STAGE Interviews Dramateurs’ Director Deb Braak About Her Production of MACBETH

by Jack Shaw

The Dramateurs, Inc. at The Barn Playhouse open with MACBETH, October 7th:

“Shakespeare’s brooding tragedy of ambition, temptation, and treachery digs directly into the dark recesses of man’s inner conflict. The mysterious visions of three witches send Macbeth and his lady on a murderous rampage toward the Scottish Throne. Attaining their goal, however, brings no glory and sends both on a downward spiral of suspicion and madness. Fresh horrors, ghostly apparitions, and gruesome predictions result, providing a sinister backdrop for this savage political thriller.”

STAGE: Shakespeare’s plays can be a tough sell, but one look at the description above, it sounds like a deeply psychotic horror film of today. Is it so? Is it the attraction you want it to have? Please explain.

Deborah Braak: In a way, I think, yes.  It is at its core the story of the descent into madness and obsession, and I think that’s one of the reasons this particular play has remained popular.  It’s a great theme!  These two people — Macbeth and Lady Macbeth — have everything but it isn’t enough.  They want more — they want it all.  And Macbeth is a hero at the beginning of the play. He saves Scotland — but it’s the promise of another kind of “greatness” that makes him cross the line.  He takes that one step — and it’s irrevocable.  It’s not an easy step for him — he knows it’s wrong but somehow he can’t get it out of his mind.  And once he’s “done the deed,” all he can do is continue on that path of murder and madness until he reaches the inevitable end.

STAGE: As if the play’s description above isn’t enough, one question we always like to ask is why you are performing this particular play—so, let’s start there.   Why MACBETH?

Deborah Braak: I had to.  It’s been my own obsession for many years.  It was the first Shakespeare play I saw and the first one I was in.  I’ve seen probably dozens of productions, both live and on film.  I’ve read about it and written about it.  But it’s a huge play — and I think if you wait until you’re ready for the challenge, you’ll probably never do it.  So, I had to just dive in and do it.

STAGE: It’s always difficult to talk about Shakespeare’s works and what makes them accessible to us today? With MACBETH, do you find that job any easier? Will audiences, in fact, find this performance more accessible than the Bard’s other works?

Deborah Braak: More accessible?  I don’t think so, necessarily. But we have worked really hard to make it clear and accessible — and scary!  I think a lot of Shakespeare’s plays are completely accessible to modern audiences, if they’re done right.  They can also be incomprehensible.  So it’s important to keep asking yourself, “How will the audience understand what we’re doing here?  What visual clues can we give them to help them understand what’s going on?”  This play has a lot of contemporary resonance:  evil ambitious guy and his equally ambitious wife — engage in whatever it takes to get what they want.  Who hasn’t seen that in real life in some regard?  Perhaps not to the extreme that the Macbeths go to, but it’s all relative.  If your coworker does a back-stabbing job on your nice boss and ends up getting his job, subjecting you to his own brand of tyranny, that’s Macbeth on a smaller scale, right?

STAGE: From the description of the play, I’m going to assume the play is being played somewhat historically. Describe for me how you see this play on the Barn’s stage.

Deborah Braak: It’s not really historical at all.  There is a suggestion of period — kilts and swords — but the idea is for it to be “any period” or, perhaps, “no period.”  The set is a series of platforms and steps.  And a cauldron, of course.  We designed a “playing space” and all the action takes place in the same space, moving fluidly from scene to scene.  As a director, I happen to dislike scene changes — I think they often interrupt the flow and pull the audience out of the play — so anything I can do to avoid them, I will.  This production draws from contemporary, Elizabethan, and even Greek elements, and I think has them working together pretty effectively.

STAGE: I am reminded of 2001’s Scotland, Pa, which is a revamp of the play, and the action is moved to 1970’s Pennsylvania and revolves around Joe Macbeth and his wife Pat taking control of a hamburger cafe from Norm Duncan. Other than that I’ve not heard of many modernized versions, although you could argue with all the violence, ambition, and treachery, the theme has been fairly prevalent of late. We’ve had other modern versions of various Shakespearean plays. Romeo and Juliet, for example. Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet takes place in the 19th century. Another version of Hamlet in 2000, takes place in modern Manhattan.  What are your reactions to “modern dress” or modernized versions of Shakespeare?

