An Assistant Director Adjusts

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In this episode of Asides, I talk with director, producer, and teaching artist Lana Russell, who assistant directed our production of Macbeth (and last season’s War of the Roses). Hear her thoughts on the production and the challenges and victories of staging theater amongst forces of nature both big and very, very small.

Alicia C
Hello, everyone, welcome to Asides, the Cal Shakes podcast. I’m here with Lana Russell, the Assistant Director of Macbeth, directed by Victor Mulana Maog. Hi, Lana.

Lana
Hello.

Alicia C
Tell us a bit about yourself.

Lana
I’m from the Bay Area, originally. I moved to New York about a decade ago, I guess this would be…it’d be my nine-year reunion in New York in two days. And since most of New York doesn’t know that I even moved, we can all just celebrate it together. And I’m a director, producer, teaching artist. And I have been on many adventures throughout my own personal theatrical journey, across parts of the country and New York and I’m doing a little test right now before a gig in a few months to see what it might be like to come back and be an artist and an advocate and a member of this Bay Area community again.

Alicia C
Wonderful. And what is your background with Macbeth? Have you worked on it before? Is this your first production?

Lana
I am a huge Shakespeare buff. I was here last year assisting Eric on on War of the Roses. But Macbeth is actually the show I have seen the most amount of times in many different languages. I’ve seen it in Greek and Italian, which is really random. But every like country or place I go to, Macbeth seems to be following me and playing. And I was also in Macbeth, which I keep telling everybody, in college, the last time I acted, I played Lady Macduff, it was a really violent murder. I got really bruised up because, you know, we didn’t have Dave here to show us how to fight appropriately. So don’t do that. But um, yeah, so it’s, and it’s honestly a play that I have really wanted to be a part of, and take on in a directorial capacity for a long time. And over the course of our rehearsal period, I pitched a few plays to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, historical Gettysburg. I have taught and directed for them before. And so out of all my pitches, they picked Macbeth. So I’m actually going to be directing Macbeth in March, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Alicia C
What—What do you think it is about this story that, that people keep coming back to?

Lana
You know, I think I saw a trend, in at least even the past couple years, and in myself, these Shakespeare plays definitely reflect the life that we’re going through, always. And in the past few years, you know, here with War of the Roses, years ago when I was doing, you know, these really battle-driven war plays, about family lines, and the crown and power and a lot of that is a lot of like, physical violence and land and territory. And it seems to be right now, Macbeth is a play really about—and not that they all aren’t about—humanity. But it really is about the human, is about the monstrosity, as Victor would call it, within the actual person, within your psyche, the ambition that’s tugged deep down within your own soul, and not necessarily a historical line, or what everything else that’s going on, but it’s actually evaluating the self, who you are underneath it all. And last about, we can say, I think, especially in our time, and anytime, but you can we can say, Oh, this person is a bad person, this person would do that…those people over there would do that. And there’s a lot of the blame game going on. And Macbeth really forces us to, not only examine other people, but examine ourselves.

Alicia C
And I should also say we are, we’re weirdly asking you also to speak a bit for Victor because he’s not in the room right now. He has a fresh brand spanking-new baby that was born our first—was it the first day of tech? The day before tech, so Victor’s not here. So we are asking Lana to speak a bit for him, but also from her own perspective. So with that, can you talk a bit about the choices that were made for this production in particular, that folks coming to the Bruns have seen or will see this week.

