How the Best Were Won (Or, What I Learned from the NYMT and NYT Auditions)

This month, I had the opportunity to attend auditions for both the National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) and the National Youth Theatre (NYT). In terms of theatre companies that have had a major impact on my career, those two are at the top of the list. I first stumbled on NYT's website when I was a sophomore in high school. At the time, I was attending a private high school with a graduating class of thirty young women (almost all of whom were fellow affluent WASPs from the surrounding suburbs). I was fascinated by the idea of a theatre company where students from all different walks of life could come together and create brand-new shows. In the words of NYT founder Michael Croft: "It is not unusual in the National Youth Theatre to find a fish-docker's son playing the leading role and a public school boy carrying his banner." How different would American theater be if students, from middle school onward, worked side-by-side with peers from far different backgrounds? How would our future CEOs behave differently if they'd managed production budgets with students living in homeless shelters? How would our future politicians think differently if they'd starred opposite undocumented immigrants in a new play? (Would we still be trying to build an unbelievably useless wall across the US-Mexican border?) And how much more likely would our future producers be to take a chance on a story that's not about an affluent young white man if that wasn't their only experience of the world? As I wrote in my Fulbright application: "Familiarity breeds empathy -- and in order to really make America great again, we need all of our citizens to be a little bit more empathetic towards one another."

I decided to make it my mission in life to bring NYT's vision to the United States. And I've been working on that mission for over a decade now. (It's a lot more challenging than I ever could have imagined. Then again, what can you expect when you're living in a country that's just threatened to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts?) Up until now though, I've been adapting their work from the information available on their websites -- and, as we all know, a website only tells a small fragment of the entire story. Being able to come to the United Kingdom and observe these companies in action has been nothing short of a dream-come-true for me. I'm going to give a quick rundown of what I learned from watching NYMT and NYT's auditions.

1. The Importance of Workshop Auditions
I've spent the past few years experimenting with how to conduct nationwide auditions in a cost-effective manner. NTSA eventually settled on using Acceptd, an online platform through which students can submit videos, photographs, and documents. Reviewers can mark applicants with a yes, no, or maybe, and Acceptd totals up their average score. Each season, our team spends weeks evaluating pre-recorded monologues and design portfolios, and we've able to get a relatively decent idea of what each student has to offer. But NYT and NYMT have me rethinking our entire audition process. I realize that NTSA may never be able to afford the massive "roadshows" that these companies can. (NYT travels to 26 different cities in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.) There are eleven states that are larger than the entire United Kingdom, so the cost (both in travel time and price) of a nationwide search would be prohibitive. But NYT and NYMT have definitely made me think twice about hosting workshop auditions in major cities.

Both the NYT and NYMT auditions are run in a workshop format. Students move between movement, vocal, and acting workshops. While some of these are designed to assess talent, at least one measures the "soft skills" that matter in the rehearsal room. Is the student comfortable with taking risks and making bold choices? Can the student lead a group through an improvisation exercise (and, similarly, can that student step back and let others make decisions as well)? Does the student work well under pressure? Have a sense of humor? Can the student analyze and interpret a text?

I want to share two examples of audition exercises. The vocal auditions were unbelievably rigorous in both the NYT and NYMT auditions. Even the WARM-UP in the NYMT audition was impossible for me to complete. I was in a classroom full of middle school students, and they all left me in the dust. Listen to this:

Absolutely unbelievable.

Since NYT doesn't produce musicals, their movement and vocal workshops are just to determine which students might be a good fit for special events (like benefit concerts). However, those workshops also serve another purpose: they encourage students to stretch outside of their comfort zones and discover what they're capable of doing. The facilitators were so laissez-faire, saying things like "think of it as a laugh . . . we're just killing time until your monologue . . .", that students felt comfortable letting their guard down and taking some major risks. The facilitators also made sure to root the workshop in skills that students had already mastered. The NYT vocal audition, for instance, started with students reading lyrics from Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera. They then teamed up with a partner and rehearsed/blocked the lyrics without music, paying careful attention to how diction generates emotion. Once the music was added, even if students strayed far from the tempo, they were encouraged to continue acting through the song. Since all of the NYT auditionees consider themselves to be actors (if not singers and dancers), they were able to focus on what they do best -- and try to integrate some new skills along the way.

