Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Macbeth- Week One Rehearsals (Fight! Fight! Fight!)

Makin' Some Dirty, Sexy Fun

A read-through or two is pretty typical of any rehearsal process. This production of Macbeth is no different in that regard. Shortly after casting we held our first read-through (complete with pizza and snacks). Afterwards, the cast was sent off, scripts in hand to (hopefully) learn lines and ruminate over their characters and the play itself. The first cast meeting is also a nice place for us all to see each other face to face . . . the raw materials that are going to get together and make a play happen. We gathered for that first meeting on June 8th on the Withycombe Mainstage to hear the play (complete with cuts) together for the first time.

After some time away as a cast, we met for our second read-through on the 20th, which marked the official rehearsal process. Hearing the play from the first reading allowed me time to make some decisions based on what everything sounded like together. A second reading (this time with cookies) brought us back into that space with a little more familiarity with the text. It also gave Barbara a chance to show her sketches and renderings for the costumes and for us to go over the ground plan for the set. While these little pieces began to fuel the general excitement that comes with putting together a play, we were met with a couple of unexpected pieces of rather bad news. The first being the fact that we wouldn't be able to work in the Quad immediately and the second being an unfortunate turn of events in the legal status of one of the actors. Chee, an international student from Japan, had spent the 2009-2010 academic year studying at OSU. Her visa, however, was about to expire, and the channels she thought would ensure her legal status for the summer had not worked out according to plan.

Needless to say, Week One in the process included some rather stressful elements that were completely out of our control. These unfortunate surprises could not deter our process and we forged on focused on the elements of the show that we could control. Technical director, Jordan, taped out the best approximation possible of the Quad space on the Mainstage. Although working on a two dimensional plane is wildly different than the space itself, it served its purpose for blocking Act I. Blocking the individual scenes went smoothly with the knowledge that adjustments would invariably be made once we moved to the outdoor space.

Then came what everyone was eagerly awaiting . . . Day 1 of fight choreography. Wanting the show to conjure the images of a Tarantino movie, I was determined to revel in the play's violence. Partially this adds to the spectacle of a production, but in this case it helps to tell the story of a gritty underworld. After several meetings and excited e-mails with Amanda and Jon, we decided that the fight scenes would mostly work with found objects (rusty tire irons, dirty chains, etc.) I also really want to portray the character of Macbeth as a deadly bad-ass. Amanda and I loved the idea of him being able to disarm anyone who comes at him and turn their own weapon against them with deadly results. This savagery plays into one of the character's great internal paradoxes- he is a killer and in many ways seems to have little regard for life . . . and yet his choice to betray Duncan ultimately causes him to unravel.

Fight choreography is an interesting element to add into a piece. It infuses energy into the scene, but unless it helps to tell the story effectively it can actually take away from the narrative. Act I has two fights. We blocked the simpler first where the two murderers take out Banquo and Fleance. In this case, the story became about a surprise attack and Banquo being left vulnerable. Fleance attempts to save his father, but Banquo demands he save himself. The second fight was far more complicated to put together. Although it still stands unfinished, the first several sequences are coming together nicely. The first street brawl must convey and establish several key relationships and demonstrate the comradery between Macbeth and Macduff and Macbeth and Banquo. It also must poise Macbeth as a powerful and clever warrior. So far it seems to be coming together.

When Sunday rolled around, we were still stuck on the Mainstage for our first slop-through of Act I. It went smoothly overall and the pace seems to be heading in the right direction for where we want to be. With any luck we'll be "home" in the Quad soon.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Macbeth- Curses! (Bard in the Withycombe Hall?)

I have never been a superstitious person, so in spite of Macbeth's reputation of being a "cursed" Shakespeare show to produce, I decided to fly in the face of tradition an make a conscious effort to revel in the unlucky. A cast of thirteen actors seemed a fitting start. I say the name "Macbeth" inside theatres, outside theatres, really whenever I feel it necessary (and sometimes unnecessary) to do so. In the past couple of weeks, however, I get the feeling there might be something to this shroud of ill-omen that seems to hang around the productions as the three "Weird Sisters" hang around graveyards.

