We make steady progress, rehearsal to rehearsal, blocking out the action of the scenes. Steady–but always much slower than we’d like. Sometimes plans for the day have to be adjusted due to illnesses in the cast, or standardized testing, or conflicts with other extra-curricular activities. We hold our rehearsals on Wednesday afternoons because Wednesdays are early release days for Arlington County Schools, so we can have a 2-hour-plus chunk of time to work. A lot of other programs are scheduled for Wednesday afternoons for the same reason.

This past Wednesday the conflict was the Jump Rope For Heart event at Nottingham, which is open to third, fourth & fifth graders. We encourage any of our cast members who are interested to sign up, because we support their goals of good health and community service. This year 21 of our 30 cast members sign up for Jump Rope, and miss over half of rehearsal. The cast members that remain are not from any one section of the play. So what can we do to keep moving forward?

We do have most of the cast members from scene 2, the “What bloody man is that?” scene. That scene has already been blocked and run a few times, so it isn’t an area in desperate need of attention. But all the actors in that particular scene (with the exception of one who isn’t present) need to focus and listen much better. We run the scene multiple times, stopping and starting as necessary, with the work focusing on reacting to a stimulus you get from someone else in the scene. No anticipating. No mindless execution of your blocking just because it’s what the director told you to do. I try to stop the scene and make them repeat any time I see someone’s mind wander off.

One of our most scattered actors, the Bloody Sergeant, finally gets his head in the scene when we work on a bit of stage business and he can put down his script. We have added a comedic bit toward the end of the scene to lighten things up and beef up the role of the Doctor. When Bloody Sergeant collapses and Duncan says “Go, get him surgeons!” the Doctor appears with a scary amputation saw. The goal has been for the Doctor to threaten silently, the Sergeant to react to the threat, and for the two of them to leave the stage in a cat-and-mouse chase. Previously, all they have accomplished is for the Doctor to run on, and both to run off.  I force the two actors to repeat and repeat until they are really seeing each other in the present; then the Sergeant is able to react to the sight of the scary saw and the maniacal Doctor with a scream, but he stays more or less frozen on the ground. I decide that his first move might be to hide behind another character on stage, which seems to work. Then, our scattered actor, because he finally believes in his immediate peril, has an impulse—he shoves the actor he was using as cover toward the Doctor while he runs away. It looks completely natural, and we incorporate it into the scene.

The "Wound Man," from a medieval surgical text

The limited nature of the rehearsal has given us the opportunity to work on that scene in more depth than we otherwise could have. We are also able to do some individual work with the Porter, whose scene has unfortunately been ignored since the first read-through (the actor has been included in other scenes, however). Zoe and I start working on this scene together. Our actor seems to want to say his lines straight through, but in as “funny” a way as possible because he knows it’s supposed to be a “funny” scene. We stop him and question him about everything—where has he just been? was he awake or asleep? is he happy being roused out of bed before dawn, even if it is his job? what does he normally look like when he first gets up? what kinds of physical needs does he have that need attention? how does he move? can he focus, or does it take him a few minutes to kick-start his brain? After really thinking about and answering these questions, we allow him to start again, and a much different and more believable Porter comes onstage. We work on some first-thing-in-the-morning actions for him to perform, which he must do as naturally as possible, without in any way trying to be “funny.” It gets better.

The other actor who gets some individual attention is our last Macbeth, who kills Young Siward and duels with Macduff. He also gives the “Tomorrow” speech, from which I have not cut a word. He has the speech mostly memorized already, and speaks it quite well, understanding every word. But good as he already is, it has little effect on the audience because we don’t believe he’s really in this dark, hopeless place. What we need to work on is connecting his intellectual understanding of the speech to his gut. We break down the speech into separate thoughts—where does one idea transition into another?—and I assign him homework. He needs to figure out, from the moment the Messenger tells him that his wife is dead, why am I saying these words now? What am I feeling that causes me to speak this speech instead of reacting in some other way? Macbeth could have reacted to this worst-of-all news in any number of ways—tears, tantrums, violence, laughter at fate’s most recent insult—but instead he says these words. Why? The next time I see our actor perform this speech, we’ll find out what his solution is.