Lana
First of all, I think with, with the set, costumes, a lot of those thematic choices, I’m pretty sure we settled on our time in place being mythical or mythological…mythical, sorry, Victor, Scotland. And you know, to me, I always read that as having a timelessness. So you’ll see in the costumes, you’ll see a nod to something historical or a nod to Scotland or nod to something that feels maybe recognizably Shakespearean to you, mixed with something very present and contemporary and of the now. And the set…when Victor first reached out to me about working on this play, I think he said in his email, everybody’s in a glass cage, it’s going to be awesome. And that has kind of transformed into this metal—and it’s not glass, it’s actually Plexi—box that now has more weaving, entrances and exits out of it for our own ease, and the set really becomes its own character in the play. And it is its own obstacle, both physically, you’ll see actors interacting with it. And it’s, it’s an obstacle that they really can use and push up against, to create the tension or to help themselves feel compressed or boxed in and what it means to feel trapped inside the box, and then what it means to break out of it, for anyone who ever does get the chance to do that, or yearns or, or wishes to be able to do so. And the set gets interacted with in various ways with blood and weather and it live-responds to us. I’m sure everyone’s heard our stories of first preview was completely fogged up. And you know, that kind of seems like such a Macbeth-ian thing, like the weather can take over, the blood can take over, the people can take over. Because…and it really ends up becoming Macbeth’s mind is something to look for in that set. And then the witches, I feel very close to my heart, because I, I felt like I got—was allowed and welcomed by Victor to collaborate a lot on on them. And I think the casting, first and foremost, and the breakdown, of this particular cutting and adaptation that Philippa and Victor did, I looked at it and the first thing I said, “Everyone’s a witch,” and… everybody plays a witch at a certain time. And over the rehearsal process, if someone randomly didn’t, we found a way to make it so that they would be. And so that it is this feeling of these witches are kind of this omnipresent force. And for us something that we talked about in the rehearsal room that we all…stuck with us… about being very “of the blood and soil,” you know, they’re right there from the top of the show as a part of coming out of a battle, coming out of a war. And in this play, I’ve been I’ve been saying this to the high schoolers on the student matinees, who’ve been coming to visit as I’ve been doing teaching artist stuff with them. I was like, look out for those witches, because they’re going to be in places that even if you know this play, they’re going to be in places that you don’t necessarily expect them to be. And they have even more meaning, which I think is something I’ve always wanted to see in a production of Macbeth because they are such a powerful, strong force. And they have much more power in this particular production than just being spooky, or, or weird, or you know, an old hag, they have a lot of power of life and death and cycles of violence and what that represents. So you’ll see a lot of interesting things with the witches there.

Alicia C
Something that struck me watching the show… with how interesting it was that… it it did seem like the witches came up out of the blood and soil of war, and then like escorted the death off the battlefield, the dead off the battlefield, which reminded me a bit of the Morrigan, or other myths like that. And so I’m wondering if you can walk us through a little bit about like, what the process was of talking about the the witches and how they how they all showed up in all of these strange and wonderful places that aren’t where they usually are?

Lana
Yeah, I think one of the most fun and exciting parts of any production of Macbeth is what people are going to do with the witches and how they’re going to handle them and what they mean and what their significance is. and Victor had a lot of ideas about the witches and and then welcomed me into my ideas about the witches, which was really, really thrilling. And then, you know, the third part of that is, I feel like Victor really spearheads a very collaborative room. And I do that in my own practice as well, which I think is why that melded so positively. And had a really in depth conversation with the actors, I think it might have been Cat, who had actually done some Celtic research. And I believe it was, I believe it was her that that actually had said the words to us like “blood and soil.” And then that even changed a costume conversation literally the next day about the fact that they have different amounts of blood on their veils as they progress through the play, depending on when they show up, and how dry that blood is. So perhaps how long they have been holding this weight of this blood and this death, or how light and bright and fresh that it is. And they I did a lot of research and, and I had done a lot of research in my thesis in grad school on traditions around mourning, mourning and grief. And I talked to Victor and and Victor said, that’s great. Let’s use it. Let’s use anyone’s random skills. So they became these mourners. And they’re obviously in the scenes that they’re already in, right. And then we had a thought and an idea of, you know, what if they showed up every time that someone is passing on or someone is dying, whether that’s a murder, or a battle. And so we were playing around, you know, it’s a puzzle, right? Because who can do it, who can get off stage and have enough time to get a veil on and get on stage and get off? Right? But then it’s what is that it was this language that the actors really kept us honest about saying, you know, what are, what are we doing? What are we, you know, we can’t just… and they’re right, it wouldn’t make sense for them to just sort of like stand there looking spooky, right? And so it was, we had a lot of conversations around what it means to be a regular witch or resurrection witch, as we called it. And I think those are what, those moments kind of ended up becoming just an idea that we wanted to make them more of a present character. And then I think it was just in rehearsal, one day, the question came about, how are we getting these dead bodies off stage, because we have this steel cage with a steel grid, on the ground, in blood… and in daylight, it’s very hot. And you know, nobody likes to see people struggle dragging a full size human body offstage, that we know is not really dead. So for the sake of theatricality, we came up with this idea that the witches would sort of kind of rise people from the dead and usher them into the afterlife, or whatever that is, and I think it was even another stage into tech, where not only did it become just a thing of necessity that we needed to do, but we had, we had gotten in a really deep conversation about, you know, what it means to be guided by this witch, and kind of how graceful that it was, a real moments of grace. Even even with its darkness, and, or, and all of that, that it became this almost slightly gentle moment. So they really, they’ve bridged into many different vehicles and uses in this play, both by necessity, creativity, and then what kind of things transform when you get artists and tech and actors all in a room with their own research and experience and our own research and experience and come up with something together.

