I recently caught up with, and button-holed, Lesley Sawhill and Ron Aja about their upcoming production of Macbeth in Woodstock. Lesley and Ron, partners in life as well as in theater, are co-founders of New Genesis Productions (NGP), a not-for-profit youth theater company in the Catskill Mountains of the Hudson Valley. NGP’s particular interest is in Shakespeare and each summer they run intensive two-week theatre camps with various age groups in which a play is produced from scratch and performed at their outdoor theater, “The Little Globe,” which is on the aptly named road: Vision Path in West Shokan, NY.
I have had the privilege of attending some of these productions and, I can tell you, it is a sight to see an eleven year old fluently speaking the words of Prospero in The Tempest, and understanding what he is saying. NGP has become one of the gems of the Catskills region and this year it is celebrating its tenth anniversary. As part of the anniversary celebrations, NGP is bringing a production of Macbeth to the historic Byrdcliffe Theater in Woodstock this Memorial Day Weekend – the production will be the culmination of a seven month master project in the study of the play. Lesley’s background in theater is as an actor and director, and also as a teaching artist in schools throughout the region. She has directed in New York City as well as locally including for the Open Eye Theatre, Byrd-on-a-Cliff, and The Woodstock Day School. Ron has managed and produced Off-Off Broadway theatre and also in the downtown alternative scene in New York City. In addition to working with Lesley developing NGP’s youth theatre, he was the Festival Director of the Clearwater Festival for eleven years.
CL: You both come from strong theater backgrounds. What was the impetus to start a youth company here?
RA: I had been doing theatre in the city so when we moved up here in ’95. We saw that there was clearly a need for theatre arts in the schools.
LS: First, I started doing teaching residencies in the local schools, and doing summer Shakespeare theatre camps on our property was a natural progression.
CL: In your summer programs in West Shokan, you put together plays in a very short time; can you give me a brief overview of how that works?
LS: We call it the Summer Shakespeare Intensive and everyone comes prepared to take the work on in a serious and dedicated way. The casting process happens ahead of time, if possible, and scripts are available before the Intensive begins. It’s suggested that they come on the 1st day with a familiar sense of the play and their role. We begin each day with vocal and body work along with a series of exercises to prepare for the day’s rehearsal. By the end of the first week we will have staged and developed the entire play and their character work is well on its way to being completed. The text comes through repetition of scene work and by the middle of the second week they usually are feeling very confident. These are full days but two weeks proves to be plenty of time to prepare.
CL: Some of the participants are very young indeed.
LS: We have two age groups: 7 to 11, and 12 to 16. This summer, the younger group will be doing As You Like It and the older group will do Twelfth Night.
CL: Last year, for the Winter Master Project, you did Hamlet — was that the first time New Genesis did this kind of in depth response to a Shakespeare play?
RA: Our Winter Master Project started with Henry V at the Shandaken Theatre in 2010, and then, of course, Hamlet and now Macbeth this year. We will be performing the play at the Byrdcliffe Theater over Memorial Day weekend.
CL: Can you tell me what goes into the Master Project; I know you meet once per month from October to April, so now that you are on the home-run, how often do you meet?
LS: As we get closer to performance we begin meeting once a week. At this point we are doing full run-throughs of the play to build a sense of pace which is so important to this play. Extra time is being spent on stage combat which is being choreographed by Phil Mansfield. Once we get into the Byrdcliffe Theatre, we will rehearse every day.
CL: Do the students play a part in the design of the costumes + sets?
LS: We have brainstormed with the cast about design elements. Their ideas definitely play a part in the final look of the production. With Macbeth they have plenty of gory, chiller, thriller ideas that spring from their keen interest in doing this play
CL: Participation in the Winter Master Project is by invitation. While I presume the pool of invitees are from past participants in New Genesis Productions who have shown the required commitment, what about other young people who might be interested — is there a way for them to bring themselves to your attention or would you require them to take part in a summer theater camp first?
LS: The Summer Intensive is the best way for a young actor new to our company to become familiar with our way of working. It’s also a great opportunity for us to get a sense of their interest and willingness to be a part of “the company”. If someone already has a background in doing theatre and has seen a production I would be willing to interview/audition them for the Master Class. This year we brought someone new in who devoted himself to the idea of being in the company after seeing both Henry V and Hamlet. He was really turned on by what he had seen and has honestly applied himself to the work which is all completely new to him. So, really, it’s about being ready to devote this kind of time.
CL: Last year you had a girl, Lachlan Brooks, playing Hamlet — was this mainly to do with expediency, that is, a shortage of boys or was it to do with the most suitable student for the role, regardless of gender?
RA: We were able to take on Hamlet because we had someone in the company ready and able to take the role on. There are other Hamlet’s growing within the group but Lachlan was keenly ready at that point, and well suited for that character.
CL: She was terrific all right. Will you also be crossing gender lines in Macbeth?
LS: The Witches are an interesting mix crossing all kinds of lines. Outside of that we are playing fairly gender true with the exception of Banquo and Lennox.
CL: What is the average age of the actors in this production?
LS: the range is 12 – 16 years old, with most being 15 – 16.
CL: The actors are at an age not famous for toeing the line. Do you have difficulty getting the students to learn lines, no pun intended?
RA: They are all really good about being responsible about that. For most, memorizing comes easily and they really enjoy the challenge.
CL: Have you decided on next year’s play for the master class or is that a closely guarded secret?
LS: No clear ideas just yet.
CL: Well, last year’s production was a triumph and I am looking forward to seeing what you do with Macbeth this year. Or shouldn’t we be calling it “The Scottish Play” as, according to theatrical superstition, speaking the name Macbeth can bring bad luck?
RA: We only have to worry about that once we are rehearsing in the actual theater, but might be a good idea to start now, just in case…
Macbeth will be playing at the Byrdcliffe Theater on upper Byrdcliffe Road in Woodstock, NY on Friday May 25 at 7:00pm, Saturday 26 at 2:00pm and 7:00, and Sunday 27 at 4:00pm. Tickets: $10, under 12s: $5.
For New Genesis Production’s summer 2012 programs, registration is due by May 25th. For more information about the company and its summer programs, go to: www.newgenesisproductions.org
Or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The featured image is from last year’s production of Hamlet
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Claire and her family moved to New York City from Dublin in 1996, and to Woodstock in 2002. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company – as the company designer she is in charge of everything from the website to the set design.
Claire taught art and art history for many years at Dublin’s Deutsche Schule, her writing credits include contributing author for Teen Life In Europe.