Taking Macbeth to the Open Stage
The Ella Morris Blog
Ella Morris | Monday, August 31, 2015
Jane Durant is a director for The Festival Players in Loughborough, Leicestershire.
Recently she took to both the Loughborough and Stratford stage to present Macbeth as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages project.
Downstage Centre's resident blogger Ella Morris spoke to Jane recently about the project and her thoughts on directing Shakespeare.
EM: Why did you decide to take part in the Open Stages and why Macbeth?
JD: It was entirely fortuitous that I took part in the Open Stages initiative and I have The Little Theatre, Leicester to thank for it! Back in early 2012, I had read on the LT’s intranet that, as part of the Open Stages initiative, the Royal Shakespeare Company was running half-day workshops for amateur actors. When I got to Stratford, I realised that they weren’t just workshops but were, in fact, open auditions for an RSC/Open Stages production of Pericles which would be performed with a specially selected amateur ensemble in October that year. I was one of the lucky 30 out of the 350 attendees who got chosen. We were coached in text, movement, combat, and acting by professional practitioners from the RSC, which, by anyone’s standard, is the equivalent to attaining the Holy Grail in classical theatre training terms. When, in the following year, the Open Stages/RSC announced that, following Pericles, they were going to select and coach amateur companies around the country to perform their own Shakespeare productions, I wanted other amateur actors in my area to be given the same professional experience.
I have to say that Macbeth was not my choice of play but I understand it was picked not only because it is a well-known Shakespearian play but also for its inclusion as a set text for GCSE English. This was the first time my group had attempted a Shakespeare play and there were concerns about ticket sales.
EM: How has the experience been for you?
JD: On the whole, it has been a very satisfying experience, albeit an exhausting and highly pressured one.
EM: What have the challenges been?
JD: The challenges were not so much about directing a Shakespeare play per se. Directing any play in the amateur dramatics world is tough as the director is expected to do absolutely everything. Professional theatre splits the amateur director’s job into: director, stage manager, ASM, props, logistics, administration, legal knowledge, etc. Combine all these aspects with the demands of a full-time job and you very soon start to feel that you are running flat out on a never-ending treadmill.
EM: What/who are you most proud of?
JD: I am very satisfied that I was able to realise my vision of Macbeth; right from the project’s genesis, I had a very definite view of how I wanted it to be. On the final performance night, the RSC representative turned to me and said; “you wouldn’t know it was your first attempt at Shakespeare”. I am very proud of that comment.
EM: What have you learnt from the experience?
JD: The earlier you start planning your production, the better. Also, you cannot do everything yourself and you need a strong team to help and support you so that you are able to delegate effectively. It is essential that you find the right production designer (which I did), costume designer (which I did) and technical crew and insist they attend every rehearsal.
EM: How was Macbeth received?
JD: The reaction was incredible. Both critics and audience loved it – even those who professed to not understanding Shakespeare. Word had got out on social media that this was something that needed to be seen and the photographs that were posted onto the Festival Players’ Facebook page added to the heightened anticipation of a “must see” event.
EM: What advice would you give to anybody wanting to tackle Shakespeare (as an actor or director)?
JD: The first thing to note is that Shakespeare is “just” another playwright. It’s best not to deify him. Take a nuts-and-bolts approach to directing his plays and you’ll be good to go.
That said, there are some special skills I recommend directors should consider:
1. An understanding of the history
In general, Elizabethan history is more important than the history of whenever the play was set (Scotland, Ancient Rome, or whatever). Actors sometimes have a hard time understanding the Elizabethan values and prejudices, and you can help them out if you’re a good amateur historian.
2. An understanding of how blank verse (iambic pentameter) works
The fact that these plays are written in verse isn’t just “decoration”. Shakespeare uses the verse for very real stage effects. His characters use verse effects in specific ways to get what they want and to give the audience an idea of their “state of mind”.
3. An understanding of Rhetoric
When Shakespeare was at school, he learned how to use various writing tricks to make arguments more forceful. These tricks all had specific names. Shakespeare was very aware that he was using, say, Trick X for a particular character’s speech and why he was using it. Indeed, Shakespeare’s favourite rhetorical device is called “Thesis/Antithesis” and shows up over and over in his plays.
4. A facility with reference books
In addition to the history, Shakespeare references tons of stuff from mythology, Elizabethan Law, philosophy, the Bible, and so on.
5. Blocking on an empty stage
In Shakespeare’s time, plays were staged on mostly empty stages. Even now, his plays are more forceful via language. They are meant to be heard at least as much as they are meant to be seen. (Hamlet says “we’ll hear a play tomorrow”).
Some directors (and actors), who are used to working on contemporary plays, get uncomfortable when there are no chairs to sit on or staircases to climb. If you can possibly do it, try directing a play or a scene – even if you can only do it “on paper” without allowing yourself any set.
6. Be ready to help actors with songs, dance and fight choreography
I was very lucky to have the RSC professional practitioners on hand to help me in my production. You need collaborators to help as most Shakespeare plays include some or all of the above.
7. Schedule enough time in the rehearsal period for “table work”
Table work is when you sit around a table, read the script, and discuss it. Every actor should understand every single word and phrase and sentence in the play. I appreciate this is a difficult concept to grasp especially in the amateur world, with the vagaries of availability and time constraints - everyone just wants to “get on with it” – however, I would argue that all plays, especially Shakespeare, should go through an initial stage like this. Actors can’t move about the stage effectively until they know why they’re moving, and they can’t know why they’re moving until they understand what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. With Shakespeare, that takes time.
8. It is all about the WORDS
The words in Shakespeare’s plays are the greatest tools he can give actor and director alike. Modern actors – raised in a much less verbal world – tend to avoid the words. They play stuff between the lines rather than on the lines. In directing Macbeth, I noticed that he scatters his lines with clues on lighting, sound , movement, emotion, and positioning with plenty of forward referencing to tie explanations to action.
Beware of actors who fall in love with the poetry. Shakespeare was an amazing poet, but forget that and make your actors forget it. Think of him as a craftsman, not an artist.
Use the words but don’t bow down to them. Make the actors play Stanislavskian actions via the words (“actioning”). Sometimes actors can get lost in reciting and showing off their “beautiful voices” or their soulfulness, and nothing dramatic happens.
Revel in Shakespeare’s characters. They swear, gorge themselves, drink until they pass out, urinate, belch, and murder. And they like to fight and have sex. Get used to it and get your cast used to it.
The Festival Players are currently rehearsing for ‘Abigails Party’ by Mike Leigh.
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