Saturday, June 30, 2012

Macbeth--Scene Design

Lady Macbeth, hands dripping with Duncan's blood

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare was produced Winter Semester, 2010 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

The story of Macbeth is well known.  Macbeth and Banquo, heroes of the Scottish king Duncan happen upon the three weird sisters, witches who tell them that he, Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and thereafter king of Scotland.  They tell Banquo he will sire a line of kings but will not attain kingship himself.

Shortly after, a messenger arrives and hails Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor because the previous thane had taken up arms against the king and was sentenced to death.  Macbeth instantly begins to believe the witches and tells his wife about their prophecies.  Lady Macbeth has no reservations about her own ambitions and commands Macbeth to slay Duncan while he is a guest in their castle.

Thus begins Macbeth's descent into murder and madness.  He finds he has to commit many murders to cover up the first.  He is haunted by the ghost of his friend, Banquo whom he also had put to death.  Lady Macbeth does not escape the fate of madness either as she sleepwalks and attempts to rid herself of the blood on her hands.  Lady Macbeth committs suicide rather than live with the guilt.

Macbeth lives with the confidence of the witches prophecy that he will rule until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and that no man born of woman can slay him.  When he realizes that the English army, led by Macduff is advancing on Dunsinane, concealing themselves with hewn boughs from the trees of Birnam Wood he panics.  He still does not believe he can be killed until his final battle with Macduff where it is revealed that Macduff was from his "mother's womb untimely ripped."

Macbeth is beheaded and Malcolm, Duncan's son is placed upon the throne.

Roger Merrill, the director wanted our production of Macbeth to be both simple and complex.  He wanted the overall design to be austere with little scenery and just a few furniture pieces and changes in light to indicate change of scene.  He also wanted to have trap doors and elevators concealed within the stage to provide entrances and exits for the witches.  He had an idea that the witches would come up on the battlefield through the stage and drag the fallen soldiers through the trapdoors to hell.

We also decided we could tell the story better with a thrust stage.

I suggested that we paint a map of Scotland, on parchment, on the floor with the important placenames indicated.  That way the stage could be wherever we wished it to be.  Somewhere in the discussion the idea of having strips of fabric hanging at the back of the stage as a projection surface was mentioned.  I don't remember who suggested it, either Roger or Richard Clifford, the lighting designer.

There were between twenty and thirty images we wished to project on the fabric strips.  We originally wanted to project charcoal drawn images of each of the castles indicated in the script as well as animations of the spectres and ghosts Macbeth was seeing.  We ran a few animation tests to see if this was a feasable idea and unfortunately it proved too costly and would have required five projectors as well as the purchase of a computer program to integrate and intercut them.  We also did not have the time available to make this a reality even if we'd had the money.  Sadly, we ultimately had to abandon that aspect of the concept.  Richard did make use of the fabric strips as a cyclorama though.

I made a couple of quick sketches in conté of my impressions of the set from my discussions with the director.  The first sketch was just of the set.  In the second set, I added a witch and a cauldron and tried to be a little more expressive.

First sketch of Macbeth

Second Sketch of Macbeth

The height of the stage became the primary consideration because of the traps and elevators.  I wanted the stage to be as low as possible and still accomodate actors and stage machinery.  Ray Versluys, the technical director said he needed at least four feet from the floor of the Black Box to the top of the deck for the elevators.  The compromise we had to make because of this was to eliminate the row of chairs on the stage floor because of sightline issues. 

Roger wanted the battles to erupt on stage so I added three sets of stairs at the rear of the stage and one set of stairs on the front.  This allowed a great number of people to enter the stage in a very short time.

Ray modified a design for a fast/slow trap which required stage weights, an arbor and a technician underneath the platform to operate it.  The biggest challenge was to reweight the arbors each time the traps were used.  The more weight, the slower the trap.  The witches would walk over their trap and literally disappear into the floor.  At other times they would pop up out of the floor.  That was the fast part of the elevator.  Sometimes they would shrink into the floor.  That was the slow part of the apparatus.  In addition, the elevators needed to be locked when not in use so actors on stage wouldn't inadvertantly fall through the floor.

