ANDY GOLDBERG, CO-DIRECTOR OF THE ALAN CUMMING MACBETH

ON CREATING A ONE MAN MACBETH

Andrew Goldberg is a theatre director, multi-disciplinary artist, and educator.  His work has been seen all over the world including New York City, Chicago, London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Berlin, and Perth, Australia.  He is making his Broadway directing debut this spring with Macbeth starring Alan Cumming.  After completing his M.F.A. in the Performance and Interactive Media Arts program at Brooklyn College in May, he will begin his doctoral studies at the CUNY Grad Center in the Fall.

AlanCummingMacbeth2-PhotoManuelHarlan*

Alan Cumming in MACBETH

Why a one man Macbeth?  How did you arrive at this concept?

I first conceived of this one-man Macbeth about ten years ago.  I had just finished directing two large scale productions – a musical on the West End and a large cast Romeo and Juliet outdoors for the American Stage theater in St. Petersburg, Florida.  I wanted to work on Shakespeare, particularly Macbeth or one of the other great tragedies, but I was dreading all of the encumbrances that come with large-scale Shakespeare: enormous casts, battle scenes, armor, swords, and so on.  I really just wanted to work on the text, to find a way to strip away all “Shakespeare-iana” that comes with a production, to pare it away and really get to the emotional and psychological heart of the play.  I know that audiences and Shakespeare festivals love all that pageantry, but I also think it serves to keep Shakespeare at a safe remove sometimes… and I wanted to do a production that pierced through all of that, that asked audiences to confront the play in an immediate and contemporary way.

The inspiration to set Macbeth in a psychiatric ward and be performed by a single actor came from the end of Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.  The phrase “a tale told by an idiot” really intrigued me…  ‘Idiot’ in the allegorical and literary sense of having lost one’s mind, and because of that mental state, being able to reveal profound truths, (such as Edmund in King Lear). At that moment in the play, when Macbeth has just been informed of his wife’s death, he is arguably at his most insane and yet paradoxically he is at his most lucid. In Shakespeare it is usually the fools that are the wisest characters, so the idea of a tale told by an idiot, or madman, must be a story whose truth is so profound that it results in going mad, which to me, encapsulates the Macbeths journey.  In many of productions of Macbeth, the main character and his emotional trajectory can get completely lost in all of these quick scenes jumping between the enemy camp and the castle, the cutting down of tree branches, moving forests, etc.  By stripping away everything but a single man in a room channeling the story of Macbeth, the emphasis is placed solely on the psychological journey of the central character.  Once you start noticing, references to madness and insanity are woven through the entire text and the setting serves to highlight that aspect of the tale.

The idea to have the (mostly) non-speaking roles of the doctor and the orderly came from the need to have ‘the patient’ medicated and restrained at several points.  In some ways this was to solve certain technical issues (such as how to get rid of blood on the actor’s hands) and to allow for some emotional pacing – highly volatile episodes followed by some medicated drops in intensity.  But it is also a reference to the scene in which the doctor and the gentlewoman (switched to a female psychiatrist and male orderly in our production) observe Lady Macbeth as she is sleepwalking.  In a way, the audience is in the same spectatorial relationship to ‘the patient’ as the doctor and gentlewoman are to Lady Macbeth, watching a disturbed individual re-living the traumatic events leading to their mental illness.

Concurrently with all of this, my friend John Tiffany (Associate Artistic Director of the National Theater of Scotland) and Alan Cumming had been in discussions about working on the play together following their hugely successful production of The Bacchae for the National Theatre of Scotland.  Alan was particularly interested in the gender roles in Macbeth, and had initially wanted to alternate the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at each performance.  Central to both concepts was the strange fluidity of of identity between the husband and wife.  Alan had envisioned playing only the two roles, but jumped at the idea of playing all the rest of the roles as well.

What was the rehearsal process like?  How did you all collaborate?

