For the majority of professionals in theatre, to even whisper the name of Shakespeare's tragic figure is to court disaster - in theatrical circles, Macbeth is generally agreed to be the unluckiest title in theatrical history - and the fall stage production at Moline's Black Hawk College is a comedy based on that commonly held superstition.
Making its premiere at Black Hawk, the one-act farce The Scottish Play: A Travesty! - described by co-playwright Paul Ferguson as "a behind-the-scenes Macbeth" - was written by three Black Hawk alumni: Ferguson, Jeremy Koester, and Koester's wife, Dr. Traci Davis, who also teaches in the college's theatre department. (The Scottish Play will be performed in Black Hawk College's theatre - Building 1, Room 306 - at 7 p.m. on November 10, 11, 15, 16, and 17.)
Stories of the superstition's origin are wide-ranging. Some theatre historians believe it dates back to August 7, 1606, when the play was first performed, and Hal Berridge - the boy who was to play Lady Macbeth - died backstage before the production's debut, only to have Shakespeare himself step into the role. (Though this story has been commonly repeated, the earliest recorded performance of Macbeth took place at the Globe Theatre on April 20, 1611, but records of that era are, historians concede, sketchy at best.) Some believe the Macbeth legend is based on the play's depiction of the supernatural and the incantations of the play's three witches, whose on-stage sorcery was thought to conjure evil spirits.
But despite conflicting accounts of how the superstition began, there is concession on one point: Trauma seems to follow Macbeth participants wherever the show is produced, both within and outside of its theatrical venues.
During an 1849 production of the play, a long-standing rivalry between actors Edwin Forrest and John Macready turned into a full-scale riot, killing 31 people. A 1938 production was beset by automobile injuries, as the actress playing Lady Macbeth drove her car through a strore window, and another actor was hit - with his own car - in the parking lot. And a 1937 production of Shakespeare's work, performed at the Old Vic and starring Laurence Olivier, had its opening night delayed, actors playing Macduff during the run were continually wounded in a climactic duel, and Olivier himself was nearly killed in a taxi accident and narrowly missed being hit, mid-performance, by a falling sandbag. A story even circulates that Abraham Lincoln was reading the play the night before he was slain by John Wilkes Booth.
(Theatre critics should be wary of the curse as well; mere days after panning Orson Welles' legendary Voodoo Macbeth in 1936, a New York reviewer contracted pneumonia and died soon thereafter.)
Given such a tortured history, theatre students and professionals commonly refer to Macbeth as "The Scottish Play" in lieu of its actual moniker, and the superstition behind it not only provided the Black Hawk trio's The Scottish Play with its title, but a plotline within the show itself.
"We set that up as a major theme in the show," says Ferguson, "that you don't utter that word in the theatre, and of course, somebody immediately does. And that kind of sets us up for everything that happens. And gives us somebody to blame for everything that happens."
The Scottish Play: A Travesty!, which its authors say was partially inspired by Michael Frayn's slapstick comedy Noises Off, details the ensuing on- and off-stage nightmare after one of its characters mistakenly lets loose the "M" word. Ferguson says: "Imagine the worst production of Macbeth, with all the disasters that go with it. This [the play] is what's happening backstage while some people are desperately trying to hold the show together."
In the playwrights' conceit, however, the characters' intitial undoing at the hands of superstition might prove to be their salvation as well. Referring to the Macbeth curse, Davis says that the show's characters "believe in it enough to come up with something that would undo it." In retaliation, the thespians in The Scottish Play attempt, though ridiculous means, to redirect the plight of their sinking show, "because once you're suffering from a superstition," Davis says, "you can't get out of it unless you come up with your own antidote."
The playwrights believe that audiences with a knowledge of theatrical lore will appreciate their spin on the legend surrounding Macbeth. "Outside of the theatre context," says Ferguson, "you can say it all over the place, obviously. But I would say 60 percent of theatre people really freak out about it. And you gotta respect that. Because if you believe in it, bad things are gonna happen, whether there's something to it or not."
