Directing at a (safe) distance: MACBETH IN THE DARK

By Kate Foy

Some months ago, I watched David Berthold interview the great director Peter Sellars. Among other things, Sellars noted the possible upsides of the pandemic. There’s an upside, I wondered. But Sellars said something which I’ve kept front and centre in my thinking for the past almost 6 months: “The virus is our teacher.”  Those five words got me thinking and gave me hope that I might learn something valuable during the time – apart from how to make sourdough bread, catch up my reading, or master the art of kombucha creation – all good things, of course. If nothing else, I would make this sucker of a lockdown work for me.

QSE approached me early on to attempt an audio version of MACBETH for their 2020 production. Rob Pensalfini, QSE’s Artistic Director suggested a working title which stuck: MACBETH IN THE DARK – the themes of the play itself, but also on the psychological darkness which seemed all around once live performance had effectively disappeared, and theatres too went “dark.”

However, one thing has resounded emphatically during the past 6 months of empty theatre foyers around the world and that is you can’t keep performers down. They are gritty, flexible, driven creatures who will find a way to do what they do best. I learned (again – not that I had to) how powerful creativity is once it gets unleashed and how ingenious human beings can be when challenged. QSE took up the challenge and asked me along for the ride.

We knew we would have to work at a distance, and in sound only. Now, sound is incredibly potent in triggering imagination, and  I love the phrase, “The pictures are better on radio,” told to me years ago when I first began working in that medium. For me as director and for the QSE actors it would mean putting deep focus on the power of the play’s words in action – that is the speaking of the text. With no visual stimuli, the ear needed to be beguiled by the spoken word and its capacity to call up sensations in the hearing. The big challenge lay in working on those imaginary forces with the company. 

Everyone (and I knew none of the actors) would be at home, and at a remove from one another, so we could never be in the same room, just a whole lot of different spaces spread around the city and beyond in my case. That would be a huge challenge; actors and director crave the inspiration which comes from the creative collaboration called rehearsal, the shared cups of tea, the getting to know you part of creating the special bond that emerges during this time. There would be none of that. As for recording, we would be relying on the equipment we already had or had access to – phones mostly and various recording apps. In the end, though, there would not be the togetherness of live performance – the back and forth between actors and audience that creates a particular energy in that particular moment. The prospect of creating this production was charged with hubris or craziness, but I was intrigued. I was absurdly enthusiastic about the challenge – and in which I could sniff a huge learning. There was just the chance, given all the elements in the equation – the necessary “spare parts” plus ingenuity and creativity – that we could assemble a creation that would work. I was in.

This was going to be literally a “home-made” production. We would be recording in our bedroom “studios” via our own devices, and rehearsing via Zoom. Our early-stage “table work” was via computer screens. As a company always does, we analysed the text and I rehearsed with the actors through a screen. We came close to developing that special rapport that happens in a room – we shared cups of tea and banter via the screen, and the usual run-throughs and notes sessions got easier as did the recording process and familiarity with the new medium. When it came to putting down performances, actors used their phones and sound-recording apps or microphones if they had them. They then uploaded the sound files to a drive in the cloud. 

It took several weeks to rehearse and record – often second and third takes before the best results emerged; we learned as we went – there was that ingenuity and creativity again. To dampen room tone and reverb actors created their own individual recording “booths” under blankets, wrapped in doonas, inside cupboards stuffed with clothing or pillows, and even, surprisingly, in cars. They performed in the dark, alone, and at a distance with no visual stimuli except their actor’s imagination, and the sound of their scene-partner in their ear via Zoom. They found the energy that captured a thought, a reaction, an intention in sound. This was extraordinarily creative – acting in the dark.

Once the recordings were completed and re-takes of a missed or spoiled line – passing trains, noisy birds and neighbours were the worst culprits – Dom Guilfoyle, our sound engineer assembled the uploaded files. Post-production followed as music composed by members of the ensemble, and sound effects were layered in to the EQ’d dialogue tracks to repair the difference in room tone. Atmosphere was added via effects often specially created by Dom. During these weeks I shared the same on-screen digital audio workspace with him finalising the sound-story.

The virus has been our teacher across the past 6 months in so many ways; I doubt collectively and individually that we will ever be the same again. One thing I didn’t have to learn was that storytellers are vital to our existence. If nothing else, this project has kept our flame burning. We’ve tended it in the darkness and it has brought us much comfort.

Right now, I’m looking forward to the day when the MACBETH IN THE DARK company will all be together in the same room. We have a long-overdue meet and greet and post-show cast-party to enjoy. What came in between is what you will hear in the production.

Here’s the link to listen to QSE’s MACBETH IN THE DARK http://qldshakespeare.org/macbeth-in-the-dark/