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Theater company makes first foray into film production with Shakespeare adaptation

Theater Ensemble Arts focusing on different projects

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Brit Ward adapted and is directing "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
  • Theater Ensemble Arts normally mounts stage productions, but has been idled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The company has plans for other projects, as well.

FARMINGTON — When it comes to the process by which he prefers to work, Brit Ward — who has directed numerous stage productions for Farmington's Theater Ensemble Arts company over the past several years — is the first to admit he doesn't like to operate under a strict agenda.

His preferred style is free flowing, he said, leaving plenty of room for improvisation or adaptation. And when he's directing a play, that process has worked fine for him. With weeks of rehearsal time, Ward and his cast can experiment as much as they want before he retires into the shadows for opening night, his work on the production largely done.

But that's not how it works with a film, Ward has discovered in recent weeks. With no ability to mount live theater productions this summer because of the COVID-19 shutdown, TEA is shooting a cinematic version of an original adaptation of a Shakespeare classic, "The Tragedy of Macbeth." Ward wrote the screenplay and is directing the film, and he said the experience has been a lesson in the differences between stage and screen productions.

"Film doesn't like that," he said, laughing and referring to his informal approach to theater directing. "It prefers solid planning and logistics."

Kevin Tschetter and Amber Glasgow star in the Theater Ensemble Arts' production of "The Tragedy of Macbeth," an original cinematic adaptation of the Shakespeare classic the theater company is shooting this summer.

Ward went so far as to characterize the requirements of film directing as the antithesis of his normal directing instincts. He acknowledged the experience has been a struggle for him so far, but he said he has learned some valuable lessons.

"Number one, that planning is king," he said. "And number two is, be willing to do it again. Don't do just one take because once it's done, it's done, and once it's out there, it's out there."

Ward has had to make several other adjustments, as well, as the pandemic limits the circumstances under which group activities can take place. Each scene is carefully constructed and planned so as not to require the presence of more than five people — usually three actors, along with Ward, who also serves as the cinematographer, and a sound person.

Brit Ward

Ward's adaptation of the work frequently referred to as the "Scottish Play" features a contemporary setting, and he even managed to make one virus-related feature work to his advantage. "The Tragedy of Macbeth" features rival gangs, and Ward incorporated the requirements for the wearing of facemasks into a costume element for those gang members.

"That becomes part of the story," he said. "But we keep Shakespeare's language, so it's still in his verse."

In the middle of it

Filming began two weeks ago, and Ward hopes to wrap up the shoot by the middle of September. He said its modest budget means no one will mistake it for a Coen Brothers production.

Joshua Vest, left, and Ben Burns are featured in a scene from Theater Ensemble Arts' film "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

"It's the community theater equivalent of a movie, but I don't know if that's entirely a bad thing," he said. "There's an entire subgenre of film devoted to that."

"The Tragedy of Macbeth" features a cast and crew of approximately 20 people, but Ward said, unlike a stage production in which everyone constantly mingles backstage, most of those individuals will see very little of each other as shooting continues in order to maintain social distancing.

"Even the big fights at the end of the movie, visually, it will seem like everyone's there, but that won't be true," he said. "But that's the magic of movies."

Kevin Tschetter and Amber Glasgow star as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, while Joshua Vest is featured as Macduff. The rest of the cast includes Charles Holmes, Tim Bagley, Annette DiGiacomo, Shera Piper, Kiana Poafpybitty, Ben Burns, Ethan Franklin, Menzo Faassen, Karen DiGiacomo, Ahlula DiGiacomo, Amanda McCaleb, Nathan Jemmet, Jason Chandler, Stephanie Poafpybitty, Alhanna Valerio and Aili Tullis. The crew includes Karen Brewer, Lauren Harris and Melanie Leeson.

Ahlula DiGiacomo portrays Ross in the Theater Ensemble Arts film "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

Ward said the film has brought out the best among TEA regulars.

"I've never had stronger auditions than this," he said. "I don't know if it was frustration with all the things that are going on in the world or what, but every single person brought their A game to auditions."

Those strong productions have carried over to shooting, he said, agreeing with the suggestion that the actors are perhaps more motivated than usual by current circumstances to give it their all.

"I think that's a fair concept," Ward said. "I would even add, something like this, you can't fight it. It's not an enemy you can directly fight. So there are a lot of emotions pouring out of the performances. That feels like where they're taking it."

Amanda McCaleb portrays Lady Macduff in the Theater Ensemble Arts film "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

Having never shot a film before, Ward said he is unsure when "The Tragedy of Macbeth" will be released, although he expects it will be sometime in the late fall. He said TEA leadership hasn't decided how it will be offered to viewers, although it almost certainly will be available on the company's YouTube channel.

Ward hopes that circumstances allow for it to be premiered in a theater setting, but he understands that is not likely, given the present circumstances.

"That would be amazing," he said, of the idea of doing a splashy, red carpet-style first showing at a local theater. "That would be a really cool and nice way to pay off their actors for their hard work. But I'm not optimistic we'll be able to do that."

Updates on the production are being posted on the TEA Facebook page.

Beyond the next few months

While "The Tragedy of Macbeth" is the subject of TEA's immediate focus, the company's long-term outlook is less clear. Board president Joey Herring, who also frequently directs the company's stage productions, said the rest of this season has been cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is nothing but uncertainty about what 2021 will bring.

Joey Herring

"The desire is to go back to normal," Herring said, referring to the company resuming a full slate of live stage productions. "However, it is dependent on how the pandemic plays out."

The limitations of social distancing requirements aren't the only issue TEA officials will have to wrestle with. Herring said the company's longtime home has been the Totah Theater in downtown Farmington. But it recently was sold to San Juan County, which has planned a renovation of the property, at which point it will be deeded to the city of Farmington.

"I'm not sure how available it will be to us and to other nonprofit groups," Herring said. "If not, I’m not really sure what we'd do for a venue, since all the college theaters are closed through the end of 2021."

Herring is hopeful TEA will be able to mount stage a production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" next summer at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater in Farmington and perhaps one show before that. But she doesn't know if that is a realistic goal.

Amber Glasgow eyes Kevin Tschetter in the Theater Ensemble Arts film "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

"I believe that it will happen," she said of the resumption of normal live theater activity. "It just maybe will take a little longer than we first thought."

TEA also is in the early stages of arranging some radio theater productions for KJSE-FM, and Ward has mentioned the possibility of the company doing some podcasts.

"We want to remain visible in the community and keep people doing what they love doing," Herring said.

She hopes the company's first foray into film serves a variety of purposes. First, she said, it will serve as a creative outlet for the company's regulars who have been idled for the past several months. Second, it will provide TEA with some content for its YouTube channel.

She hopes those various other endeavors draw some attention to the company from people who may not be live theater fans.

"Yes, we are because they may be more easily accessible to a lot of people and may be a format attractive to younger people," she said.

But there's no question about what Herring would be doing if she had her choice. Live theater will always be TEA's primary focus, she said.

"I think we all miss it a lot," she said.

On the other hand, the shutdown has allowed the company to dive into one long-overdue project, she said — a thorough cleanup of the TEA scene shop, a building on West Arrington Street where company members rehearse their productions, build their sets and store their equipment. Herring cites that as a positive outcome from an otherwise disheartening time in the company's history.

"Looking at the glass half full is our perspective," she said. "But we all miss it."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com.