Los Angeles

Sharpies, Nightmares, and the 'Radical Transparency' of Independent Shakespeare Co.

In Partnership with Independent Shakespeare Co.
Independent Shakespeare Co. presents a series providing a unique behind the scenes look at the mounting of Macbeth.

By Melissa Chalsma

Independent Shakespeare Co. has always fostered a rather non-traditional audience relationship. It started by necessity: our first production in 1999 was in a theater in New York. The rent was very low as the producer, John Clancy, felt his job was to support artists, not gouge them. The result of his generosity was that he needed to book people into his space at all hours of the day and night. Our version of "Henry V" had to perform on Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m., after a production of "Pigoletto" (which was indeed the opera "Rigoletto" featuring a man in a pig suit in the title role). Pigoletto invariably ended late, and as the lobby was rather small, we'd let the audience into the theater to sit as we rushed to prepare the space for our performance. We quickly realized they enjoyed our frantic set-up. What's more, it seemed to allow them to experience themselves as part of the production -- co-creators, invested in the ultimate success of the evening. It fit perfectly into our belief that the most potent element in theater is the audience's imagination, as well as the deep responsibility we feel in our efforts to engage the audience's imaginations ever more fully.

Our largest program is the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival. It is the ideal environment to foster our desired, informal, interactive audience relationship. First of all, the inherent informality of an outdoor setting lends itself to unique audience interactions. Secondly, our actors are a pretty laid-back crew. You find them in and around the audience before the show and intermission. (Actors also take action out into the house, and sometimes the audience even ends up onstage!) Half-jokingly, I call this "radical transparency." We don't pretend we aren't in a theater and that there isn't anyone watching; we are always present to the fact that we are putting on a play. Incidentally, not all audience members appreciate this. Once, someone got quite irate that we were rehearsing a bit onstage, in front of the audience before the show. She was visibly distressed and angered that we were breaking this particular rule of contemporary theater.

Photo: Doug Ellison.

However, we don't always produce outdoors. In our small, indoor space audience-actor connections don't happen naturally. We don't have to tromp across the field to reach the trailers where our costumes are stored and the audience doesn't wander past the backstage area, catching glimpses of us putting on make-up, eating cookies, running lines and so on. In fact, we tend to do what generations of actors have done since theater moved inside: we hide in the dressing room until it's time to start, and never feel the need to confront the presence of people who are individuals with their own thoughts, needs and points of view. For their part, the audience members can sit politely in their seats, watching us perform, until it is time to get up and go home.

Shakespeare inside is especially challenging. It was written for a chaotic performance space, where people watching could just as easily eat, sleep, buy oranges, or relieve themselves in the chamber pots provided at the end of the rows. The presence of the audience is continually acknowledged, and what might now be called 'meta-theatrical' elements are peppered throughout the text. When you separate the audience and the actors, whether by a proscenium or by lighting, some sort of native vitality is lost.

Arguably, other things are gained: indoors, you can control the meaning much more tightly with lights and sound. A higher degree of vocal subtlety is perhaps possible (at least, you can whisper) and so on. Some people prefer their Shakespeare this way...but we are not those people.

Photo: Doug Ellison.

Photo: Doug Ellison.

Therefore, we have found it's crucial to devise ways to engage the audience when we perform indoors. We want to maintain our informal relationship; we do not want the audience operating under the belief that they must be polite, and we don't want them sitting passively in their seats. We want them choosing to invest in the play with their attention and imagination.

With "Macbeth," we struggled with the best way to signal to the audience that we were asking more of them. We hadn't yet found a way to keep our indoor space as lively during pre-show as our outdoor space is naturally. We also wanted to incorporate the audience more directly into the production, and "Macbeth" seemed to be a play with fewer opportunities for interaction in the text.

Photo: Doug Ellison.

Photo: Doug Ellison.