After the Jump Ropers rejoin us, we give the whole cast some good news. We have been offered the opportunity to perform at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Birthday Open House on April 22. We are the only elementary school that will perform that day; it is a tremendous honor, but it will also mean extra work. We’ll need to have 20 minutes of our Macbeth ready to show a month earlier than we had planned. We ask if they are up for it. They all say yes.


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Shakespeare Can Change Your Life

I’m taking a short break from the Macbeth blog today to write about something lovely that occurred yesterday. I was giving a tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library to a group of four people—a young couple, Colin and Stephanie, and Colin’s parents.

Since it was a beautiful day in Washington, DC, I decided to begin the tour outside in the Elizabethan Garden. I am not a particularly adept gardener, so we breezed through the horticulture quickly and headed to the statues by Greg Wyatt. The first one we came to depicts Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Mr. Wyatt’s sculptures are somewhat abstract, and his interpretations of Shakespeare usually require some decoding. But that didn’t matter much to my group; The Tempest to them is the play where Colin played Ferdinand and Stephanie played Miranda, as they told me. “Ah, the young lovers,” I said.

We came to the next statue, which is easier to figure out—Julius Caesar. The back side of that statue shows a man with knives sticking out of him in several places; you’d know that assassination anywhere. Steph, as it turned out, played Portia in that play; Colin wasn’t her Brutus, but some less noble Roman. We circled the garden and I discovered, while discussing the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster, that they hadn’t done any of the Henry plays or Richard III, at least not yet.

We examined the friezes on the front façade of the building and I learned that Colin is not a big fan of Macbeth, but Steph would love to be a witch, which just goes to show what a clear-headed girl she is. They have never done Hamlet and Ophelia, but yes, he was her Romeo and she was his Juliet.

As we continued the tour inside the building, a librarian from Memphis joined us. We looked at the stained glass in the Founders’ Room, the current exhibit on “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” the permanent display of Shakespeare’s First Folio, and ended up in the Elizabethan Theatre for a few final words about Shakespeare’s plays. I then invited them to take photos in the theatre if they liked, or follow me out to the lobby for questions. The librarian and I went to the lobby and watched what happened next from the doorway, along with two of the Folger guards.

Colin took Steph up onto the stage so his parents could take their picture. Afterward, he turned to her and let her know, in a few short sentences, how much she meant to him. Then he knelt, pulled out a ring, and asked her to marry him.

She said yes.

The crowd of friends and relatives who had been hidden in the dark balcony broke into applause, and came downstairs to celebrate with the happy couple. I was a little choked up; the librarian from Memphis was absolutely in tears. As far as I know it is the first time that someone has proposed on that stage when it wasn’t part of a script.

Did Shakespeare bring the two of them together, or would they have found each other regardless? When Steph, as Juliet, looked deeply into Colin’s eyes and said “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite,” did it speed things along? What would have happened if Colin had played Trinculo and Mercutio instead of Ferdinand and Romeo?

I don’t pretend to know. I do know that Colin and Steph are in love with Shakespeare and each other. They plan on coming back to the Folger in May to see our next production, The Taming of the Shrew. It features Kate Eastwood Norris as Kate the Shrew and her real-life husband, Cody Nickell, as Petruchio. What could be more fitting?


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Stage Combat

The girls who sign up for our Shakespeare program do so for a lot of different reasons—they think acting is glamorous, or they think the costumes are pretty, or (sometimes, if we’re lucky) they think the story and the words are beautiful. The boys all sign up because they want to fight with sticks.

We make sure they all get a chance to learn about stage combat, even if they will not be performing in the fights onstage. We usually set aside one rehearsal for stage combat, but this year we will need two in order to work out the murders of Banquo, the Macduff family, and all the swordfighting at the end of the play.

We want the combat sequences to look, sound and feel as realistic as possible, but we also want to make sure that no one gets hurt. When you have a roomful of fifth graders swinging hard, pointy objects around, you need someone in charge who not only knows how to do things right, but also knows exactly what can go horribly wrong, and warns you of any possible dangers to yourself and others before the blood starts spurting.

