An Immersive Theater Production of ‘Macbeth’ That’ll Rock You to the Core

 In Culture, Interviews

Rebel and Misfits Productions, the professional St. Louis-based theater company that first brought the art of immersive theater to the city in 2016, has a brand-new production. Called “Macbeth: Come Like Shadows,” the show is an updated rendition of Shakespeare’s original tale of war-ravaged manipulation and deceit, now through Nov. 10.

Founded by New York City theater veteran Kelly Hummert, Rebel and Misfits Productions collapses the relative distance between the story and the audience. Instead of absorbing this one comfortably entrenched in your seat, you’ll be milling about within the story itself alongside the actors, without a fourth wall to even break.

According to Hummert, the new production “analyzes the polarization of a not-so-distant dystopian America, tenuous on the heels of a new civil war. This retelling delves deeply into the duality of choice and the corruption of power through lenses of race, sexuality, appetite, ambition and love.” The Rules of Engagement on the website also list that the show will feature extreme violence, lots of fake blood, simulated sex acts, some nudity, gunshots, strobe lighting, fog and more. We’re in.

Rebel and Misfits has also brought the city productions of “Uncle Vanya: Valiantly Accepting Next Year’s Agony,” “An Intimate Theatre Project” and “Hamlet: See What I See.” Hummert’s own story is a stand-in for a Shakespeare tale all its own, featuring some of The Bard’s favorite themes: defiance, passion, beauty, tragedy and a return home.

What made you want to tackle Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” for your next theater project?

Over the course of my theater career, I’ve been in “Macbeth” several times, and I almost always play one of the witches. Most people are pretty faithful to the text, and it occurred to me that a number of relevant themes were getting glossed over.

One thing I wanted to explore deeper is how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are greatly in love, but they start making decisions too quickly and aren’t given the time and space to think things through fully. For example, at the beginning of the play, when Macbeth receives the prophecy from the witches which shapes his decision making from there on out, he realizes he’ll be king at some point. But what Shakespeare doesn’t give us is why Lady Macbeth is so certain that killing Duncan is the way to make that happen. For me, what he’s written on that page has never been enough. It makes the assumption that when Lady Macbeth sets their plan in action, it’s completely coming from a place of greed and evil ambition. But there are also hints that it’s about her love for this man whom she believes should be king, and that they have a greater plan than the current regime that would benefit their society.

Which leads me to my next question: How is this retelling different from the original text, and why?

We’re definitely leaning into modern-day politics with this updated version of the story. It’s set in a modern dystopian world where the rule is very oppressive to women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, et cetera, and the way that their society works is extremely offensive. That creates an opportunity for the Macbeths to be kind of heroic, in a way. We’ve framed the story so that the setting is in their home and audience members are refugees whom they’ve accepted into their home. Many people on their staff are gay and/or people of color. The current king doesn’t believe in equal rights for anyone. We’ve also woven a rich backstory for each character, with a lot of attention to Lady Macbeth and Duncan. She has a very good reason for wanting to kill him, and not just so that Macbeth can be king. I don’t want to spill it—it’s pretty shocking.

The political piece of it seeks to explore, where are we in America right now? In St. Louis? What are the feelings that keep coming up for all of us? We’re not trying to hit home how awful it is to be on either end of the political spectrum. There are issues with both parties.

What is so powerful and important about immersive theater in particular?

For one, it’s very, very hard to pull off. You have to tell the story exactly right, or it just doesn’t work. After I graduated with my theater degree and moved to New York City, my peers and I were all working on Broadway and Off Broadway, and at the end of the show we’d look out into the audience and see that almost no one there was even close to our age. It really made us worry about the state of theater. If you travel to places in Europe and Asia, you see that theater is so important to them. It’s just a part of who they are. That got me thinking about how stories told in a strictly traditional manner could be missing something. I wanted to figure out how we could make something that people of all different ages and backgrounds would drop everything to come see. How could we come up with a story that feels personal for each individual? Something they feel in their bones, rather than just watch? How do we make it matter to each person?

Tell me a little bit about your background, beginnings and how you made your way into theater.

