"You're always going to be able to hear the trains, the spray pond is on, there are birds in there - there's no way to control the environment," admits Elizabeth Hunter, artistic director of the newly formed Sloss Performing Arts (SPA). "So instead of trying to overcome that obstacle we started using it as an asset."
Hunter is directing the production of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, which runs this Saturday and Sunday, May 3-4, at Sloss. The show is Hunter's first project since Muse of Fire, the theatre company she founded in 2005, became the flagship project of Sloss Performing Arts.
Whatever the difficulties involved in staging a play at Sloss, there is a certain sublime beauty to the place, an eerie but compelling darkness that jives just right with the psychomachia of Macbeth. The last of Shakespeare's four great tragedies, the so-called "Scottish play" is the story of an ambitious captain who is told by three witches that he is destined to be king of Scotland. Pushed by his wife, he murders the reigning king, Duncan, and ascends to the throne.
"What's interesting about this stage is that - striking as it looks - it's a backdrop for whatever you want it to be," Hunter says. "It was a great battle backdrop for Henry V. It will be a great, austere looking, imposing Scottish countryside for Macbeth."
Hunter hopes that the freedom afforded by the stage-site will allow her to do something that seems impossible: keep an audience in need of constant stimuli interested in a two-hour long Shakespeare play.
"I think what shuts a lot of people out of going and seeing a Shakespeare play sometimes is that the only thing you can watch is what's on stage," she says. "I see the benefit of staging things that way, but not for our kind of contemporary generation, where you have 10 windows open on your Mac and you're following what's going on in all of them."
Upon the bank and shoal of time
To keep audiences interested, Hunter mixes the traditional with the modern, and forces Sloss' challenges to become benefits.
"It's not supposed to be a passive experience coming to see a project out here, because there's really no way for it to be," Hunter says. "The space is so dominant, there's no way to make it feel like you're in a cocoon."
In traditional theatre spaces, that cocoon feeling is usually achieved in the dark - everything but the stage might be black, in order to focus the audience's attention on the stage and away from unwanted stimuli. But in Shakespeare's time, stage lighting would have been achieved with torches. For the most part, plays were staged outdoors and in daylight. Muse of Fire emulates the Elizabethan staging in part as homage and also out of necessity: Lights would limit movement and cost too much besides, so show time is 3 p.m. each day. And since the blast furnace looming over the stage is sure to draw the eye, Hunter has made the environment part of the performance.
During Act 1, Macbeth's friend Banquo and the soon-to-be-murdered King Duncan arrive at Macbeth's castle, Inverness. Banquo points out "the temple haunting martlet," a bird whose presence he considers a good omen, roosting at the castle. "There are birds that nest in the rafters at Sloss, so all my actor who's playing Banquo has to do is look around and find one of these birds, and then it's like, 'Cue, birds,'" Hunter says.
But then there are the trains, - they are frequent, they are loud and they can't be cued.
"The trains will always be something that has to be overcome, Hunter says. "But at the same time they add the unpredictable - there are moments in the plays when a train goes by at exactly the right moment, and everyone just gets chills. It'll never happen again, and you can't duplicate it, and you couldn't put it on video and have it be effective. And that, for us, kind of embodies the fun of live theatre - the ephemeral 'it was there and it was gone and you couldn't capture it.' That's a fun part of being out here."
Another challenge is that Sloss doesn't have a backstage, just a long, sloping, sand-covered hill leading up to the blast furnace. This means that set pieces can't be taken off the stage. To handle this challenge, the Muse of Fire crew built what Hunter calls "the Swiss Army set." Beds convert into walls, long table are split into two small tables and a desk. Even the long sand slope is used: "It's wonderful to watch Lady Macbeth," Hunter says. "When she does her sleepwalking scenes, she comes walking down the sand. She's just kind of lost on the sand, and it looks beautiful."
