Operation 'Macbeth'

How the Alabama Shakespeare Festival took the front line into a new cultural campaign

by Kent Thomspon

The call came while I was rehearsing Noises Off in March of 2003. Gigi Bolt, director of the theatre program at the National Endowment for the Arts, told me that she was calling at the request of the chairman, Dana Gioia, to propose an unusual project: If the NEA could work out the necessary funding, would the Alabama Shakespeare Festival be interested in touring its future production of Macbeth to U.S. military bases? I was taken aback, but after a moment replied, "Well, sure. But why?"

Gigi said the chairman wanted to create national initiatives that would reinvent the image of the NEA—and the "Shakespeare in American Communities" program was the first and boldest of these. The chairman was working hard on Capitol Hill to create new partnerships within the federal government that would support the work of the NEA in a new way. He believed that he could persuade Congress to support such a tour through the Department of Defense.

"Why ASF?" She said the chairman knew about our recent successes with touring, our reputation for high artistic quality and, of course, our Southern roots. (I quickly figured out that Chairman Gioia must have other reasons in mind: Featuring the State Theatre of Alabama might well turn Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a longtime member of the National Council on the Arts, the presidentially appointed advisory body of the NEA, from a tireless critic into a vocal supporter of the Endowment and its funding. It also didn't hurt that Alabama's other senator was Richard Shelby, who had chaired and served on several defense, intelligence and appropriations committees.)

Chairman Gioia wanted the touring version of Macbeth to be of the same caliber as ASF's work in Montgomery—a fully mounted production. This would mean taking our own lighting and sound equipment in addition to full scenic and costume packages. That would mean a semi-trailer truck and two buses (one for crew, one for cast). No admission would be charged, so the budget should include all direct expenses.

We were asked to submit a rough budget for an eight-base tour over four to five weeks. It would be costly, given the scale of production requested and our LORT status—somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000–450,000. A few weeks later, we were asked to double the scale of the tour and the budget. We did. The chairman was now requesting $1 million in funding from Congress through the Department of Defense.

Thus began a dance with the NEA that was by turns agonizingly slow and alarmingly frantic. I was asked to fly to Washington, D.C., three days later to meet with the first round of companies participating in Shakespeare in American Communities. We were assigned to Ken Carlson at Arts Midwest, the regional agency managing the program.

By fall of 2003, we were beginning serious preparations for our season, including Macbeth, which was to be directed by associate artistic director Bruce K. Sevy. We knew that we needed to approach this initial production with the idea of touring it-we couldn't afford to redesign and rebuild the set or mount a full rehearsal period. Hearing nothing through the established channels of communication, I finally called the chairman directly: Was this tour really going to happen? He reassured me that it was all proceeding according to plan. "You have my word—if the congressional funding doesn't come through, I will personally guarantee the funding. This tour will happen."

After a lot of discussion with Bruce, I decided two days before the scheduled design conference on Oct. 4 that we should switch directing assignments—I would direct Macbeth and he would direct Titus Andronicus. I was disappointed (never having directed Titus and doubting I'd have a second chance), but thought it the wiser decision, given the high-profile nature of this tour. A few days later Congress voted to fund a tour to military bases by the Shakespeare in American Communities program through the Department of Defense at a cost of $1 million, as part of a larger defense bill of $368 million. ASF would be granted about $750,000 to mount its tour (which now had a price tag of more than $900,000). The press started calling from as far away as Alaska and England.

However, we soon entered a strange twilight zone between spoken plans and written agreements. Weeks went by without contact, then the NEA would send an urgent request—for a revised budget, for background information on ASF. We worked out logistics and dealt with an ever-changing list of requirements. One series of phone calls from the Endowment made it clear that education and outreach during the tour would be a priority, at least as important as the performances. We hadn't planned or budgeted for any formal education or outreach programs, and no one told us what kind of programs the NEA had in mind—for officers' clubs, for schoolchildren, for troops?

The Department of Defense was sending out feelers to its "installations" (we called them "bases") from North Carolina to New Mexico to Alaska. We were told not to contact any bases ourselves—all communication must go through the Pentagon. This was especially odd, because we had already received phone calls and e-mails from bases. The situation turned surreal when we tried to schedule performances at our hometown base, Maxwell Air Force Base and Air University. In the past, we had always scheduled the first stop on any tour within an hour's drive of our theatre, so we could have quick and easy access to our shops and production staffs on the first load-in and load-out. Maxwell seemed a perfect solution (we had good attendance from the base, and the commandant was a member of our board of directors). Nonetheless, we were repeatedly told not to speak with anyone at Maxwell until the Pentagon gave its approval. So we found ourselves caught in the enervating bureaucracy of two federal agencies and the slow pace of military protocol. Because of these constraints, Maxwell would be one of the last stops officially booked—for the official opening of the tour on Sept. 10.

Meanwhile, we learned from Arts Midwest that we should be prepared to perform at any kind of venue the base could provide that met our general space requirements—that would mean movie theatres and auditoriums but also aircraft hangers, gymnasiums and maybe outdoor spaces!