Most directors know enough to expect the unexpected when working on productions. Typical problems arise no matter what precautions are taken. Actors get sick, emergencies happen, artistic choices don't work in the way first envisioned and need to be adapted. Things like this happen. These are rather ordinary surprises that occur from production to production.

Performances spaces, however, much to the surprise of the producing organization, being torn up and fenced off would count as an extraordinary surprise. Imagine our collective stress-levels rising when we encountered a playing space of sand and orange caution fencing. Our first week of rehearsals, therefore, has taken place indoors in the Main Stage. "Bard in the Main Stage" or "Bard in the Lab Theatre" don't seem to have the same ring to it.

At the moment, there is little to be done about the situation although than block the show, keep the actors focused on the work, and know that things will need to be adjusted on the blessed day when we can return to our space.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Macbeth- Concept

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies, a play considered “unlucky” . . . so much so that more superstitious theatre-folk refer to it as “The Scottish Play” or “Macplay” or something other permutation of the title without actually using the title. Various superstitions hang around the play, just as “borrowed robes” hang from the title character. Flying in the face of theatre superstition, this production will feature an ominous cast of thirteen performers, most in multiple roles.

When the play is stripped down to its basic plot, it features a man, loyal to his king, who becomes seduced by the allure of power so much that he compromises his better judgment to fulfill his own ambitions. One murder, as it has it, however is not enough. Macbeth realizes early on “we have scorched the snake, not kill’d it” and thus begins a series of increasingly brutal murders in order to cover up previous acts of violence. Initially spurred by ambition, Macbeth is later overcome with guilt and paranoia and acts out of self-preservation. In the end, he is exposed as a traitor and his bloody reign of terror is brutally ended by a broken and vengeful Macduff.

This production will explore Macbeth’s role as a traitor as well as the themes of violence and brutality. It’s not as though Macbeth had never killed before he murdered Duncan. In fact, he had slaughtered many on the battlefield. This suggests it isn’t so much that he doesn’t want to get blood on his hands, but that the question of loyalty ultimately causes his moral breakdown.

By transporting the time and location from a Medieval Scotland to a Prohibition Era New Orleans, this production will embrace the themes of violence, ambition, sexuality, and mystery. The Quad will be transformed to a decaying graveyard, overgrown with kudzu and years of moral disintegration. In many ways, the play exists in a liminal space somewhere between life and death with the presence of witches, ghosts, and apparitions. Macbeth as a character seems to care little for life, until he realizes that his own life will end. This change and discovery of his own humanity ultimately makes him into a tragic figure caught in a world of fast-living and violence.

The pace of the play should be fast, furious- a violent, sexy spectacle that feels like a Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese film. Inspiration comes from movies such as Inglourious Basterds, Goodfellas, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Chinatown, and Pulp Fiction. The music of the era will include the sounds of New Orleans jazz. The music of Count Basie, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong also serve as inspiration material for the production. The style of the piece demands constant energy, witty line delivery to juxtapose the images of violence, and strong, physically engaged characterization.

As the owner of a seedy, New Orleans nightclub, Macbeth is perfectly poised to be next in line to over take Kingpin, Duncan's underground crime syndicate. This all adds to the idea that this is a world where moral compromise is not out of the ordinary. What makes Macbeth as a character unique, is that he does gain a sense of humanity. He is, in many ways, far too intelligent and thoughtful to be in his line of work. He is a ruthless killer with the soul of a philosopher.

The tagline and mantra for this production is: "SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAYS COMES. DIRTY. SEXY. FUN."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Run

Every play offers a unique set of challenges to overcome. A Bright Room Called Day was no different in that respect. The use of Brechtian elements was only one of these challenges. How does one strike that delicate balance between telling an engaging narrative to an audience (who is giving up an evening to sit in a dark space) AND interrupt the narrative in a way that doesn't allow the audience to become too comfortable with what they are watching? Brecht never wanted a "passive" audience to merely sit, soak in an experience, then leave the theatre never to give much thought to the play again. He wanted to inspire an audience to action. But, one of the questions that still lingers even now is . . . what exactly did Kushner want of his audience? Can a play such as this be truly relevant to an audience in 2010?

