.

All the staff who we’ve dealt with there have been wonderful. On the production side, Eliza, Jamien, Brina, David and Keith have all been friendly, thoughtful and thoroughly professional. On the education side of things, Patty, John, Christopher and teaching artists Alexandra and Jean have shown us that this is really where it’s happening. And Peg – once more I celebrate Peg for giving me as a teaching artist myself the great opportunity to go into one of the classrooms to see exactly how it’s happening.

The High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry was set up by the Lincoln Center Institute and is right over the road in Martin Luther King High School campus. Their 9th grade class have been working with the inspiring Jean Taylor and their highly encouraging teacher Christina Procter, learning about a wide range of puppetry forms and a variety of styles of poetry. What they noticed when they saw the show has since informed their puppetry making and poetry writing and they are combining these in short films where their fictionalised puppet self dramatises one of their poems.

Ray from HSAII with his two of his puppets

Ray from HSAII with his two of his puppets

Here are a few links for those of you who’d like to find out more about the imaginative work that the Lincoln Center Institute are doing:

Aesthetic Education, Inquiry and the Imagination (PDF download)

Online courses dedicated to inquiry, imagination, and arts and education

LCI’s Imagination conversations across the USA

So, three cheers (or should that be five?) to everyone who’s helped us have an inspiring and enjoyable time on tour in California and New York City. Next stop – New Jersey, upstate New York and Vermont. See you soon!

California Wide Awaking: What If Life Was Always Like This? -

California and Scotland are different. We’re used to Scotland – and love it – and are quickly and oh-so easily getting used to the delights of California too.

But as our journey with ‘The Man Who Planted Trees‘ has taken us from Montalvo down the coast to Costa Mesa in Orange County I’ve been wondering what it would be like if some of the features we’re coming across were part of everyday life in the UK.

1) What if you got to see sunsets like this at Carmel by the Sea EVERY night?

Carmel by the Sea is the zipcode with the (I think) 12th highest property values in the USA. It’s the place where Clint Eastwood has been mayor and where the world-famous Pebble Beach golf course is. Its broad, pine-lined streets are full of pretty houses – some of them massive and facing out to the Pacific Ocean where, from their deck, balconies, and well-watered lawns they can enjoy beautiful sunsets with mind-boggling regularity. But let’s face it, you don’t need a multi-million dollar property portfolio to enjoy a good sunset. They just help frame them for your convenience. Unframed sunsets that may require the inconvenience of a stroll down the street to a vaguely west-facing vista are available to all of us.

Carmel by the Sea at Sunset

2) What if EVERY road trip was as stunning as Highway 1?

If you are on the road, checking out of one hotel and then making your way to one that gets you halfway towards your next engagement, it’s an unwelcome setback to discover – once you’re a couple of hours from the last hotel – that you’ve left your laptop behind. UNLESS … you’ve been travelling down an open road hugging the most stunning coastline in the world on a lovely sunny day in low season. THAT is the IDEAL time to have to go back, view it all from a different angle. All 30 miles of it. What? Only 30? We must have pulled over more times than we thought for pictures of gloriously roaring bays of turquoise and white foam.

And with the goods duly recovered from the lobby of a very decent Best Western Hotel, it’s time to see Highway 1 heading south again. This time, though, with a more chilled-out attitude and a broader sweep of each view that looms round each winding corner.

Rick and Elspeth as passengers specialised in synchronised ‘Wow!’s while Richard did a superb job at the wheel.

Highway 1

One of many wow-worthy views on Highway 1

3) What if we ate Solvang style Danish pastries every morning for breakfast?

Our friend Lizi Fraser told us about Solvang and, since it sounded quirky and sits at a handy travelling distance between Carmel by the Sea and Costa Mesa, we spent the night there. Not at The Royal Scandinavian Inn that had been recommended to us, but at the more budget-end of things The Royal Copenhagen Inn. Does it sound like there’s a theme developing here? Solvang is kind of a Danish theme park. Not ‘Danish’ as in icons of groovy 20th Century design but an olde-worlde Denmark. Statues of Hans Christian Andersen. Wooden facades. Windmills. Life-size wooden soldiers in sentry boxes guarding hotel lobbies. And for breakfast – what else but Danish pastries? Well, nothing else. Apart from coffee. They are delicious. BUT – as John Shuttleworth says “One cup of tea is never enough but two is one too many” – two Danish pastries is a devilish tempting way to start the day. And would eventually tip one too far in the direction of over-largeness. Which is why I’ve been embracing the fruit option at every opportunity since then.

Totally typical of 1976 Danish architecture. In Solvang.

4) What if ALL perfoming arts venues had such awesome quality sound and light equipment as the Samueli Theater at the Orange County Performing Arts Center?

I’ve ended up as touring Stage Manager with Puppet State Theatre Company kind of by accident. Back in 2006 in the very early days (we thought they might be the only days) of The Man Who Planted Trees, I agreed to help ‘do the lights and sound’ for a school show in Portobello, Edinburgh. The delightful Barney Strachan who put together our bee-loud soundscape showed me the ropes – how to keep your cables tidy and always to cue up the next track carefully. Little did I know that I’d end up as almost a full-time theatre tech gal. Able to hold my own with the techiest of the techs in discussions about radio mic compression and (of course) gaffa tape. And drooling over lighting desks.

Oh but who wouldn’t marvel at the ability to change the position and focus of lights that are higher than any ladder you’ve got and to switch their gobos (the thingies in stage lights that make patterned shadows) and their colours at the mere push of a few buttons, the stroke of a rainbow-coloured touch-screen or by gently twirling a few dainty little dials?

