I think there are few earthly pleasures quite like sitting in a restaurant with a fantastic cup of coffee, discussing theatre with intelligent and driven professionals. Jordan Friend, Artistic Director of 4615 Theatre, and Stevie Zimmerman are deep in the process of directing the company’s repertory of MacBeth and Moira Buffini’s Dinner. The two plays, by title and playwright alone, seem entirely a non sequitur from one another, but sitting down with Jordan and Stevie opened me up to the sharp compare and contrast between the two, as well as the dialogue that the two shows, in tandem, create.
So for each of you…why this show? Why in rep?
Jordan Friend: We decided, in our season planning, that Macbeth would anchor the season. Our mission includes pushing audiences to identify the resonances between classical and contemporary work. We always want a season that make people think about contemporary plays in classical contexts. That’s not to say that we always choose a literal theme, but they should each talk to another show in its own way.
We always like doing repertory in the summer; it has that great summer-stock feel, and it’s not something that gets done in DC often. Actors performing in both shows, a super tight rehearsal process…
Stevie Zimmerman: Well…crazy-tight.
Jordan: It’s 6 weeks of rehearsals, with lead actors in both shows. If one show is in, there’s only so much we can do with the other. I knew that I wanted Stevie to do the other half of our rep after she directed our Electra last fall.
Stevie: Jordan had a couple ideas, some of which were perhaps too on the nose to pair with Macbeth. One with a person accused of witchcraft…in Scotland. We didn’t want to hit the audience over the head with it; it was thematically too easy. I was just tooting around on the web, and I put in “complementary to Macbeth” and “in rep with Macbeth”, and this play popped up because Harriet Walter, who starred in Dinner, had just played Lady M, so the reviews were drawing comparison to the performances and the shows. There wasn’t enough there…but then we started reading it. There are enough parallels that it started making sense!
It has some thematic elements, it has some visual elements, and very importantly, it was castable with the Macbeth cast. The characters mesh quite nicely. It’s a wonderful contrast for the actors, actually. For instance, Charlene V. Smith, who plays Lady M, plays a completely different character in Dinner.
Jordan: The role could not be farther from Lady M. She’s hippy-dippy, granola…our Macbeth also has a very different type of character as well.
We’re obviously playing a little coy with Dinner. The play has an enormous number of surprises; what it seems to be in the first 20 minutes is not what it turns out to be in the end. We like how the parallels to Macbeth get unearthed over the course of the play, so we have to stay coy. Our whole marketing campaign for Dinner revolves around the phrase: “Don’t spoil Dinner”.
Ostensibly, we’re matching this early Jacobean tragedy with a contemporary comedy of manners, but that gets shattered in a really interesting way. It’s a repertory where we’re asking audiences to, after seeing both plays, have the dialogue about the similarities and differences between the two. “Oh, I see what they did there”. I imagine people will find different ways of connecting the two as well.
Are there any other elements you want to bring up?
Stevie: Well, it’s a dinner party, but there will be blood.
Jordan: In a broader sense, there’s the element of people trying to play god with their lives; people trying to shake the narrative on how their stories are told.
Stevie: … and a power couple at the center! And the way that they manipulate the people around them. It’s tempting in Dinner to assume that it’s only one person manipulating things, when, in reality, it’s the two of them. It becomes especially clear when unexpected elements begin cropping up, such as the uninvited guest to the dinner.
Jordan: And in Macbeth…well…witches! In both plays there’s a visitation that is unknowable and how it drops into the proverbial potion is at the center of both plays.
So you mentioned crazy-tight rehearsals. How does that work?
Stevie: Well, it just has to. It’s kind of “Needs-must”. I did something in rehearsal that I’ve never done before: I did all the blocking up front. Normally I’m much more “let’s get up and see what happens”, but I felt it was essential for two reasons: 1.) We had no room in the schedule to futz around. More importantly, 2.) It is around a table. There isn’t a whole lot of opportunity of “let’s see where you end up sitting”, you do have to choreograph it. That’s really been a change for me as a director; I’ve never worked like this before. But I think it’s kind of reassuring for everyone. There is something a little liberating about knowing that “By this point, I have to be sitting there”, and now all we have to work on is character and motivation.