This was never meant to be the type of play that comforted and coddled the audience so that they would leave the theatre having experienced a catharsis about a long-distant and tragic past event and feeling grateful that something like that could never happen again. Or could it? In looking back at the production and the play now, it seems that Kushner's attempt to make the play relevant is ultimately what makes it dated. Zillah's rants about Reagan and her attempts to draw parallels between that presidency and Hitler's rise to power resonated with older audience members, but not so much with the younger college-aged crowd.

Kimberly Holling gave an incredibly energetic and passionate performance in the role. The audience response to her "interruptions" of the dominant story line was generally favorable. Her Nixon impression, for example, consistently got the biggest laugh of the evening.

The presence of Zillah in this production was another interesting matter from the get-go. When I originally brought the script to the Holocaust Memorial Week committee in the fall of 2009, they responded, "Good play. I like Kushner, but can we get rid of Zillah?" In reading some of Kushner's notes included in the play's appendices, I found suggests getting rid of the character. Shrugging my shoulders I said, "Sure. Why not?" Unfortunately implied permission from the playwright is different than actual legal permission from the publishing service that controls the rights. In the end, Zillah was back in the show. Ultimately, I felt like her interruptions worked. Whether or not they made the play "immediate" in terms of applying the story to a more contemporary context, I think, is up to the individual audience member's perception. Zillah's passionate belief, however, that citizens must be vigilant in keeping an eye on the government transcends any particular period. That lesson can resonate to any generation.

Other Brechtian elements were, I felt, effective in the story. The projections, thankfully, worked in every performance. (I honestly get a little nervous about the risk of "technical difficulties" arising when powerful moments rely on a computer functioning correctly every, single time.) Throughout the performance, two large "screens" served as high-tech Brechtian placards, displaying the scene number, title, and other historical information Kushner used to locate the fictional story within a real historical time line. Hitler's rise to power was chronicled along with a series of dates, meanwhile on stage, the fictional relationships between became strained.

I never wanted to shy away from the "theatrical" in this production. I kept saying, "It's not realism." This mantra allowed us to embrace the script's more "magical" elements. The appearance of the Devil at the end of Act I or Paulinka's diva monologue were other interruptions Kushner wrote into the script. Rather than try and make them make sense as part of the plot, I wanted to highlight the moments and make them even more "weird." Within the context of the show, given the other interruptions, it made perfect sense for Paulinka to step out of the scene, bathed in a bright pink spotlight or for Herr Swetts to appear from the audience to loud orchestral music.

The most difficult moment of the play, technically and artistically was the "Epilogue" where Agnes and Die Alte's narrative collides and it becomes apparent that Die Alte is Agnes. I wanted this moment to be extremely disturbing and to really locate the fiction within a historical moment. Working with the lighting designer, Charles, I put together a slide show with some truly horrific historical imagery of the Holocaust and World War II. Charles created a disturbing sound cue that underscored the dialogue as the images flashed in quicker succession. During the scene, the characters who had left the space during the play returned in the background in reverse order and struck a signature pose, as if Agnes was watching all the people she had lost and let go of through the play. The final image was the flash of a swastika as Agnes states in a happy echo from the end of Act I, "Welcome to Germany." Blackout. Then a recording of "We'll Meet Again" came on as the houselights turned back on. Heavy handed? Perhaps. But, I felt it was ultimately effective. I wanted the audience to leave feeling disturbed, unsettled. The choice to end the show without a curtain call became obvious during tech week. Having to watch the slide show over and over again for the timing made it clear to me that the show simply could not end with applause of any kind. It just wasn't that kind of show.

The production was demanded of its actors and, honestly, they rose to the challenges the script presented to them. It was a tricky balance and I am so incredibly grateful for their willingness to work and work hard on putting on a difficult piece of material.