April 25

June 24, 2018

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare

by William Shakespeare
adapted & directed by Aaron Posner and Teller

A Conversation with the Directors

CST: You two have shared a unique artistic partnership working together on Shakespeare, for years now.

AARON POSNER: It’s been one of the great theatrical experiences of my life getting to do these two shows—The Tempest and Macbeth—with Teller over the last ten years. We are very different people with very different careers, very different outlooks—and very different tastes in movies—but we are both totally populists at heart. Accessibility and engagement for everybody has shaped both of our careers, and hopefully that will come through in this production, as well.

But the truth is, our differences are our strength as a team: I have a fairly chaotic mind, where Teller’s is extremely well-ordered and systematic. Teller drills down to the center of the dramaturgical events in the story, and then begins to dream what those moments might be in magical terms, using his own (and Johnny Thompson’s) encyclopedic knowledge of all of magic history—and I’m not exaggerating in saying that. Then, after that kind of unbounded imagination follows the meticulous, detailed nature that magic requires, which is so unforgiving, so pass/fail. You can’t have a magic trick that almost works.

TELLER: Though in magic, we often do get away with arbitrary movements and arbitrary gestures, and the audience buys it. But Aaron won’t let me get away with that, and it strengthens the magic enormously. Aaron insists that it’s all motivated by the actors, so when you get to that magic trick, it’s cubed in its effect because you’ve woven it in dramaturgically to be part of that world.

POSNER: The brush sizes you use in magic and directing are very different. When I’m directing a play, I have to use a roller, or a wide brush, and maybe occasionally a smaller brush, as it were. We have maybe two-and-a-half hours to stage, and don’t have time to do it all like a Seurat painting, one point at a time. But that three-second magic trick has to be that meticulous in detail. So the two of us learning from each other about what size brush we're painting with at any given moment has been very much part our process collaboration over the years.

Teller, you’re a magician. How did you first get hooked on Shakespeare?

TELLER: My first contact with Shakespeare was when my grandfather gave us a complete set of the plays. And my father, who knew I was interested in magic, said, ‘There are witches in Macbeth!’ and I went, ‘Where? Where?’ We found the Act 4, scene 1 ‘Cauldron Scene,’ whereupon I proceeded to memorize it. When you’ve memorized a poem, you own it for the rest of your life. I fell in love with that scene before anything else in Shakespeare. It’s the language, but it’s also that his language carries with it the ideas.

In Macbeth, what language carries the play’s central ideas for this production?

POSNER: ‘Nothing is but what is not,’ and ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair.’ What’s illusion and what’s real? Those lines have shaped our entire approach into this play.

Our audience still talks about your production of The Tempest that the two of you co-directed here. How much will your Macbeth remind us that the same two artists are behind it?

TELLER: It’s not going to be The Tempest—The Tempest was a comedy. But what these two stories do have in common is that they’re both about situations where reality seems fluid. You could apply that same phrase from Macbeth to The Tempest: ‘Nothing is but what is not.’ Magic is appropriate to both plays because it’s helpful to put the audience into the same emotional position that these characters are to their world. The Macbeths are subject to illusions and hallucinations. They mistake what the reality of the situation is, and think that they can take the witches’ prophecies as straight information. Prospero on his island can conjure up whatever he wants for the purposes of his very strange, theatrical revenge. The magic in The Tempest, I would say, was ‘merry.’ The magic in Macbeth is very much on the creepy side. There were twenty-five magic tricks in The Tempest; there are six major magical sequences in Macbeth. We are doing magic that is necessary: we are creating the complexity of their difficult mind-state, and making the world unreliable through magic.

POSNER: Half the magic, twice the plot. It’s a visceral, psychological, supernatural horror thriller.

TELLER: There’s no real danger in The Tempest. Prospero’s biggest trick is the shipwreck; he’s using magic to create the illusion of danger and death. His ability to conjure illusions is his strongest weapon. In Macbeth, illusions—both visual and verbal—lead to knives and murder. Nobody dies in The Tempest; everybody dies in Macbeth. It’s a different world. Even in its day, The Tempest was a different kind of show altogether: it was a pageant, more like a musical. The Tempest is not plot-driven the way Macbeth is. Macbeth is a bite-your-fingernails suspense yarn about a guy ‘just like you’—who happens to get caught by these strange circumstances and gets snarled in this web of evil.

This is, of course, your first experience working in The Yard. What role has its unique architecture played in shaping your world for this production?

POSNER: It’s an amazing, inspiring space that makes you lift up your eyes and chest and energy when you just walk into it. It has a strange strength, and a kind of wonderful majesty to it. The scenic design for the show wanted to take full advantage of that. So in addition to an odd kind of indescribable abandoned gothic castle in woods, we have this area far above the stage we refer to as ‘Hell Above,’ or ‘Hell’s Attic.’ It is where our percussionist, Hecate, played by the amazing Ronnie Malley, and the witches, or Weird Sisters, will hang out during most of the show, messing with the poor mortals going about their awful business below. We’ve tried to build the show to truly fit and fully inhabit The Yard. It is an honor to be the first large-scale show produced in this incredible venue, and we are all doing our best every day to be deserving of the opportunity—and to create a rip-roaring thriller that folks will talk about for a while to come.

TELLER: The elegance and classical nature of the Courtyard Theater, and the rough, raw, majestic, heart-beating, foot-stomping capacity of The Yard are so different. The set design, the musical choices, the idea of Hell’s Attic, from which our Weird Sisters and their demon percussionist ally, Hecate, look down at the world of human folly, all came out of a sense of scale that The Yard’s space demands, and that you want to fulfill.

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