A few weeks ago, I went to Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. I was reminded just how difficult those audiences are: audiences give contestants about a minute to put over their act: if they falter, they soon know it. At this week's student matinee of Macbeth, organized by LCT's Open Stages program, the actors were in no danger of getting the hook, but as I circulated outside the theater before curtain I did wonder whether some of the students weren't Apollonian in their expectations. One young woman, wearing a cobalt-blue parka, told her friend, "This show better be good, or I'm putting a curse on the place. And all the witches combined won't be able to dispel MY spell."
But then a bit of magic happened, every bit as potent as the sorcery that girl threatened: the performance began, and these 900 students and teachers from 11 New York City public schools fell silent. Often, teenagers are boisterous in their enthusiasms: a hint of sex can unleash pandemonium. They certainly responded when Ethan Hawke, as Macbeth, kissed Anne-Marie Duff, as Lady Macbeth, and they (forgive me) tittered when John Glover, one of the witches, flaunted his artificial bosom.
But during most of the two-hour-and-forty-five-minute afternoon, the students were rapt in their attention. Several times throughout the performance, I scanned the audience to determine receptivity: row after row contained teenagers who were leaning forward, to catch every word.
The high level of listening had something to do with the quality of the production and the performances. But it also had to do with how well the students, who that day came from every New York City borough except Staten Island, had been prepared by Kati Koerner, LCT's Director of Education, and Alexandra López, LCT's Associate Director of Education, and their staff of teaching artists. Koerner told me that the students had three classroom sessions before the performances and would have one after. Much of their textual focus had been on passages that come early on in the play, especially Macbeth's speech from Act 1, Scene 7: "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly."
After the performance, a handful of actors took the stage in civilian clothes - in addition to Hawke and Duff, Brian d'Arcy James, Derek Wilson, Sam Poon, and Zane King Beers - to answer audience questions. One of the students asked Hawke why he wanted to play a tyrant. "A lot of great roles are bad guys," the actor replied, adding that it's a challenge to play characters "who don't do the right thing." In response to another query, d'Arcy James revealed that while preparing for the role of Banquo, "I learned new words. You've got to understand what it is you're saying." Wilson subsequently explained that there are hundreds of words in English that first show up in the plays of Shakespeare.
The final questioner of the afternoon asked Duff how she felt being one of the few women characters in a play peopled by men. Duff said it could be intimidating to be in such testosterone-fueled company. "But I think Lady Macbeth is as strong as any of the guys." I suspect that the young women in the house were satisfied with her answer: if any spells were cast, they were of the benevolent kind.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com