2. Students Take Charge
During NYMT auditions, I watched Jordan Murphy (director of Honk!) lead the middle school students through an acting workshop. Jordan had come through the ranks of NYMT -- first as a performer and then as an assistant director through the Creative Team Mentoring Scheme (CTMS). Now, Jordan's in charge of the lower school production, which will tour to Bury Festival at the Theatre Royal and the International Youth Arts Festival. One of the things that impressed me the most about Jordan was how much confidence he put in his students. He assigned them to groups and then passed out sides. He encouraged them to take risks -- adding in postures, movements, accents, and improvisational moments. Then he set a timer and let them rehearse. He didn't make adjustments or interfere with their process; he simply walked around the cafeteria and observed. He was looking for students who could "direct themselves." For the lower school production, they have one week of residential rehearsals over spring vacation (April 1-9). There are no additional rehearsals during the summer; these students need to learn an entire full-length musical in only a few days. Jordan emphasized that, when you're that pressed for time, you need to be able to send students out into the hallway and say: "You have this scene. Come back with something in ten minutes."

As a former Teach for America corps member, I was just waiting for this exercise to implode. When the CTMS assistant directors circulated the cafeteria, stepping in to "improve" the students' scenes, Jordan pulled them back. "Don't give kids too much direction," he corrected. "They complicate." There weren't any directions! Or exemplars! Or rubrics! How were the students supposed to complete the task? But complete the task they did, exhibiting an acute understanding of both comedic timing and stage composition. Jordan quickly became my "one to watch" at NYMT, and I'm unbelievably excited to see Honk! come to life during residential rehearsals. We need more facilitators like him in the classroom and the rehearsal room.

Based on an album by Son of Dork, Loserville was originally commissioned by Youth Music Theatre UK in 2009 and then transferred to the West End in 2012 as an adult professional production. Imagine if your high school's world premiere musical ended up on Broadway the following year! The UK commissions new theatrical works for young adults through a variety of programs including: NYT, NYMT, YMT UK, and National Theatre Connections.

3. It Follows: Keeping Audition Notes
One of my favorite things that I saw at NYT were the audition notes. All of the adjudicators take the time to write detailed notes on each actor, and then those notes are inputted into a database. When an actor registers for an audition, a form gets printed out that includes the actor's headshot, resume, and all of the notes from their previous NYT programs. Adjudicators can read about the actor's intake course experience and any previous productions in which they've appeared. This is extraordinarily useful for a number of reasons: 1. Directors who've previously worked with you know your limitations. If you're reluctant to get up during improvisation exercises, then I'm probably not going to want to cast you in a devised work -- but you might be perfect for something that's more scripted. 2. Adjudicators can look for growth. If the student received a 2 (out of 5) on his last audition and now he's knocking it out of the park with a 4? That's something that you should be noticing. Has he started attending a university program or signed up for classes at another youth theatre? That shows that he's dedicated to his craft -- something that directors are always looking for.

Why don't middle schools and high schools have these kinds of records for students? For instance, it would be great to know if a student moving up from the middle school has a history of distracting his fellow actors in rehearsals. It doesn't necessarily mean that I wouldn't cast him; students can change A LOT during their adolescent years. But it does mean that I'd know that he needs additional instruction -- not necessarily on acting, but on focus -- and I'd be prepared to provide that for him. I suppose that there's a risk of students carrying labels around with them throughout their educational careers ("troublemaker," "reserved," etc.). But, overall, I think that being able to meet a student where he/she is can go a long way towards fostering personal growth.

4. Fair Does Not Always Mean Equal
This was the big takeaway for me from NYT. We watched a student audition and then the adjudicator turned to me: "What would you have given her?" I told her a 2. The adjudicator flipped back through her notes packet (see #3) and pointed to a comment by a previous facilitator: "It says here that she goes to state school. That means that she doesn't have the same opportunities that a lot of the other students we saw today have." She flipped some more. "She's very proud of her background. She comes from a working class community." Finally, she circled a 3 on the scoring rubric.

This spoke volumes to me about NYT's core values. Yes, they're looking for some of the most talented students in the UK -- but they're also going out of their way to create an intentionally diverse ensemble. They recognize that a Londoner who's been enrolled in drama classes her entire life has a distinct advantage, while a student from Blackpool without any access to disposable income doesn't. And they adjust their scores accordingly. At Uncommon Schools, we're told that "fair does not always mean equal." We repeat that to our students whenever they ask why so-and-so received "unfair treatment" in class -- an extrinsic reward, extra time on a test, lunch with the teacher, etc. It means so much that NYT has taken steps to ensure that their company really does represent the entire United Kingdom.