Alicia C
Okay, so so then you had this amazing experience during tech of Victor needed to go. He needed to go be with his wife, they’re having a baby, you and Eric had to get the first part of tech up, up and going. And you two worked together before on The War of the Roses. So I’d just love to hear more about the your experience with Eric last year, how you got into The War of the Roses, but also like, what the tech experience was like, and how how it was sort of colored by this—I feel like this whole year has been “Cal Shakes Adjusts to Acts of God.” Between atmospheric rivers and wonderful babies born not, you know, not on our schedule, on their schedule, and not just Victor’s, other babies in the Cal Shakes family. And possibly this week from power outages, if things don’t go the way we want thanks to fires. And so tell us a bit about the tech process. And and your work with Eric. Tech, for those that don’t know, it is the first time that lights, costumes, sound, all of the technical elements of the show are incorporated into the acting. So the actors have gotten three and a half weeks of rehearsal, where they’re learning their lines, and they’re figuring out where they’re going to stand and what they’re going to do. And then you have to add this whole other layer. And those rehearsals are really about everybody backstage, being able to rehearse their part of the show. And the actors are continuing their rehearsals. But they’re, they’re an added element of the whole tech rehearsal. So these decisions are huge to make and really affect the finished piece.

Lana
On the—on the list of you know, I like this, “Cal Shakes adjusts,” that should be just to be about one of the other like, season mottos up on the website. In the list of things that you sort of anticipate and don’t anticipate in the world of theater magic, it’s a very strange experience for me sort of one year later, you know, a year ago, I thought I’ll give the Bay Area a try. I’ll come out here, I had met Eric through mutual friends and and theater folks, and I had worked on War of the Roses more than any other Shakespeare play. I did a 200-page paper on it in grad school, I also directed my own adaptation of it. So I was I was really ready to go at the point of coming here. And Eric is an incredibly brilliant leader. And he saw that I knew so much about these plays. And, you know, told me, Come on in, let’s do this. And so so, last year, you know, was not “Cal Shakes adjusts” quite as much, we had a much more straightforward process. And for those of you who don’t know, you know, the Assistant Director role can shift really greatly. Depending on the project, depending on the director, and depending on the company. And so sometimes it’s very much just supporting, you know, that person’s vision. And you know, things go straight forward, and you know what your tasks are each day, and sometimes you’re taking your own notes sometimes you’re taking their notes, and you’re jumping into things when needed. And we we definitely had a great flow of that last year. And and then this year, when this came up, I think through similar and other friends, I got reached out to with the explanation that Victor and his wife were going to be having their baby at some point in the process. I think the due date was preview two. So for some reason, myself, most of all, I just got that date in my head that that’s the date the baby was going to come. You know, there was no the baby’s going to come early, it was just like, oh, preview two. I’ll take some notes on the show. And we’ll go over them in our preview rehearsal the next day because we still get a few of those rehearsal hours. And the night before this happened, which on that day was the first day we all went to our production meeting and see the set at the theater. Eric came in at the end of rehearsal, just kind of casually and said, Hey, do you guys have a plan for when this baby’s coming? What’s going on, and we all said, Eric, my gosh, the baby is not going to come early. The baby’s not coming during tech, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. And then we went on our merry little way. And we went to the up to the Bruns. We saw the sad Victor and I had a really relaxed conversation about what we were going to work on that day. I told him he had to work on the dagger and “tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, the most famous speeches in Macbeth for those who know. And we got back