Deborah Braak: Shakespeare didn’t write period pieces and his actors wore “modern dress.”  It was somewhere in the 1800s when someone decided we should do Shakespeare in Elizabethan costumes.  I think as long as the period you choose or the place you choose to set the play makes sense, you should go for it.  But you sometimes have to think outside the box.  I loved how Baz Luhrman got around the “sword” issue in his contemporary Romeo and Juliet, by having guns with a “Sword” brand on them.  “Modernized” — in the sense of using the play as the foundation of a modern retelling — that’s fine, too. If you want Shakespeare in space, you only have to look at “Forbidden Planet” — THE TEMPEST in space  with Ariel as a robot.  I loved “Ten Things I Hate About You,” and “O.”  But I am a big fan of Shakespeare’s actual language, so I’m disinclined to do something like that myself.

STAGE: Tell me about your MACBETH. Is it different from other traditional versions we may see? How so?

Deborah Braak: It’s a little different, yes.  First of all, I didn’t cut Hecate out of the play.  I think she needs to be there — and her scene, which most people believe wasn’t written by Shakespeare, really does make sense in the context of the play.  I think you’ll see that I’ve given her a key role in the production that will help to clarify her function in the play.  I’ve also tried to remove the politics from the play. The English/Scots politics of 1606 were pretty complicated and something that modern American audiences don’t get.  The famous “English scene” is still there, though I trimmed it a bit, but the English army is out.  The “rebels” that Macbeth refers to now are the Scots themselves, taking their country back from this bloody tyrant.  The thing is, it’s pretty obvious that this is a play about a guy who took over the country and did bad things.  I didn’t think it was necessary to use any kind of visual metaphor that suggested Nazi Germany or fascist Italy or Gadaffi’s Libya or anything too specific.  I think that just muddies the waters and confuses people.  The play is a horror story, a psychological thriller with a bit of the supernatural thrown in for good measure.  I wanted this production to be that.  Audiences should be aware — there are some unusually loud sounds, smoke effects, blood.  You know, all the things that go into your basic horror story!

STAGE: Tell me about your cast. I understand it has become a bit of a family affair in that a couple of close relatives have roles in the cast.

William Braak as Macbeth and Laura McWater as Lady Macbeth The Dramateurs' production of MACBETH, opening October 7. (Photo credit: Ed Roper Photography,

Deborah Braak: It’s funny.  If you look at the play, the characters fall nicely into several families — clans, if you will —  The Macbeths, of course, but also Duncan and his sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, Banquo and his son Fleance, and the tragic Macduff family.  It’s the story of one family trying to wrest power from the others.  So, it’s kind of appropriate that my son, daughter-in-law, and husband are all involved onstage and my other son is working backstage, although I certainly hope that’s where any parallels ends!  We’ve all worked together in various capacities since our sons were small; my husband and I met in college when I cast him in a show I was directing.  But we aren’t the only theatre family — the entire Jarrell family is also appearing in the show. Eric and Maria started dating when they played Viola and Sebastian in TWELFTH NIGHT at Forge, which my husband directed and I dramaturged, and I’ve known Ellie Jarrell (our Child Macduff) her whole life — it’s a thrill for me to have her onstage in her first Shakespearean speaking role (she played the Changeling Child in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM a couple of summers ago at the ripe old age of 4) in what was my first Shakespeare part. I love working with family and close friends.  It really jumpstarts the trust and connection process, so stuff can start happening right away.  That’s especially helpful when you have compressed rehearsal periods, as we do at the Barn.

STAGE: Any challenges in bringing this play to the stage?