I grew up in tiny town in Illinois, so of course, all I wanted to when I was younger was to get out. I felt like my feelings and thoughts were very stifled, and I felt very alone. I remember when I was in second grade, my mom found me crying in my room one day after I came home from school. She was like, “What happened? Did something happen at school?” And I told her, “No, nothing happened at school. I just know that I don’t belong here.” There was no getting out of it, so I tried to keep mostly to myself. Don’t get me wrong—some of the people from my hometown are very lovely. But many of the kids my own age who I was growing up with did not have much respect for anyone outside of the norm.

That said, there was theater. I did small productions for community and professional theaters, and while they weren’t necessarily the most incredible shows, it was incredibly powerful to be tapped into that world. It became a little safe haven for me. I worked really hard to get scholarships to acting schools, and my first year I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign. I transferred to the conservatory at Webster University, where we were taught to live and breathe theater.

An Immersive Theater Production of Macbeth That’ll Rock You to the Core

You moved to New York after you graduated, where you stayed for 10 years working in theater and the arts. What was that world and experience like for you?

I got cast in the Shakespeare in the Park production of “Macbeth” in St. Louis when I graduated, and when that show closed, I moved to New York with about $400 to my name. I didn’t have a plan, but I was determined to hustle and work in that world. And I did. I got very, very lucky and started landing theater jobs right away when I got there. I placed myself alongside people in the industry who knew more than I did, which I feel is very important. Eventually I booked a manager and an agent, and the career path I really wanted took off from there, doing Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Arthur Miller. Those are my specialties.

I dabbled in some film as well, but that was a very taxing experience. I didn’t find it fulfilling at all. There’s a lot of waiting around, you go to set, and then the lighting might not be perfect, so you wait two more hours. I did a couple of films, and they made me deeply unhappy. My boyfriend at the time was also a film actor, which gave me a glimpse into that world. There’s a heavy drug culture in film acting that most people don’t know about. I was meeting people who were my idols, and they were just not who I thought they were; they needed to be drunk or high to do what they did. Most film actors are very insecure people and are almost always seeking some type of validation, and in doing so they go to some pretty dark places. That same boyfriend whom I was with passed away during that time of a drug overdose. He was a wonderful, wonderful man—a beautiful person who met a tragic end. And I lost him. It was very, very hard for me to be in New York after that.

I can’t imagine. How did you persist after that?

It was incredibly difficult. I took a break to recover, and then tried doing some stage work. People kept telling me to use what I was going through in my work, but I just couldn’t. It was too painful. I found some catharsis in the work, but the whole experience was incredibly haunting and plagued me intensely.

I ran my own company for a few years after that, but living in New York was just becoming too difficult for me, in many ways. I think I was seeking a change without exactly knowing that was what I was doing. I met a man from St. Louis who is now my husband. He is such a good human; just totally untouched by what had consumed those New York guys. I felt so much safety and solitude with him. It was like waking up from a very long nightmare. It’s a weird dichotomy to balance, because I really thrived off the energy of New York. I loved being pushed with that fast pace. Even just walking down the street, I found so much inspiration there, seeing every walk of life imaginable. I really didn’t envision myself here in St. Louis, and I didn’t know how this was going to work out at all. I thought I’d have to completely rearrange my life’s purpose.

From that point, what led you to start Rebel and Misfits?

After my husband and I got married, I took a break to think about what I wanted to do next, because I really had no idea. I didn’t think I’d do theater here. But then I had my daughter and saw things in a completely different way. The idea that kept hitting me was leaving her a legacy. What was I teaching her by not living up to my full potential? I started thinking that I needed to leave something behind, something that she could look at and think, “That was my mother.”

When my partner passed away, I learned in a really immediate way how short life can be. It can all be gone in a second. He’s sort of with me all the time, pushing me on. He always said to me, “You and I live with our art on the edge. Or we don’t do it. Everybody’s heart beats in an original way; no one’s is the same. So we have to let people see it. That’s our gift to the world.” And it hit me. I thought, “My God. These people need immersive theater—something that lives completely on the edge.” It’s true that I do everything big. I believe in high risk, high reward. I don’t do anything safe.

All images courtesy of Rebel and Misfits Productions.

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