BWW Feature: I, MAC(KERS) at Creede Repertory Theatre
Husband and wife duo Emily Van Fleet and Nathan Jones candidly chat about their process of creating, writing and directing a show for teens called "I, Mac(kers)" at Creede Repertory Theatre.
As writers and directors of this summer's play "I, Mac(kers)" at Creede Repertory Theatre, what has it been like to tackle a text such as Shakespeare's Macbeth and make it kid-friendly while also continuing to challenge your students?
Emily: What we try to do when we write plays for kids is to find themes that are relevant to kids, but that adults can also identify with and relate to. I like to think that our plays can be performed with adults as easily as for kids. Our first play, Rodeo and Juliet dealt a lot with parent/child relationships and included lessons for kids and also for parents. Our experience has been that kids won't engage fully with the material if they feel like it is being dumbed down or written for children. In today's society, kids have to deal with a lot of the same issues adults deal with, and our relationship with the internet and technology is a prime example of that. Cyber-bullying is a very serious issue, not only with young people but with adults as well. The most recent election cycle is enough to tell us that. We've had some very insightful conversations with our kids about how adults use the internet in ways that are morally and ethically questionable. I think it's made them more aware of their own relationship to technology and how we can actually control what it is we see online, even though it may feel arbitrary. We talked about how there are algorithms that collect data about you every time you click on something, and that determines what you see on your feed or in advertisements online. We have this saying: "Garbage in, garbage out," which we stole from a computer programing term. It basically means that incorrect or poor input will result in faulty output. Put in broader terms, what you put out into the world will return to you - so it better be good! It's an important lesson for programmers, but I think also for life in general. It's the "you reap what you sow" for the digital age.
Nathan: Our goal isn't really to be kid friendly per se. I think it's really easy to "write down" to children in the theatre education world, so our goal is to avoid minimizing the experience of kids, because they understand all the themes in Macbeth. Children's theatre doesn't have to be a brightly colored affair that caters to a trite moral. Kids want to talk about serious and important things, and need the opportunity to make sense of them through storytelling. While we took out all of the murder and suicide, we really raised the bar for them to draw connections between the original and our play. The idea of character assassination, manipulation, and feeling the pressure of ambition are things that everyone can tap into because online bullying is a very real part of their reality. By raising the bar of what we expect kids to perform, they can hold up a mirror to not only children, but adults too. Honestly, what motivated us to write this was observing the bad behavior of adults on the internet. The kids are well aware and much more sensitive, thoughtful, and concerned about the way we treat people online. We could all take a cue from them.
When creating a full-scale musical spin off of a classic piece for teens, what main ideas do you try to keep in mind?
Emily: I love working with Shakespeare when creating these adaptations. Part of what makes a classic a classic is it's universal themes, and Shakespeare's characters are so complex and driven. The way he layered in such beautiful poetry elevates the storytelling and engages audiences in a unique way that I think no other playwright has quite mastered since. We try to keep all of those things in mind when deciding what story to adapt. Macbeth spoke to us because we felt that it's themes of ambition, greed, and manipulation reflected a lot of what we've observed in the world over the last year or so, and we wanted to explore the perspective of young people dealing with the same issues. We eventually settled on a high school as the setting, specifically the school's production of Macbeth and the desire of one of the students, Martyn, to play the titular character. Given that technology is so present in schools, we wanted to use cyber bullying as the weapon he uses to get what he wants. It gives Shakespeare's line from Macbeth, "My word is my sword" a whole new meaning. Ironically, the idea came to us before the news of Russian cyber attacks during the recent election cycle broke. And then when all that came out, we were like, "Well now we have to do this!" Given that words in this play have such an impact on it's characters, we wanted to explore using poetic language as Shakespeare did to heighten their meaning and influence. In our last play, we used Shakespeare's convention of adding verse to heighten specific moments for the characters. This year, we wanted to contemporize the poetry a little more. Since Hamilton is so popular and Lin Manuel-Miranda's form of poetry (a.k.a. rap) is familiar to contemporary ears, we decided to lean more in that direction, using spoken word throughout and then we chose a couple of moments to highlight using music and beats to enhance the circumstances.
Nathan: It's important to find a story that plays on the themes of the work you're adapting. That makes it much easier to draw parallels and find fun ways to connect the dots and play with the language. For example, our "Macbeth" archetype is a high school student, so Lady Macbeth became an overbearing stage mother. The purpose of the character stays the same even though the circumstances are different. It also helps that Shakespeare happens to be a pretty good storyteller. Writing in spoken word was a fun challenge, because we looked at it as the modern day equivalent of Shakespeare's language of the people. We also found everything we could on the process that Lin-Manuel Miranda uses to write. The most gratifying moments were when we could take a line from Macbeth, adapt the meaning, and then manipulate it to fit into a hip-hop style. Throw in a rap battle and you're in good shape.