Deborah Braak: As you know, there is a small pool of “men of a certain age” in the area who act and an even smaller pool who are willing to take small roles since they can go pretty much anywhere and get bigger ones, regardless of their level of experience.  Lucky them.  So casting a play with a large cast of males is always a challenge.  A lot of the men of the right age and type wanted either Macbeth or Macduff and some refused to take anything else — even put it right there on their audition forms, so at least they were honest about it!  On the other hand, I had some wonderful women who were willing to play anything — and of course, there are only a handful of female parts.  I did some creative, non-traditional casting and used as many as I could.  Oh.  And special effects.  You pretty much can’t do MACBETH without a bit of stage magic.  I don’t usually do shows that are “spectacle” based.  So using these effects have been quite different for me.  Fortunately, I have an amazingly talented and creative design crew who have helped me take some risks I might otherwise have avoided.  I’m really excited to see what audiences think of our fantastic soundscape and lighting and magic effects!

STAGE: MACBETH is a favorite among theater goers for the action that takes place—a lot of swordplay. Was that hard to orchestrate and choreograph? Tell us more about it.

Deborah Braak: Not that hard — partly because, in addition to a couple of onstage fight scenes, I limited the swordplay to two good sword fights.  This meant I didn’t have to find a whole bunch of people who knew how to use a sword.  My son, Chris, was a fencer in college and has studied stage combat and historical fencing techniques.  He’s also a great teacher and very creative so I just gave him free rein to do some cool stuff.  He didn’t disappoint.

“MACBETH is an anomaly among Shakespeare’s tragedies in certain critical ways. It is short: more than a thousand lines shorter than Othello and King Lear, and only slightly more than half as long as Hamlet. That brevity has also been connected to other unusual features: the fast pace of the first act, which has seemed to be ‘stripped for action;’ the comparative flatness of the characters other than Macbeth; the oddness of Macbeth himself compared with other Shakespearean tragic heroes.”

 STAGE: Could you give us your reaction to the statement above?

Deborah Braak: I guess that’s all true.  But it doesn’t present any particular problems, other than the fact that Macbeth has a whole lot more lines than anyone else!  In fact, its quirkiness is what I find appealing. I like that it seems to be a riff on Greek tragedy, and I don’t think that’s an accident.  You could look at the witches as a “chorus” — and maybe all the thanes (especially Ross and Lennox) function as a second chorus.  Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are your protagonists with Macduff and Banquo as antagonists.  Like Greek tragedy, all the real violence happens offstage, although it is described for us in all its gory details.

STAGE: As you know the source is thought to have been from a prompt book as opposed to a published folio, and that is the reason the play is shorter. Do you feel this helps the play in any way?

Deborah Braak: I don’t think it hurts it any, no.  The text itself is problematic.  It clearly isn’t “edited for publication.”  In fact, we have only the one version of it — and some of it is believed to not even have been written by Shakespeare.  The language is much more complex — sometimes downright awkward to speak — which suggests that maybe the version we have today wasn’t a polished, finished product.  But, it’s what we have so we work with it because it’s a tremendously compelling story.  As I said, I think that of all  Shakespeare’s tragedies, MACBETH is the most like the ritual Greek tragedies and I think that’s part of why it’s so fascinating and why people feel so connected to it.  You LIKE Macbeth.  He’s heroic and human.  I think you even have to feel sorry for him by the time you get to the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech..  You watch him his corruption take place and his descent into madness and you think, “Boy, if this could happen to HIM, this big, strong guy, what about ME?”  And it all happens so fast — he meets the witches and the downward spiral begins almost immediately.  Next thing you know, it’s “All hail Malcolm. King of Scotland” and you’re on your way home.

STAGE: One final question. It has long been suggested the play is cursed because Shakespeare used real witch curses in the play. When we come to do the video portion of this interview, shall we stick to calling MACBETH, the Scottish Play?

Deborah Braak: Nope.  I don’t believe in any curse and neither do my actors and crew.  Whether or not the curses in the play were “real” at the time, I have no idea.  But I think the real reason behind the superstition now is that it’s the kind of play where things can happen to people — swordplay, special effects, etc.  And actors are a superstitious lot — they don’t want to take chances.  I told them at auditions, though, “Look, the character’s name is Macbeth.  If you can’t say it now, how are you going to say it in the play?”

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Deborah Braak
October 7-9, 13-16, 2011
The Dramateurs, Inc.
at The Barn Playhouse
1600 Christopher St
Jeffersonville, PA 19403

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