The witches emerge from the traps

The next major element was the backdrop which I divided into five strips of fabric.  I offset them so three were in the rear and two were in front.  I staggered them in that way to make them easier for actors to enter and exit the stage.  I designed the fabric strips to be abstracted military banners, but with no color or identifying markings.  I also shredded the bottoms of each of them to give more texture to the set.

We painted the banners with washes of raw sienna paint to give them the aged feeling.  Richard lit the banners in different colors depending on the feel of the scene and then added texture with gobos.

Malcolm and army at Dunsinane Wood, texture on the banners

Lady Macbeth and Nurse, different texture on banners

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, change of color on banners

I researched medieval maps of Scotland for this production of Macbeth and used them for inspiration for designing the floor treatment.  First the scenic artists base coated the floor with an earthy yellow, then spattered and sponged in lighter and darker tones of the yellow to create a parchment effect.  They then created a scale grid on the drawing and laid out a full size grid on the stage and transferred points from one to another and created the outline of the country.  Then they painted the outline with straight burnt umber paint and feathered the insides in so the outside edge would be sharp but the interior of the map would be blended.  Each of the important place names were lettered in with a Celtic script, and lastly, the compass was added along with medieval ship icons and at least one renaissance style sea serpent.

Duncan and vassals on the map of Scotland.  Full stage view

Banquo and Macbeth, map on stage floor

For many of the scenes, we opted to use only lighting to indicate change of location and time.  For others we brought in furniture or props.  We chose which scenes needed more rendering and which ones did not based primarily on length of scene.  The longer scenes required more packaging and by default, the shorter scenes needed no scenery to convey the images and ideas we were striving for.  For some of the scenes, Richard used window gobos to indicate location.  With this convention, in my opinion, the audience was never lost when location was changed.  The biggest benefit to the Spartan use of scenery was that we didn't have to stop the show to render a scene.

Lady Macbeth, "Out damned spot":  Window gobos

Macbeth's meltdown after seeing the ghost of Banquo:  Use of furniture to change location

When we were going to use projections, the idea was to project images of the eight kings from Banquo on the fabric banners and not use a cauldron.  When we discovered that it would be way too cost prohibitive and time consuming to do the animations, Roger decided we should build a cauldron that would fit over one of the traps and would be large enough for the eight kings, Banquo, Macduff and the little boy to come out of.  We pumped fog up through the opening to give it an eerie look.

Banquo exiting the cauldron

I am glad to be in a theatre department that has a committment to producing the classics.  This was a very good production of Macbeth and it was a joy to work on.  I truly have the best job in the world.

Production Details
Directed by Roger Merrill
Fight Choreography by Amelia Bahr
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Lighting Design by Richard Clifford
Sound Design by Antonia Clifford
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director: Patty Randall


  1. Hey Mr Benson,
    I am a student from the Independent Schools Foundation Academy in Hong Kong and I'm currently working on an IB diploma theatre assignment with regards to Elizabethan set design and the play "Macbeth". My research question is: How does Elizabethan set design help to contribute to the idea of supernatural in Macbeth by William Shakespeare? I saw your scenic design of the 2010 production of "Macbeth" in your blog and I think your experience of being a set designer is a valuable resource for my essay. Here are my list of questions:
    1. Have you adapted any Elizabethan set design elements into your design concept, either intentionally or unintentionally?
    2. Supernaturalism is an abstract theme and it is a challenge for a set designer to create a set which allows the audience to understand the idea. How did you approach this difficulty in your production "Macbeth"?
    3. I always notice that black is a dominant colour which is used as a backdrop in many productions of "Macbeth", such as the Globe's 2010 production, do you think the simplicity of the colour is able to convey the idea of supernatural?
    4. Although Elizabethan set design is not a theatrical convention that is as important as the language of the plays during that time, I always find that the simplicity of set design is always an element that is neglected by many set designers. As a set designer, how will you adapt Elizabethan set design elements into Shakespearean plays?
    5. Are there any important aspects worth noting with regards to Elizabethan theatrical conventions?

    It would be really helpful if you can answer all the questions!Thanks!