In our case, that someone is Casey Kaleba—professional fight choreographer, stage combat instructor, stunt man, university professor, and the only human being I personally know who allowed someone to set him on fire. He is very knowledgeable and very, very funny—I think of him as a Stand-up Swordmaster. Having Casey come in to teach our fifth graders combat is comparable to asking Quentin Tarantino to direct a Super Soaker fight in your backyard; it’s overkill. But it’s the best darn Super Soaker fight you’ll ever have.

Casey’s plan for epic sword battles is to teach everyone the basics, then differentiate the action to make it both interesting to watch and functional for the requirements of the plot. The first instruction is always to check in with your partner by making eye contact—if both combatants are not mentally present in the scene before you begin, mayhem ensues. Each pair learns one or two moves at a time, taking turns attacking and defending. More moves are added on to make up a phrase of movements, and phrases can be strung together in various ways so that everyone onstage is not doing the same thing at the same time, even though they really only know half a dozen steps. They learn ways to kill and die that will look better onstage than just sticking a sword into your opponent’s upstage armpit. They clack away happily for over an hour.

The real fun of the day for me is when we give most of the cast a break and start working on the murder of the Macduffs. We cast a girl as Young Macduff, and she has decided to play the role as a girl. Last week we blocked the scene right up to the point where Young Macduff is stabbed. We start the scene with Lady Macduff, worried about her husband’s sudden flight to England, brushing her young daughter’s hair, while the daughter does the same to her little rag doll. The doll will of course get dropped when the girl dies, and will be left on stage after the bodies are dragged off. The Thane of Ross will find it, and deliver it to Macduff when he delivers the news that his family has been savagely slaughtered. I think if it’s played well, it’s going to be heartbreaking, and possibly too intense for children.

This week we are ready to work on the action of the Macduffs’ death. First Murderer and Second Murderer grab Lady Macduff and hold her fast while Third Murderer stabs Young Macduff. Lady MacD screams. Young MacD falls, arm extended upstage right, reaching for her mother, and speaking her dying words, “He has killed me, mother.” Then Casey considers for a moment, smiles to himself, and says “Oh, that’s awful.” I tell him that I like awful, and ask what he has in mind. He continues choreographing: after watching her child die, Lady MacD will be stabbed by the First Murderer, then spun around before she can collapse and stabbed between the collar bone and shoulder blade by the Second Murderer. Then she will fall, too, with her right hand stretched downstage toward her daughter. They will almost, but not quite, touch before they die.

It’s awful, yes, but in a good way. I applaud.


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Concepts, Costumes & Cauldrons

Staging a play is not a simple matter of starting on page one and having the actors speak their lines in the correct order until they get to the end. Plays are visual, and every visual aspect of the play—where the actors stand in relation to each other and in relation to the audience, how they move through space, what they do when they’re not moving, what costumes they wear and what props they use, all convey meaning. Every visual element has to work with every other visual element and with the text to tell the story of the play. So we need to start wondering, at an early stage in the proceedings, what is our Macbeth going to look like?

We are lucky at Nottingham to have an actual costume budget.  We have 30 actors to costume from head to toe, so we are frugal with that budget, reusing items from previous shows, using things the actors already have in their closets, and shopping wisely (I am familiar with at least 20 different thrift stores in the greater Washington, DC area.) But this year we get even luckier: before the first rehearsal, one of our actors asks if they are going to be wearing kilts? Because his aunt has a bunch of old kilts that she would be happy to let us use. We tell him to bring them on in, and I start working on a costume concept for the bulk of the cast—one that involves some free kilts.

I like playing with Photoshop, so I Google full-length images of men in kilts, and find a perfect one of the manly Scottish actor, Gerard Butler. He is not only wearing a utility kilt, he’s carrying a sword. I want to make him look even hairier and more primitive, though, so I give him a furry vest (12th century Scotland is cold!) and some animal-skin boots (I know most of our female cast members have something Ugg-like for their feet), change the color of his shirt to something an 11-year-old boy would wear (i.e., not pink), and a concept is born.

