Back in November, I wrote about Matchbox Macbeth, a reworking of the Shakespearean classic for a tiny backyard shed in Toronto. The production was developed by Litmus Theatre Collective, a company founded in 2009 by Adriano Sobretodo Jr., Matthew Thomas Walker and Claire Wynveen. Litmus's goal is to create "theatre that is unadorned, imaginative, resourceful, magical and deeply connected with our surroundings [...] to re-imagine classic stories in an immediate and inventive way for a new urban audience." Matchbox Macbeth got raves; Toronto's NOW Magazine named it one of the top ten theatre productions of the year. The company is planning a remount later this year.
Litmus's Matthew Thomas Walker was generous enough to talk with me in depth about the process of creating Matchbox Macbeth and about some of the challenges and rewards of creating theatre for small houses. (Photos by Justin Cutler.)
Tell me a bit about your goals for the show and how it developed. Will anything fundamental change for the remount this year?
At the beginning, our goal was simply to do a show together. Since graduating from York’s MFA in 2009 we’d been toying with wild ideas for projects but nothing materialized until Adriano invited us to look at this ‘shed’ behind the place where he lives in Toronto’s little Italy neighbourhood. We were all smitten. It was this dingy, dirty, old wooden garage that no one had attempted to upkeep – but we thought it was amazing. Partly, perhaps, because it was a free space where we could experiment and try something risky without losing our shirts in the process. Then came the question of ‘What’ we’d do. It was a unique situation to have this very specific space before knowing what we were going to stage, and ultimately it served us greatly.
Throughout August 2010, we spent a series of nights in the shed drinking wine out of tumblers and testing out how different texts would work in the tiny playing space – we loved how intimate and simple we could be with our readings. At first, the idea of doing Shakespeare in this tiny shed was a joke we would toss around, but at some point I began to imagine my two friends playing dustbowl carnival style witches, appearing and disappearing at the doors and windows, and the idea wouldn’t go away. With the shed’s rustic feel came a very poor theatre aesthetic, elements of vaudevillian performance, magic and folk songs.
Rehearsals were highly collaborative, with all members of the team contributing wild ideas to the eventual product. Claire gave us Maria Von Trapp-esque singing lessons, Adriano has a strong eye for movement, and Rob Renda (our third witch) was our resident magician – which opened up lots of fun doors for trickery. Jamie Maczko, our Macbeth, had his hands full keeping the show grounded and was our human anchor amidst the circus. We also had Mariel Marshall involved, as an AD and jack of all trades. She was a great resource and pleasure to have on the team.
For our remount we’ll certainly want to maintain much of the structure and spirit of what we created, as we were quite happy with the result. There are certainly, however, some moments and scenes that will benefit from being looked at again with fresh eyes. I want to see if we can deepen the personal stakes for all characters, underneath the superficial carnival layer that was created with much of our stylistic work.
Did the company as a whole create the hour-long adaptation?
What were some of the unexpected challenges of mounting the show? Unexpected pleasures?
Oh there were many, on both sides of the coin! The direct proximity of neighbours was a funny challenge – some loved peeking in at our rehearsal, while others were very confused and suspicious. We also never knew what neighbourhood sounds would become part of the show each night but eventually learned how to embrace and use them. The Canadian weather was always an x-factor as we headed further into fall. We had lots of warm blankets to tuck our audience members in when the nights got cold. The greatest challenge, however, was dealing with Darkness. We’d spend an afternoon hashing out an idea for a scene in the shed, with sunlight bleeding through the slats and windows, and then find that it didn’t make sense when we revisited at night. Nighttime in the shed informed an entirely different tone for the show. We ended up doing a lot of our rehearsal sessions between 9pm-1am. It was like no other process I’ve worked on!
Were there benefits of targeting a smaller audience? Things it allowed you to do? A type of experience it allowed you to create?