with our coffees to the rehearsal room and the baby—the baby was coming. And Victor said “Bye.” And I came to Eric’s office during a break, and he said, What’s the plan? So we kind of went into this joyful, strange, weird plan that we made up to sort of co-direct this tech. And Eric had worked with a lot of the designers before. So Eric was kind of up in the sort of designer lane that I call it up in the theater where they were at their tables, and I was with the actors. And we were passing around the mic and running back and forth. And, you know, he’d get an idea and check in with me. And I think the really interesting and crazy experience of it all is that I have my own, my own knowledge and my own tendencies and my own artistic vision, right. But I really felt the need to be an advocate and a defender of Victor’s vision in Victor’s absence. So that would be like, what—is this something that Victor would want? Is this, you know, is this right, is this going ing the right direction? And we would be kind of just going back and forth—No, no, it’s more like this over here. And then of course, you know, for those of you who know or don’t know, there, you can do so much in the rehearsal rooms, there are a lot of things that just have to get solved, once you get there. So we were just kind of putting our brains and imaginations together, trying to figure out, you know, where our bodies are going to go, and how much blood is too much blood, and how this person getting it off stage and, and still working out some story moments. Of you know, what does…what does this really mean here? What kind of story are we telling? And it was, it was a very strange and hilarious and stressful experience, you know, going from just being Eric’s assistant to Eric, and I, you know, really feeling like we were coming together and teaming up to get this show in a place that by, you know, the Sunday of tech would be in a place that Victor could really come in and respond to it and mold a base level of a story to make sure that it was what he really wanted. And then I’m talking to Victor on the phone from the hospital, and I’m like OK, I did this does this feel right? And Victor was just always very, very supportive. Like you know what you’re doing, you guys have got it, and we were all like, Okay, great. See you soon. So it was just, you know, a wild, but you know, in the world of the theater, you just make it work. And you tell the story, and you take the things that we know and try to make them as as specific and interesting as possible, and then adapt to what Victor wants to do when he comes in. And it’s just a real adjust—make it work kind of moment, but tests all the skills and experience and flexibility that you have.

Alicia C
Anything else that we should know about Macbeth, the last few people that are seeing it this week, and anybody who’s already seen it?

Lana
I think we will have done our job in this production of Macbeth if you are able to, while watching it or after leaving, able to examine your own sense of self, your own sense of morality, your own sense of monstrosity, or ambition or what that means to you, and how you relate to other people in the rest of the world and not what you’ve actually done. But what you could even imagine doing because I think the the truth of that sense of humanity and the things we dream and the things we desire and love and lose, are all very present in a play like Macbeth. That you know, has stood the test of time as being arguably one of the most popular Shakespeare plays and you will see… Cal Shakes audiences and all of our student matinee audiences and people seeing it for the millionth time like me, or the first time, are going to hopefully examine a deeper sense of self and the choices we make.

Alicia C
Thank you, Lana. And so people who want to follow your work, where can they find you online?

Lana
Good question. Um…www dot…what is my website? lanarrussell.com. Lana R Russell, that’s two “r”s in the middle. But also all the things, Lana Russell on Facebook, LanaRosalind, which is my Shakespearean middle family name on Instagram. I’d love to be in touch with you. I’m going to be in the Bay Area for a few months and wanting to make art and see your art and be a part of this Bay Area theater community. So I’d love to connect with you.

Alicia C
Thank you. You can buy tickets to the last few performances of Macbeth at calshakes.org.

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