The Bridge Project

Thomas Sadoski never used his first passport. “I had to get it renewed and I sent the poor old thing in completely unused,” the American actor remembers. “The spine was still uncracked.”

He has more than made up for it with his second. In the past three months Sadoski, a genial, curly-haired 33-year-old from Connecticut, has visited Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Spain, Germany, Holland and now London as part of The Bridge Project, an extraordinarily ambitious transatlantic theatre company combining British and American actors to tour classical drama round the world. When the company finally packs up shop at the end of August they will have been together for 10 months, six of them on the road, and played to around 185,000 people.

Sadoski didn’t realise quite what he had taken on until he was flying over the North Pole en route to Hong Kong. “I looked down and saw the Arctic ice. That was the moment when I grasped what the next six months of my life were going to be like,” he says.

The Bridge Project is largely the brainchild of Sam Mendes, the 44-year-old British theatre and film director (who won an Oscar for his direction of American Beauty in 1999) and former artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse. I meet him and members of the company as they work the shows into the Old Vic, where they will open this week. It is the technical rehearsal and the crew is midway through the painstaking process of installing the set and plotting every lighting change and sound cue. The theatre’s elegant foyer is pretty well impassable: vast trunks of sound gear and lighting rig cram the space where audiences will soon gather for the first preview. Turning to indicate the theatre around him, Mendes says: “I was here at 10 o’clock last night re-rehearsing a scene I must have rehearsed eight, nine, 10 times in different places. And it’s new again.”

The director, who has lived in New York since 2003, explains that the spur for the project was in part a longing to join the two spheres of his life: “It gradually dawned on me that if I ever wanted to work with English actors again, I would have to come up with something like this,” he jokes. He first hit on the idea about six years ago and developed it over a series of lunches and breakfasts with Kevin Spacey, the American artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre in London, who was moved by the idea of “theatre as an international language and a bridge between nations”, and Joseph V Melillo, executive producer of Brooklyn Academy of Music, a major international programming centre in New York. The inaugural Bridge Project, featuring Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, launched at BAM in January 2009, played the Old Vic and toured around the world.

Melillo, a 63-year-old from Connecticut, describes this three-way collaboration as “a new model of producing”. It’s not just its scale that is daunting, however: it is the complexity of casting actors from different traditions to deliver two plays, in English, to a hugely varied audience.

Mendes believes this cross-casting makes for richness: a sort of global version of the traditional repertory company, drawing on experience from both sides of the Atlantic. “I wanted to create a company,” he says. “The variety of accents doesn’t bother me. A good actor is a good actor. Last year proved to me that it was possible. The two plays became more than the sum of their parts: one play fed the other and the company developed across them.”

This year, the cast is performing two Shakespeare works – the witty pastoral comedy As You Like It and the late masterpiece The Tempest. The plays may seem poles apart but Mendes sees links. “They deal with similar themes in a different key. In both plays the duke is banished, with his daughter, by his own brother. They both deal in the finding of yourself in the wilderness. There is a line that runs through these two plays that you cannot help but observe – particularly when the characters are played by the same actors. The cross-casting means something.”

Performing the plays in different cities each week can also be revelatory, says Mendes. The shows grow on tour. “They constantly regenerate. Each different theatre really ignites the plays, each different space, and different response. The laughter you heard three days ago has suddenly disappeared and the new audience might find it very sad.”

Inside the auditorium, the velvet seats are draped with dustsheets and the floor is carpeted with blades of grass from the set. Technicians scurry about, experimenting with strings of lights, occasionally plunging the theatre into darkness. There are tin baths and suitcases piled up in the wings. Backstage, cast and crew buzz up and down the stairs. I run into the actor Jeff Goldblum, who is in the building to rehearse a separate show (Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue). He’s wearing a pyjama top and slippers (presumably for the sleep-deprived, frazzled New Yorker he plays). Goldblum is no stranger to transatlantic theatre: he appeared at the Old Vic in 2008 in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. What does he make of The Bridge Project? “Marvellous idea,” he rumbles.

