Royal Conservatoire: Rehearsing Shakespeare

In this expedition, meet some of the students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Learn more about them, what brought them here and what goes on behind the scenes and in preparation of this Shakespeare stage performance.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Twig World, now available on Google Arts & Culture

We are at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, to see how the cast and crew prepare for a performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

The Actors

Welcome to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Every year, the Conservatoire trains thousands of students how to be actors, directors, set builders, costumers, lighting and sound technicians, musicians, dancers and film-makers.

The students also put on more than 500 shows every year. Today, led by director Ian Wooldridge, the actors will rehearse Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”.

Ian – Director

Ian did postgraduate study in Drama before becoming a director, though he thinks qualifications are less important than talent, tenacity and temperament. He says a director needs patience, sympathy with actors and the ability to chase inspiration.

Titana – Lady Macbeth, Ross, Lennox

Titana has wanted to be an actor since Grade 1 at school in South Africa. To get into character, she uses “emotional recall”, silent meditation and focus. She’d love to work with Tim Burton because “he thinks outside the box”.

Alice – Macbeth, Banquo

Alice’s love of Scotland drew her from China to study at the Conservatoire. She gets into the minds of her characters by imagining their circumstances: How do they feel? What is going on in their lives? Alice studies directing as well as acting.

Kay – Lady Macbeth, Banquo

Kay did a foundation course in Drama at college before joining the Conservatoire. She likes Shakespeare because his plays are “timeless and universal”. She uses physical gestures and movement to help her inhabit characters.

In Rehearsal

The actors rehearse their production of the Shakespeare play “Macbeth”. An interesting aspect of this production is that all of the characters are played by women. 

In “Macbeth”, two generals of the King of Scotland – Macbeth and Banquo – meet some witches who foretell that Macbeth will become King of Scotland. Encouraged by his wife, Lady Macbeth, and driven by ambition and jealousy, Macbeth murders Banquo and the King. 

He is consumed by guilt and paranoia, before being murdered himself!

Macbeth Meets the Witches

The witches declare: “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!” In Shakespeare’s time, women were forbidden from appearing on stage, so boys played female parts. Women were first allowed to act in the theatre in 1660.

Creative Choices

Ian often directs Shakespeare. He enjoys the challenge of treating texts as exercises in imagination. He made this production all-female because he thinks it’s interesting to play around with a text that is considered very male.

Kirstie – Deputy Stage Manager

Kirstie is studying Production Technology and Management. She is in charge of making the show run smoothly, cueing the lighting and sound, as well as giving actors lines when needed. A big part of her job is keeping everyone happy – which is often difficult!

Witches

Masked actors play the witches. Macbeth describes them as so “wither'd and so wild… That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth.” The actors express this strangeness through their expressions and movements.

Costume Department

Costume design is an important part of a theatre production. Costume designers work with other designers to ensure a production has a coherent, distinct look, and they make sure costumes represent the setting and mood. Costumes begin with two-dimensional sketches.

Actors are involved at every stage – even initial sketches will be based on their measurements. Costumes must work on stage – they must be comfortable for the actors, flexible and durable because they will be used night after night.

Costume Sketches

Initial costume designs emerge from collaboration between designer and director. Costume design is not about creating beautiful garments: the designs must express the essential nature of a character while being practical in terms of the needs of the production.

Cutting and Sewing

Transforming sketches into three-dimensional costumes is a highly skilled process, carried out by cutters (female costumes) or tailors (male costumes). 

Sewing for theatre requires different techniques from making everyday clothes: stitches must withstand the demands of performance. 

Fitting

When doing a fitting with an actor, the designer checks both visual and practical issues. Does it hang right? Is the hem length correct? Does it restrict the actor from fighting, climbing or dancing, as the script requires?

Storage

When the show is over, all of the costumes will be stored carefully according to the characters they belong to. Costumes can be reused in future productions – particularly for smaller parts – and are kept categorised on racks.

Set Design

The set is the first thing an audience sees in a theatre production: it creates atmosphere and gives clues about where and when the action takes place. Set designers often study art or design before beginning their careers, though building a set involves a range of skills.

Studying the script closely, set designers identify the scenery, furnishings and props needed, and then build them using appropriate materials. They think about the space of the theatre, practicalities of changing scenes, and music and lighting.

Materials

Set designers need to have the skills to work with a range of materials, including metal, wood, plastics, fabric and glass. Here, work is under way on a future production, constructing a metal staircase for the musical “Chess”.

Special Effects

In the Elizabethan period, set design was limited to one or two props to set a scene. The stage was otherwise bare, save for the actors. However, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre did feature special effects, such as trapdoors and hoists.

Prop Trunk (2014-04-01) by Shakespeare's GlobeShakespeare's Globe

Props

A set designer is usually responsible for props – short for “properties”, as they “belong” to characters – including furniture and other objects. Making props requires ingenuity. For example, glassware is often made of sugar crystals that smash realistically but safely.

Theatre Effects

Modern theatres are a great deal different from how they were in Shakespeare’s day. In the 16th and 17th centuries, plays were presented in open-air theatre, in daylight, with the audience standing up and shouting out their opinions. 

When we go to the theatre now, it’s a much more formal affair. Modern technology makes the experience technically sophisticated. Lighting, sound and other special effects bring performances to life.

Sound Engineer

Shakespeare describes sounds in the “Macbeth” script. An owl shrieks as the King is murdered, and the Macbeths hear strange knocking afterwards. Sounds can also enhance the atmosphere in, for example, the witch scenes and the final battle.

Sound Effects

Shakespeare describes sounds in the “Macbeth” script. An owl shrieks as the King is murdered, and the Macbeths hear strange knocking afterwards. Sounds can also enhance the atmosphere in, for example, the witch scenes and the final battle.

Digital Effects

In Elizabethan times, fireworks simulated gunfire or a metal sheet would be shaken to produce thunder. Likewise, music was produced live by musicians. Today, digital equipment is used to create any imaginable sound, which can be programmed in advance.

Lighting

In Shakespeare’s time, without electricity, stages were lit by daylight or candles. Modern lighting technicians have access to programmable, moveable light rigs in which light levels, colour and special effects can be combined in creative ways.

Technical Rehearsal

Before the show opens, a technical rehearsal is carried out, focusing on practising sound, lighting and other technical operations. Here, the students run through the staging of “Macbeth”.

Macduff

Macduff is the character who discovers the slain body of the King. He suspects Macbeth of the murder and kills him in the final act. Macduff is shown as an avenging hero and a great patriot, saving Scotland from the tyranny of Macbeth.

Kirstie, Deputy Stage Manager

Kirstie watches carefully to see that the lighting, sound and actors’ movements (known as “blocking”) matches what is in her technical script. These things are interrelated and carefully coordinated.

Stage Directions

Areas of the stage have standard names so actors know where to be. “Downstage” means closer to the audience; “upstage” is further away; “left” and “right” of the stage are from the actors’ point of view.

Credits: Story

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Twig World

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