Last spring, Carmen and Isabel, our two co-writers and co-directors of The Forest attended a colloquium on the topic “Performing Shakespeare” together at the English Seminar. As this topic fit the BPM’s 2021 production and what Isabel and Carmen did with their adaption of Macbeth perfectly, one of their classmates, Philipp Makowski, conducted a little interview with them. They provide fascinating background info on what it means to adapt a play and how they did it! Read on if you want to know more:
«During the last session of our colloquium “Performing Shakespeare” taught by Dr Beatrice Montedoro, we invited two members of the Blueprint Masquerades (BPM), Carmen Aeschbacher and Isabel Schmidt, to talk about their current production, The Forest, which they co-wrote and are now co-directing. Furthermore, two students in the colloquium and also members of the BPM, Ladina Mauchle and Gian-Luca Kuoni, also were so kind to provide us with insights on the on-going production as actors and participants in the departments of costume and stage, respectively. The Forest is a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which we discussed in the early part of our colloquium before moving on to the playtexts and theatre productions of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We focused on how these plays can be read, staged and interpreted while they are translated from text on the page to image and performance on the stage, in theatre productions or even films. This helped us understand, see and interpret the plays in different and new ways. Therefore, we were particularly keen on reading a student adaptation of a play we discussed in class, which led us to this Q&A that Carmen and Isabel kindly provided us with. We started with general questions about being a director at BPM, then moved on to questions about the process of re-writing Macbeth and, finally, asked questions about the process of staging The Forest.
Q: How does one become a director of the student group BPM?
C: Since it is a student organisation, it happens with no specific process. However, we usually vote for directors at the GV, with a focus on members with experience in the BPM. It is, though, open to anyone who is interested!
Q: What does it mean to be a director?
C: The simple answer is, everything. Together with the producer it is the responsibility to put the play onto a stage. The fact that we co-directed this year made it easier, because there is a person to remind you of things you might forget.
I: A large part of it is focused on organising all departments and telling actors what to do.
C: Fortunately, we have very talented actors, who also come up with their own suggestions!
Q: To what degree is this a collaborative process, and how much do you stick to your own vision?
I: It is very collaborative. We had some visions for characters and such, but the departments also came up with their own ideas. As directors we then thought about combining these ideas and making sure that they would work together in a cohesive way.
C: We meet up regularly, before the rehearsals, with the respective head of each department to brainstorm together. Even when ideas are not compatible, we are, fortunately, able to talk it out and find a common ground.
Q: How did you pick Macbeth as the starting point of your creative process?
C: We [Isabel and I] spent a lot of time in February 2020 talking about Shakespeare in general. Also, Isabel was thinking about her potential bachelor thesis, in relation to ecocriticism and Shakespeare. Through this we found out that we had similar ideas about what we could do with Macbeth.
I: We thought it would be fun to write an adaptation of a Shakespeare play! We also thought that it would be interesting to rewrite a tragedy rather than a comedy and that there would be a lot we could do with Macbeth.
Q: How was the process of re-writing Macbeth?
C: A lot of time was spent on brainstorming and the concept and particularly thinking about what characters and storylines to keep, what happens when and what plot twists we would keep. The writing process then happened over the course of Summer 2020, so we could give the others in Blueprint Masquerades a preview to read before the voting.
I: Yes, it probably took around half a year, but it was great fun.
Q: How did you treat the original Shakespearian text in your adaptation?
C: We really went through the lines and discussed whether they would stay or go. We had our respective favourite scenes, where we wanted to remain as close to the source text as possible. The challenge then was to modernise the text to adapt it to our new setting.
I: The goals were to have fun with it and make it [the play] seem natural despite keeping a lot of the original text. Some scenes are, therefore, quite close to Macbeth, while others were completely cut, or new characters were even added. We mostly wanted it to make sense as its own play, so people who do not know Macbeth can also enjoy it.
Q: One of the biggest changes from the original play is that you clearly portray Duncan, the owner of Duncan Chem, a company that produces chemical substances, as a villain. What inspired you to stage him this way?
I: We wanted to give Lady Macbeth more of a personality and motif for Duncan’s murder. In Macbeth she comes across as a villain and we wanted to change that. In our play, we show how Duncan has harassed Lady Macbeth, which emphasises her motivation for murdering him. Therefore, she becomes more of a morally grey person, with whom it is easier to sympathise, at least in the beginning.
Q: How did you re-interpret the three witches, the weird sisters, in The Forest?
C: They were more challenging as characters, because we wanted to give them distinctive personalities. We did not want them to explicitly be witches, particularly in the supernatural sense, but keep the mystery that surrounds them. They are probably the most revised parts of our play, because we wanted to keep the prophecy in part, but had to adapt it to our modern vision.
