When I completed my study abroad applications nearly two years ago now, one of my top priorities was the performing arts. As someone from a rather small, rural town, live theater has never been a regular part of my life. In fact, I fell in love with theater just by attending my local high school’s productions, and the opportunity to attend a professional show had only arisen a few times in my life.
But London has significantly changed my relationship with theater, just in the first month I’ve been here. Now, instead of Broadway lying nearly 1,000 miles outside my back door, I can book a ticket to a West End production a mere 30 minutes before its start, and still make it in time to use the balcony restroom (“toilets” here!) before the curtain is drawn.
In fact, on only my second full day in London, I did just that. It was a Friday evening, and I still didn’t really know anybody. Most of the other Notre Dame students had arrived in London with a few close friends by their side, but I hadn’t, and I wasn’t going to let that affect my first Friday night in Europe. So in the span of 30 minutes, I got online, booked a £20 ticket to a West End production of Phantom of the Opera, and caught my first tube — London’s subway — to Her Majesty’s Theatre, only having to ask for help once along the way.
When I arrived, I was in the very back row. And why would I care? I was just excited to see Phantom live for the first time, especially at the Broadway-equivalent level, a first for me. During the performance, I was captivated by the iconic stage and costume design, and I re-fell in love with the music I’d known since I was little, yet had never heard performed on stage. And actually, there was something quite wonderful about having this experience of many firsts alone. While the lights were off, I embraced the awesomeness of live theater, fully stepping into the world onstage. And when they turned back on, I got to walk with myself back to Conway Hall, reveling in the brilliance of it all, basking in the noisy nightlife on all sides. It was the perfect way to kick off my semester, one sure to be filled with even more incredible theater.
Outside of the well-known West End, I’ve attended a variety of fringe and mainstream productions, thanks to two of my courses, Emerging Voices: British Theatre and Shakespeare in London. Unsurprisingly, the experiences were all quite different, British Theatre focusing on rather modern and eclectic productions, and Shakespeare focusing on visits to the Globe. But the broad mix of genres has proved relentlessly fascinating, not to mention wildly enriching to my abroad experience altogether.
My first class performance with British Theatre was a show called Now That’s What We Call Musicals, featuring well-known drag performers Le Gateau Chocolat and Jonny Woo at the Soho Theatre. The show was a fervent mix of musical theater pieces, comedy, and of course, drag. Featuring songs from shows like Cats, The Sound of Music, and Gypsy, the show was a revue unlike any you’ve seen before, the audience’s energy contagious and the voice of Le Gateau wonderfully rich.
As for our second performance, the class visited the famous Barbican Theatre for a production of pantomime group Thick and Tight’s Short and Sweet. Since I’d never experienced pantomime before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the poetic dance sequences certainly weren’t it. Taking on the personas of famous misfits like writer Edith Sitwell and supermodel Twiggy, Thick and Tight created a fascinating lens to ponder issues like feminism, gender norms, and the very act of being human. Both performances, being entirely new to me, have surely broadened my appreciation for the performing arts.
And what’s an English-major-theater-lover doing in London if not attending shows at the Globe? Luckily, with my Shakespeare in London course, I have the opportunity to see multiple Globe shows this semester, the first of which was a new production of Hamlet. I’d never seen a professional production of Shakespeare before, and the Globe certainly isn’t a bad place to begin. Their take on Hamlet was refreshingly nontraditional, funny, and, at times, a little over-the-top. And even though I’d read the play prior to the show, I’m not too big to admit that Shakespeare is really hard to follow. When the audience laughed, I often found myself looking around wondering What did I miss? But I also found myself moved by the actors’ performances, the meditative and solemn use of music, and the Gravedigger’s brutal and poignant use of comic relief.
Sitting in the pit of the infamously candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, I was struck by what a privilege it is to be here in London, exploring the nooks and crannies of the city through my love of the performing arts, and collecting countless experiences to recount to my friends and family back home. As I took in the actors and staging at the world-famous theater, I realized that growing up, this would have been an absolute dream for me. And now, I’m entirely grateful to call it a reality. In only a month, I’ve had the most robust theater experience of my life, and I am so looking forward to what the next three hold.