The cast of Homegrown. NYT had to cancel this production due to concerns about its so-called "extremist agenda." The work explored how Muslim radicalization can happen in a school community. It was originally supposed to be staged "in a school in Bethnal Green, near to where the three schoolgirls who disappeared to Syria in February had lived." NYT doesn't pull punches in its attempt to depict all parts of the UK's youth population and address the issues that matter to them.

How To: Take Children to the Theatre (Or, What is Hype May Never Die)

As a child, I remember taking field trips with my elementary school to see plays -- bootleg versions of Little Red Ridinghood staged in front of an audience of squirming children with the house lights turned up and the material dumbed-down for the lowest common denominator. We would leave immediately afterwards and return to our classrooms, where we would spend hours drawing illustrations of our "favorite scenes" and practice our handwriting with summary sentences. It was a painful experience for all involved.

This fall, our school gave me the opportunity to take over forty of our students to see Bears in Space at 59E59. It was an absolute delight for everyone involved -- but it took a lot of work to pull off. Here's my "how to" guide for taking children to the theatre.

1. Choose the right play.
A lot of children's theatre is straight-up awful. In the United States especially, there are so many "educational" touring shows created by theatre companies looking to turn a quick buck. None of the performers or playwrights involved have any interest or previous experience in children's theatre; they just assume that anyone can be successful because children "don't know any better" and won't be a difficult audience. As someone who's taught for over a decade now, I can assure you that children are THE MOST difficult audience. Many of them are not yet at the developmental stage where they can "just sit still and pay attention" during a dull production. So if you're not entertaining them? They're going to fidget. They're going to whisper to their classmates. They're going to start flipping through their Playbills. They might even choose to spend the second act in the bathroom, playing with their cell phones.

Internationally, we're experiencing a Golden Age in children's theatre. I highly recommend taking children to theatres like the New Victory, which meticulously curates productions from across the globe. These shows are aesthetically innovative (just look at this season's Chotto Desh, which was nothing short of a visual triumph) and refuse to talk down to their audience -- even when that audience consists of toddlers.

If you're going to take your students out to the theatre, make sure that you've done your due diligence and have chosen a production of high artistic quality. Collapsing Horse, the creators of Bears in Space, are a children's theatre company where, more often than not, their audiences are packed with adults. They focus on found-object work -- with puppets made out of towels and hot glue guns, shadow puppet segments projected onto bedsheets using flashlights, and costume pieces constructed from cardboard (i.e. stuff that my students could probably make at home). Bears in Space had previously sold out the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Soho Theatre in London. Not only were the reviews fantastic ("a batshit-crazy comedy puppet show about a couple of bears in space" raves Time Out London!), but the content was easily sell-able to middle school students. Who wants to go see a show about bears THAT ARE IN SPACE?! It was just quirky enough to intrigue my target audience of ten-year-olds from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

From Collapsing Horse's outrageously beautiful Conor: at the end of the Universe. I had the privilege of seeing this work in its early rehearsal stages and actually cried.

2. Choose the right company.
I know that it can be tempting to order tickets for The Lion King on Broadway and take your students out for their annual shot of culture. (Guilty.) However, I'm going to make a plug for actually connecting with theatre companies and forging lasting partnerships. Our school has done this twice, and both times have been extraordinarily successful. We partnered with the Deconstructive Theatre Project for many years, an experimental off-Broadway company who brought their ground-breaking production of The Orpheus Variations to the Public's Under the Radar Festival. They not only came into our content-area classrooms throughout the school year to teach our students how to devise theatrical works (based on material that they were learning in history and literature), they also brought students into their productions and taught them the technology that had made the Deconstructive Theatre Project such a success.

But more importantly, when you take the time to develop these partnerships, theatre companies get to know you and your students. And that can make all the difference. Here's just one small example: While most of the humor in Bears in Space was accessible, there were some jokes that children (and especially American children) simply weren't going to get without an explanation. Knowing their audience, Collapsing Horse's ensemble members made quick on-the-ground adjustments that helped facilitate comprehension. Like:

ACTOR: I bought Prosecco!
STUDENTS: (Blank stares)
ACTOR: It's expensive!

They also dropped in more of the jokes that they thought my students might enjoy. Since I work with a large population of Hispanic immigrants, the Spanish bear puppet got a little bit more stage time than usual -- and my students absolutely LOVED him. These may seem like tiny details, but those tiny details add up to create a memorable theater-going experience for children.

