Eric Ting respects superstitions, especially the one that says you can't say "Macbeth" aloud in a theater without dire consequences. ("The Scottish Play" is used instead.)
"I think superstition is a powerful force," says the fate-conscious Ting, associate artistic director of New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, who may be testing his luck by taking the curse-ridden Shakespearean tragedy and giving it a dramatic makeover.
With "Macbeth 1969," which opens Wednesday, Jan. 25, Ting takes the classic tale of deadly ambition and the supernatural and sets it in a rehabilitation hospital in the American Midwest in the midst of the Vietnam War.
Making Ting's take even more extreme is the fact that five actors — playing two returning soldiers and three nurses — take on all the roles, while following the Bard's text.
"We've gone out of our way to take the supernatural out of 'Macbeth'," says Ting during a break from rehearsals in a downtown New Haven coffee shop.
Ting, who turns 39 this week, says he — and artistic director Gordon Edelstein — didn't want to do a small-cast Shakespeare production unless there was a good reason.
"Most of the conversations about the play always seem to center on the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and their marital partnership around power and ambition," Ting says.
But he was interested in the Bard's shortest play from the perspective of Macbeth and his fellow soldier, Banquo. At the play's beginning, the two are returning home from a victorious battle when they encounter three prophetic witches on the heath, "which to me, represents a kind of crossroads." The [adaptation] would take off from that scene with two physically and psychologically wounded Vietnam-era soldiers arriving at a rural facility, probably in the town where they are from.
In Ting's version of the opening scene of "Macbeth" (a report to King Duncan about the feats of war), the two soldiers share battle stories, followed by a flirtation with three nurses and a telegram arriving saying Macbeth has been named Thane of Cawdor. One of the nurses is married, or had been, to Macbeth.
Macbeth's later murder of Banquo is mirrored in the adaptation by the death of the wounded soldier, which leaves Macbeth with survivor's guilt that triggers a fevered dream, followed by electro-convulsive therapy which launches the narrative of the second half of the play
"We haven't added anything to the text," says Ting. Some scenes have been edited.
The production's concept allows the theater to engage with veterans' groups, hospitals and physicians, such as David Reed Johnson, co-director of the Post Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven who worked for many years as a drama therapist at the VA hospital in West Haven. Ting also consulted with Linda Schwartz, commissioner of the state's Department of Veterans Affairs
"We're trying to make sure the adaptation has authenticity or at least one that has been researched," Ting says.
He acknowledges concerns of perpetuating stereotypes of the Vietnam veteran who returns home unable to cope with re-entry into civilian life, goes crazy and commits acts of violence.
"We're doing the play and it has some controversial elements when seen through this particular lens," says Ting. "We understand that. But what we want to do is make sure we're engaging with what's happening in the country now and making people aware of post traumatic stress today."
Tings says he has learned that only a small percentage of returning vets are making use of the resources available to them because they are unaware of them, they are unwilling to admit they have a problem or are unwilling to ask for help.
"The third is a big one," says Ting, "and so we're doing a post-traumatic stress campaign around the production. Ten tickets are released free at every performance for veterans and families of veterans. "We only ask if they could stay for the talk-back after the show."
The theater also features a "Sparks" program, led by Ting, which began last year, where 50 people follow the evolution of the production of the play from reading, to rehearsals to opening night.
Fate has always played an important part of Ting's life — and career.
"Fate and faith," corrects Ting. "That is, faith in knowing that if I go and do something I'll be OK. I've always felt the journey is the only thing that matters."
It's been a global journey for Ting, whose family emigrated from China. He was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota and raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, the son of a geologist father who died when Ting was in high school.
"I count the fact that I'm in theater because my father's presence was not there after high school. He wasn't much of a supporter of the arts. He was more about the sciences. I think I would have had a very different life had he lived."
But Ting's mother encouraged his creative inclinations. "I was a visual artist as a kid," he says. "She would sit with me for hours at the kitchen table teaching me how to draw hands, which I found difficult to draw."
After high school, Ting deferred acceptance to Yale to stay home for a year to help his mother at the family's Chinese restaurant. "It was like New Haven was in my future but I didn't realize it. I'm pretty certain that I wouldn't have been in theater had I made it to Yale. I was going to follow in my grandmother's footsteps and be a psychiatrist. Yale was just so expensive I don't think I would have taken the risk to go into the arts."
Instead, he worked for a year and then went to the University of West Virginia on a full scholarship where he studied psychiatry and biochemistry. In his final year, he took a puppetry class "on a lark."
It changed the course of his life.
Globe-trotting and Back
"It was a revelation," he says. After undergraduate school, Ting took summer residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in France where he met a girl and followed her to Paris, ending up studying physical theater movement for a year at the famed L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq.
He later went to graduate school at the University of Knoxville at its international actor training academy. As part of grad school, Ting went abroad to study in Spoleto, Prague, Budapest and Bali as well as two summers at the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O'NeillTheater Center in Waterford.
In August of 2001 he moved to Brooklyn, New York where he witnessed the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center Tower. "I became a New Yorker very quickly after9/11," says Ting who had three friends who worked in the tower's restaurant who died that day. It made him understand the nature of shared experience and trauma, he says.
In 2002, he landed a job at the Williamstown Theatre Festival as assistant to a director, Gordon Edelstein, who was directing Donald Margulies' "God of Vengeance." "It was my first experience from the sidelines of a professional and institutional theater," says Ting.
"I think Eric is one of the most gifted directors of his generation," says Edelstein. "He has a unique mixture of right brain imagination and left brain formal abilities. At Williamstown, his insights were spot on and he always acted with the greatest respect, sensitivity and impeccable timing." When the production was over, Edelstein promised Ting he would be in contact with him again.
When Ting returned to New York after that summer, through a friend's connection, he became a personal assistant to actress Marcia Gay Harden, who was about to start filming "Mystic River," directed by Clint Eastwood. Ting worked with Harden through the spring of 2004. "My last day working for Marcia my phone rings and it's Gordon saying that he got a two-year grant [that allows Ting to be hired at Long Wharf]."
At the end of the second year at Long Wharf in 2006 — and the grant's expiration — Ting directed an impressive production of "Under the Lintel" and expected to head back to New York. Edelstein called Ting into his office and Dr. Jerry Meyer, a theater trustee, gave Ting a check which was the equivalent to an extra year's salary, paid for by the Jerry and Roslyn Meyer Foundation. Ting chose to stay for that extra year at Long Wharf and at the end of that season, an opening emerged which allowed him to stay.
Over the course of his eight seasons at the theater, Ting staged "The Bluest Eye," "The Old Man and the Sea," "Bad Dates," "Sylvia" "Italian-American Reconciliation," "It's a Wonderful Life" and the premiere of "Agnes Under the Big Top." He also worked with Anna Deavere Smith when "Let Me Down Easy" moved from Long Wharf to American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
In March Ting will direct Jackie Sibblies Drury's "We Are Proud to Present a Presentation…" at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater. He is working with choreographer Nora Chipaumire for a dance/theater piece that will be featured in Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in the fall, inspired by the life of Miriam Makeba.
"Eric will be running a major regional theater some day," says Edelstein, something that Ting says he hopes will be in his fateful future.
MACBETH 1969, an adaptation by Eric Ting of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth," is now in previews and opens Wednesday, Jan. 25 and continues through Feb. 12 on the main stage at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Information: 203-787-4282 and www.longwharf.org.
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