Talking Trauma, Shakespeare, and Movement for Theater:
A Conversation with Alexandra Beller
by Corinne Shearer
There is an old superstition in the theater world that the simple utterance of the title of Shakespeare’s Scottish play in a theater (when not directly reading it) will bring bad luck upon the production. Make Thick My Blood, an adaptation of Macbeth presented by DE-CRUIT at Theatre Row recently, fortunately survived the Scottish Curse. The show’s particular emphasis on the unspoken, on the breath that hangs between lines or the gestures that punctuate, seems to have done just the opposite; it is the movement of the speaking body as much as the text spoken which excites, moves, and charms. The play’s authors were also its stars, Dawn Stern and Stephan Wolfert, and the story came to life through them alone. Yet one other presence saturated the now-closed production, that of director Alexandra Beller.
An award-winning choreographer, certified Laban/Bartenieff movement analyst, professor at Princeton and Rutgers University among others, Beller is well-known on the contemporary dance scene. I, like many other dancers/movement artists/theater folk/curious bodies, met her in her capacity as an educator and have been an avid follower ever since. Her choreography and constellation of pedagogical practices can best be described as “dance theater” (most obviously for its experimentation with text and speech), yet more and more Beller has been invited to work on more “traditional” works of theater– though, as Make Thick My Blood proves, the dividing line between art forms can be delightfully murky. I sat down with Beller, screen-to-screen, to talk Shakespeare, trauma, and designing movement for theater. For a glimpse behind the curtain of her creative process read on— and be sure to check out what’s next on her docket: Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes) presented by The La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, CA which opens August 30th. (Tickets can be purchased here.) Let The Right One In presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Charleston, MA which opens October 22nd, 2022. (Tickets can be purchased here.)
Corinne Shearer: So, in Make Thick My Blood you wear the hats of both director and choreographer. Is this something you’ve done previously?
Alexandra Beller: I thought I had not, but when I got into the process of it, I realized, yes, I have done this before because my dance theater work was so theater-heavy. Of course, I have been looking at character, and agenda, and relationship, and communication, and intonation, and effort qualities, and vocal dynamics– all of that in my dance work. And certainly, seeing the big picture and having a vision and all of that in my devised dance theater. So, legally no, but subjectively and experientially, yes.
Shearer: I want to stick with physicality for a second. It felt like we were watching a usual sort of play, but just that the physicality had been turned up a few notches. It didn’t necessarily feel like we’re moving into another medium like dance. Was that always the intention, to work from this movement-amplified perspective? And what did that process look like with non-dancers?
Beller: They definitely chose me very specifically because they wanted to challenge themselves to do a much more physical work than they’d ever done. And not just physical-theater physical, but metaphorical movement, magical realism, and real body-based communication– because they work in trauma, and they’re always dealing with the body. Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote The Body Keeps The Score and is one of the main brains behind the current science of trauma and trauma therapy, is a close colleague of [Stern and Wolfert], so they definitely believe that the body speaks the truth and can’t help it. In PTSD is figuring out how to let the body come back to speaking the truth, which I think trauma often inhibits: the body’s free, authentic communication of its needs, wants, desires, fears, feelings, et cetera. They both deeply wanted a challenge and to do something they’d never done before.
Shearer: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have two very distinct physicalities in the play: Wolfert’s MacBeth was very manic to me, almost childlike, constantly distracted and overwhelmed by his fancies (ironically a diagnosis that Lady MacBeth is given in the play), whereas Lady Mcbeth came off very grounded, composed, and almost like an axis for the her husband– but also very literally, I think, in space with her motif of the miscarriage/birth taking place center stage. How did you approach distinguishing these characters?
Beller: In the text Macbeth goes to a lot of different places, and he goes back and forth quite a few times– not dissimilar to Hamlet. I did feel like that vacillation needed to become a spatial idea for him. And then in terms of Lady Macbeth, I do see her in the play being fairly immovable until she really disintegrates at the end. I felt like she could be a more solid “object” and he could be more orbiting or constellatory around her moon or her sun, because I felt like that spoke to something in their relationship.
It always goes back to trauma. Her trauma is the birthing. When she’s in a trauma state, she always goes back to the birthing movement because that’s like brainstem-level. That’s where that trauma is. She does that birthing many, many times, certainly when she’s going crazy and when she’s about to die, that comes back for her. Whenever he’s in trauma he has similar repetitions of movement that he does by himself and with her in different contexts. He does it in his nightmare. He tries to do it at the end with her dead body. So, when they’re kind of decompensating, they go back to their original trauma.
Shearer: The emphasis on trauma and the different ways that it manifests and is carried is very prominent in the show– from big repetitions of movement to visual details like costuming.
Beller: Yeah, the idea for the bloody nightgown being underneath her dress the whole time– you know it’s there, but you’ve maybe forgotten it. She’s maybe forgotten it because she’s able to not see it. But all of us know it’s there. And that was the idea: there’s this trauma underneath that maybe nobody’s talking about, maybe we’ve even tried to forget it, but we also know for sure it’s under there.
Shearer: I also hear you talking a little bit about your relationship to Shakespeare’s original text. Have you worked with any Shakespeare texts previously?
Beller: I’ve done three other Shakespeare plays as the choreographer or movement director: Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, no tragedies, I’ve only worked on the comedies. I am not a Shakespeare-head. It’s new territory for me in a way, even though this is my fourth Shakespeare play and I find the language challenging and my instinct years ago was to put Shakespeare in a corner and let other people do it, and not touch it because it’s so sacred, and so cherished, and there are so many people who know so much about it, and so many people who love it with such fervor. I felt like I’m not allowed to deal with Shakespeare. But with all four plays that I’ve worked on I have found is that it just takes some time– as long as I put enough time into it, the whole play just blossoms open, and I understand all the language, and I find it so rich and so interesting, profound and evocative, and funny and dirty and, you know, awesome.
Shearer: What did you want to cull in from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and what did you specifically want to leave out?
Beller: We really wanted to get away from a lot of the tropes around Lady Macbeth. She gets blamed for, I think, way more than her share of the violence. Then Macbeth gets blamed, but also excused and the excuse is her– ‘Oh, she made him do it.’ ‘She’s a manipulative, nagging hag…’ We interpret Macbeth with a good deal of misogyny in it, and I really wanted to see if we could take that out and figure out why they both do what they do without falling into that tradition. We had to show enough backstory for both characters that we felt like they became sympathetic characters despite the awful things they do. We had to really figure out what was essential to tell if we were also making this a love story. This one was meant to be a very truncated adaptation that really let go of all of the politics and the history, and really focused on these two major relationships between Lady Macbeth, Macbeth and Banquo– the soldier relationship and the spousal relationship. One thing I love about having Dawn playing both the spouse and the best friend of Macbeth is the question, ‘how she could be kind of a pivot between those two relationships?’
Shearer: Do you have anything coming up?
Beller: Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes) at The La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, CA. Most of my upcoming theatre shows are listed here. I’m excited about this one, it’s not on the website; I’m working on a zombie play called Let The Right One In which is based on the novel, and then two films – one of them an adaptation into English – and I think it’s going to be really exciting and fun to work on this supernatural love story.
Corinne Shearer is OyeDrum Magazine’s Book Review Editor and an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. She’s currently completing her MA in English Literature at The City College of New York. Corinne works predominantly in dance and theater as a performer, choreographer, and teaching artist. She’s been featured as an artist-in-residence at The Triple Nine Festival and named “Director’s Choice” at Spoke The Hub’s Winter Follies. She is also the founder and curator of Spitball, a performance series for artists of varying disciplines. She is currently accepting published or soon-to-be published books for review in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.