3. What is hype may never die.
I started promoting Bears in Space from the first day of school onward. Since we only had forty tickets, students had to fill out an application form to even be considered. With daily reminders in the PM announcements (and printed flyers distributed to advisory mailboxes, pushing students to turn in their application forms before the deadline), competition was stiff. The winners received a special packet with their acceptance letter and a study guide (created by me) that needed to be completed. The students with the best study guides were chosen to ask questions during the post-show Q&A session. Everyone also received a bear-themed pencil sharpener and space-themed pencil from the Oriental Trading Company. Students had to work hard for these tickets, and then they were showered with exclusive perks once they'd been selected. It wasn't long before the students who had opted-out of the application process were begging for a second chance and asking if there were going to be any other field trips during the school year.

It's important that students know what to expect before they enter the theatre. We had an information session for students who were attending Bears in Space. (And, keeping with the perks, students who came to the session received pizza for lunch!) The presentation explained what the subway trip would involve, what the theatre looked like (including where students would be waiting before the show), what front-of-house staff would be doing, and what qualified as appropriate dress. It also previewed some jokes that students might have a hard time understanding, and we role-played what appropriate reactions would be for some of the more "mature" jokes. Looking back on the information session, I wish that we'd spent a little bit more time going over expectations for the post-show Q&A and leaving the theatre -- but, overall, both Collapsing Horse's ensemble members and 59E59's front-of-house staff were impressed by our students' behavior.

And it's not just about building up hype for the students. I was in constant contact with the performers. I emailed them a "Best Of" PDF, picking out the most entertaining student applications; I stopped by the theatre a few days before our scheduled performance to ask them to sign projects that had gone above and beyond. By the time our field trip rolled around, the performers couldn't wait to meet these students that they'd heard so much about.

(Shout-out to the student who drew the illustration of two bears planting their flag on a distant planet. They knew that Collapsing Horse came from Ireland and tried to draw the Irish flag; however, they ended up repping the Côte d'Ivoire instead.)

I also made sure to buy a few dozen Baked by Melissa cupcakes for 59E59's front-of-house staff. Hosting an audience full of middle school students can be challenging. A few baked goods (and clearly communicated understanding) can go a long way. 59E59 did an extraordinary job with our students, and I would purchase tickets from them again in an instant.

4. Get some hands-on experience.
Collapsing Horse went above and beyond all of my expectations here. I was hoping that a few of our students might be able to try out their puppets; however, their ensemble members literally tossed all of their show materials out into the audience. Students were able to try on their favorite costume pieces, perform with their favorite puppets, and even get up onto the stage for a closer look at the set. And the actors were right down on the floor with the children, showing them how they bring the world of Metrotopia ("wealth will trickle down eventually!") to life every night.

Once again, taking the time to build partnerships with theatre companies makes experiences like these possible. I cannot encourage teachers enough to get out and connect with their local theatre community. (If you have older students, you can establish some life-changing mentoring relationships as well. We reached out to the New York City theatre community to provide guidance for NTSA's company members. We received an outpouring of support, and many of our students are still in-contact [and even doing professional work] with their mentors.)

Collapsing Horse ensemble member Jack Gleeson teaching fifth grader Ericka how to use her favorite puppet. This photograph will never stop giving me joy.

5. Keep the hype going after the play has closed.
There's nothing like a good Thank You to keep hype going after the play has closed. I pulled the students who I know had the most to say between classes and asked them some questions about their Bears in Space experience. I got everything from impressions of their favorite characters to endorsements of #teambourgash to a marriage proposal (!).

We edited together this Thank You video, which we uploaded to Vimeo and sent out to both the Collapsing Horse and 59E59 teams (not to mention our school leadership to thank them for buying the tickets!). Students continued to ask me for months after if Collapsing Horse would be coming back to NYC and, if so, would we be taking another field trip?

(Students aren't the only ones who will keep the hype going after closing night! One of Collapsing Horse's ensemble members, Aaron Heffernan, actually had the cast autograph some props during their strike and jotted down messages thanking my students for all of their work and reassuring them that "we'll all see each other again soon." We displayed them prominently in the theatre classroom, and students who had attended Bears in Space proudly showed them off to classmates who hadn't. I've heard from Collapsing Horse's management that they might be making a return visit to the United States next season, and you can bet that my students will be begging to attend!)

