Guest blog story by David Atkins, who played Macbeth in Arlington Children’s Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park performance in July 2011.
Although we often associate the works of William Shakespeare with the iconic stage in the round at the Globe Theatre in London, Shakespeare’s troupe spent their summers touring the English countryside, putting on their plays in the open air. Over the last several months, I was fortunate to share a similar experience with the cast of Arlington Children’s Theatre’s Macbeth, and I’m glad to have this opportunity to share some of what we went through as a cast. First and foremost, being part of this show was wonderful and a true piece of teamwork, in every way. The sense of accomplishment when the show goes well, and the whole cast knows everyone played a role in that, is one of the best parts of the theater experience.
We started rehearsing on a winter night when the ground was still covered in snow and this crazy, but amazing process ended on a beautiful summer night by Spy Pond. For me, it has been a privilege to have the opportunity to bring Macbeth to the stage especially since he has been a fascinating character to get to know. My first impression of Macbeth was that he was nothing more than a bad guy. He certainly has his share of bad behavior, killing many innocent people in cold blood over the course of the play, and by the time Macduff carries in Macbeth’s severed head, most people would agree that Macbeth got what he deserved. At that point in the show, I would agree. He does go off the deep end in the second half of the show. However, as I came to understand the character better, I began to feel a little sorry for Macbeth. He starts the play as a brave and honorable warrior, which is why Duncan confers the title of Thane of Cawdor on him in the first place. Slowly, the three witches, his wife, and ultimately his own ambition destroy him.
Being part of Macbeth was particularly interesting for me after having been in ACT’s production of Hamlet last spring. The plays are known as two of Shakespeare’s most classic tragedies, yet their title characters couldn’t be more different. Macbeth is a very impulsive and ambitious person. He seeks to take what is not his, and he rarely stops to think about his actions, let alone their consequences. Conversely, Hamlet plots and schemes, acting slowly upon his desire to avenge the death of his father, developing his plans over time and thinking before he acts. Seeing these two characters in productions so close together presented a fascinating contrast.
Our indoor performances of Macbeth were staged in the Arlington Masonic Temple, a location that allowed us to perform in the round. Performing in the round is a very different experience from performing on a proscenium stage with a traditional “fourth wall.” Although the round comes with its own particular set of challenges, I find the round a much more natural place to perform. When people stand around and talk in a group, there is no “front” or “back,” so why perform that way? When the audience is only on one side, there is no excuse not to turn toward them, but, as an actor, this seems less natural. When performing in the round, there is no upstage or downstage, and the action is free to take shape organically which changes the experience of both acting in, and viewing, the play.
After we had performed three shows in the round, we shifted the play to the back burner for almost two months and brought it out again to perform one final show for Shakespeare in the Park. As I said before, Shakespeare’s company frequently used an outdoor setting back in the 1600s when his plays were first being performed. The park was a fun, but challenging place to put on a play. The two venues we performed in couldn’t have been more different. The Masonic Temple’s stage in the round lent itself to the kind of natural acting I talked about before. We were used to performing in the round, so having to direct all the action to an audience seated in one direction posed some interesting challenges. We had to work to reorient some scenes in the play and change the blocking.
Besides the physical layout of the stage, the transition from performing in a room to a field was challenging in terms of acoustics, mood, and distractions. First, relying on nothing but four microphones across the stage was the biggest challenge I faced in making the transition from stage to field. Macbeth, as is the case in any of Shakespeare’s plays, is full of subtlety and carefully created moods. The lack of a room with powerful acoustics created a need to speak quite a bit louder. Could I retain everything I had done in the round and adapt it to the field? Second, it was a difficult transition in terms of creating mood. The Masonic presents an ideal setting for acting Shakespeare. The indoor stage allows for the use of lighting to create mood, as well as a room that is an architecturally perfect setting for a Shakespeare play. Contrast this with a field in the middle of broad daylight. Trying to capture the sinister subtlety of murder in the middle of the day next to a baseball diamond was a challenge to be reckoned with.
Finally, the indoor stage was much quieter. The outdoor stage was filled with distractions. Some people played Frisbee across the field, while others played tennis behind our stage. Airplanes often flew overhead. These distractions made the intense focus of the play more difficult to reproduce. In all three challenging areas, as I got more comfortable with such a different setting, I felt a lot more relaxed. By the end of the play, the field seemed just as natural a place to perform as an indoor stage, which is a feeling I’m sure I shared with Shakespeare and the members of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
See more images from the show in our Shakespeare in the Park online slideshow