Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Yellowstockings performed Shakespeare’s Macbeth in LPAC last weekend. The Daily Gazette spoke with Director Patrick Ross ’15 and Assistant Director Sara Morell ’15 about their experiences with putting Yellowstockings’ first show on the mainstage, the role of gender in the play, and traditional Scottish tartans.
Lily Jamison-Cash: I saw the play Saturday night. How did you guys feel it went?
Patrick Ross: I think it went fantastically. Especially Saturday night. It was a really good audience. So much depends on how the audience reacts, and the Saturday night audience particularly welcoming, I think, to the show. I’m very proud of it.
LJC: What did you think, Sara?
Sara Morell: I’ll preface it by saying that I’m in the wings for most of the show, so I can’t say I’ve ever actually seen it with the audience, but I think just how proud everyone is of the work they’ve put into it. And not only that but the sheer amount of work that the cast and the crew and the production team put into it and the amount of passion that resulted from that process just goes to show, how could we possibly have had a bad production if everyone invested so much into the end result?
LJC: How was it directing a Yellowstockings show on the mainstage? Has that been done before?
PR: No, it had not been done before.
LJC: So how did you get to set the precedent?
PR: I tried. [laughter] It sounds silly. But this was the only proposal that was put forth for the mainstage this semester. No one else requested to Drama Board. Sara and I are both also on Drama Board.
SM: To provide background, Drama Board gets one set of weekends every semester to do some sort of student production in LPAC.
PR: And this was something of an unideal time, because it’s only six weeks into the semester and the show’s over already.
SM: In case you didn’t notice, Shakespeare’s also rather long. [laughter]
PR: So it’s very inconvenient to have these dates, and so people don’t often want them.
SM: But I think Patrick found really impressive ways to work around that fact, in that every single actor got a one-on-one Skype rehearsal over winter break, where we read through every single one of their lines, talked about what they meant and talked about the different interpretations that you could build on that. And then a couple of the leads had additional rehearsals on top of that over Skype…. We came back from break already so involved in the text that we could jump right into blocking. Before break we did a lot of basic text study, making sure that all the cast understood the basics of how to read and analyze Shakespeare…
PR: We also did a lot of character work last semester, which is something that’s really important to my process that I didn’t have to spend time on this semester. So we would talk about relationships between the actors and build—
SM: We had the greatest of backstories for all of our characters. [laughter]
LJC: I’m curious about these interesting backstories.
SM: The most interesting scene is during the first banquet… all of the lords are back there for a few minutes and it was really interesting to see how their dynamics developed. Lennox is the leader of what we now call the “lord horde,” and she’s constantly trying to get the other lords to stay in line, because they’re in the presence of royalty.
PR: She’s a social climber.
SM: She’s also talking to the two sons about which child she can set them up with. … And it plays a lot into where they’re used in the scene. So Lennox is always the one alone with Macbeth or Macduff, and the one they sort of call upon, like that great moment at the top of intermission, where Macbeth calls Lennox to send her off later in the second act. So we kind of used that to build on the moments that aren’t quite written into the script to make the show really full.
PR: And then we of course had to create backstories for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to chart, first of all, how old are they? Why is Macbeth in the army? Did she join up with her brother, which is what we decided, or was she forced in there, which is not what we decided… And also and had to showcase a lot of this stuff in particular because we changed the gender of the characters, so we had to determine, is this a military that welcomes women? It was. And how does this society work?
LJC: The gender-switching was definitely one of the most salient features of the play for me, and I know for a lot of people in the audience I talked to, too. Where did the decision come from to cast women in those roles?
PR: When Anna Ramos [’13, who played Macbeth] auditioned.
SM: It wasn’t the intention at all to make this show about gender roles. It was literally about halfway through the audition process we were like, why don’t we just do gender-blind casting? And that fits very much into the spirit of Yellowstockings, which was founded a few years ago on the basis that… Shakespeare can be an open, welcoming and fun experience, even though it is a much denser text than a number of other commonly-used authors. I think gender-blind casting plays into that mentality, and eases the transition to bringing Yellowstockings to the mainstage and doing a more tech-heavy production but still keeping the themes of what it was founded on.
LJC: How do you think that changed the meaning of the play? I’m thinking specifically of lines like when Lady Macbeth says “unsex me,” or when Macduff says “I must also feel it as a man,” but she obviously feels it as a woman. What did you want the audience to take from that?
PR: I didn’t really want the audience to take anything from it. I just felt the need to change the lines because Macduff wasn’t a man. I tried to change the lines as infrequently as possible, which was obviously not always possible. Like “Are you a man?” would be a very silly question for Macbeth to ask her wife… I guess I wanted the audience not to be confused, and kind of just accept the changes.
SM: It’s funny, Anna Ramos said this on the last night of production, that she thought the point of changing all of the gender and making a play that was much more female-centric actually emphasized that gender wasn’t as important.
PR: That’s exactly… yes.
