Dark clouds gathered over theater company We Players 2013 production of Shakespeare's Macbeth — and that was perfect. The company specializes in “site-integrated” performances in which they stage classical productions in outdoor landmarks and historical sites. Since 2009, We Players has partnered with the National Parks Service to produce Hamlet on Alcatraz and an adaption of the Odyssey on Angel Island, among other productions. To mount its version of Macbeth, We Players selected Civil War-era fortress Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge. For a tale of power struggles and dark forces that take place in the tumultuous, rainy Scottish highlands, the foreboding weather was icing on a cake already rich with atmospherics.
But metaphoric dark clouds were also brewing—in Washington, DC. Midway through We Player's sold-out run, the government shutdown forced the company to cancel several of its performances because Fort Point was suddenly inaccessible to the public. This June, We Players is remounting its successful production to both make up for the lost performances (over 1,000 ticket-holders were turned away) and to rethink Shakespeare's dark masterpiece. It promises to take audience members all over the fort, offering chills of the emotional and physical variety.
As the company begins preparing its return to Fort Point, I interviewed Ava Roy, We Players' artistic director who also plays Lady Macbeth, about the dark magic of this famous play, San Francisco landmarks worth loving, and government incompetency.
Macbeth is famous for being a cursed ... Theaters that presented it have burned down and actors involved in it have seen their careers ruined. Do you believe in the curse? Do you think the government shutdown was a manifestation of that curse?
[Laughs] I’m not that superstitious. The play is definitely dealing with some intense themes and energies, and I try to respect them. The government shutdown was one of the motivating factors and an initial impetus to do it again, but it [also] provides us a chance to explore the text in new ways and go deeper into the material. For example, in 2013, we cast all the warriors as very young men, exploring the theme of how boys become men as warriors. Now, we’ve cast much older actors, in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. It really changes the fundamental power structure, and political relationships in the play.
Did having to deal with the government shutdown affect the way you thought about this play at all?
It didn’t change my thinking about the play itself, but it definitely felt grossly appropriate. As much as it was painful and upsetting, it also felt like: oh my God, the government is perfectly modeling what this play is about. A lot of my goal in doing Shakespeare is about how do we make people see relevance in our present moment. I couldn’t ask for anything more perfect to demonstrate how power corrupts. People in Washington were making —or rather, not making – choices and not seeming to see or care that their actions were affecting individuals, small organizations, and communities.
Why did you choose Fort Point for Macbeth?
Physically, the space is perfect. It’s this big, brick, damp, cold fortress. In terms of thematic connection, it was built during Civil War, but it was pretty much obsolete by the time it was completed. It speaks to the futility of protection. Everything Macbeth does to protect himself is basically futile. Sonically, as well as environmentally, there's this constant buzz and throbbing noise from the sound of cars on the bridge above, the waves outside, the wind, you can’t get away from it ... from the very beginning, you get this sense you’re shot out of a gun, the play really accelerates, and you can't escape.
What's your relationship been like with the National Parks Service?
Since we started working with the Parks Service, they are now developing protocol for more artists to use their spaces. It's been really great to feel like part of movement. We have a shared mission of increasing attention and relevancy to these sites ... A lot of what we do attracts more local visitors to parks. After we did Hamlet at Alcatraz, a lot of longtime local audience members told me that was the first time they'd visited ...When you have a powerful emotional experience in a place, it changes your relationship to the place. The larger benefit is how we can change our world and our relationship to it.
If you could stage a performance of any play at any famous landmark, natural or man-made, what would it be and why?
The truth is every where I go, I’m making a list. I’ve been cultivating this way of thinking for a long time. I'm pretty interested in Greece and Grecian ruins. The first place I'd go outside of the States would be some semi-rubble and ruin in Crete or somewhere.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Dress warmly if you come to Fort Point. It is really cold out there.
We Players' 2014 production of Macbeth opens June 5th-29th at Fort Point. Tickets just went on sale and tend to sell out, so grab yours quickly if you want to go. Prices range from $30 for previews to $75 for Saturday nights with post-performance receptions.
Photos by Tracy Martin & Mark Kitaoka