I'm not sure exactly when the idea of the Nightmare Floor presented itself to me. Probably it was over the course of a sleepless night, something which plagues me whenever I work on this play. As a company, we believe that words have power, and the words in "Macbeth" are incredibly tangible and incantatory. We began the rehearsal process sharing our own nightmares and fears. It was a way into the text for us, and I began to think about allowing the audience to share in that experience. Was there a way for them to share their nightmares? I recalled a 'wish tree' in Little Tokyo, and I remember the connected and delightful sense my daughter and I felt including our wishes on the tree, and how beautiful the tree looked with all the notes attached. Could we have a nightmare tree of our own? This seemed attractive, but static. Then came the thought of asking the audience to write their nightmares on the floor. They would impact the physical aesthetics of the space, and we could then perform the play atop a literal web of their fears.

Photo: Doug Ellison.

I had the (retrospectively) foolish idea that we could curate the floor, encouraging the audience to write in specific places, which would create an attractive pattern. I was quickly dispelled of that notion. Handing someone a Sharpie, it seems, is handing them a tool of power! They wrote everywhere, and often wrote things I felt uncomfortable about. Some were very personal, some commented on the production, some revealed secrets, made things up, drew pictures, told jokes. It was an extraordinary example of the fact that you can't grant an audience just a little freedom--it's all or nothing, and you need to live with the results (in our case, literally as the words they wrote became our set!). We asked them to share their nightmares, and they did, in individual, iconoclastic ways.

We loved reading what people wrote, and the audience, whether they participated directly by including their nightmares, were certainly more active prior to the show. They wandered about on the stage before the performance and at intermission, reading the floor and talking about it to the people with whom they came. Their comfort level being on the stage had a special benefit. Some of them would even stay and help clean up the blood off the Nightmare Floor after performances.

Three Witches | Photo: Grettel Cortes.

We also found the audience involvement began to change us and our interpretation of the play. We'd begun the performances with the Three Witches on stage, writing their own additions to the floor. Then Bernadette Sullivan (one of the actors playing a witch) had the idea that she could begin the play reading audience nightmares aloud, before beginning Shakespeare's actual words, "When shall we three meet again...." This evolved, with Sullivan adding commentary, in the guise of the Witch, to the nightmares she read; sometimes humorous, sometimes a bit chilling. I like to imagine what the experience was for someone who had come to watch the play: perhaps she is taken aback when asked to write on the stage, then she thinks for a while and comes up with the right way to phrase a fear, then draws a picture to accompany it. The space makes an invisible yet totally perceptible shift that lets her know the performance is beginning, she takes her seat and is surprised (and perhaps discomfited) by Sullivan reading aloud what she has just written to a room full of strangers as part of the play.

Of course, once we finished the run in the Studio, we had a problem that was a complete 180 degrees from where we'd started! On our stage in Griffith Park, we couldn't use the Nightmare Floor as a tool of audience inclusion anymore. The stage is used for three plays, two of which are decidedly sunny in tone. We struggled with a decision about how to begin the play, and the solution we came up with is pretty far from where we started. However, we were intrigued by the degree of interaction the Witches had with the audience in the Studio, and that has definitely inspired a set of choices about how we do the play in the park. The Witches move through the audience, and Bernadette has crafted a moment where she uses audience members to enact a story she tells as the Witch. And I would argue, that because of the Nightmare Floor, we were able to shift our perception of the play and find novel ways of including the audiences in the park, and give them a freedom to interact with the play without being told how to feel about it. Their responses are surprising, vocal, occasionally bizarre, and always invigorating.

Even though we have painted over the floor in the studio, and moved on to our next project, one nightmare has stayed with me:

Recurring Childhood Nightmare

I'm in my bed. I wake up. On the shelf, five busts of the Great Composers. They move around, talking, buzzing. I watch them. "They're having a tea party." I think. Then they turn, as one, and look down at me. Terror. Paralyzed. They float off the shelf and come down to where I lie. They surround me. They levitate me out of the bed. Horror. The door to my room opens. They float me out of the room. Down the hall to the back door. "God! They're taking me to hell." I black out.

Beauty, reverence, intimidation, torture, helplessness. The recipe for the perfect nightmare.

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Top Image: Photo: Doug Ellison.

About the Author

Melissa Chalsma is the co-founder and Artistic Director of Independent Shakespeare Co. (ISC).
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