Yet another challenge of stagecraft demanded a unique response. Stage directions for act three call for Banquo's ghost to appear and disappear through a trapdoor. Not only does the Sloss stage not have room for a trapdoor, Hunter prefers to avoid the conventional portrayal of ghosts anyway.
"Dramaturgically, it just doesn't sit with me to see an actor playing the role of Banquo, and then you see him get murdered onstage, then he goes off-stage, and then the same actor comes back on with blood and glitter make-up on his face," she says. "It's just one more layer of artifice--it's not the best solution in my mind."
What was the best solution?
"There'll be big video screens on stage, and my husband, Alan Hunter, is making the video pieces we're doing with a bunch of our actors," Hunter says. "Our goal for the video pieces is for them to be like The Ring, that movie. There's a genre of film called J-Horror, characterized by that kind of stop-motion 'Somebody's here, all of a sudden they're over there, now they're over here' thing.
"Using video pieces on stage allows people who have a whole range of experience with Shakespeare, or comfort level with understanding the language, to still be engaged in a two-hour play," Hunter says.
Guerilla-style punk kabuki
If the video installations don't keep the audiences glued to their seats then Hunter's adaptation of Macbeth, inspired by Akira Kurosawa's 1957 Macbeth interpretation Throne of Blood, is bound to do it. Kurosawa's film is characterized by its sparse dialogue and an emphasis on storytelling through body language, a style derived from traditional forms of Japanese theatre.
"In my mind, it's absolutely the best interpretation of the Macbeth story," Hunter says. "Old kabuki and Noh theatre was very much about 'You stand in this corner of the stage and strike this pose to tell this part of the story,' so it's not action-heavy. Frankly it's kind of boring unless you understand the reason that they're doing it."
To ensure that her audience is aware of what's going on, Hunter retained most of Shakespeare's script and left his language intact. She characterizes the resulting production as "guerilla-style punk kabuki."
Kabuki's been covered, but the explanation of "guerilla-style" and "punk" lies in Muse's somewhat-limited, two-year-old budget. Muse only had enough money to buy several pairs of motorcycle boots, khaki shorts and 'bum-flaps,' which Hunter says are kind of like punk half-kilts. But that wasn't enough.
"We were never going to get the money to get our 24 Scottish warriors in a change of costume," Hunter says. "Forget about one costume, we were never going to get them into a change of costume," Hunter says. "Because it's going to be warm enough and also they're hearty enough, the Scots, so I started wondering, 'How bare can I go?' I can't go The 300-bare, because we don't have that much time for workouts."
The solution? Paint them.
"We're using the skin as costumes," Hunter says. "I'm working with one of the best tattoo artists in town, Saint Kele Idol. It's a lot cheaper to beg and borrow an airbrush gun and get a $30 bottle of tattoo ink and spray down the warriors. It lasts for five days, and now we've got killer costumes and it costs us $30!"
Besides the Kurosawa influence and the punk-rock costumes, the other ingredient of "guerilla-style punk kabuki" is 20 Japanese-style curved swords called katanas, produced for the show by the resident artists of the Sloss Metal Arts program.
Screw your courage to the sticking place
Hunter hopes that the Muse of Fire production of Macbeth will appear to traditionalists as well as to people who might never have seen a Shakespeare play.
"For people that are coming for a traditional staging, they already understand the language, and this staging offers them something different," Hunter says. "It's not richer or blander, but it's different. They'll be able to be engaged more fully in the story and have the thought, 'Isn't it neat that they're doing it in this space?'
"For people who are drifting in and out of the story, they're still happy to get up and have another drink at the bar."
For everybody else, there will be bagpipers and belly dancers too.
Macbeth is playing at Sloss Furnaces at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 3 and Sunday, May 4. The play is handicap accessible, and some scenes may be scary for young children. Tickets are $20, or $15 for seniors, students or those wearing kilts (not kidding). For more information or to purchase tickets, call 757-8301 or visit www.shakespeareatsloss.com.