Interview with SITI Company’s Stephen Webber: Orson Welles and William Shakespeare via Macbeth

On February 4 and 5, 2011, SITI Company will present Radio Macbeth at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

In preparation for the performance, we talked with cast member Stephen Webber (who will play the part of Macbeth on stage) about the origins of this radio play and what audiences should expect.

SITI Company’s first Shakespeare production was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. How did your approach differ for Radio Macbeth?
Stephen Webber: In making Radio Macbeth we were more concerned with the aural sense than with the visual sense. In A Midsummer Night's Dream we were concerned about both the aural and the visual equally. That is the short answer.

But Radio Macbeth is the companion piece to another radio-inspired play we made called War of the Worlds/Radio Play. Both are inspired by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre On The Air.

Orson and his company of actors are actually characters in Radio Macbeth. The audience is watching them rehearse Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the play takes them over and they become possessed by it. It works on them like a spell, which is what Macbeth is about.

What was the inspiration to combine Shakespeare with the radio play format?
SW: We were interested in Orson Welles and Orson was obsessed with Shakespeare.

As actors we love doing Shakespeare and are always looking for ways to do his plays. He’s the greatest poet in the English language to date so we are looking for ways to hear his language as if for the first time. The sound of his language is often as important as the content — it’s musical.

Orson himself did Macbeth as a radio play.

Why did SITI choose Macbeth for this format? Were any other plays considered?
SW: Macbeth is a ghost story so it makes sense to approach it aurally. A lot of what’s scary about ghost stories is the sound.

Other plays were considered but Macbeth felt right for many reasons. Anne [Bogart, SITI Company Director] has had a personal interest in it for many years. Much of our fascination with Orson Welles is his massive ambition and Macbeth is a play about ambition. We were interested in looking at Orson’s ambition as an artist and Macbeth’s political ambition together.

Macbeth is so well known we thought it could stand up to our experimentation with it.

Also, it’s an amazing play. Who doesn’t want to do it?

What sort of challenges were you faced with doing it in this format?
SW: The battle scenes were challenging. We spent a lot of time figuring them out in rehearsal. Our sound designer (and Radio Macbeth co-director), Darren West, helped a great deal. He uses ambient sound, sound cues and other effects to help us tell the story.

Another challenge is that we’re actually telling two stories — Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the story of the radio actors and their relationships outside of Macbeth. Sometimes the stories overlap and mysteriously go together. Other times the stories of our actors in rehearsal and Macbeth are at odds and it was challenging keeping both tracks moving forward.

What can audiences expect? What do you hope they take away from Radio Macbeth?
SW: With any SITI Company production, the audience can expect to be challenged and stimulated.

We’re not doing a traditional production of Macbeth — we’re doing something that people perhaps haven’t seen before by telling two simultaneous stories. Most people have some relationship with Macbeth already. We hope they leave with a new perspective on the play.

We also want them to ask the question, what is theatre? What is storytelling? I think that’s also true of any SITI Company production — that’s the question behind it — what is theatre? How does it work? Why are we telling a story in this particular way?