I sit in the deserted circle with two of the cast: Sadoski and the English actor Edward Bennett, an amiable 31-year-old. Both have won plaudits: Sadoski was nominated for a Tony Award last year for reasons to be pretty on Broadway and Bennett stepped into the breach to play Hamlet for the RSC when David Tennant injured his back in December 2008. They admit that when they met for the first rehearsals of The Bridge Project last October they were apprehensive: there was a slight wariness between the British and American camps.

Preconceptions linger, says Bennett, about different acting traditions: “You think the British are going to be: let’s have a spit and a shit, get on there, shout a bit and not bump into the furniture. And the Americans will be sitting in a dark corner with a towel over their heads listening to Nirvana or something before they go on stage. But it’s just not like that any more.”

For the Americans, says Sadoski, there were jitters about tackling Shakespeare alongside the Brits. “We were worried we would make asses of ourselves when it came to speaking the verse. Sam nipped that in the bud by saying, ‘I don’t care how much experience you think you have with Shakespeare, we’re going to go word by word, line by line and tear this thing apart.’ Which gave us all an equal place to launch from.”

Since then, the actors have spent months together rehearsing, performing, travelling. “They say you don’t really know anybody until you’ve travelled with them,” observes Sadoski. They have, he says, got on surprisingly well. And they have had some inspiring experiences: in Singapore, they dined with Malaysian royalty; in Paris they played the Théâtre Marigny, with dressing roomsthat overlooked the Champs-Elysées and Eric Cantona walking past the door. But they have also struggled with the rigours of endless travel.

“I had terrible jet lag in Hong Kong,” confesses Bennett. “I’ve never known anything like it. You don’t know what your name is.” How do you deliver Shakespearean verse in such circumstances? “We have this phenomenon in the theatre that in the States we refer to as Doctor Footlights,” says Sadoski, laughing. “No matter what your ailment is, as soon as the footlights come on, Doctor Footlights is there to take care of it for the next couple of hours.”

While Doctor Footlights might take care of proceedings on stage, the task of shipping 32 people around without incident falls to Richard Clayton, the strikingly calm 36-year-old English company stage manager who wears a very large watch. “I don’t think I’ve ever permanently lost someone’s luggage,” he says, wryly.

Mishaps occasionally occur: this year the company arrived at the airport in Singapore to discover that one actor had inadvertently been booked on to an earlier flight, which had already left. Last year, Simon Russell Beale, one of the lead actors, fell and cut his foot badly just hours before the grand finale of the tour, playing to 12,000 people in Epidaurus, the open-air theatre built 2,500 years ago in southern Greece. “It was this huge full stop to the whole project and suddenly he was lying on the floor gushing blood everywhere,” Clayton recalls. In the end, the actor took to the stage bandage and all.

Clayton is one of an army of producers, production managers, technical experts and crew who deal with everything from setting up the tour months in advance to managing transport hitches and technical glitches. Mendes admits that his visionary project could not be realised without thousands of spreadsheets and midnight phone calls. “What to me seems to be an effortless coming together is, I know, the work of hundreds of people,” he says. “I’m very aware that I say rather blithely, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to have 15 trees’, and they gulp and look at me. It is a big undertaking.” Pre-production costs are $2.5m (£1.7m) – excluding running costs – each year: a figure met by presenting sponsor Bank of America Merrill Lynch, The Old Vic, BAM and the international presenters of the production.

Transporting a copse of trees is just one of many problems to solve. For The Tempest there’s a pool containing two tons of water that once sprang a leak mid-performance, sending water pouring under the stage. Indeed, at the Old Vic the slope of the stage is being altered to prevent water lapping over the first few rows of the audience.

Simply transporting the set from venue to venue can test the nerves. Production manager Dominic Fraser outlines a hair-raising schedule of air, sea and road-freighting, involving three identical, different-sized sets.