Now for the witches. The witches can represent a lot of things, but in our version of Macbeth, I’d like them to represent otherness above all. They will not only be different from the non-supernatural characters, they will be different from each other. They will not wear things made out of dead animals–they will wear things made out of live animals and dead humans. There will be the One Who Collects Fingers (“Sisters! Look what I have…a pilot’s thumb, wrecked as homeward he did come.”) She will have a choker of skeleton hands wrapped around her neck, and a carved wooden box in which to keep her fingers. There will be the One Who Likes Snakes (“Fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake.”) She will have at least one snake, if not more, about her person at all times. And then there will be The Crazy One, The Loosest of Cannons, The One Who at Any Second Could Rip Out Your Heart and Eat It, and Cackle with Glee as She Does So.

The idea for The Crazy One doesn’t arrive fully formed out of nowhere. It comes, as I believe a lot of creation does, from synthesizing bits and pieces from here and there. One day last month I was talking to my friend Nick, and the subject of Maori haka dances came up. I first saw a haka dance in the movie Whale Rider. A haka is a New Zealand native chant and dance that can be performed for different ceremonial purposes, but is most frequently associated with war. Maori warriors use it to intimidate their enemies and mentally prepare for battle. The movements are big and sharp and make lots of noise, and some of them mime the actions of punching, clawing, slashing, and thrusting a spear. On top of all that, the dancers bulge out their eyes and stick out their tongues to indicate how much they will enjoy eating the flesh of their enemies. That, I thought, is what I want from a witch! Big, scary, loud, active, and outside our everyday experience.

Some of the other details of The Crazy One’s concept art are the ragged clothes, which will emphasize her outcast status; the crown of skulls, indicating that she has power over men’s lives; the dreadlocks, just for fun; and the long flowing vest, which is adapted from Keanu Reeves’ Matrix costume. There will be enough fabric in it so it can swirl and swish with its wearer, and it will be the only costume piece all three witches have in common—not quite a magician’s cape or a wizard’s robe, but easier to move in than either of those. One other thing you may have noticed: she’s a guy. Our crazy witch will be played by a boy.

I have grand plans for the witches’ cauldron, too, but they may not come to fruition. I want something large enough so that we can have one of our actors inside it, unseen, blowing bubbles. He will also play the first apparition (the armored head), and can toss the occasional eye of newt or toe of frog in the air. He might even get to play around with some flashlights, which will probably be our only lighting effect. I haven’t been able to locate a large, strong, but lightweight vessel to use as a cauldron yet. I’ll keep looking.

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The first rehearsal after auditions is a read-through of the entire script. We distribute the scripts and some highlighters; the actors have been asked to bring a pencil to every rehearsal but regrettably, we have to supply a few of those, too. Their first instruction is to write their names on their scripts. Then Zoe gives them a short demonstration on how to highlight their lines—highlight only the words you speak with one color; don’t highlight your character’s name, or any of the stage directions. Then highlight your cue line—the line someone else speaks right before your line—in a different color. This is the first time we’re giving them the cue line instruction; this past fall we had an inordinate problem with people who claimed to know their lines failing to realize that it was their turn to speak. So Zoe goes through what seemed to me an obvious task. Obviously it’s not.

As they page through the scripts, looking for their character’s lines, some of them count how many lines they have and announce the totals. We tell them to stop. Acting is not a competition, and the person with the most lines doesn’t win anything except extra memorization homework.

Highlighting done, we begin to read through the script. We try to stop the actors whenever they mispronounce a word, and ask them to circle or underline any word that they are unsure of, either definition or pronunciation. We hope that if we catch those words early and often, they will not continue to rehearse those words incorrectly. We had one actor in “Midsummer” who didn’t pronounce the word “dowager” correctly until the final performance. We’ll see if we can avoid that this time.

I also sum up the action of each scene as we go along, and try to answer all their questions. They don’t have too many questions about what’s happening in the play (“What’s a thane?”); I hope that means that I’ve anticipated their questions in my summarizing. They do like to ask questions about our production, though. The most common one seems to be “Does this mean I get to die onstage?”

We notice that one actor, who did very well at auditions, is having trouble sight-reading the text. Clearly, he had put in a lot of effort before auditions to compensate for his sight-reading skills, and we are even more impressed with his dedication. Good for him.