What are the responsibilities and roles the actors play besides performing in the show? Do they get to create this show and their characters along side the both of you?
Nathan: We have two students who are participating on the production side of I, Mac(kers). One is working with the scenic designer, and another is working with the stage management team. The cast has helped paint and build the set, designed their own phone cases, and worked with sound to create effects and background tracks. As far as character development goes, we actually sit down and do a great deal of table work. The kids created character boards to define them in a detailed way. The conversations we have been having are mind blowing, and they have worked out some of the questions that we had left unanswered. Kids are really amazing at finding the humanity in a character no matter what their faults. They don't really stick to their snap judgments given a little time to analyze the motivation behind a character's journey.
Emily: I love table work especially with kids because they are extremely observant of human behavior and they're input is astute and unfiltered. They also relish the opportunity to talk about these vey real issues with each other, discuss how they relate to them, share personal stories of cyber bullying, and have everyone in the room including the adults truly listen to them without judgment. They also take such ownership over their roles because they know they are the first to embody their characters. I told them the other day that without their input and their strong choices about who these people are, the characters we wrote are just words on a page, and that every production of this play from now on will be based off of their creation. They found that pretty exciting. And this year we have a student who is working closely with our scenic designer to create an incredible set made up of clouds (representing of course, "the cloud"), computer monitors that glow green, and cubes of different sizes that reveal binary code under black light. We have another student who is an assistant stage manager, who is diligently working on line notes, run sheets, tracking props and scenery, and making sure every transition runs smoothly. Our hope is that each and every student feels that the end result will be one of their creating, and one that they can be very proud of.
Introducing young teens to not only classic theater literature but also challenging their perceptions of technology and society is sure to have an impact- what have already been some rewarding moments for you as educators and creators?
Nathan: It has been really rewarding to see complete buy-in for the story we're trying to tell. We blocked and got off book in about four days. Their ability to soak up the language and attack it is incredible. Honestly, I wish everyone could be a fly on the wall for our table work, because they are dropping profound thoughts constantly. When asked how her character changes, one of our "3 Glitches" (who represents the internet) said, "My character doesn't change. We show people what they decide to see. All that changes is how the audience/characters react to what we show them." So often we talk about the internet like it's a live thing that is good or bad, when in reality it's our own carefully monitored algorithm reflected back to us. Our discussions revolve around this idea of responsibility, empathy, and how we feed into our own manipulation via social networks. When asked why adults have a hard time understanding and dealing with online bullying, one of our actors said that, "It's easy for adults to minimize the experiences of children, because even though they experienced the struggles of growing up, time dulls the pain of it." It's so important to remember that kids experience and observe so much and that all you really need to do is ask them what they think about things. We have a lot to learn from them.
Emily: I think Nathan summed up this answer for us both. The discussion we had with the kids about our responsibility to society via our behavior online was so far the most rewarding part of this process for me. I found it incredible how tuned in these kids are to adult behavior and, rather than defending or emulating it, they are able to step back and see it for what it is. And they have some very strong opinions on whether or not a lot of adult's behavior online is appropriate. One of the students mentioned that she feels that adults don't use the internet and social media in good ways because they didn't grow up with it the way they have. I found that to be an interesting perspective. Getting to know these kids and hearing their perspectives on this issue has given me some hope for society's future relationship with technology.
What is your hope for this show?
Emily: At the end of this process, I want the students to feel a little more confident, a little more empowered, a little more connected to their peers - and I don't mean artificial connection via social media, but the honest connection that comes from tackling a mutual endeavor and succeeding together. I hope that they are proud of the work they've put in, and I hope they leave this experience feeling like they've grown. For the audience, I hope they are able to see the mirror that these kids intend to hold up to them, and I hope they give it a good long think before they choose to spread negativity from behind their keyboards. I also hope that this opens people's eyes to the power of children's storytelling, and how important it is to listen to our kids.
Nathan: First and foremost, I want every student involved to have fun and plant the seed for a life-long interest in the arts. I want them to walk away with an experience that pushes them toward empathy, developing positive relationships, and cultivating a strong work ethic no matter where life takes them. As far as the performance aspect, I want them to shock everyone in the audience, when they see what these kids can do in less than three weeks. I want the joy of children's theatre to leave everyone walking away thinking critically about a very serious subject. I want the adult who sees this to think twice about what they post, comment, or tweet because a 10-year-old reminded them of their responsibility as a member of the digital community.