Having a small audience is wonderful. If it were financially viable, I’d do every show this way – it allows for such intimacy. By 5 minutes into the show, our actors had looked every audience member in the eye, which I feel encourages a higher personal investment on their part. It also allowed us to create a sort of adventure prior to the show. Mariel would meet each show's audience on a pre-designated street corner and guide them to our secret space. Adriano would appear half way, beginning his act in the alley. The show began well before we entered the space. This wouldn't be possible with a large audience. Being a new company it also saved us from the inevitable empty seats we would have had to face in a larger venue. With just 16 seats we were able to sell out the run before we had even opened, which created a fun buzz and sense of excitement for us and our audiences.
Were there design challenges associated with working in a small space?
I would say the space offered far more solutions than challenges in terms of design. We loved the constraint. It helped to focus our ideas. Every piece of junk that had been stored in the shed was a potential prop; Every hole in the wall was a place to whisper through. Unlike working on a traditional stage, we never felt a need to change anything about the space, and simply let it guide us how to stage our own unique version of Macbeth.
For most of the rehearsal we assumed we'd only be able to work with practicals – the shed had one bare bulb fixed on a beam near one end of the space. Each of the witches had a hand held light that we incorporated throughout the show, which worked well to highlight how the witches were manipulating Macbeth's reality. Patrick Lavender, our lighting designer, eventually found us a way to run cable from the basement window of the house out into the yard, which afforded us two more flood lights in the yard and a clip light at either end of the shed. Patrick's lighting took things to a new level. We used the flood lights to reveal apparitions and murders in the back yard, which the audience could witness through a letter box window (perfectly placed) at one end of the shed.
Our dimmer pack looked like something out of one of the 1930's Frankenstein films. I would operate it during the show, while peeking through the slats to see when it was my cue. We had a couple of rainy nights – which made the backyard, flood-light-lit imagery even more beautiful – but I would have to huddle up under a tarp and hope not to get electrocuted. It truly was a sight to be seen.
Mariel and the actors did all the sound practically, running around scraping the outside of the walls and doors, ringing bells, whispering. Claire had a harmonica that she used in many fun ways. You can see why the neighbours thought we were nuts.
What was the audience response to the show? Did you achieve the effect you were looking for? What did you learn from the response that you'll use moving forward?
We were amazed. The reactions were overwhelming. Being a new company doing Shakespeare in a back alley shed (in late October, in Toronto), we were sure that we’d have to fight to get even our closest friends to come out – but it caught on like no other show I’ve been involved in. Audiences loved the adventure of it. We had wonderful response form established industry professionals and new-to-theatre audience members alike. We think that the reason for this is because we'd taken Shakespeare out from behind its protective case and made it dirty and raw in a way that felt immediate and impacting. As we forge forward as a company, our goal is to continue re-imagining classic works in a similar way and hope to have as much success reinvigorating them.
I see from your company info that you're working on an adaptation of Peter Pan. Do you imagine doing work in the future that would require a small house, or was that specific to the goals and requirements of this project?
Though I certainly can see Litmus working in small spaces again, we’ve decided to give ourselves a different kind of constraint for Peter Pan. Creating in the confines of the shed was extremely helpful in streamlining our creativity. We are trying to achieve a similar focus on this project by limiting our prop and set pieces drastically. We are still engaged in the difficult distillation process of what those few pieces will be, but the aim is to conjure all the fantasy of J.M. Barrie's imagination with the simplest of means.
Have you ever had an experience of a small-scale, back-alley, backyard production that knocked your socks off?
I've had great experiences seeing both small-scale and back-alley shows, but can't recall a combination... Although I did grow up in Halifax, Nova Scotia which has a pretty amazing busker festival. I remember seeing great acts in all sorts of make shift locations - the performers would chalk off a square anywhere, and that would become their stage. I love that. The festival has since become more corporate and organized where all performers get mics, sound gear, and there are bleachers set out for the audience – which is probably better in many ways, but I miss the roughness. The stakes for performance seemed much higher when their audience could walk away at any moment.
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For more information about the remount, watch the Matchbox Macbeth blog!