Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Setting the Stage: A Journey to Making Macbeth

This week we open our 4th Annual Shakespeare in Ford Heritage Park performance, and year four seemed like a good time to do something completely different.  After three successful Shakespeare performances and two successful main stage plays, it felt like time to up the ante, so to speak, and bring audiences something they haven't seen from us before.  That meant picking the right show, the right actors, and making the right changes.  We're never fans of making change for the sake of changing, and each decision that brought us to the culmination of Macbeth had to be the right one.

There is a lot of Shakespeare out there, and any acting troupe runs the risk of competing with the same show being done by someone else each year.  We also have the added challenge of working outdoors, which is both exciting and sometimes difficult.  It is, for example, difficult to do a balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet without the ability to create a balcony.  That thought propelled us forward, forced to wonder if set dictates too many acting choices, and if it was even necessary in some cases.  Could a show stand alone with minimal props and set?  Now, there was an exciting challenge.  So we decided, whatever we did, we were doing it without a set.  But what show didn't depend on the set to propel the story?  What show did we want to do with the freedom of open space to use as we wished?  What would we do with so much space?  One word.  Combat.  Yet another way we could shake things up.  For all of our performances, we have never been able to do combat, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to find a show where we could showcase some combat skills that we haven't necessarily been known for in the past.  All of these choices, and probably a hundred more, led us to settle on Macbeth. 

As with any show selection, the choices that lead to the show also lead to a million other choices.  Costumes, props, set pieces, actors.  Every moving part has to come together to work as one, and we are a small theater company.  We have a small pool of actors, a small collection of props, and most importantly, a small budget.  We needed to make more choices, and they had to be good ones.  One of our first choices, given our small pool of actors who auditioned, was to bend the gender roles for several characters.  Bending those genders meant picking the right Macbeth, who would compliment those gender changes rather than highlight them as strange.  We chose to bend strong leadership roles and give them to women, who we knew would portray them as nobly and as filled with strength as any male counterpart.  We created women warriors.  We gave female characters a strength they do not often get to find in Shakespeare plays.  We chose a Macbeth who was strong, physically intimidating, but easily swayed by the guiding hand of his wife.  We chose a Lady Macbeth who was not simply evil, but cunning.  We took our actors and pushed them out of their comfort zones and asked them to play roles that were challenging, but we hoped were also rewarding.

Part of those casting choices also came down to who we wanted to see in combat, and who we wanted to cheer for to be the victor, or to see defeated, in each fight.  Much of this was on the shoulders of the actors to create the character, but a fight is a character in itself.  It is nuanced.  It requires skill.  It takes as much from an actor emotionally as a fit of crying on stage.  A fight done well is a fight remembered.  That meant partnering with the right fight choreographer, and we were fortunate enough to be put in touch with Maestro Christopher Barbeau of Ringstar Studio who expertly guided our inexperienced actors into honed fight performers.  The entire process was exciting to witness, and it's hard to say whether we've seen our actors have so much fun learning a new skill.  

Costuming began anew with this show, creating full dresses for Lady Macbeth, entire kilt ensembles for each actor, building each character and each scene through color and texture, which we hadn't had an opportunity to do before now.  We really got to step it up with some of our choices, and our production manager remarked this week that this may be the most individual costume pieces any one actor has been assigned in the history of the company.  Plus, who doesn't love a good kilt?

In the end, we've gone down quite a path that has led us to this, our end product.  It has been challenging, exhausting, exciting and rewarding all at once.  We hope that when we open on Thursday, audiences see something they weren't expecting, particularly from our tiny theater troupe performing in a park in Ypsilanti.  We hope that we've been successful in our attempt to make this show something more than audiences have seen from us in the past, and that our efforts to impress have led to an enjoyable experience for both actors and audience members alike.  Most importantly, we hope you come out to see the show, and tell us what you think!  We do this for you, our community.  We hope you enjoy it.

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