The actors’ homework for the week is to rewrite all their lines in their own words. This paraphrasing would be homework for any Shakespearean actor, regardless of his or her professional status or years of experience. As we tell them, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, the audience won’t either. We ask them to write their paraphrases directly into their scripts so it is always handy, on the left-hand page opposite their lines. (We print our scripts on one side of the paper only.) This leaves the large right-hand margin of the printed pages free for them to write down their blocking in the coming rehearsals.

Their other piece of homework is to Google “Maori haka.”

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Movie Night!

Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth; photo courtesy the Folger Shakespeare Library

On February 10, Nottingham Shakespeare holds its first-ever Movie Night. We screen the Folger Theatre’s 2008 production of Macbeth, directed by Folger favorite Aaron Posner and the magician Teller. Zoe & I have both seen the play and agree that if you’re going to introduce youngsters to the Scottish play, there is no better way to do it. Yes, it’s bloody and creepy, but it’s taut and funny and all the text is made very clear. No attempt has been made to update the play, or make anything into a metaphor—it’s just straightforward mayhem with supernatural elements. We invite all the fourth & fifth graders to the show and ask them to bring sleeping bags, pillows, Snuggies and snacks. Due to the intense nature of the play, no child is to be admitted without an adult or a signed permission slip.

15 minutes before showtime, they begin arriving and staking out spots on the multipurpose room floor. After a brief introduction warning them once again about the rivers of blood, we start the DVD. I try to watch the kids watch the film, but it’s such a good staging of the play that I continually go back to watching the screen instead–even though I’ve seen this version several times on DVD and once live on stage. Some of the dialogue is going over their heads, but overall they are pretty attentive for a group of 10-11 year olds watching Shakespeare. They respond audibly to all the major plot developments, plus any stage tricks and blood. Some of them seem to like the witches; some of them are disturbed. They really love the porter scene; luckily, some of that is going over their heads, too, but they like the knock-knock jokes and laugh and laugh as he urinates behind a pillar. No surprise there—the adults are laughing, too.

As we get to sections of the play that we’ve worked on in auditions, something happens that does surprise me—some of the cast, after only two weeks, can already quote lines from the play. And they do! As Macbeth says “I go, and it is done; the bell invites me. /Hear it not Duncan, for it is a knell/ that summons thee to heaven–” at least one of them shouts out “–or to hell!” I also hear bits of Lady Macbeth quoted during the banquet scene and some of Mac’s “Tomorrow” speech. This is very exciting.

As we approach the long scene where Malcolm tests Macduff’s integrity by representing himself as a worse villain than Macbeth, I toy with the idea of telling the kids that this would be a good time for a bathroom break, as there won’t be anything bloody happening for a few pages—I’m thinking that I might save myself some explaining later if they don’t even watch that scene. I resist, though, and sure enough, I hear couple of girls whispering to each other “What does that mean?” as Malcolm says the word “voluptuousness” in such a way as to call a lot of attention to it, caressing all the syllables. We make it past that to Ross’ entrance with the news that Macduff’s family has been savagely slaughtered, and it’s all blood and guts from that point on. Lady M’s sleepwalking scene draws lots of gasps, and the kids can’t quite figure out if she’s really bleeding or not, but they’re fascinated. They cheer the final duel with a cry or two of “Lay on, Macduff!” and get grossed out when the witches pour blood on Macbeth’s upturned face to symbolize his beheading. One of them even asks, quite loudly, “Was that necessary?” They start applauding after that, not realizing that there is more: Macduff presenting Macbeth’s head, wrapped in his bloody shirt, to Malcolm. They applaud again at the real curtain, and insist on watching all the bows.

Some of the parents try to gather up belongings and head out at that point, but when I ask if there are any questions, the kids run over to me, hands shooting up in the air. One of the boys in the cast asks if our production is going to have Macbeth’s severed head at the end.  He thinks it will be possible to stage a live beheading by using the gap in the proscenium curtain. I give him props for creativity but explain that there is a limit to what the principal will condone in the way of violence. One of the boys who is not part of our cast wants to know what came out of the cauldron; I explain what each apparition was, what it represented, and how each one lied by telling Macbeth the truth. A cast member wants to know what the word “voluptuousness” means; I grope around for a delicate way of putting it and settle on the answer “it means he has all sorts of very large appetites.” One cast member is confused by the fact that there was only one actor playing Macbeth (our production will have four actors sharing the role), which was not something I anticipated at all. They are also stunned to learn that a single actor (the outrageously talented Eric Hissom) played a witch, a murderer, the doctor, and the porter.

