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October 15, 2004

On Tour With The Scottish Play:

“Impressions From The Road” by Paul Hebron

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, a renowned Equity LORT company, is currently touring the NEA-US Department of Defense-funded Shakespeare in American Communities Military Base Tour of the “Scottish Play.” It opened on Friday, September 10, 2004, at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, and will visit 13 military bases in seven states before returning to the Virginia Samford Theatre in Montgomery. The cast includes William Brock, Aaron Cabell, Rodney Clark, Suzanne Curtis, Paul Hebron, Jennifer Hunt, Warren Jackson, James Knight, Alex Knold, Joe Kolbow, Sonja Lanzener, Mark D. Leslie, Kathleen S. McCall, Chris Mixon, Howard W. Overshown, Philip Pleasants, Remi Sandri, and Frederick Snyder.

Equity’s website asked the cast to send us a travelogue about this unusual production. Following are “impressions from the road,” by actor Paul Hebron, who plays Duncan.

September 10 – Opening Night in Alabama
“The production of “The Scottish Play” itself is one that we first mounted in our 2004 Rep Season at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The challenge for all of us was the relatively brief amount of time budgeted for re-mounting, for actual rehearsal and tech (a little over two weeks). Another new wrinkle was the flexibility in staging necessary to accommodate the variety of sites we would actually be playing in; our venues would include movie theatres, gymnasiums, airplane hangers and the great outdoors. It was finally decided that with two configurations, a "small" and a "large", we could perform under any of the above conditions, the major difference being the availability of all our upstage entrances and exits. At Maxwell AFB, playing in a space ordinarily used to show films, we would be using the blocking for our small set. The other issue for us of course was the addition of five new actors to the cast, three of them playing major roles (Remi Sandri as Macbeth, Howard Overshown as Macduff, and James Knight as Malcom), and the fact that many of us who had been doing it since March now had additional roles to pickup, or reassignments in casting. Two weeks and a few days didn't seem like a lot of time. The set is fundamentally the same as we'd used during the rep, and lights are designed to be handled with two lighting trees front of stage, two behind (primarily work lights) and a lighting truss that goes directly over the stage itself.

“The happy news is that all went swimmingly at Maxwell. After a stick-your-toes-in-to-test-the-waters sort of Final Dress on Thursday, Sept. 9th, we opened with a terrific show the following evening, and Saturday's was a standing ovation. All three performances were sold out (in fact the Thursday dress was opened up as invited house to accommodate all who couldn't get tickets for the weekend). A few sidebars:

  • The first thing you notice playing to a military audience is that, not surprisingly, they're on time. Really on time. We open the house at half-hour and half the audience is already there, waiting to take their seats. Kind of refreshing, that!
  • On Saturday night, Jennifer Hunt, our Lady Macduff, is standing outside the building during intermission when she notices a tiny little baby squirrel in the grass, apparently abandoned or lost by her mother. She gingerly picks up the little guy and, having a heart the size of Cleveland, decides to take him inside and try to nurse him back to health, despite the fact that one of the stage ops guys mentions that wee squirrel has been abandoned in the grass for at least thirty six hours. Jenn takes him inside anyway, and decides to name him Macbeth. The second act starts, and as I'm later standing stage right preparing to enter as the painfully named "Old Man” in IV, 2, I'm struck by Macduff's tortured outcry at the loss of his "little ones." Our Lady Macduff continues to nurse him at home, feeding him sugar water through a coffee stirrer, but before she can get him to a vet the next morning he expires. His last hours were, at least, calmer and more cared for than his namesakes.
  • The other thing that happened had to do with the date itself – 9/11. We've had some response from critics of this project wondering about the choice of play itself, about the appropriateness of a work like MACBETH for military audiences and their families. And then I'm standing offstage, listening to Aaron Cabell as Banquo, rallying the Thanes in II, 3 after the discovery of Duncan's death (i.e. murder). Their world, as it would have been for an Elizabethan's, has just been thrown into chaos, into terrifying disarray. The structure of the verse makes clear their alternatively dumbstruck, angry and frantic reactions. And then Banquo steps forward and says:

      "And when we have our Naked Frailties hid / That suffer in Exposure, let us meet / and question this most bloody Piece of Work, / to know it further. Fears and Scruples shake us / In the great Hand of God I stand, and thence/ Against the undivulg'd Pretense I fight/ of Treasonous Malice."

    “You could feel this audience's reaction to that, and to the circumstances facing these characters on stage. It rippled through the crowd like something physical. We're all asked in these difficult times to re-examine our idea's about the nature of evil, and helping to illuminate such issues is what the theatre does. It makes us more human. That, it seems to me, is it's greatest value; and on this particular evening at least it managed to do exactly that.