For everyone involved, an international tour offers a crash course in national characteristics and cultural and political differences. “If you want to get to know a people, go and hang out in their theatres,” says Sadoski. “It’s amazing watching the different cultures play out. To a certain extent the audiences were as interesting a show for us as we were for them. In Paris and Madrid they were so exuberant: they have this willingness to come on stage with you and be that extra character. In Germany they were so unnervingly polite during the show that they didn’t want to screw us up by laughing. No cell phones, no coughing, no shuffling, no sneezing...

“Singapore has a young theatre audience. Culturally and artistically it is still working itself out. We did a student matinee of The Tempest and it reminded me of where I had come from. In 1994 I got caught up with a community theatre in Texas, and we did As You Like It and The Tempest. My life had kind of come full circle.”

Bennett adds that each performance is a two-way affair, with the actors learning from the audience. The cast discovers which parts of Shakespeare’s plays are universal because the audience understands them without checking the translation: “You learn a lot about the plays, about Shakespeare’s genius and his faults.”

The producer Caro Newling, with whom Sam Mendes set up Neal Street Productions in 2003, is struck by the youth and enthusiasm of many of the audiences: “That’s a great joy, to see classic plays that we love, and that we feel belong to us, and realise that they also belong to every country they are played in.”

Plans to end this year’s tour, like the last one, at Epidaurus were thwarted by the Greek financial crisis (“the Greek government pulled the funding and the festival just disappeared,” says Mendes). But for Newling, the performance in Epidaurus last year forged a connection not just with local people but with antiquity.

“The greatest moment at Epidaurus was when we said, ‘What time do we start the show?’ And they said, ‘When the sun drops behind the mountains.’ So Sam and I sat in the technical box with everyone waiting to go. And it was the most moving thing. Normally you count the cue down but instead of that we said, ‘OK. We’re watching the sun, we’re watching the sun, we’re watching the sun ... It’s gone. Go.’”

‘As You Like It’ and ‘The Tempest’ are previewing at the Old Vic, London SE1 and open June 23.

A short history of theatre epics by Sarah Hemming

Recent theatre history is peppered with attempts to go the extra mile. In 1988 the Paris-based director Peter Brook returned to the UK after 20 years with The Mahabharata, based on the Indian epic poem. Working theatrical magic with simple props, an international cast and vivid storytelling, Brook held audiences spellbound for nine hours: emerging at the end it was hard to believe only a day had passed.

The French-Canadian Robert Lepage announced his witty, multi-layered style in 1985 with The Dragons’ Trilogy, a show 325 minutes long that covered 80 years of Canadian history, and that brought him international fame. Nine years later he achieved the even longer The Seven Streams of The River Ota.

Also in 1985, the Russian Lev Dodin caused a stir with Brothers and Sisters, a monumental drama detailing the hardships of life in a Siberian village. It has since toured the world with its 36-strong cast from the Maly Theatre.

The revered English director Peter Hall has a bit of a penchant for epic projects. In the 1960s he tackled Shakespeare’s history plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company in The Wars of the Roses. At the National Theatre he mounted an all-male, all-masked production of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia in 1981. Most ambitiously, he took on the Trojan war in Tantalus. This joint project between the RSC and Denver Center for the Performing Arts of John Barton’s drama took years to write, six months to rehearse and 10 hours to perform. It opened in Denver in 2000 then toured the UK.

In 2007, under current artistic director Michael Boyd, the RSC returned to the idea of mounting the entire history play cycle, in The Histories. The company gradually added each of the eight-play cycle (from Richard II through to Richard III), culminating in a marathon three-day event, with all eight performed consecutively. It was a high water mark for the company and a marvellously rich experience for anyone who experienced it – if a little testing of the buttocks.

Not everyone has approached big thinking with such seriousness. In 1979 the maverick theatre maker Ken Campbell unveiled The Warp, Neil Oram’s 22-hour hippy extravaganza at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

More recently, the enterprising little Tricycle Theatre in north London has joined the fray, with The Great Game. Staged last year and about to be revived for an American tour, this project focused on the changing relationship between the west and Afghanistan by way of 12 tiny dramas. A smart idea that managed to combine epic intentions with the current appetite for bite-sized drama.

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