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 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.