This weekend brought two great openings of theatrical shows, The Arc Theatre’s Macbeth and Steppenwolf Theatre’s Grand Concourse. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen theatre without dancing (maybe 3 weeks…). I was impressed and excited for the run of these two shows. And as one such as myself is bound to do, I was drawn to how they both interacted with audience engagement; one old script adapted and one new script.
The Arc Theatre’s Macbeth unravels outdoors in South Evanston. Actors sprawl across the park just on the brink of the urban world; apartments behind, a hospital to the south. It was stunning to watch theatre interact with real life as this production did.
The show started silently, which I’m a total sucker for because I love the way the audience isn’t sure if the production is actually starting and the gap between before the show and during the show is blurred. One pagan witch started by setting up twine along the border of the stage. On opening night, admittedly, I thought “oh a last minute detail they forgot to set up.” The witches are interpreted not as mystical beings, but pagans making them seem more real and present.
Weird “Sisters” from The Arc Theatre’s Macbeth in Ridgeville Park
On a light summer evening, the intense mental drama of Macbeth seemed extremely present. The apex of Lady Macbeth sleep walking seemed like we could encounter her as a slightly off person in the park. Until, with gasps from the audience, we get a peak into her mental state as water turns to blood.
Interior anguish juxtaposed with an everyday environment of a park with people passing by, a playground stage right, updated and brought the insanity to a very real place.
In some ways it seems like mental illness is a hot topic in today’s society, moreso than in the past. We strive to take away stigmas and provide resources (and often drugs) for treatment. Does it just seem we think about it more because we are starting to know more about it medically or it’s more common? Seeing Macbeth reminded me how much of the mystery of mental illness takes effect in Shakespeare‘s work.
View of the window display outside Steppenwolf
A real modern day tale, Grand Concourse, takes place in an urban soup kitchen with twists and turns of mental wellness. A dynamic 4 person cast rounds out a number of mental intricacies. Sister Shelley, a faith questioning nun, seems like the rock of the group, but then shows struggles with God and the outside world. Emma, the new girl, shakes things up (and is even called crazy within the first 20 min of the show). “What is going on with her” stacks up and weighs on her as she considers her mental wellness. Oscar, the kitchen maintenance worker, seems down to earth, but struggles with his impulses. Frog, a patron of the soup kitchen, has a list of mental afflictions attached to him, bi-polar, anger management, and shines in personality as an aging flower child.
The set was remarkable at transporting the audience to the environment inside the soup kitchen. I’ll leave some surprises, but it becomes very easy to believe a fully working kitchen unfolds before our eyes. Further considering interiority, we get hints at the outside world of the alley behind the kitchen, but we are entirely within this soup kitchen in the church. Inside. The kitchen acts as a safe space where characters escape from the problems of the outside world (death, cancer, family drama). But it also hosts moments of mental anguish. Extending the themes of mental interiority, the kitchen acts as the shell from the outside world and characters don’t know what they’ll find on their inside. From breakdowns to celebrations, every mind runs the spectrum on in the kitchen.
As for audience engagement, neither show had an intermission; no break to reality, to talk to your friends about the show, check your phone, relieve bodily functions. Without this intermission break, audience members spend more time in their own heads. A different way to engage the audience; engage them with themselves.
Art finds a way to bring out inner dramas. It can bring groups closer together, but also bring us closer to ourselves. I decided to create a self-portrait with just the eyes and the “mind” swirling out the top with lovely patterned paper. Losely inspired by the new film, Inside Out, I intertwined the paper swirls to represent different aspects of the self. There many aspects that make up who a person is and the mind can often be secretive or hard to control. Creating and participating in art can be a tool to look into others and reflect on the self.
Two great performances with many shows left. Macbeth runs Saturdays and Sundays until August 2 and Grand Concourse closes August 30. Worth spending some time exploring and exploring yourself.
Thirsty for more interiority?
Check out this trailer to see a great character portrayal of Sister Shelley in Grand Concourse.