Jordan: Which is fortunate because that’s not how I’m directing Macbeth at all. it’s a constantly shifting play that constantly shifting locations…I knew that creating static blocking ahead of time wouldn’t help us. It was something that needed to fall into place. We spent the first week of Macbeth, before Dinner entered the picture, just doing worldbuilding and focusing on creating the tiers of societies and understanding the relationships between people.
Stevie: I can already see that there’s a relationship between the two shows – working with my actors who’ve had a week of working on Macbeth, it’s not that it’s been informing what they do, but…they already know each other. They’ve already spent a lot of time getting very intimate. In Dinner they don’t know each other at all, but there are some shortcuts they can make as actors; it’s interesting to see how that happens.
Jordan: For instance, we examined distance and their kinespheres and how that distance defined relationships on stage. And, of course, combat training.
Also, we hate our lighting designer, Dylan Uremovich, so we decided to do one show proscenium and one show alley.
Right, we couldn’t make it easy. Dylan, thankfully, is a very patient person.
It’s also interesting that Stevie talks about Dinner being set around the table, is that something I realized early on about Macbeth is that it’s a folktale, it’s a campfire story. I want the audience to feel like they’re gathered around the campfire and being regaled with this crazy, story, midnight-in-the-forest story.
Talk to me more about the witches.
Jordan: So we derived them from sort of the old folk tales. Shakespeare stole the plot of Macbeth and King Lear from this big ol’ book. And in the original, Banquo and MacBeth worked together to slay the king, which was changed because it was believed that the current line of kings was descended from Banquo. However, the two of them encountered these three things, in the book, described as creatures; they’re never referred to as witches. They were creatures of the elder woods – they were more unknowable, more guardian-like. I found the original idea of the witches must scarier. They’re still witches in our production, but we’ve been talking to them about being on a mission that has a higher purpose. We don’t want them to be “spooky”. They’re almost “moth-like” in their behavior, in that their behavior betrays some deep importance. I’ve seen so many productions where witches do some, like, Martha Graham like movement. We’ve more and more found that breath and voice and stillness, and very carefully curated movements is so much more unsettling. When I think of what scares me, it’s the silhouette across the park when I walk home at night, standing still. So these witches, I wanted them to move less like they were part of the human realm. If we do our job right, you’ll sometimes hear them before you see them!
Macbeth/Dinner in rep
July 27 – August 25, 2018
Details and tickets
Is there anything about Dinner that terrifies you, Stevie?
Stevie: They’re very British characters, with very british humor. What I’m trying to avoid is…it’s not a gentle comedy at all. It’s not people being funny, but rather a situation that creates humor. I’m trying very hard that it doesn’t go into this sort of Noël Coward type place where everyone is very “affected”.
There’s something artificial about the dinner party. The couple who are holding the party, the wife is ostensibly celebrating the publication of her husband’s new book. He’s changed the course of his life recently, deciding to relaunch himself. She’s purportedly throwing this party to celebrate that, but she’s invited a very old girlfriend of his, her partner, who doesn’t show up, and another couple, where the man is one of their oldest friends but recently remarried. There’s all this tension right there.
The main character is sort of known for throwing parties with great food, but for reasons to become apparent, this meal is designed to not be fantastic. It’s part of an almost sadomasochistic ritual. The combination of the fact that the dinner party is an artificial construct, she hasn’t brought people who easily get along, she’s easily injected elements that would create anxiety and tension, and then the food itself…
That’s what frightens me; making this funny in an interesting and dark way, and not going somewhere very “large”. I don’t want people leaving going: “What the hell was that?”…
Well…I want a little of that. But I want them to see what’s more behind the party and the objectives of the main woman, played by Alani Kravitz.
Jordan: I think one of the interesting things of both plays, in the way that they really connect to one another, is the idea of ritual. Things that are sacred that become perverse and perverted and no longer serving their original purpose.