The tell us their favorite things about the show were the witches, the battle between Macbeth and Macduff, the porter’s bodily functions, Lady Macbeth’s crazy sleepwalking scene (“I thought she would die from blood loss!”), and from our “voluptuousness” fan, the Malcolm/Macduff scene, because “first Macduff was sad and then he was happy.” She is clearly of a more subtle mind than most fifth graders. None of them mention any of the magic—I think they are so used to movie magic that they don’t realize what went into making a witch vanish into thin air.

The PTA president, who brought her fourth grader, wants to know if we can do more Shakespeare Movie Nights. I’d say the evening is a success.

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Auditions at the fifth-grade level should be as low-pressure as possible. We don’t ask our actors to memorize any text, and we don’t base our entire casting decision on how they read text with which they have little familiarity. We let them know that our top two criteria for making casting decisions are being able to speak 1) loudly and 2) clearly.

We ask them into the audition room in small groups (2-4 students) and make sure they have a signed behavior contract. Then we ask them about which roles they might like, which ones they might hate, what their interests and talents are, and whether they have any experience performing. After the chitchat, we ask them to read whichever audition excerpt they’ve rehearsed. If we have difficulty hearing them, we’ll ask them to go to the other end of the room and speak a line or two as loudly as they can. Usually when they are focusing on one thing at a time, like volume production, everyone can meet our expectations on loudlyClearly is another matter, and some children will not be cast in major roles due to enunciation issues.

Unless that first read is brilliant—and sometimes it is—we ask them to make an adjustment to what they did. For instance, “Macduff is really angry. He thinks that if he doesn’t kill Macbeth with his own two hands, it’s like his wife and children will die all over again. Can you do just those last two lines again, only speak them as if revenge is the only thing you have to live for?” Almost everyone will do a much better job the second time. Those that can’t take a piece of direction like that and improve are probably not going to get larger speaking roles.

After they present their text, we ask them to do short improvisations. Those that are interested in being soldiers, for example, are paired up and asked to kill each other in turn. They are told not to actually lay their hands on the other actor. We ask the attackers to get to an angry place in their heads and charge, invisible swords drawn. We ask the attackees to make their deaths as loud, gruesome and showy as they like; this is their big moment. Although the kids invariably love this exercise, a surprising number of them, once again, merely clutch their guts and fall to the ground.

We ask the Lady Macduff auditioners to imagine that they are left all alone with their children when threatening strangers arrive. We ask to see their fear for their own lives, and the protective instincts they feel toward their children, and then, death. One actor (who also read very well as a witch) was particularly affecting; she will be cast in a major role.

We ask witches to improvise their own cauldron scene. They can throw whatever they like into the cauldron; the words don’t matter in the slightest. We tell them that what we are interested in seeing is how they all work together. They gather around a trash can in their groups of three and for the most part, hesitate. A lot. Usually a leader will emerge and run the improv. This time, out of a dozen possible witches, there are a two actors who look thrilled to be howling and cackling. They are also clearly excited and involved when they watch their scene partners, and react with glee to anything that gets thrown in the pot. Exuberance is a good thing in a witch.

After we have seen all 30 actors read, improvise, move and speak about themselves, we are ready to make our casting decisions. Speaking loudly and clearly come first. Then we look at some other factors, such as the ability to take direction; ability to really interact with others onstage (a lot rarer at this age than you might believe); ability to put yourself in another body and situation (also rare); enthusiasm (very important); and some other intangibles, such as motivation. There are always one or two auditioners who have memorized their text—they get an extra point for sheer motivation.

You might think that some of these criteria are very subjective, but my directing partner Zoe and I hardly ever disagree about our assessments of auditions and how to cast those 30 actors in our 30 available roles. The main stumbling block is the actors’ stated preferences; a 10- or 11-year-old’s self-image does not always line up with reality. Sometimes we just have to do what we think will work best.

We email the cast their roles, and keep our fingers crossed that there will not be too much of a backlash.

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