Three Ridiculous (and Ridiculously Amazing) Things I Have Seen in London

I've been in England for about two weeks now. That's enough time for me to have seen some genuinely ridiculous (and ridiculously amazing) things in the local grocery stores. I'm currently living near the Sainsbury's in Camden Town, which seems to have at least eight different aisles of desserts. Here are just a few examples of food products that have delighted me:

Müller Corner Crunch Yogurt Ltd Edition Toffee Shortbread & Golden Digestive

Digestives were created in 1839 by Scottish doctors and were believed to have antacid properties that would aid in digestion. They're also known as "cookies." (But if you want to trick yourself into believing that eating an entire package of Oreos was a strong life choice, you can always call them "digestives" instead.) As a Chobani Flips addict, I was relieved to see that the UK had its own brand of Greek yogurt with toppings. Except that these toppings were a little different than what we're used to in the US: toffee hoops, banana chocolate flakes, vanilla chocolate balls, etc. They even make a "British Classic" box set where you can try Eton Mess Style ("creamy yogurt with a strawberry underlayer and crunchy egg free meringue") and Cherry Bakewell Style ("cherry and almond flavour yogurt with a raspberry underlayer and pastry crumble"). But, without a doubt, the best one that I was able to find was the limited edition toffee shortbread and golden digestives.

I thought that "golden digestives" might mean vanilla cookies. Oh no, my friends. "Golden digestives" means exactly what it says on the tin. Digestives. That have been covered in gold. Like King Midas got into the Oikos factory. After I got over my initial shock, I tried them. And they tasted UNBELIEVABLE. Was it the gold-plating? Was it the digestive underneath? Was it the toffee shortbread (!) flavored yogurt? Who knows? I haven't been able to find one at Sainsbury's since, but I'm definitely keeping an eye out for them.

Le Froglet Wine

Apparently, there was a big to-do about whether or not Le Froglet's wine-in-a-cup should be considered "tacky." Then Le Froglet Rosé was named the Great Value Champion Rosé at the International Wine Challenge (apparently the Oscars of wine tasting). I don't know if that officially makes wine in plastic glasses with a peel-off paper lid NOT tacky -- but I'm willing to take my chances. The best part is that you can buy Le Froglet Wine at the M&S shops in railway stations. So I can lounge around King's Cross with my disposable wine glass, sipping chardonnay like a Real Housewife of London. (And I can be a Real Housewife on a budget because they only cost £2.95 for a glass, comparable to what you'd find in the pubs.) I've never actually bought a glass of Le Froglet Wine but, as I have a long commute from Glasgow (for study) to London (for research), I'm looking forward to at least once donning oversized sunglasses and sipping on some portable shiraz.

The Laughing Cow Mini Cravings

Living in the UK has convinced me that, yes, portion sizes in the US are far too large. However, Laughing Cow Mini Cravings bring an entirely new meaning to "small portion." They're individually-wrapped bites of cheese. Since they're soft, I can only assume that they're designed for spreading. I've definitely been popping them straight from the refrigerator into my mouth though. As someone with an extremely limited food vocabulary, these have been fantastic for helping me adjust to new cheese tastes -- cheddar, smoked cheese, and blue cheese. In general, the UK has a brilliant knack for snack foods. They're the only country where you can buy individual Graze packs at the check-out aisle. I'm a long-time Graze subscriber who sometimes forgets that the company originated in the UK, despite the fact that one of my favorite Graze packs is the delectable honeycomb flapjack. (If you've never had a flapjack before, it's a delicious buttery rolled oat biscuit. Like imagine if granola bars tasted good. Less like health food, more like cake.) I have yet to find a Sainsbury's or Tesco that carries the Holy Grail of Graze Punnets, the snickerdoodle dip with cinnamon pretzel sticks, but I'm on the look-out everywhere I go.

Fulbright Forum 2017 (Or, Welcome to the UK -- It's Been Waiting for You!)

I'm going to be honest: I wasn't looking forward to the Fulbright Forum. I didn't travel 3,459 miles to sit around in a lecture hall full of Americans. Not to mention the fact that the Fulbright Forum was being hosted in Newcastle. Never heard of it before? I hadn't either. It's part of the "Northern Powerhouse" -- a government initiative to bolster the economy in the North (specifically in the cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle). They're in the process of constructing a high-speed railway called the Northern Powerhouse Rail, which will improve transportation across the North of England. Despite the fact that they're only about 60 miles from the Scottish border (and only 120 miles from the cultural beacon of Edinburgh), Newcastle doesn't seem to have much interest in forming alliances with their northern neighbors. (I'm really interested in exploring the relationship between England and Scotland more, especially in a post-Referendum UK.)