How groovy is our lighting desk, an ETC eos

Mark at our venue was super-professional – not only quickly ‘getting’ how I wanted the set to be lit but making it happen very smoothly. He also let me in on some of the secrets of the desk. Willingness to demystify. I like that in a house technician. Rather than the hands-off-it’s-mine attitude one sometimes meets. I’m not really qualified to be hopping up and down ladders or those telescopic things BUT heck with lighting set-ups like this, I wouldn’t ever need to be.

And here’s a big-up for John who has been making sure the radio mics that Richard and Rick have been using in this bigger-than-we’re-used-to venue sound just like they’re not using them at all. Way to go for discreet, un-noticeable technology. Making your theatrical experience all about the story, not the special effects!

5) What if real people’s eyebrows were as liable to fall off as Dog’s are?

Oops my eyebrows fell off!

That’s just one to ponder in your own time.

5 Good Ways to Begin a Tour -

1) Have it All Pan Out in San Fran

There’s a lot of trust involved in setting off with all your goods & chattels bagged up in the hope of getting to a precise spot thousands of miles away and performing a show. Even if it’s a show that’s been on the road for nearly four years already. There’s brand new, as-yet-untested bits of kit here, remember.

Almost all our bags arrived at the same time as we did.

Well, we reached San Francisco at night on 8th Feb after a super-long voyage. Elspeth’s suitcase showed up a day or so late, but sometimes it’s nice to discover that there’s zero option about what to wear. And on this leg of the trip, we were not stung for excess baggage either.

For our day in San Fran the sun shone and we saw as much as we could in a short space of time.

The view across the Golden Gate Bridge from Vista Point

Painted Ladies

San Francisco Skyline with 'Painted Ladies'

Great Thai food. But what they call 'medium spicy' is HOT!

We were pleased to pick up a shiny red hire car into which everything fits beautifully. It’s a Dodge Grand Caravan.

Richard with the Dodge Grand Caravan

The car hire woman said Richard looked like a grown-up version of Harry Potter!

And the GPS/sat nav thingy guided us like magic to our first venue.

2) Reside At Your First Venue (Which Should Be Beautiful and Scenic)

Montalvo Arts Center is a beautiful place. The Carriage House Theater is part of Montalvo Villa which was built in 1912 by California’s first elected Senator, James Phelan.

Carriage House

Carriage House Theater, Montalvo Arts Center

Lucas Artist Residencies

These are the two artist residencies where Rick, Richard & Elspeth stayed at Montalvo

3) Have a Hassle-Free Set-Up and Great Audiences

Neat Workshop

You've gotta love an organised workshop space when there's things to glue and stick.


And nothing gets creases out of hessian/burlap better than - or cheers up a stage manger like - a steamer!

The Man Who Planted Trees - Stage shot

Four performances with great audiences, hoots of laughter and pin-drop silences.

Dog in basket after the shows

Dog, relaxing post-show, is pleased with how it went.

4) Hang Out With Very Cool Artists

The Lucas Artist Residency Program at Montalvo means that there are a bunch of very cool, accomplished artists living here and we really enjoyed spending time with them. Particularly cool is the fact that there’s a ‘Culinary Fellow’ here – Michelle Fuerst – who cooks aMAzing meals for the artists. So there are three composers at the moment: Christian Muthspiel, Richard Marriott and Eve Beglarian. Nicole Schmoelzer is a visual artist who’s our next door neighbour here in the leafy glen – her and her amazing canvases drying in the sunshine. And Violet Juno is a performance artist who has shared her work with us during highly entertaining evenings of food and laughter.

Eve Beglarian

Eve in her studio. Thanks for the coffee!

Rick post-show

Rick with Nicole, Richard and Violet after a show

We’re sad to leave and hope to keep in touch with all these guys!

5) Extraneous Adventures in the Neighbourhood

Before we left, everyone was saying ‘You’re going to California, how exciting!’. Rick had been here before but Richard and Elspeth hadn’t and were withholding judgment until we saw what it was like. Well – it’s fantastic! We’ve enjoyed the quaint, kooky delights of local Los Gatos and took a trip up the coast past Ano Nuevo up to Half Moon Bay. Rick had a quick dip in the ocean and luckily got out before the rip tide dragged him away. Richard fell in love with a sleek, vintage Volvo – and the pelicans. And Elspeth accidentally stood on a dead seal.

Redwood Bay

Rick's dip

Rick's Heroic Dip in the Ocean

Elspeth silhouette

Elspeth getting over the dead seal experience

Rick, Elspeth, Richard

Onwards now towards Orange County. With a stop-off at Carmel by the Sea. More swimming? We’ll see!

Traveling Light -

Lightweight aluminium wheelbases.
Re-welded & riveted War Trees.
A foldable, compact, screen.
It’s ‘wheely’ good what you can do when you’ve got the right fella for the job!

Right, stop me now. That’s my cheesy tabloidy pun quota reached.

Furthermore – it’s time to board a flight to Paris – thence to Atlanta & on to San Fransisco.

Again, a hasty post. From the departure lounge. Which is full of French rugby fans returning from their Murrayfield outing.

Rick has been puppeteering tonight/last night for a Haiti benefit gig at the Traverse Theatre and is dozing on the airport bus.

Richard is wondering why they’ve picked out his case to be taken away at the aircraft steps.

Elspeth is arm-linked on to the pole & is tapping on her iPhone like there’s no tomorrow. But there is. And it will involve Golden Gates!



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