Time for a story about how I became the director I am.
In 2002, I was interning at the American Shakespeare Center. This was before they had any kind of formal internship program, so the deal basically was that I worked with their summer camp during the day, and in the evening, I could go see shows or sit in on rehearsals for the production they were preparing (Richard III, directed by Thadd McQuade). My first night, campers hadn’t arrived yet, so I was free to check out the theater.
I will never forget walking into that space for the first time. I had never been in a theater like that. My brain had a hard time wrapping itself around the idea that this even was a theater. There was no lighting grid, no grand drape, no wings, no proscenium. The lighting consisted of chandeliers suspended above the stage and candle-shaped lamps along the walls, and the “house lights” were as bright as those on the stage. When the actors began their work, sometimes they had their back to part of the audience; I had never seen thrust staging before, and I didn’t know how to understand it. When I teach theater history these days, I always ask my students at the beginning of the semester to define what “theater” is. Part of the goal of the class is to deconstruct and massively rethink those definitions. This moment, stepping into a space that I knew was a theater, but which felt like a church, was the beginning of that deconstruction for me.
When the performance began, I noticed even more changes. The pacing of the text was extremely quick—a solid 20 lines per minute, or more—with very little air between lines. It wasn’t too fast to process, more that it flowed at the speed of the verse line, without disrupting the rhythm. The performance opened with a preshow that was its own little scene, where Lady Macbeth, in character, described what she would do to people whose cell phones went off. Most of the actors played many parts, swapping out a hat or vest to indicate the change. There was no intermission, and the way the relentless pace carried through without that disruption in momentum was a revelation.
This performance is seared in my memory in clearer detail than shows I saw recently. I remember the preshow song (“Trouble Me” by 10,000 Maniacs), how they did the witches (body stockings), the trick of making Banquo appear at the banquet (he entered with everyone else, but his face was hidden, and crouched down in the middle of their circle so that he could rise up out of the center—a truly startling entrance). In part, this is because I saw it 8 or 10 times over the course of that glorious summer. More than that, though, I remember that very first performance specifically. I knew, even as it was happening, that I was learning the art I wanted to make for the rest of my life.
The biggest moment of transformation happened when Kevin Hauver, playing Banquo, looked up at me, where I was sitting in the house-right corner of the balcony, locked eyes with me, smiled warmly, and said, “There is husbandry in heaven. Her candles are all out.” In “original practices” Shakespeare, we’re always trying to find moments to “cast the audience”—as an army or a potential suitor or co-conspirators. I rarely see this use of “audience casting,” where they stand in for metaphors. Kevin cast me as the dutiful housewife of heaven, who had extinguished the stars. In that moment, I fell in love with Banquo. I was furious when he was murdered, a feeling I had never had about that character. It changed the whole play for me. I knew, immediately, the power of this audience-connected style of playing, of this invitation to be a co-creator in the work, without putting anyone on the spot or pulling them out of their seat.
Many things about the physical space and the performance style have changed over the past 19 years. In 2002, the audience sat on oak benches; you could rent a seat back or cushion for a few dollars. When I first went to the Blackfriars, the frons was bare wood. The theater had it painted in faux marble when I was in grad school (As Ralph Cohen said, “The wood is beautiful, but the Elizabethans never saw a board they didn’t feel compelled to paint.”). Over the years, the text has gotten looser, pauses creeping in, the house lights dimmer, the acting less open to adventure and discovery. They’ve experimented with intermissions—always at least one, but, for a year or so, up to four (they sold a lot of concessions, but it made the shows too long). I began to like the shows best when they were returning tours—over months on the road, they learned from their audience and found more ways to act on the line and keep the energy vibrant.
I’ve wondered if I’m too nostalgic for the magic of that summer when I was 19. Was the text really that sharp and quick, or was I just so new to that style of playing that it felt fast and furious? Have the house lights really been getting dimmer over the years, or am I just growing critical and fussy?
Last week, after over a year of no in-person performances, I finally returned to the Blackfriars. They’ve been through massive upheaval over the past year, even more than the turmoil every theater has experienced. Their board fired the artistic director over concerns about how he treated actors (and we all know how I feel about treating actors well). Instead of immediately hiring a new artistic director, they’ve regrouped around an actor-manager model. I was excited to see this. My favorite theaters to work with are ones run by actors, and I was sure this particular group of actors would do an excellent job.