SM: Because Macbeth works as a woman. A lot of people I talked to before seeing the production were confused as to how we were going to do that, because Macbeth does hit this very militaristic, intense place that people often assume is a male-dominated understanding of war, or even ruthlessness…
PR: That’s sort of what I meant when I said I don’t want the audience to take anything away from it. Gender roles in Macbeth are an important theme, it being a renaissance play where the woman has most of the power over her husband. But I didn’t think that was the most important part of the play. And this is all retrospective thinking after we casted gender-blind, so it wasn’t really written into the audition process. But I think that good and evil is really the heart of it… And I think that when you just don’t care about gender in casting, it kind of makes the show not care about gender. Or sexuality, for that matter.
LJC: How did the cast members respond to those changes?
PR: I think they were confused at first. … But other than that, especially in Shakespeare it’s such a common thing to have men playing women… But I think once we established it, people totally went with it.
LJC: One thing I noticed about the play was that there were, what seemed to me, modern influences –like the PDA between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and some of the costumes seemed a little modern— but obviously a lot of the traditional Shakespeare aspects were kept. So what, in your minds, did the world of Macbeth look like?
PR: First, the “PDA,” … I was amused by it, because someone else mentioned it and said that it made them uncomfortable. Because that moment’s private it’s not actually PDA. I didn’t find it to be weird or jarring… It just seemed to me like a private moment, so I amped it up.
I think we built our Macbeth world around the witches, at first, because most other Shakespeare plays, except The Tempest maybe, don’t have these fantasy elements. …These are witches that can tell the future, they have prophecies…
SM: …And cause life or death.
PR: At least in our version. I’m sure you can do Macbeth where the witches are just crazy women who speak lies that end up being true. But we decided that they’d have magic, which opened the door for us to change other things about medieval Scotland, like not only are there women in the army but there are lesbian women, and openly lesbian women. So it’s an alternate medieval Scotland. It was a very colorful world, thinking about it.
You mentioned the costumes as well, I think we had a lot of fun with those. We tried to make it eclectic – no, it wound up being eclectic. We tried to have everything seem the same, and it didn’t work that way because we wound up picking costumes that fit the characters more than that fit the world.
SM: We started on the idea of wanting to integrate tartan, partially because Patrick is a very big fan of Scottish clan culture. In fact, he’s an official member of the Ross clan.
PR: I’d be wearing my scarf but I left it in the Frear.
SM: So we wanted to start with the idea of tartan which came through in the set and then that played through in some of the costumes, …. But then we were able to take that idea of this very traditional Scottish series of patterns and implement them in ways that fit our world as opposed to medieval Scotland’s world….
PR: … I wanted it to be as traditional as possible, but with fantastical elements and with changes that supported the cast list, for example, and the relevant social norms that we had to change to allow for such a cast list.
LJC: Could you expand on that?
PR: First of all, Duncan loves Macbeth, we determined, maybe even a little too much.
SM: Patrick is really convinced that Duncan has a crush on Macbeth.
PR: Look at those lines, I’m just saying. “A peerless kinsman.” I think Duncan has a crush on Macbeth. That is something that organically grew from Josh [McLucas]’s performance. But Duncan values Macbeth so much and treats him as an equal in the text, so that when we created Macbeth as a woman it just couldn’t possibly be—
SM: — In medieval Scotland
PR: Exactly, because she’d be in the kitchen, or somewhere else. So we had to change things like that to make it possible not only for a woman to become queen by merit,… but also for two women to openly live together as queen and queen. When we changed those things, … we had to change the way that the rest of the characters perceived themselves and their world. It wound up being…a very openly sexual world….
SM: I think the most interesting one is the relationship to children. Because the first gender-blind thing we knew we were going to do was Macduff and Lady Macduff… that would just be an easy change to allow for the fact that, statistically speaking, more women audition for theater than men do. But Lady Macduff’s main character trait is having a lot of children…. That opened up a lot of discussions about what that means for this society in terms of how modern it is, because you have to have some concept of two women being able to have children.
PR: We talked about this, and I think what we wound up determining was that it was a witches’ potion or something. Because we have witches already, so they could make a fertility potion. So that’s something that Macduff did.
SM: We also spent a lot of time discussing Dinah [Dewald ‘13]’s [Lady Macbeth’s] “I have given suck” [line], and we eventually decided that she had had a previous marriage, but that made that moment fascinating because it also is a major dig to Macbeth on the fact that she can’t give her a child.
PR: We actually determined that Lady M is bisexual and was married to a man, and that Macbeth is a lesbian. Because that’s such a relevant part of the scene, where Lady Macbeth mentions that she has had a child…. We decided that it was a previous marriage, because that gives a lot of leverage to Lady Macbeth—
SM: —And it explains the power dynamic, which would traditionally have been a very simple, they switched genders, so the power dynamic is the woman being in power – and that’s not the case here anymore.
PR: It’s two women as equals.
LJC: I see what you guys mean, about gender-blind casting erasing the gender, because the emotions, relationships, and characters –
PR: It becomes more about the people. I know Michaela [Shuchman ’16], who played Lady Macduff, was more touched by her scene and she felt it was increased in emotional impact because she knew she had to go the extra length to make those children. She couldn’t just get knocked up and have a baby, she had to actually put care into it and decide that they were going to have a child—
SM: —and really want them –
PR: — and that made the massacre of the Macduff children all the more horrible.
Photos by Elena Ruyter/The Daily Gazette.