The weeks drifted by with no firm itinerary, no official contact with any base and no timetable, much less a contract. The staff was becoming nervous. How could we budget a tour when we didn't have an itinerary? And should we start spending money—serious money—on reserving transportation, equipment rentals and so on, without anything in writing?

After talking with the board, we decided to spend the money—out of our Ford Foundation artistic reserve. And we made the wisest decision of the tour: We hired a tour manager, Tom Jeffords. Somewhere along the way, we realized we would have to organize this tour ourselves or it simply might not occur. Tom would prove an excellent choice—he was extremely organized, experienced in touring and had grown up an "Army brat."

After a lot of phone calls and prodding in the late spring of 2004, we were allowed to take over the "booking." Phone conversations alone made Tom realize that most of the people at these bases had no idea what to expect. In one case, the conversation seemed to be off track, so Tom asked the contact person what she thought the tour was. She said, "Well, isn't this a concert of the band Alabama, as part of their farewell tour?" And we were asking the bases for a lot of support: a generator to power our lights and sound, two 16-person crews (for load-in and load-out), contacts with local schools for outreach, security clearances, etc.

In the spring and early summer, Tom, joined by either Jerry Genochio or Mike Post from our production office, visited every base on the tour. They met with military personnel, viewed possible sites for performance, took pictures, visited local motels. They came back with a fat notebook that included pictures and information on each site. I looked at the book, and my heart sank. These were very tough performance venues—basketball gyms, aircraft hangars, outdoor stages, converted movie theatres. Only one real theatre in the whole tour. How could we produce a high-caliber show in these spaces? Even with the planned body-mikeing of the entire cast, would the audience even be able to hear the lines? There were venues without dressing rooms, bathrooms or indoor crossover space. There were spaces that would need significant masking to block outside light through exterior windows, to define the playing space, to hide the backstage areas or dressing rooms. It was a logistical nightmare.

Jerry and Tom told me that they had returned with a new respect for the military and civilian personnel on each base. These were people very committed to their jobs, people who were always trying to do their best. Jerry said that we all—cast and crew—had to approach this tour as exactly what it was: serving America's military men and women and their families. We would need to leave our personal politics at the gate and try to deliver as good a show as the circumstances allowed.

When we designed the Macbeth set for the Rep season, Peter Harrison and I eschewed the devices of the modern theatre—traps for the cauldron, or flying elements for scene changes—as we wouldn't have that on the road. We came up with a unit set—a raked, stone disk surrounded by plinths, with steps leading up a ramp upstage. We wanted to create a bold contrast between the sensual, passionate and earthy world of medieval Scotland and the pristine, calculating world of Christian England. With costume designs by Elizabeth Novak, inspired by the appealing (if ahistorical) look of Braveheart, the Scots were strong, virile warriors at the end of a long Celtic tradition. At the same time, we hoped to reinforce the terror that the Macbeths unleash on the primitive world of Celtic Scotland with a musical score by Patrick Byers that was filled with not only the calls of wild animals mentioned in the text but also with human cries, moans and screams recorded by the cast.

However, the set we had designed for the Rep season, which had a depth of just under 22 feet, wouldn't work-it literally wouldn't fit in most of the tour spaces. In fact, in some spaces, even a smaller set with the original ground plan wouldn't work. The only solution was to cut down the central disk and plan version A (full set) and version B (disk only). Our hometown stop, Maxwell Air Force Base, would allow us to test the smaller version and re-block the show before hitting the road.

By this time, our Rep season was ending, and some cast members decided not to continue on the tour. I had to find several new actors, and the cast was reduced from 24 to 17. We had to rethink our budget again to find the money for three weeks of rehearsal.

If we had a strong, clear production of Macbeth the first time around, I thought the touring show could be even stronger—passionate, visceral, intense and filled with testosterone. I had consciously cast actors who brought a masculine energy to their roles: Remi Sandri, Howard Overshown and James Knight, as Macbeth, Macduff and Malcolm, all looked like they could be warriors.

The number of bases had dropped to 14—the total number we thought we could cover in 7,000-plus miles over seven weeks on the road. Eventually, it would drop to 13 as Fort Carson, Colo., withdrew at the last minute. We couldn't confirm the exact reason, but the news reports from Colorado noted that 7,000 troops from Fort Carson were being re-deployed to Iraq in early fall. Their minds and hearts would be elsewhere.

By the week of the first rehearsal in late August we had committed more than $400,000 for the tour, but still had no contract and no funds. The NEA still had not signed an agreement with the Department of Defense. Frustrated himself, Dana Gioia continued to assure me that all would happen according to plan. Three days before the first rehearsal, we received the contract from the NEA via Arts Midwest. A couple of weeks later, we would receive $100,000 of the first payment of $325,000.

Meeting with the company at the first rehearsal, I told them we should consider ourselves pioneers. This was a journey into untried territory—taking a Shakespeare play to the troops; building a partnership among an arts organization, the Department of Defense and the NEA; and creating live theatre on military bases. Like all pioneers, we couldn't predict exactly what the challenges would be. I believed military audiences would find this play and this production exciting, entertaining and especially relevant to their lives. I surmised that many in our audience would never have seen a professional theatre performance, much less Shakespeare. This was a unique opportunity to play for a new audience, to garner some national press for the theatre and to serve U.S servicemen and women.