Stevie: Dinner does not have the same kind of arc as we find in Macbeth. No one really changes over the course of the night, but the audience changes. One of the challenges in Dinner is figuring out what people are doing, and really digging in to why. Making up backstories is absolutely imperative for a show like this, otherwise these characters live shallowly. It doesn’t matter if the audience doesn’t know whatever it is we’ve decided to be past of the character, we just need them to know that there’s a fully fleshed, fully lived person behind them. It raises the stakes. There’s an enormous amount of verbal sparring in the play, and that just becomes nastiness unless it’s got some reason behind it, something that matters, something the character cares about, something emotional that hangs on it.
There’s also definitely supernatural element around the house; I wouldn’t ascribe it to a spirit or a deity. I don’t want alarms going off in the audiences’ mind as soon as fog is mentioned, and yet it has a presence.
Jordan: That’s another polar contrast. In Dinner, the audience is expecting the world as their own, but asking is “is something else up?”, whereas in Macbeth, they’re expecting a spiritual, magical world, but asking “wait, is this all in their heads?” It’s a mirror of the same question of doubting our reality. That also really changes the plays.
Stevie: It’s nice how we post-rationalize the choice.
Jordan: We also really just like both plays.
It is a really human thing to ascribe pattern and find similarities.
Jordan: Every audience member who ideally sees both will have their own patterns. We’re excited to interview audience members after they’ve seen both shows, and collecting a sort of vision board to see what they saw in both. We want to engage people coming into both; ideally they’ve never seen Macbeth (but that’s unlikely). Opening up that dialogue is part of our mission.
Stevie: I think you’ll be surprised; there are a lot of people who know Macbeth in a sort of general way, “Oh that’s the one with the witches”, or they’ve studied it but never seen it live.
Jordan: Or maybe hasn’t seen it taken as literally as we’re taking it. There are so many “What if we did this…” productions, that it’s rare to find Macbeth where there are real-ass witches and real-ass sword fights. And the ghosts are there. Macbeth is a play that has phenomenal potential for political commentary and satire, but we’re very much taking the personal approach to it and the kind of psychological study, along with the folkloric element.
We don’t really do a lot of 20th century realism. There isn’t that same capacity to share and commune with the material. The only way we’d do a 20th century realistic play is if it were up against Beowulf or something. Dinner gets by on the subversion of its style. It looks like a kitchen-sink play, but it isn’t.
Stevie: Jordan mentioned something that might be interesting to people. I honestly don’t know much about it; Moira Buffini, who wrote Dinner, may be familiar name. Her play Handbag was at Round House earlier this season. She espouses something that’s called “Monsterism”. She’s part of this group of people who are trying to fight back against what’s become the ‘contemporary norm’ of small cast, single set, small scale, because we’re dealing with economic issues that small companies can’t get around. And when they get around them, they go back to the classics, because of things like rights. What this movement is trying to do is trying to get shows back to something of epic proportion, done in a modern way, and not necessarily by blowing the entire budget.
It lines up with something Jordan talked about, one of his goals in the company; the idea of doing big scale stuff in small scale spaces.
Jordan: The best compliment I can get after one of our shows is when someone comes into our space, when the lights are up and the set is gone, and they say: “I had no idea the space was so small.” That’s a cool day, because I think the right combination of voice, movement, and smart design can really shatter the confines of a space, as I’m sure you’ve experienced in DC.
So why should someone see both?
Stevie: I think it’d be really fascinating to see the same actors play really different roles; that’s a wonderful part of what a true rep is. Also, you get to see what we’ve done with a very simple space. We’re not dealing with a very fancy space; it’s intimate. This is truly energized live, young theatre, and this is a great way of seeing that.
Jordan: I think part of going to two shows, seeing the same actors, and re-engaging in the dialogues means that to some degree you feel more like guests in our house. Seeing one show is transactional. But when you’re coming to see our shows, I want you to feel like you’re seeing our company. It’s a commitment on the audience’s part. Seeing the actor again in a different role is like seeing an old friend. It’s the same for the actor, they can come out and see an audience member who saw the last show and they get to talk about the difference.
Stevie: It’s like becoming a part of the family. You may not be on stage or backstage or doing anything other than buying your ticket. I’ve felt this myself at other theatres; I create a relationship with them. So I think going to two plays in rep, rather than just subscribing over a season, really solidifies that.