Macbeth is the New Black

I should have written this 5 years ago. But honestly, I never expected my journey to take this turn. I never expected to find myself on the bumpy mountain pass that is Bardolotry. Better late than never, like a terribly missed cue. 

I was a studying teaching English to speakers of other languages at Maryville College when I saw an audition announcement. I had long given up my dream of acting or being any kind of artist. But this audition was for an all-girl’s prison version of Macbeth called Macbeth is the New Black. Macbeth had long been my favourite play, and I still remembered Hecate’s speech to her underling witches. I was in a history of the English language course, and had been learning about Early Modern English, so I thought it might be fun to whip out an old monologue. I had no confidence and no hope, so I had nothing to lose. I just wanted to do the monologue.

“Have I not reason, beldams as you are?
Saucy and overbold,”

I began, staring at each of the auditioners in turn.

“How did you dare 
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death,
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms
Was never called to bear my part
Or show the glory of our art?

I couldn’t tell you what happened after that.

My sister, Raine, who I had not known at the time, often tells me the story of our callback. As she played Lady Macbeth and I, Macbeth. She claims we had incredible chemistry and would have made a good pair.

But I don’t think I could tell you anything about callbacks.

However, Jayne Morgan, the director, must have seen something hard and delinquent in me. Not really hard to do, I guess, if I’m honest. I’ve been told a dozen and a half times that I intimidate people and exude a dense “$^@< off” aura. Really though, I think I was just in the right place at the right time. Jayne needed a big cast, and I could perform some semblance of criminal. Maybe she just wanted somebody with ink? Maybe that military bearing I learned had paid off? Maybe the confidence one gains by living abroad, training for war, growing tumours, breaking one’s spine, and blowing away all one’s &^@<$ in a pit of anxiety and depression does an actor some good?

Witch, Murderer, Caithness, and Rosa. 

I can’t even explain to you how it felt to see my name on a cast list.

Satisfying? 

And suddenly I was in rehearsals for my first Shakespeare play, and all the confidence I had found in the audition was gone.

I questioned every choice I made. I questioned every aspect of my body. Does my backstory really make sense? Am I showing my characters’ depths? Does that matter because I’m playing a character playing three characters? Could I really pass for under 18 (I think I was 24 at the time)? Had I been nice enough to my castmates? They were all so young, and I have always been a bit of a snake. That’s probably why Hecate’s speech has stuck with me all these years.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve alienated others due to my difficulty in understanding basic human communication. So I often ask for clarification. I need to know what’s expected of me in gruesome detail.  And for some reason, I’ve never been able to beat around the bush when it comes to asking for that level of detail. I would say that I’m blunt or to the point. Others would say I’m a bitch and a dyke. Those people are only about three-quarters right. And for this reason, I began to suspect that the cast and crew hated me and actively wanted me to perish so they could tap dance on my grave.

I remember one such encounter vividly. The three witches were rehearsing Macbeth’s Act I, scene iii. My line was

A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munched, and munched, and munched. “Give me,”
     quoth I.
“Aroint thee, witch!” the rump-fed runnion cries.
Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger;
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

The direction I was given was to try showing incredible sexuality on the “I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.” I tried it once, or I thought about it. But it just didn’t feel right. This was only partially because I’m not a sexual being at all and was highly uncomfortable attempting seduction.

The larger part of my confusion was due to the context of the play. In another scene, all the girls watch as the prison warden abuses and molests one of the other girls, the girl who plays Lady Macbeth. With this knowledge, my instinct was to do violence in retaliation against injustice.

I argued my case with Jayne, and she allowed me to make that choice and play with that emotion. It was a victory of sorts. It kept me in my safe little box. I didn’t have to seduce anyone. But it was also a win for my instinct. I had a hunch based on textual evidence, and I argued for it. But had I been too blunt? Had I offended my director? Does she hate me now, like everyone else?

I have always been so insecure.

Despite their hatred for me, I made incredible friends during the completely sold-out run of this show. The other girls and I stayed in our bunks (which were on stage, obscured only by chainlink fence), watching our peers act and the audience’s reactions. One of my cast mates often fell asleep and had to be nudged awake for her cue. One night, watching two girls kissing was just too much for a young couple. They walked across the stage in order to leave the theatre. How did we all stay in character that night? We didn’t. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one to subtly flip them the bird. Or maybe that was in character? OR maybe I was the character. I guess that’s another win that I’m only discovering five years later. An actor’s job is never done.

After our run of Macbeth is the New Black, I received a lot of good reviews. But I take every positivity with a large grain of salt. My favourite review though came from the app YikYak. Anybody remember that one? It allowed people to leave anonymous messages that could be grouped by location. Maryville College’s YikYak said something like “In Macbeth is the New Black, I liked the one with tattoos.” I don’t even remember what it said, but I was flattered. I should probably ask Raine for clarification. Hell, she probably posted it. She’s a gem, really.

More important than the pleasant reviews, Macbeth is the New Black made me fall in love again with language and history. I discovered the rabbit hole that is researching meanings and historical contexts, reading the Arden, and learning new old words. And once the play was over, my itch had been only partially scratched.

During some of our “on-stage down time”, Raine and I talked about language and history. Beldam, incarnadine, and he meaning of the name Fleance (which likely came from an Old English word fleon, which means to flee) were always up for discussion. She told me about Shakespeare on the Square which took place every summer in downtown Knoxville. She convinced me to audition for the plays (The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth) the following summer.

But that’s a story for the next blog post.


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