Let’s be honest — Shakespeare can be boring. When companies don’t do the work to bring contemporary meaning to the text, or to help audiences interpret the often-arcane language, productions can end up full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
That’s why new production company Past Is Prologue Productions aims to “ignite the world with fresh perspectives on Shakespeare’s work,” according to the company’s mission statement: “Through film, theater, dance, and other forms of art and performance, we take a new approach to old work, always starting with the text, and finding interpretations to help make this canon of plays more relevant and meaningful to a modern audience.”
Their first production of a Shakespeare classic will be one very appropriate for the Halloween season — a performance of "Macbeth" staged in complete blackness. "Shakespeare in the Dark: Macbeth" opens Oct. 31 and runs through Nov. 4 in the Citadel Room of the historic (and, some say, haunted) Driskill Hotel.
To find out more about what it’s like crafting a production in pitch-black, we spoke to director Jennifer Sturley.
What's the inspiration behind this work?
"Shakespeare in the Dark" started as a simple play on words from Shakespeare in the Park, and we quickly realized that the idea could actually work really well with the right play. "Macbeth" has so much imagery and language about literal darkness in nature as a metaphor for human darkness that it seemed like a great opportunity to try out a unique concept.
How do you rehearse a show that's totally in the dark? What's the process like for the actors?
Our early rehearsal process involved a lot of script work. It's important to me that any production of Shakespeare in particular starts with the text, and that acting and directing choices are growing organically out of what exists in the play, rather than being imposed onto the play. We spent weeks working the language, making sure the character choices were really strong and building the foundation of trust and support in the ensemble. Once that was established, the actors started doing some work with blindfolds to practice doing the show without being able to see. We only have seven rehearsal days in the performance venue before Halloween, so we are taking advantage of all that time to finalize blocking, practice moving in the space with the lights off, learning all the quirks of the room and ensuring safety throughout the process. Our stage manager will be able to watch the entire show on a night-vision camera so that in case of emergency, she could quickly intervene.
What makes the Driskill an ideal location for this production?
We are so thrilled to be performing at the Driskill Hotel. It's a beautiful venue and a great fit for this show. The Driskill is historic, haunted and a great location in the heart of downtown Austin. So far we haven't seen any ghosts, but maybe they're waiting to make an appearance until opening night.
How does this production touch on the ways in which theater can often be inaccessible to the visually impaired?
Arts accessibility is an issue near and dear to my heart. The process of improving diversity in theater (for artists and audience members) is one that requires some creative problem-solving and outside-the-box thinking, but that's something we should be really good at, because it's our whole job! I think that as artists, we have to approach this issue as a question of what diversity can add to a production rather than viewing diversity as a burden a show must bear. Often, choices to improve a production's accessibility end up making a better experience for all audience members, and choices to improve a production's diversity end up telling a more compelling story. We are so happy to be able to create a show that offers a unique experience for all audience members, especially audience members who are blind or visually impaired and often do not get full and equal access to theater.
Is there anything else you'd like potential audience members to know about "Shakespeare in the Dark: Macbeth"?
Theater in Shakespeare's time was not as visual a medium as it is today, so much so that early modern audience members used the language of "going to hear a play" rather than saying they were "going to see a play." Shakespeare's original audiences would have experienced pretty minimal theatrical design elements, because the focus was primarily on the language. What we're doing with "Shakespeare in the Dark: Macbeth" may not have been done before, but it's also not a new idea. We are so excited for audiences to hear this play.
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