A Nun, An Actor, and A Pregnant Teacher Walk Into Venice…
A blog post by Greg
Back when I was spending most of the year touring shows in schools in Italy (for more on that, read my previous post HERE), I would usually sit down towards the end of each season with my director and friend Rupert to discuss what I would be doing with Action Theatre the following year, deciding which shows I wanted to do, when I would be out in Italy, and any other points we needed to discuss.
I remember, one year, Rupert asking me if there was anything in particular that I would like to do the following season. After a moment’s pause I had the answer to his question.
“I’d like to do a show in Venice,” I told him, going on to make it clear that I meant actually in the ‘islands and canals’ part of Venice, rather than in Mestre on the ‘mainland’ where I had performed plenty of times before.
I don’t know what it was about the idea of performing in Venice that appealed to me, but I knew I wanted to. I had only visited the city once before for a few days, and had enjoyed my time there, but I was also fairly certain that performing in Venice would have a story to it, and I wasn’t wrong!
Rupert readily agreed, and the fabulous team in the office were set the task, amongst all of the other jobs that they had to do, of fulfilling this actor’s whim and booking me a show in Venice, and they did. They found a school that wanted not just one one-man show, but three, and I was on my way.
By the time the following season rolled around I had almost forgotten mentioning this idea until I sat down to look at my schedule at the start of the season and found the date in Venice on there. It was only at that point that I began to consider the logistics of performing a show in Venice.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the islands of Venice have many narrow streets and lots of canals. They do not, however, allow cars on the islands of Venice, except in the car parks on the first island, connected to the mainland by a bridge.
Three different shows meant three different sets, costumes and props, plus a small sound system, would have to be moved from the car in the carpark to the school deep in the heart of Venice, and staring at the schedule I realised this for the first time and raised it with the team there. The people in the Action Theatre office are, I’m sure, far too nice to have taken any pleasure in pointing out that you should be careful what you wish for, but that they had booked the show and it was my job to try and figure out how to make it work.
By the time I set off for Venice I still hadn’t quite figured out the logistics, however I had been told by the English Teacher at the school that I could unload my set the afternoon before the shows to save trying to get my kit through to the school in the morning before the first show began, and that she would meet me in the carpark with some help to carry the kit to the school. I envisioned a team of parents, or perhaps older students, who might help to make this an easy task.
What met me in the carpark, however, was not a team of assistants waiting to help me transport all of the kit. Two people were waiting there, a nun, and the English Teacher. To make it even more interesting, the English Teacher was quite heavily pregnant…
I’m not sure what level of kit they were expecting, but I’m pretty sure it was not what I had with me. I started to figure out which pieces of kit were the lightest and settling on a large but lightweight wooden cactus (I was far more worried about the teacher lifting heavy things while pregnant than she seemed to be, but I wanted to avoid her having to carry the heaviest bits), while the nun picked up the sound system.
This was back in the days when my Italian was very utilitarian – I could have the basic conversations needed to get into a school, but could easily get lost when the conversation moved further afield – and it wasn’t helped by the fact that I had learned Italian in Torino and the Venetian accent was very different. The nun, however, was absolutely lovely, and chatted away to me with a big smile on her face while I loaded myself up like a pack mule with everything I could carry (as somebody who has always had more brute strength than athletic ability, I have always preferred to carry more in fewer trips wherever possible).
Our journey began, looking like the oddest reimagining of the ‘three wise men’ in the Nativity, as we followed each other through narrow streets clutching our gifts of a sound system, a wooden cactus, and everything else!
Venice, you may not realise, is full of flights of stairs, up and down from bridges crossing over the canals. It is also full of very narrow streets, and more than once all of the bags on my back got completely jammed between buildings and I found myself stuck until a shove from the nun got me moving again. Then there are the narrow walkways beside the canals where, if you have a number of heavy bags poorly arranged on your back, you are at constant risk of falling in, and I must admit that I came close to losing the entire show under the waters of Venice more than once.
It was, however, a journey filled with laughter. The nun and I chatted away to each other, barely understanding a word that the other was saying, with the teacher in the middle understanding most of what was said, and occasionally translating, which made it even funnier as it became apparent that there was very little crossover in what the nun and I were talking about.