The rehearsal process was one of the most collaborative and creative processes I have ever been a part of.  In many ways, the final production was a melding of three minds: Alan, John, and myself.  When we began on the first day, we genuinely did not know how we were going to tell this story.  And as it turned out, there wasn’t a single answer – each scene demanded its own story-telling vocabulary.  A scene between Duncan and Macbeth required something very different than scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  And then scenes with multiple characters required different story-telling techniques altogether.  We were interested in more than just an exercise in storytelling and being clever. If all of the characters were aspects of a single personality, who was Macbeth? And then who was was Lady Macbeth to ‘the patient’? Banquo? The murderers? Macduff? We’d get to each scene and look at each other and say, “How are we going to do this one?!?”

The other hugely thrilling aspect to the process was discovering the back story to ‘the patient’.  Who was this person who had landed up in a psychiatric ward?  Was he Macbeth?  Was he channeling Macbeth?  Was he a criminal?  It was really a discovery process as we worked through the play to think not just about how to tell Shakespeare’s story, but to refract that story back and think about how ‘the patient’ was relating the events in the play to the traumatic event that had happened his own life.  The fact that we didn’t have the answer to these questions before we began meant that the foundation we were building the production on could shift under our feet on any given day, which was terrifying, but exhilarating. Eventually, we arrived at a backstory that intersected with and reflected back onto the story of Macbeth in the most impactful and horrific way.  At the same time, we wanted to be careful that this additional layer didn’t overwhelm the production, but rather, provide a context for why we were telling the story in this way.

Alan Cumming in MACBETH

Alan Cumming in MACBETH

What is Cumming’s approach to his work? Did he work from an internal psychological place or externally through physical action?-

That’s a funny question because for an actor like Alan the answer is both – I don’t think it would be possible to separate the physical from the psychological!  Alan is an incredibly instinctual and playful actor, and he explores those ideas through his body.  We had recorded a version of the play as an audio book about a month or two before we began rehearsals so we had already really delved deeply into the text together.  But then in the rehearsal room, there wasn’t a lot of talking, it was much more of an on our feet exploration.  I’ll never forget the first day working onstage.  We played some of Max Richter’s gorgeous and haunting music that we were planning on using in the production for nearly twenty minutes and just let  Alan silently wander around the set.  He explored every nook and cranny and when he crawled into the bath tub… Lady Macbeth was born!  Is that psychological or physical?  I’d say both!  I should add that Alan is also an incredibly precise and technical actor.  He has a notebook and obsessively writes down and incorporates every last note he is given.  And yet, despite all of the many detailed technical marks he must hit, I’ve never seen a freer, more “in the moment” performer on stage.

How would you describe yours and Tiffany’s approach?  What issues did you face creating a one-man Macbeth and how did you solve those?  Was there dramaturgical work – cutting of text in order to facilitate the one-man approach?

Dramaturgically, we took a pass at editing the script before rehearsals began, essentially streamlining the story with our general production in mind.  For example, John had the idea to combine the roles of Malcom and Donalbaine so that Duncan only had one son.  Other edits focussed on keeping the story as close to the Macbeths as possible, so many of the more political scenes got cut.  Once we got into rehearsals, we found we were able to cut even deeper, in response to Alan’s performance.  We remained fairly faithful to the text, perhaps cutting a little more than you would in a traditional production, but not as much as you might think.  One major excision came quite late.  After a conversation with Vicky Featherstone (Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland at the time, now Artistic Director of The Royal Court) after our final run-thru before technical rehearsals began, we cut the entire opening scene in which Duncan hears about Macbeth’s success in battle from a wounded sergeant.  We realized it was important in our version of the play to solidify the identification of the patient with Macbeth in the opening moments in the story.  Once it was gone, it was quite liberating to have the story open on the heath with Macbeth and the witches.

How did you all prepare for the production? Both dramaturgically, Research wise? and Physical training?