Basically, Newcastle upon Tyne looks a whole lot like this:

The cold grey skyline. The industrial red-brick warehouses. The dingy river churning below. If that doesn't match the definition of Dickensonian, I don't know what does. Newcastle doesn't exactly have the makings of a weekend getaway. However, I underestimated both the Fulbright Commission and the City of Newcastle on this one.

First of all, you can meet some of the most brilliant scholars at the Fulbright Forum -- and they're in-residence at universities all across the country. Want to check out Cardiff? (Maybe because you're not entirely convinced that it's a real city as opposed to a gap in the time-space continuum that can only be accessed via Tardis?) There are Fulbright Scholars in Cardiff! And they'd love to show you around! The same goes for any other major UK-based city. They also have all kinds of connections that can help with your research; one Fulbright staff member even offered to introduce me to the National Theatre of Scotland's Board of Directors! It's also good to chat with folks who understand that, on January 20th, you will need to consume enough alcohol to conveniently forget that Donald Trump has become President of the United States. (These folks will happily volunteer to join you.)

Second, Newcastle is an incredible city. Yes, it may look like something off of the cover of Bleak House, but it has an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to revitalization that won't quit. It reminds me a lot of my hometown -- Buffalo, New York. We're both living in the shadow of a major metropolitan landmark (New York City/London). We both have industrial manufacturing economies that faltered in the 20th century. We're both trying to reinvent ourselves as cultural hubs. (Admittedly, Newcastle doesn't have anything that's quite as awesome as Shark Girl. But who does really? #sharkgirlforpresident2020)

So, without further ado, my Instagram journey through Newcastle:

On the first day of the Fulbright Forum, we visited the Wylam Brewery. Located in the Palace of the Arts (and overlooking a pond chock-full of swans), Wylam could easily go head-to-head with any hipster Brooklyn brewery. Just look at those chalkboard cartoons. We were given a tour of the brewery and a tasting of four different cask beers. I'm not a beer-drinker, but just try saying "no" when the bartender passes you a glass of #3000 Gyles From Home (Ltd. Edition). It just can't be done.

That evening, we had a private tour of the Monica Bonvicini exhibition (her hand around the room) at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Bonvicini had complete control over how her art was displayed in the gallery and chose to add "set dressing" to make the space look like a construction site. Fitting since most of the art displayed revolved around the idea of construction -- from "What Does Your Wife/Girlfriend Think of Your Rough and Dry Hands?" (a series of questionnaires given to construction workers from around the world, including questions like "Do you find construction materials erotic?") to "Light Me Black" (a giant wall of fluorescent lights that leave the viewer temporarily blinded) to "Chain Leather Swing" (which should have been used in 50 Shades of Grey). I think that my favorite installation was a gigantic wall constructed out of magazine clippings of naked women's bodies. In a year when chants of "build the wall" could be heard around the world (figuratively in Brexit's UK and literally in Trump's America), Bonvicini's wall built on the bodies of exploited women seems especially timely.

Alnwick Gardens! This photo is misleading because the bright colors make it look like I was strolling about in 90-degree South American heat. No, it was officially cold the day that we toured the gardens. (In general, I never understood the term "bone-chilling" until arriving in Newcastle.) The gardens were created by the Duchess of Northumberland who wanted to create a "contemporary pleasure garden" for families. There's a bamboo labyrinth, which contains "a mysterious centre stone, inscribed with a Latin motto." According to our extraordinarily attractive gardener/tour guide, the stone says something to the extent of "You found the center of the labyrinth! Good for you! Now, f*** off." But in Latin. There's even a Poison Garden, which you can tour with security guards assigned to make sure that you don't nab a few sprigs of hemlock. (Seriously though, the Poison Garden, with its black wrought-iron gates and skull-and-crossbones warning signs, was unbelievably hardcore.) I'll definitely be returning in the summer when the gardens are in full-bloom but not as much for the gardens as for . . .

HOGWARTS. Or Alnwick Castle. Depending on who you ask. The castle was closed to the public for renovations; however, some of the Fulbrighters (including myself) snuck underneath the gates in order to take some photos. Because HOGWARTS.

In short, if you have the opportunity to go to a Fulbright Forum and you're thinking "I'd prefer not to" like Bartleby, the Scrivener, definitely book the ticket and go. I'm already looking forward to the one in Edinburgh this June!
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