Monday, January 30, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Kate T. Billingsley as Lady Macbeth

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

Frog & Peach was founded in 1996 by members of the Actors Studio. The company has focused on Shakespeare, supplying Off-Off-Broadway with a semi-annual regimen since 2012. This month, F&P take up residence at the new Sheen Center, just off the Bowery, with Macbeth. Kate T. Billingsley plays the part of Lady Macbeth, and emailed with me about the role's rewards.

Let’s start with Lady Macbeth. What have you discovered about her?

The thing I find most fascinating about Lady M is her tragically glorious arc from beginning to end. The audience never gets to see her before getting the news of her husband’s encounter with the prophesying witches. She starts with the letter, with the news. I’ve often thought about what she was like before getting this letter. What kind of life must she have had to have wanted to attempt to assassinate the king and become a monarch herself? What sort of world was this woman living in? What have her experiences with men been like? In what ways can I relate to her own feelings of ambition and control? She is hungrier for power than her husband and ultimately, the Lady is the one who pulls the strings behind his actions and is left tangled in the knots she has created.

Which scenes are the most challenging?

The most difficult scene for me is the “sleep-walking” scene. I say this because of what it demands of my body and psyche. At the end of each performance, if I am not completely wiped out, I have not done her justice. Another scene I find challenging is the murder scene. The change I have to make in a matter of seconds from before smearing the grooms with blood to after is something I work to go deeper with every night. It changes for her from that moment on and she is never the same again. There is always more to search for. That’s how big these characters and their stories are.

What else have you discovered about Lady M’s inner life?

Cracking open Lady M has been an enormous challenge. She is intimidatingly intelligent and full of energy. It’s as if she has this engine inside of her that is charging from the gate. She is daring enough to call on spirits to help her be bold and uncaring enough to commit murder. She is facile enough to be able to manipulate her husband into following through with the murder.

When it comes to the actual murder itself, she admits she cannot do it because King Duncan resembles her father as he lay sleeping. So instead she waits with bated breath as her husband does the deed. This is ultimately, where I believe the misogyny of the Elizabethan era falls into place. Because even though she evokes these evil spirits to fill her with “direst cruelty” so that she can kill the King, ultimately, she cannot follow through with the deed. She is still too filled with sentimentality to do it. So, instead, Shakespeare makes her an accomplice, but not the murderer. Therein lies the burn.

What drives her to commit murder?

I think what drives her is a burning curiosity to understand the vastness of her own power as a woman and partner in her time. Her husband relies on her and confides in her. How many hours has she spent waiting and tending to their manor while he is off in battle? There must have been a tremendous time of reflection and thought as to how she fits into the picture of climbing success. It seems to me she has battled the patriarchy her whole life and found a partner who understands the pains that came with her journey. The Macbeths both seem to have pasts in which they came together to save one another and truly rely on one another as equals. This seems very modern to me, as does her relentless ambition to dig herself out of the hole she started out in. The first step was marrying Macbeth.

How do you approach her mad scenes, and play them honestly?

I truly feel the mad scenes are subjective and every Lady M is different. I hope mine rings true. When she returns from smearing the blood and placing the daggers, she is forever changed. From that transition on, she is a different person. The night terrors begin and do not end. She is truly battling the fatigue and hauntings throughout the second half of the play, not to mention the crumbling demise of her husband and truest love. I feel she tries her best to save face as much as possible; to try to keep herself together, to keep her husband together. The ultimate failure for her is the loss of her husband’s mind and partnership, and the guilt she did not expect to have.

What links her end to the sane woman earlier in the play?

I feel these mad scenes all link back to the beginning. It’s as if the spirits she cries out to are teaching her a lesson as to why one shouldn’t play with the occult if they aren’t prepared for the consequences. When working with her madness, I focus on loss and I work with the physical effects of insomnia and the imagery of night terrors. Being a member of The Actors Studio, I have a psychological approach to all my characters and work a great deal with the sensory. 

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

I think Shakespeare writes brilliant women. Their strength often lies in their intelligence: emotional and/or intellectual. They are often the whisperer in the protagonists ear, the strength behind the action of their male counterparts. They are often ruthless and sensual, cut-throat and demanding, lyrical and bold. He wrote dynamic women, many of whom are quite modern. I think his language is so perfect that I shudder to point out Shakespeare’s flaws. Sometimes, I do wonder: what if Lady M had committed the murder herself? But then, the story would be completely different.

Do you have any other Shakespearean roles you’d love to play, or to go back to? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I played Goneril when I was younger and would love to play her when I am a little older. I would love to play Kate in Taming of The Shrew or Portia in Julius Caesar. And, now that I am working on Macbeth, I think to play Macbeth himself would be an incredibly fruitful challenge. His arc is just so epic and lush. I love the idea of a Queen Lear, like Glenda Jackson’s, when I am of age and have the life experience to fully understand the breadth of Lear’s deterioration. And of course, I could spend the next twenty years still trying to unpack the puzzle of Lady M herself.


Frog & Peach's Macbeth runs from January 19 to February 12 at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in the East Village. Tickets are $25.

headshot  Laura Rose Photography
photos  Paul Greco

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