September 13, 2004 - Commando Acting at Kings Bay
The first stop on the tour is the Naval Base at Kings Bay, GA and the Trident Submarine docks. There is talk of a tour of the “submarine simulator” and spirits are high on the bus, while trying not to worry about our homes back in Montgomery, which are directly in the path of Hurricane Ivan. We arrive late in the afternoon with a curious mix of excitement, fear and general anticipation.

“Our first show is next morning at 9:30 AM, which we assume will be a student performance, but turns out to be a wonderful mix of parents, children students and base personnel. What became immediately apparent is that for many of these folks, this is their first experience of live theatre, so their reactions will be very spontaneous – including but not limited to getting up and wandering around during the show. (This is where the analogy to Shakespeare’s “groundlings” at the Globe begins). The venue is a gymnasium that has been split in half by a motorized dividing wall; the audience is seated through a door on the ‘theatre’ side; the ‘dressing rooms’ are set up on the other. Two things become quickly apparent: the acoustics are so bad that using a body mic is out of the question; there are no monitors to listen to the show’s progress, so ‘backstage’ on the other side of the dividing wall, there is no telling how close you might be to your next entrance.

“Vocal Rebound”
“Something else probably needs to be said here, if only to make the obvious, well obvious. In the development of the tour, all the sites were visited by Jerry Genochio, our production manager at ASF, and Tom Jeffords, our road manager, to ensure that any technical problems would be discovered early on, discussed, and resolved one way or another before we ever set foot on a bus. Even with all that legwork, there are a million little unforeseen issues and difficulties that come up at each venue. It's unavoidable. It's part of what makes touring different from any other theatre experience: wonderful, frustrating and ultimately unique. In Montgomery, at least we knew it was a gym we'd be playing in, but somehow it doesn't prepare you for being onstage, asking your son Malcolm if "execution has been done on Cawdor" and hearing his response come at you from three different directions. The bounce back of our voices in this genuine "Wooden-O" is so bad that our fight captain, Frederick Snyder, suggests we turn on the huge scoreboard off left to keep a running tally of how many lines are actually heard and/or understood by the audience. There's nothing to be done, and the performance for all of us carries that extra dimension of unwanted awareness, trying to find the right balance of pitch, tone and volume to minimize the, if you'll pardon the expression, vocal rebound.

“The second problem has in fact already been fixed. Facing the same lack of monitors at Maxwell AFB (and through most of the venues we will play), two of the actors, Suzanne Curtis and James Knight, simultaneously come up with the idea of using baby monitors to provide at least a modicum of sound from onstage. It worked beautifully at Maxwell, and though scratchy and a bit strained, works here as well (it will not turn out to be, unfortunately, a workable solution everywhere we play). For those of us playing several characters throughout, it is a Godsend.

“Most importantly, despite the technical challenges, our audiences at Kings Bay seem to love the show. They respond throughout, especially to the witches and the play's use of magic, and seem deeply moved by the plight late in the play, however self-engendered, of both Macbeth and his Missus. Leaving the theatre after the evening show, we're stopped before boarding the bus by students (some quite young) and their parents, and asked to sign programs. For the kids, most of whom we discover have never seen live theatre before - not to mention Shakespeare - having us autograph our photos seems to make the experience real for them, giving them a kind of closure or level of meaning that is personal.

“For the parents it's different, and we're approached with a mix of curiosity, tentativeness, and heart felt appreciation. One father there has donned a white, NEA t-shirt and with his own magic markers is asking us each in turn to sign his back, literally, for his son to have as a memento. A soon-to-retire military policeman, he says something that will become a familiar refrain throughout the tour: "It's great to have you folks here, to feel like someone's taking the time and making the effort to do something special for us for a change, something just for us." For him and for many in our audiences, this "Shakespeare thing" is an event not just for him and the other men he works with. but for his whole family. It's an event to be embraced; hell, at Maxell they sell soda throughout the show, and down the road at Camp LeJeune we'll hear hundreds of people eating popcorn - but that's the point. These audiences just come, open to it all, hoping for a little entertainment, and with no presumptions or pretense already in place, between them and the performance. It is a direct experience for them, and knowing that, it snaps you out of your own hard won cynicism and experienced opinions. If it's that fresh for them, it better be that fresh for you, and it makes you want to do better, sharper work. It is very invigorating.

Next installment: On to Charleston, Camp LeJeune and Quantico

Paul Hebron

Click here for archive of the first installment

Click here for archive of the second installment

Click here for archive of the third installment

Click here for archive of the fourth installment

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