It's a superstition that Dr. Davis, for one, is personally acquainted with. "The first time I ever did it," she says, "I said it in a theatre, and everyone just stopped. And I can remember it being a point of high shame, but I wondered why, because no one had ever explained it to me." (Once details the curse had been explained, she reveals, "I can remember shaming other people.") Now, Davis admits, she's "not wanting to mess with it at all."
In addition to the Macbeth superstition, The Scottish Play: A Travesty! takes much of its inspiration from Shakespeare's original text - Ferguson says that "every scene in our show corresponds to a scene in Macbeth ... sometimes it's a direct correspondence and sometimes it's not" - and, in particular, one theatrical production the three writers saw together in the fall of 2004. One that may not have been cursed, per se, but did, the future playwrights agreed, have more than its share of problems.
"Without going into any detail," Ferguson says, to the laughter of Koester and Davis, "we saw a bad production ... "
"And that's being kind ... " adds Davis, to additional laughter.
"It needed a lot of work," Ferguson concedes. "And afterwards, we were just sitting in a coffee shop, and it really inspired us to try to do something."
"We were driven by someone else's mediocrity," says Davis with a grin. "Delicious."
Ferguson stresses, though, that the performers from that unfortunate production were in no way models for the figures in The Scottish Play. "The characters in the show are really based on types that you encounter in the theatre. It's divas and over-the-top directors and nonchalant backstage people. So the way we wrote it, anybody who is familiar with theatre at all is going to recognize everyone in the show."
A pre-existing knowledge of Macbeth may be beneficial - but not essential - for full enjoyment of The Scottish Play, as Ferguson believes the Bard's works have entertained audiences for centuries for good reason: "Shakespeare's universal. Whether you're looking at the comedies or the tragedies or even the histories, the themes are universal. You recognize them."
"Even with the most slapstick of Shakespeare's comedies," Davis says, the characters "are all people you recognize. Every day." And for Scottish Play audiences who may not be well-versed in either theatre in general or Shakespeare in particular, "that is very, very handy."
Ferguson says that the three-month process of putting the script together was, for the three scribes, "fully collaborative," despite the fact that, of this trio of first-time playwrights, only Davis had extensive theatrical knowledge; Ferguson is a writer and musician with limited stage-performance experience, and Koester, he says, has even less.
"I'm arts-handicapped. I have no experience," Koester says. "Well, I shouldn't say 'no experience.' I worked backstage on a couple plays in high school and stuff, but I never really had any formal training or education in it."
"In any creative group, there is a conscience, someone that keeps things focused, and Jeremy," states Ferguson, "is the opposite of that." After the three finish laughing, he continues. "What Jeremy would do is he would come up with ideas or lines or things that were just completely over-the-top. And Traci and I would just go" - here Ferguson sucks in his breath - "'Ohhhh, man, um ... if we pared it down to this I think it works really well.' Jeremy was pushing the envelope."
"Yeah," Koester admits, "I go for all of the getting hit on the head, kicked in the crotch ... all the humor that truck-driving, beer-drinking guys like."
Yet to their happy surprise, the collaboration has been a professional and personal delight, so much so that the trio is currently working together on another one-act, several screenplay ideas, and even a novel (the appetite for which is whetted by Ferguson saying, "If you can imagine combining Tolkein and Tom Clancy, with the political intrigue and Renaissance-era technology ... .").
"I can't believe how much fun it was," says Koester. "For the first time I understood when I heard a musician or a writer say, 'I have to write because it needs to come out.' That's how I felt with this. When we were just writing it, I don't think any of us really thought we'd ever see it produced. Writing it and the creative process were just so much fun."
Yet the play is indeed being produced, to the continued amazement of the three playwrights, whose script was in contention with two other works for Black Hawk's fall slot. "We were up against Neil Simon and [Edward] Albee, I think," laughs Davis, who was informed that Black Hawk's Play Production class voted to perform The Scottish Play: A Travesty! over works by those more established playwrights. "I'm thinking, 'Simon and Albee?' But the students are having such a great time with it, I can understand why."
Just so long as those students don't say Macbet ... er ... that Scottish name.