One carrot the NEA kept waving in front of us during the long process of planning and negotiating without funds in hand was the prospect of high-profile national press. The co-sponsor of the program was Laura Bush; the agency hoped she would join us for a performance, but no one would make any promises, given the timing of the presidential election. The NEA planned a Capitol Hill event for the national press and members of Congress when we were performing at Quantico Marine Corps Base in northern Virginia. Days before we opened the tour at Maxwell, the NEA dropped that idea due to the Jewish high holiday (Yom Kippur)—they would focus instead on the Maxwell opening as a national press event. We wrangled with the NEA staff because they didn't want to send out a press release announcing the tour until the day the show opened. We reminded them national press didn't live in Montgomery; notifying the press on the day the show opened would mean none of them could cover the event in person. After more discussion, they agreed to let us send out the press release three days before the opening. That brought a second wave of public controversy.

The first had come from the conservative press and from within our own field. To some conservative columnists, an expensive tour of Shakespeare to U.S. military bases sounded like a "pork barrel" project during a time of ballooning federal deficits. Several theatres, including some sister Shakespeare festivals, thought no one organization should receive such a large grant.

When he received our press releases, Associated Press reporter Carl Hartman released a story over the wire with the following lead paragraph: "Pentagon money is sending a stage play about a military hero who murders his commander in chief on a tour of 13 military bases." This led to calls from PR officers at a couple of bases, wanting to check that the show wasn't critical of our troops in Iraq—clearly a measure of the election anxiety in the Republican administration in D.C. I would be blamed by the NEA for that piece of journalism because of a quote from our press release that had (of course) been approved by the Endowment weeks earlier: "Macbeth deals with the issues confronting military leadership today—what happens when the greatest warrior a country has decides he will be King at any price. It's also a fascinating study in the self-creation of a tyrant. It suggests that moral principles must never be compromised for power or ambition."

The Maxwell audiences would prove characteristic of audiences on the road. They were rowdy. They laughed, they oohed and aahed. I was particularly taken with a pair of African-American servicewomen sitting in front of me. When Lady Macbeth laid into her husband during the banquet scene ("Are you a man?"), they started with vivid vocalizations. There were children of all ages, including babies in arms. Sodas in cups were served at intermission, so there was a lot of ice-clinking during the cauldron scene in Act 4. There was a constant traffic of audience members in and out of the theatre during the show. But when the drama intensified, the audience grew quiet and rapt. And at the end they jumped to their feet, cheering and clapping. They treated the Witches like rock stars. Remi, Howard, Sonja Lanzener (a Witch) and Kathleen McCall (Lady Macbeth) came out front in costume to meet audience members. As I watched them talk with fans, I thought that this responsive, rowdy audience—not used to live theatre—was a lot more like Shakespeare's audience than the ticket-buyers at ASF. They hadn't learned our theatre etiquette, which has made our usual audiences so well-behaved and quiet. It was refreshing.

We wouldn't get much other national press until late in the tour, when the syndicated radio program "The World" would produce a story. We would receive some international press, most notably in The Economist, although I was irritated by the headline, "Let Slip the Dawgs." It harkened back to those early days in my artistic directorship when colleagues would ask me if we performed Shakespeare in Alabama with a southern accent.

The First Lady never made an appearance; neither did Dana Gioia. But we received a call a few days before the end of the tour, asking Kathleen, Tom and me to travel to Washington, D.C., in late October to make a presentation on the tour to the National Council. As with most things involving the NEA, the request grew more complicated as the date approached. Could Kathleen perform one of Lady Macbeth's speeches? Could she do it in costume? We said yes.

I have many novel and lasting impressions of the tour. The cast standing in front of a Stealth Fighter; the officer at Maxwell answering a press question, "Do you have a special interest in Shakespeare?" He answered, "No, I have long-term interest in dropping bombs!"

One constant was the outpouring of appreciation from those who saw the show, including from the families of service personnel, who often feel isolated on base. These audiences also had a unique connection to this material: A play about a medieval warrior spoke directly to their experience as modern soldiers. Even now I remember the hush that spread over the audience that first night at Maxwell Air Force Base when Old Siward was told of the death of his son:


Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier's debt:
He only liv'd but till he was a man;
The which no sooner had his prowess confirm'd
In the unshrinking station where he fought,
But like a man he died.


Then he is dead?


Ay, and brought off the field. Your cause of sorrow
Must not be measur'd by his worth, for then
It hath no end.


Had he his hurts before?


Ay, on the front.


Why then, God's soldier be he!
Had I as many sons as I have hairs,
I would not wish them to a fairer death.
And so, his knell is knoll'd.


He's worth more sorrow,
And that I'll spend for him.


He's worth no more.
They say he parted well, and paid his score;
And so, God be with him!

These people knew that moment. Some of these people were living it.

Kent Thomspon will assume the artistic directorship of Denver Center Theatre Company in July.