Finally we made it to the school, and I was all happy with a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’, until the teacher pointed out that we’d have to get all of the kit back to the car the following day after the shows!
Still, for that day we were done, and I was taken to where I would be staying for the night, not in a hotel or bed and breakfast, but with the family of one of the students from the primary school.
I rarely stayed with ‘families’ when touring in Italy, it was generally easier to stay at a hotel or a bed and breakfast, purely because with five hour long shows a day some days, plus up to six hours driving, it wasn’t always easy to summon up the enthusiasm to be friendly and chatty on arrival at someone’s house, especially when they had an overexcited seven year old wanting to talk to the ‘English actor’.
On the rare occasion that I stayed with a family, however, it was nice to get a local perspective on things. They usually made good, homecooked, local food for dinner and would talk about life there. I learned that the daughter of the family may, when she grows up, have to leave Venice, as house prices there were pushing the younger people out. The father, from Brescia, told me that while he was accepted as a local, he would never be seen as truly Venetian, something which I sympathised with having moved to the Isle of Wight where I happily call myself an Islander, but will always be distinct from a ‘Caulkhead’ who was born there.
He also spoke about his home area of Brescia, and said that everyone in Brescia was grumpy and short tempered. I must sat that during my time in Italy I never found that to be the case, and I did a fair number of shows around Brescia, however by pure chance the other team of actors in the company at that time told me when I saw them the following weekend that they had been to a town where the people in the local bar had been quite rude to them, and when I asked them where they’d been they replied:
The next morning I woke up and looked out of the window at a canal with the rain coming down, and was glad we had moved the kit the day before, and that the weather forecast suggested that the sun would be back out before we had to transport it back.
I went down to the family, and the father asked if I had an umbrella, to which I replied in the negative.
“But… you are English!” the little girl said, sounding as though she’d just met Father Christmas and that he hadn’t had any presents.
This was one of the enduring stereotypes which I always found was believed to be true of all English people. We always carry an umbrella, because it always rains in England. Once when we were writing a new show, I inserted into the plot the fact that a bat had been accidentally killed with an umbrella. The director questioned how we would alibi the fact that we had an umbrella on sunny days, and I just told him:
“We are English!”
The father, proving the lie to his suggestion that people from Brescia are rude, handed me an umbrella, and then told me about the ‘dance of the umbrella’.
“I don’t know why we use them here,” he told me. “The streets are so narrow, and people are passing each other. You both move your umbrella to one side, then the other. The umbrella is always that way, or this way, never over your head. You are just as wet as you would be without, but we feel better because we have an umbrella!”
We got to the school, and I performed the shows, and all went very well. After the show I packed up my kit, and was ready to begin the process of carrying it back through the streets when the teacher came in.
“Are you ready to go?” she asked, looking far happier than I might expect from someone about to carry all of that equipment back through the streets.
With a smile, she went over and opened the back door to the hall where I had performed which opened straight onto the canal, where a small boat was waiting.
She explained that after we had carried the kit in the day before she had phoned one of the parents, who had said that, as long as the children enjoyed the shows, that he would bring his boat to take me back to the carpark. So we loaded all of our kit into the boat, and I climbed onboard, asking where I should sit.
He told me that I could sit where I want or, if I wanted, I could stand up front.
I have visited Venice a few times now, and I have travelled around in the crowded Vaporetti, the large water buses which take you around the city. I have been in gondola’s twice, once on my own, and once with Felicity, and enjoyed it both times (though obviously it was better with Felicity!). These are the ways that tourists travel around Venice.
However, if you want to feel a bit special as a young actor, try standing on the prow of a boat containing all the kit for your shows, as you are driven down the Grand Canal in Venice, passing the jealous gazes of all those people squeezed into the vaporetti and standing on the shores and bridges!
Thanks to the team at Action Theatre, a nun, a teacher, a boat owning Venetian parent, and a friendly Brescian, I had performed in Venice in a way that had exceeded all my expectations!
Happy adventuring, and please, take unbelievably good care of yourselves, and of each other!
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