• Cristee Cook

Fair Assembly Returns with a Fresh Approach to Shakespeare's Macbeth

by Cristee Cook

Dallas, TX -- Fair Assembly returns to stages this week with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The tragedy about power and ambition is Co-Directed by Emily Ernst (Fair Assembly Co-Founder and Artistic Director) and Company Member Morgan Lauré. Macbeth audiences can look forward to Fair Assembly’s fresh, collaborative, and interdisciplinary approach to storytelling. Founded in 2020 by SMU Meadows School of the Arts theatre and dance graduates, the company utilizes live sound, music, and movement in their storytelling, and their creative process is highly collaborative, and ensemble based.

In our conversation, Ernst and I talked about the political climate of our country and how it is informing this production of Macbeth. We take a deeper look into Fair Assembly’s movement-based approach to storytelling, and how the company is approaching the play through a lens of equal partnership, both within the characters relationships in the play and in the company's creative process.

My first question comes straight out of your press release: “Fair Assembly is interested in the humanity of this tragedy: a powerful bond between partners broken by overwhelming circumstances, the transformative and revealing nature of power, and the many ways humans react to the rise of a tyrant." I am specifically interested in the last part of that statement. Did Fair Assembly choose Macbeth as a reaction to the changing political climate in our country/world? Given critics called your production of Romeo and Juliet "brutally political,” is it fair to anticipate that current events will inform this production?

That's a great question. What I love about Shakespeare is there are so many details to fill in, and two productions of the same play can be and nearly always are wildly different. So many opposing viewpoints exist in the plays, and it is impossible to say, "Shakespeare believed in God." or "Shakespeare disrespected women" or "Shakespeare supported colonization".

It's hard to know what we want out of the play until everyone is together. I knew we had an actor who could play Macbeth in a way that felt fresh (Brandon Walker). We all agreed that what is so scary about this man is how respected and beloved he is in the beginning of the play, and how much we relate to him. It was also written in the shadow of the plague. Maybe knowing that helped guide us toward it?

Macbeth has a vivid imagination. We've spent plenty of time during the pandemic alone with our thoughts, sometimes living on edge, entertaining worst-case scenarios as a means of survival. So in that sense, Macbeth feels ripe.

Brandon James Walker as Macbeth | Photo by Chadi El-Khoury

"Brutally political" was a description that surprised me, to be honest. I didn't know what was meant with that regarding Romeo and Juliet, but that's the beauty of Shakespeare. Something unintentional on our part resonated with someone in a specific way. I think the extent to which we're political is in our process. To employ an overused buzzword, 21st century directing can feel patriarchal to me, depending on the situation. And there are rarely enough resources here in Dallas to compensate someone adequately for that mammoth, lonely task. Plus I find ensemble work more fun and more challenging of egos, which always feels right. We have people guiding the ship, but we don't ask actors to stay in their lane. So in terms of process, this feels a bit like a statement about creative input. It can get bumpy, but I think the result with so many passionate people in one place, is exciting.

Back to the political question: the elephant in the room politically these days is Trump, right? Comparing any character or play to Trump feels impossible, because he lacks the one thing that all Shakespearean characters have, regardless of their moral code: self-reflection. But the stress test that our democracy barely passed on January 6th, 2021, revealed so much about how a tyrannical leader affects the public. There are people who flee the situation, people who fight it, and people who adapt to it. We see all of those reactions in Macbeth. The word "equivocation"--an essential skill in anti-democratic spaces-- appears several times in the play.

Another thought about choosing Macbeth; I didn't want to do a comedy for the sake of lightness. I wanted to process what we'd just been through. I think we all do. This play explores the question: what does power do to a person? We often hear the phrase "power corrupts". But we see several people with power in this show. I would never want to say, "Here is a show that has the following lesson." I would love 80 different audience members to come away with 80 different ideas.

Something that sets Fair Assembly apart from other performance companies in Dallas, specifically, is inspiration from the work of Jacques Lecoq. For readers/audience members who are not familiar with Lecoq, can you give us a deeper explanation as to how his process informs your work?

Yes! Jacques Lecoq founded a movement school in Paris in the 1950s and taught there until his death in 1999. Our physical dramaturg, Sara Romersberger studied with him in Paris from 1984-1986 and I attended the school from 2017-2018. It's an international program taught in French, but the true common language is physical. There is an understanding that movement is text, and not an afterthought or just "mime" or commedia dell'arte. We sometimes divorce movement from acting, but they are one and the same. You can't be a good actor and not know how to move.

Each week at Lecoq, we worked on an original piece that wasn't governed by a director. We worked as a team. It was extremely difficult coming from the American world of training and expectations in the US. We want to talk things to death. Fair Assembly isn't quite as extreme as Lecoq, but we direct as a team, and we invite every person in the room to contribute when they want.

Chris Rutherford (one of our co-founders) calls Sara's work our "secret sauce" and it's true. She helps us play big, which can feel counterintuitive in a small space. She keeps the physical story clear and brings out physical detail. There are some moments that are even slightly choreographed, but (hopefully, if we do it well) don't look like it. She clarifies what we're trying to say, reminds us to move and gesture on the line, and eventually we get better at doing that on our own. True to Lecoq, she never makes us feel like we need her to succeed. She is full of knowledge, but doesn't act like a guru. It's my favorite thing about her. Ideally, we want an audience to watch a silent film of our production and still more or less understand what is happening.

I'm excited to read about the approach to Macbeth being through a lens of equal partnership not just in the approach to the process itself but also in the relationships within the play. How has this approach changed or deepened your view of the story?

Hugely. We tend to blame Macbeth's crimes on the women in this play. That's the trap for me. "The witches did it. Lady Macbeth convinced him. Without that, he's really innocent." The tragedy, for us, is that the same person who resisted killing the king in the beginning kills an entire family. He's a human being with a beautiful past and no future. If the Macbeths don't love each other, very little is at stake.

Can you tell us more about the production being "interdisciplinary"?

Our witches have been creating movement together with choreographer Emily Bernet since a workshop in February. Emily is also performing as Witch 2 in our production. We're also working with cellist and composer Ivan Dillard. He is responding to the play by working B Locrian mode, which was referred to hundreds of years ago as "The Devil's Music" because it's so difficult to resolve. We have dancers, singers, and musicians who are using their mediums to enter the play.

Finally, how did you connect with Bombshell Dance Project and what are they bringing to the play that's unique?

Emily Bernet and I were working on a movement piece for Cry Havoc Theatre together and got to talking about Macbeth. I was really excited about how she worked with the teens of Cry Havoc in a way that made them take ownership of the process and product. We decided in that rehearsal to work together. I love the way she works, and her quiet, but confident leadership. I completely trust her to go away with the witches while we're working on something else and come back with magic. We aren't working with Bombshell directly, except to the extent that one of their founders is in our show, and I love what they do.


Fair Assembly presents Shakespeare’s Macbeth May 5-15, 2022. Thursday-Friday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm at Arts Mission Oak Cliff. All students attend for free with student ID. Tickets can be purchased here: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/5324775

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