The research was a blast.  Half for fun and half for research, John and I set out to Inverness and Northern Scotland with a book entitled “In Search of the Real Macbeth” which was a tourist book that took you to all of the locations where the real Macbeth (who lived four hundred years before Shakespeare to give some perspective) may possibly have been.  We went to the Black Isle, Macbeth’s Hillock, Inverness, Forres, the kirk where Macbeth and Gruoch (Lady Macbeth’s real name) were probably married. It’s interesting because while our production is set present day and set in a psychiatric ward, there is still a sense in which the landscape and ancient pagan mysticism informed the sensibility of the design.  We drove around in the rain listening to Max Richter’s music and the two are forever fused in my imagination now.

The  other major avenue of research had to do with mental illness and psychosis.  Freud wrote an essay analyzing the Macbeths that became a major underpinning of the production concept.  Essentially Freud argues that Macbeth and his wife represent two sides of the same psyche, that the two together make up a complete individual.  Essentially we have literalized that idea by combining the two roles in a single performer! We also researched contemporary theories of psychosis and met with a brilliant psychiatrist from Edinburgh who came in and described his experience with psychotic individuals.  His description of “floridly psychotic episodes” seemed to fit many of the events in the play (such as hallucinations, megalomania, paranoia, etc.) and our production to a tee.  He also mentioned that Lady Macbeth’s hand washing scene is still held up as one of the most classic representations of O.C.D. behavior in all of literature.  We didn’t feel constrained to represent a completely realistic depiction of mental illness on stage, but the medical research really informed many of the staging and physical choices that ended up in the final production.

The design is very striking in terms of space and use of video- how did you work with the designers? Space issues, set design issues, video, costume, music, sound. What made you choose a vast space as opposed to an intimate one? How was the video conceived?  Is the era timeless or contemporary?

We had several sources of inspiration when we first spoke with the designers.  We were looking at all kinds of photos of derelict psychiatric wards in the U.K. which were the basis for our conversations with set designer Merle Hensel.

(For example: http://weburbanist.com/2010/03/10/abandoned-mental-asylum-hellingly-rip-33-creepy-photo-tribute/ or http://uexplorer.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/lier-psychiatric-hospital-second-visit/)

At the same time we were watching contemporary horror films, such the Paranormal Activity movies.  We wanted to invoke a sense of history and the past, but at the same time make the story completely modern. In the end we settled on an abandoned wing of a Victorian mental hospital, but set modern day, so for example, with modern surveillance cameras that were retro-fitted into the asylum. The observation room from which the orderly and the doctor observe the patient evokes the Victorian medical theater (or possibly the Victorian freak show). The layering of modern video and costumes, Victorian setting, and Elizabethan language was meant to be slightly disorienting, allowing the past and present to fluidly co-exist on stage.  The production was designed for the Tramway theater in Glasgow which is an incredibly wide and tall space. We liked the epic grandeur of the environment, but then relied on designer Natasha Chivers’ lighting to create smaller intimate acting areas within this cavernous, underground, windowless ward.

In many ways Natasha Chivers’ lighting design and Fergus O’Hare’s sound design are Alan’s acting partners on-stage.  We were fortunate to be able to rehearse on stage and have them be present for much longer stretches of time than is customary for most productions. Fergus created a densely layered soundscape that not only created a real sense of atmosphere and tension, but also allowed for some wonderful storytelling, as sounds emerged from the ether indicating that a new character had arrived, for example.  Likewise the lighting was intimately  connected to the patient’s psychological state, with lighting shifts cued as if by a thought.  Alan developed an acting vocabulary to initiated or responded to the sound and lighting as sensitively as if responding to a fellow actor.

