In Partnership with Independent Shakespeare Co. Independent Shakespeare Co. presents a series providing a unique behind the scenes look at the mounting of Macbeth.
I was lying in a puddle of my own blood when I realized I wanted to be a Shakespearean actor.
I was wearing a kilt and clinging to a broadsword while lying prostrate on stage. I'd just had a sword fight with Macduff and, needless to say, he won. He accidentally sliced me across the knuckles during our exchange and my hand gushed blood like a sprinkler. He saw what he had done, looked me in the eye as if to ask, " Are you alright?" I wasn't alright, I was wounded in battle defending the tyrant's castle for God's sake!
I had to pretend to be dead for the next ten minutes or so as the blood collected in an oblong crimson oval around my left hand. The stage was littered with guys and girls like me: young actors, nameless soldiers who had no lines, who were paid nothing, but who got to be on stage while those words were said and Scotland was created with language, lights, set and costumes. It was the summer of 1996, at the Houston Shakespeare Festival production of "Macbeth." I was part of something, and those words affected me in a way that puzzles me to this day. The words, the lessons, the impossibly brilliant insight into what it is to be human. I had finally found someone who told me more about the world than Eddie Vedder and Charles Bukowski. I wanted in. I decide to stay in Shakespeare's world and learn more.
That was a long time ago. I have since dedicated myself to doing his plays and have tried making them accessible to as many people as possible. I have done many of the works from the cannon but it is not until now, in my fortieth year, that I am to play a title role, one of the most violent and shocking tales ever told. A dark and relentless story of blood, ambition, equivocation and murder. If you turn on the news any day at any time, it seems that not much has changed in the 400 years since this play was first performed. Corruption, abuse of power, revolt, murder, infanticide, all of these things in "Macbeth" are headlines and cover stories in every newspaper, on every news channel. A daily bloodstained reminder of what man is capable of. A place seemingly devoid of benevolence and compassion. A familiar dark.
Violence has been a part of my life since I can remember. Schoolyards, classrooms, neighborhoods, teachers, and police -- all of these places and people where and with whom one should feel some level of safety and comfort, were for me constant sources of fear and anxiety. I know that my story is far from the worst, but everyday violence was as real to me as this computer on which I write. I see violence everywhere. I abhor it. I am scared of it and I see no way around it. Sometimes. How do you fix it, or at least diminish its hold on society? "Macbeth" gives no answers to this but, rather, shows us what violence gets you. More Violence. "It will have blood they say. Blood will have blood." Yes. I don't know what to say about this subject because I do not understand it. I do know this: it is very real, it is very bad and it is almost always the product of fear. Granted, there are some full-blown socio/psychopaths out there, no doubt, but look at the violence you know and ask how much of it comes from fear.
I cannot begin to fathom what happened in Newtown, Connecticut this year. That is the most horrible thing I have ever heard of. There is some of that in this play and it is pre- meditated when Macbeth decides to kill Macduff's family.
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to the edge of the sword
His wife, His Babes and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool,
This deed I'll do before this purpose cool.
("Macbeth:" Act IV, Sc. 1)
To conjure up something that powerfully horrifying and then to do it boggles my mind. People do horrible things like this everyday and it shows no signs of letting up or slowing down. The truth is, this play shows us violence and malevolence like no other, unless you read the paper and watch CNN.
There is a letting in of this darkness for me when preparing to play the role. An acceptance that I am allowed to feel these feelings and think these thoughts while I am doing it. You can plumb the depths of your own darkness in the safety of the rehearsal room and in the comfort of the daylight hours, but eventually you have to work at night. When I started to memorize these lines I would only do it during the daytime. I was a little scared to work on this dark subject matter in the darker hours of the day because I am susceptible to nightmares. I eventually thought about how silly it was for a grown man to not work on a play in the evening because he didn't want to have bad dreams. Was I to purchase a night-light and a baby blanky to comfort me during this work period? No. I just did it, at night and stopped thinking about it anymore. It wasn't until about a week into rehearsal that I had my first nightmare. It involved demons wearing my clothes and speaking with children's voices. Then another the next night, and another and another until it was every night of the week. I began to not sleep restfully and bad moods would overtake me. I would have thoughts full of ill-will and rage. There was also a downside. I couldn't remember the things that we had done in rehearsal the night before. Blocking, prop business and smaller staging problems became mysterious to me. I know that I was just tired and the words of the play rang in my ears...
Sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more. ("Macbeth:" Act II, Sc. 2)
Maybe all of these things happened because I expected them to happen. I have had many older actor friends say to me, "Be careful when you do that play. Just be careful. You will have bad dreams and weird shit will happen all around you. Just be careful, man." Thanks for the sage advice, fellas. All I know is some of this stuff happened. If you are willing to be a part of that darkness for a while, and it is your intention to speak these words powerfully and authentically, then I suppose weird shit will happen and you should be careful. Just be careful, man. The truth is there is only so much "careful" that this role will allow. There is a feeling in the playing of it that "careful" is the exact wrong direction to go and that there must be a fearlessness concomitant with your linguistic intent, or at least the linguistic intent of the character. (That intent being to change the world that they inhabit by speaking things into being and by velocity of action.) I don't think I have achieved a level of fearlessness with this role yet, as I am still trying to remember what to say and how to make it believable. One thing that playing this role has taught me is the distinction between a role that is challenging and one that is demanding. Some roles, all roles, I suppose will challenge you, but there are some roles that will demand that you be at a certain level of proficiency and have a certain skill set before you may accept the challenge they offer. Macbeth be one of them roles. I only hope I am ready. All I can do is go back to the text. It is all there. There is just you, your best game and the words.
A number of months ago, when Melissa Chalsma, my boss and friend, said to me, "Luis, we are thinking of doing Macbeth next summer and we would like you to play Macbeth," my response was, "Why?" I was quite happy playing character parts. Dukes, Ghosts, that sort of thing, but a lead? In THAT play? Was she crazy?
I was terrified at the prospect of all that work and responsibility. I was faced with a challenge. Like every actor I have thought of what it would be like to play one of the Big ones: Hamlet, Henry 5, Richard 3, Macbeth. And now it was time. This is what I had studied for, done all of those plays for, watched the masters over and over again. Sleepless nights watching James Earl Jones, Paul Scofield and Olivier on YouTube, the biggest baddest dudes on the block doing their thing and wondering what it would be like to do it myself. Now it was my turn. I had an amazing opportunity in front of me and I finally accepted after I caught my breath and feigned coolness. I went home and found a copy of the script and immediately began reading it. I ordered a fresh copy from Amazon and started imagining what Toshiro Mifune looked like when he did Throne of Blood. My mind was swimming and I couldn't keep still. I would crack the book all the time and every day would start saying those words. Every day I would wonder if I was ready to do this, if I was capable , if I was good enough. Then I remembered something. A few years back while I was on the East Coast, someone in this business told me that no one was going to look at me and see a classically trained actor (which I am). Well, what would they see? Another brown skinned guy destined to play smaller character roles, servants, drug dealers and randy neighbors? I still don't know what that means. What does a classically trained actor look like? Did Raul Julia look like a classically trained actor? Does Jimmy Smits look like a classically trained actor? It is in moments like these that the darkness comes to me. No, wait, it does not come to me, it is already there, inside, like the earth has a night and day so does man have light and dark. There are just varying degrees of each in each of us. Some are more sunshine than wintery gray. Some are midnight dark and very little spring. So it does not come to me, rather I am reminded of how deep that river runs. How I can bathe in it, submerge myself in it and resurface with something useful, something of import; a deeper knowledge of those murky recesses of the dark. Those deep dark caves where the big fish live, where nightmares shoot dice while they wait for their number to be called. Where ancient treasure chests of disturbing creativity can be discovered and plundered. The fear of not being good enough or talented enough turns into thoughts of rage and violence then subsides and I think of another way of dealing with the darkness. To accept it, embrace it and even be in gratitude for it. I can channel it into the work of the theater. The theater, a safe place to do dangerous things. I can work on the play with people who are there to support me in this endeavor of mining the ugly and horrible parts of the human spirit.
I have had a few months to perform this play now. I have done it for a month and a half at the Independent Studio in Atwater Village. I think for the most part the response was positive. But it has been a month since the last time we did this play and I am beset with fear again. To do it in Griffith Park, in a slightly different stage configuration, in a completely different space. Outdoors with no microphones. The subtleties that had been built into the performance for the small studio space must now be transformed into something altogether different for the far more presentational style of playing to very large crowds out of doors. Keeping the lines in order in your head, remembering all of the line endings, how the verse works in one particular speech and not another, sword fights, blood packs.
These are just some of the concerns that keep me in the dark places. Then I remember that it is a play that I have been working on now for several months. I know it, I feel its rhythms, its pulse. I am familiar with its voices and its sounds. Even if I am not ready we open on July 5th. Regardless of readiness and concerns and fears the play will open. I will say these words and blood will have blood. The dark will wax and wane, purists will wince, the press will opine, and our fans will cheer or not. Through all of this, one thing is certain: I will have grown in every way as an actor because of this opportunity. An opportunity to mine the caves of darkness for the good stuff. But always keeping the light on, in the head, heart and soul. Trying to make it better one dark night at a time.