I also felt it fitting that Macbeth would be my first show back. That show in 2002 was the beginning of my truest work as a director, the moment when I finally understood how an audience can be an integral part of the work. Buying my tickets for that same show in 2021 felt like an investment in hope, in the idea that my work will have another phase, after All This.
Macbeth was also my family’s pandemic theme, on some level. The kids learned “Out damn’d spot” to time their hand washing, and “double double” as a chant for their own amusement (Random adult: “Oh, your mother directs Shakespeare? That’s nice. Do you know any Shakespeare?” Silas: “Yes, but I don’t feel like doing it right now. Would you like to hear some Middleton instead?”). They virtually memorized Mya Gosling’s Good Tickle Brain version, and are constantly spouting facts they learned from her footnotes (“Did you know that the historical Lady Macbeth was named ‘Grouch’?”).
The thing that struck me the most strongly about the performance, right from the outset, was that it felt like a return to the theater’s roots. I heard an interview where actor-manager Brandon Carter said, “We’re so focused on getting back to the original storyline of what the ASC is about, maintaining our ensemble signature,” and that’s what I saw in their performance. It felt like a return to the company’s origins of joyful collaboration. From the first moments, I could see the integration of their work. The preshow music featured every member of the cast, rather than just a few. The pacing was quick, the lights were bright. Actors looked us right in the eyes. Afterward, the kids could name the specific lines that Chris Johnston, as Macbeth, took directly to them. We were all together in the room, telling the story with joy and commitment.
The show didn’t have a director; for at least 15 years, this company has had a “Renaissance season” in the spring, where they create ensemble-directed shows, so this was not a tremendous departure for them. Every time I see a Renn season show, I remember all over again that most of my job as a director is to ask questions and trust actors. Without a director, they can put together a solid show, and this Macbeth was a great example of that.
As the title couple, Chris Johnston and Zoe Speas had an intense and tender connection. Watching it break down over the course of the play made for compelling theater. Chris’ Mac was driven and impulsive, rapidly trapped by his own momentum. I saw the way he felt carried along by fate, first collaborating with the oracle and then trying to fight against it, but without hope. I particularly loved his movement work, especially the moment he shared with Brandon Carter as ghost Banquo, and the final fight (choreographed by, and performed with, Jeremy West). The fight was intense and creative, and executed with absolute precision. I loved its storytelling. There was one moment where Macduff was attacking with big, slashing movements, and Macbeth was responding with the most minimal parries—and then says, “I will not fight you.”
As the ghost, I loved the fun Brandon put into his work. The banquet scene was the one with the clearest and most deliberate blocking, and it did so much for the storytelling. Banquo was constantly close to Macbeth, but just out of his line of sight, reaching over his shoulder to pour him more wine or sliding into a seat behind him.
The show’s ensemble was strong. I loved J Moliere as Malcolm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him played with such warmth. I was on his side with more commitment than I have been in other productions—when I’ve seen this play before, I’ve felt like Malcolm was…at least not Macbeth, so he should be the king, but anyone else would have been fine, too. J created a stand-out character for me to get behind.
Jeremy West was Macduff. His performance was just outstanding. He played the character’s throughline with clarity and precision. In particular, the Malcolm/Macduff scene is often a place where the production’s energy goes to die (until “All my pretty chickens and their dam”). But Jeremy and J had such a great connection, I actually followed the whole ruse about self-slander. I cared about the politics, even.
The cauldron was brilliant, built out of the whole company, and with a large book of paintings to represent all the visions (the artist was uncredited, but I’m curious to know who made those!). At the end, the witches blew dust off the book into Macbeth’s eyes, temporarily blinding him to cover their escape.
In many ways, the whole event was a return to the ASC I fell in love with as a teenager. The atmosphere was joyful, the acting was strong, the music outstanding (and used well throughout, including the sounds of social dancing offstage during the banquet), the lights bright. It feels like a rebirth.
I’m so excited to see the rest of their season; trying to figure out when to go to All’s Well and Henry V. They’re running through November, though, so there’s plenty of time.