I: Similar to the other female characters, we wanted to give them more agency, more character and more motivations. Hecate, who only has a small part in Macbeth, receives her own distinct storyline in The Forest. That is how we treated the witches as well. We gave them a clear motivation for pushing Macbeth to kill Duncan.
Q: What was the effect of giving the characters first names, such as Celia and Aliena for the weird sisters?
C: We wanted to have the characters remain recognisable, but also make them their own, actual characters. We have fewer characters with more distinct names and storylines than Shakespeare had. With the weird sisters, we wanted their original character name to still be clearly recognisable but modernised it and normalised it by turning Weird into their surname. This was also inspired by Terry Pratchett’s The Weird Sisters.
I: The names Aliena and Celia, names of two of the weird sisters, were taken from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. In that play, Celia disguised herself as Aliena, the same character therefore playing two. We thought it would be interesting to use these names for the Weird sisters, as they are so strongly bound together, to the point that they are almost indistinguishable.
Q: What inspired you to change Lady Macbeth’s role in the story in your re-writing?
C: I was quite unhappy with the treatment of Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, particularly towards the end when she simply disappears. We, therefore, sought to create more of a moral decay, a progression from good to bad, for her.
I: Her struggles and needs to attain her goals, while being a woman, were present in Macbeth already and we translated it to our modern interpretation, where we gave her more layers.
C: Similar to the context of the Shakespearian society, Lady Macbeth seeks to achieve her goals through her husband, and we decided to keep that as well. That is why we also paraphrased one of her monologues, to keep it in there.
Q: Why did you decide to set The Forest in modern time?
C: That was strongly motivated by the language barrier, because we wanted to make the play accessible to people outside of the English Seminar as well. So, instead of translating it, we decided to have fun with it and re-write that.
Q: What inspired the setting in the forest?
I: This setting was definitely inspired by the ecocritical aspect. In Shakespeare’s plays the forest seems to function as a transitional, magical space, where people go and disguise themselves. Particularly in comedies, characters experience this surreal, magical experience in the forest, which also changes them. We also wanted to keep that theme of the forest turning against the Macbeths, which is part of the witches’ prophecy.
C: It allowed us to focus on the psychological side of the characters, while removing them from their corporate surrounding. This allows us to play with the idea of isolating them within the forest and having them in a space with the weird sisters.
I: It really allowed us to focus on these characters and their experience without external intervention.
C: This can be compared to the setting of Lord of the Flies, where you also have this secluded, natural setting on the island, a sort of heterotopia, similar to our forest. This allows the reader, and audience, to focus on the power structures of the characters.
Q: Ladina and Gian-Luca, what were your roles in the process of staging The Forest?
L: I play Hecate, but I am also part of the costume department, and I am in charge of props too. The props, in particular, meant for me to make knives to use in the play. I got to collaborate with Carmen, specifically, to establish my character and how to play it.
G-L: At first, I was solely part of the stage crew. Halfway through the production process I stepped in to play Malcolm too. I went on a hike in nature to gather inspiration for the setting of the forest, as part of the stage crew. This helped to figure out how to develop that setting, despite limited resources. This also included the developing of how to incorporate the rocks and tent, as well as other elements of the setting.
Q: What is the function of Hecate’s prologue?
C: It functions as a welcome speech from Hecate, as a forest goddess and manager of the forest resort. This is similar to Shakespeare, who liked to incorporate prologues and epilogues by characters, who sort of explain what happened. Thereby, we wanted to set the scene with this prologue by Hecate.
I: Hecate, for me, is a character between the world of the audience and that of the play. The prologue, thus, introduces the audience into the world of the play, on a meta-level so to say.
L: I agree with this, as it provides a bridging of the business and supernatural sides of the play. Hecate is coded as supernatural in The Forest, even though this is not evoked on an explicit level but rather through use of costume and separation from the other characters.
Q: How did you use music to convey specific moods?
C: Our music composer, Andrin, wrote original music for this play. In collaboration with him, we were able to develop pieces that specifically convey the mood of a moment. I, personally, insisted on having a string player, because I think it works well in these tragic moments. The music also helps convey the supernatural elements of the play.
Q: We also noticed that the Weïrd sisters all wore a red cape: what kind of symbolism were you trying to convey with these costumes?
I: The head of costume came up with the idea that the the sisters should look like poisonous berries, since they have a poisonous influence on the other characters in the play. The colour red, thus, symbolises the allure and danger that they represent.
C: This colour scheme also enables the audience to group these characters in a distinctive way.
Q: Finally, why did you decide to have Rose Macduff and Emilia Lennox played by female actors?
C: We wanted their relationship to fuel the conflict between the Weird sisters. This produces tension later on in the play.
I: Rose Macduff is a character torn between the company, her sisters and her love interest, Emilia. As they are both in secretary roles, they are also juxtaposed with the powerful men on the level of gender. Within the play, the women then subvert these power structures.»
Thanks to Philipp for conducting this Q&A!