The idea of watching the patient on CCTV surveillance cameras was part of the production from its inception.  That translated in Ian Galloway’s design into three cameras and three flat screen tvs placed over the stage, the screens often divided into the typical six-split screen found in most security systems. The video serves several different functions in the production.  On one level, the cameras provide a level of potential danger, reminding the audience that the patient may be dangerous to himself or others.  The cameras also allowed us on a purely technical level, to project a close up of several scenes, allowing for an intimacy even in a large theater from far away. On a deeper level, however, the video technology became deeply entwined with the supernatural aspects of the play. Alan addresses the moving cameras as the witches, for example, with his face appearing from a different angle on each of the three screens. The effect is that he is present as both Macbeth and the witches simultaneously.  In the production whenever we approach either something supernatural (the dagger, Banquo’s ghost) or one of the murders, the use of video automatically invokes the witches.  In one of my favorite moments in the show, when Macbeth has just murdered Duncan, the lights on stage go out completely, and we watch the scene on the screens using infra-red in close up.  In another scene we play with a live feed and a pre-recorded mask to allow a pre-recorded Alan to watch the live feed of himself tossing in bed.  Even though I know how it’s done, the effect of watching one thing directly with your eyes and something different on screen is genuinely unnerving!

Philosophically what is your approach towards video on stage?

Well, on a personal level, I’m deeply interested in the intersection of new media technologies and performance. I have spent a lot of time lately studying and exploring innovative uses of technology on stage. When I go to music concerts and museums and art galleries, I am often blown away by the sophistication of interactive media. In the theater, however, I think it’s a much tricker line to tow.  I’ve seen many productions where an interesting idea gets hobbled by the execution.  I’ve been there myself!  The increasing accessibility and affordability of hardware and software makes it tempting to include new technology in productions. And artists are ambitious and always trying to push the boundaries of how something can be used.  But with that ambition comes many pitfalls, and technology takes a long time, and often fails. So partly, I feel that video on stage is still in its experimental stage as a discipline, the rules are still being written, so to speak.  All of that said, I am starting to question more and more if it’s actually worth all of the investment of time and money it is receiving.  For me, sadly there is no competition between a performer and a screen on stage – if there is a light-emitting screen, that is where my attention is going to go. (Just think about sports bars and how many times your dinner companion gets lost watching a game!)  And it’s the human aspect of theater that led me into this field in the first place.  So I am looking forward to the stage when theater artists have moved passed the initial thrill of using video for video’s sake, and begin using video to ask interesting questions about the role of technology and the mediated image in our world today.  I think one of the reasons the video in Macbeth is effective, is that that we are using video technology as technology – we see the surveillance cameras as part of the scenography. The monitors are presumably what a security guard somewhere would be seeing.  Of course, we also subvert the supposed objectivity of the cameras by making them agents of the supernatural – the ghosts in the machine, if you will – and manipulating that image to undermine an audience’s ability to match up what they see with their own eyes (on stage) versus what they see on-screen.

Alan Cumming in MACBETH

How did the show grow through performances? What is its future? What after Broadway?

After premiering in Scotland and a short run as  part of the Lincoln Center Festival last summer, we are amazingly entering the commercial world of Broadway with this rather experimental production!  I think Alan felt at the end of Lincoln Center that he wasn’t done with the role and the production yet.  As a director getting to watch his production night after night over several weeks was such a thrill.  Alan is one of those actors who grows and grows in front of an audience, never giving the same performance twice, and not because he’s bored or can’t repeat something.  He genuinely is taking risks re-discovering the truth of the moment for himself each and every time.  It is an incredibly punishing and physically exhausting experience.  When talking to producers about a Broadway run, Alan was adamant that he could never again do two performances in one day.

At the moment there are no plans for Alan to do the production again after the limited Broadway run, but you never know.  Some producers in Japan have expressed interest in mounting the production in Japanese with a leading Japanese actor which would be quite an interesting thing to behold!

What’s the future of Shakespeare on the stage?

Well I don’t think Shakespeare is going away any time soon.  In some ways Shakespeare is still the lingua franca for international theatre directors, a way of engaging with other directors in a global and historical conversation.  As a director, Shakespeare challenges you to aim for the bleachers. For me that’s the most exciting part of directing Shakespeare, that your vision automatically enters into a dialogue with all other productions of that play past and present.  And if you’re lucky, the future.

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