It’s Monday afternoon, a little more than a week before the show opens. On a rehearsal stage at Jacksonville State University, two actors are moving slowly and methodically through a fight scene.

“That was nice, but I think I got too low on that stomach kick,” says Matthew Murry, the man playing Macbeth.

From the seats, director Carrie Colton calls to Becca Hearn, the young woman playing Young Siward. “When he punches you in the stomach, make a noise like that’s the worst one yet.”

Elsewhere in the theater, actors do warm-up stretches or run their lines quietly to themselves. The youngest actor in the play — fourth-grader Mitch Conroy of Jacksonville — sits quietly in the seats, playing with a balloon sword.

From backstage comes the buzz of a power saw.

Something wicked this way comes.

This week, the Shakespeare Project will present “Macbeth,” the bard’s bloody tragedy, in free performances for some 2,000 area high school students, followed by three free performances for the general public at the Anniston Performing Arts Center.

It’s the second annual production for the Shakespeare Project, which last year presented a post-apocalyptic version of “Julius Caesar” that featured women in traditional men’s roles and an ethnically diverse cast.

The goal of the Shakespeare Project is to bring life to the plays that are required reading in high school, using a cast that is representative of the many different varieties of people in the audience.

During last year’s performance for Anniston High School students, “the minute it started, those students were responding to the play,” said executive director Emily Duncan. “This is exactly what we were going for. These students would never have this experience otherwise.”

The lessons carried over afterwards into the classroom. In a traditional staging of “Julius Caesar,” the role of Brutus would be played by a man. But the Shakespeare Project cast a female actor in the role.

“We had teachers emailing us afterwards that students were fighting over who got to read Brutus in class,” Duncan said. “Girls were saying, ‘Don’t count me out!’ If we inspired even a little bit of that … that’s why we did what we did.”

Local teachers get to vote on which play they want the Shakespeare Project to present. This year, they picked “Macbeth.”

“I was a little surprised, because it’s similar to ‘Julius Caesar’ in a lot of ways,” said Colton, who is also artistic director of the Shakespeare Project. “It’s a tragedy about the downfall of a great human who starts off doing things for the right reasons — who has desires not unrelatable to our own. Before you know it, he’s destroyed his life and killed tons of innocent people.”

In adapting the play, Colton tried to approach it from the perspective of the high school students who would be watching.

For example: One of the most famous scenes in “Macbeth” is three witches dancing around a cauldron chanting, “Double, double, toil and trouble!”

“The witches are supposed to be horrifying,” Colton said. But in these days of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” witches aren’t as scary as they used to be.

“What is the most horrifying thing for a kid now?” Colton asked.

“It’s a clown.”

Colton’s version of “Macbeth” is set in a haunted circus. The three witches (Shakespeare called them the “weird sisters”) have become the “weird jesters.”

“The whole concept is based around these clowns, making it their story, their arena. They’re the ones who incite the action, spread all the bad information,” Colton said.

“The players are puppets to these clowns. It’s absolutely disturbing to see these characters take pleasure in human pain.”

What lesson does Colton want the audience to walk away with?

“The biggest line that’s always stuck out to me is Lady Macbeth’s line, ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’ To me, that’s what the whole play really is about. Your choices have consequences. Even the tiny choices can have big consequences.”

During rehearsal last week, the three weird jesters stalked the stage, leered at the audience and did very unsettling things with balloons.

They also laughed. A lot. Not in a nice way.

It’s no easy thing to laugh like a maniac, the actors said after rehearsal. It takes a lot of breathwork and muscle control.

Jacob Sorling said he based his laugh on Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” and on the movie “A Clockwork Orange.”

Lizzie Powers practiced high laughs and low laughs. “I tried all the different laughs,” she said. “The students are going to think we’re nuts.”

Word of the Shakespeare Project spread after its first production, and several new professional actors auditioned this year, including many from New York City, according to Colton.

Among the new faces on stage are real-life couple Matthew Murry, an Arkansas-based actor, director and educator, and Stephanie Murry, an assistant professor of theater at Ouachita Baptist University and the founder of North Dakota Shakespeare.

He is playing Macbeth. She is playing Duncan, queen of Scotland.

Spoiler alert: Macbeth stabs Duncan to death.

“I’m not thinking of my wife when I’m thinking of killing Duncan,” Matthew Murry was quick to point out.

In addition to new faces, many of the actors who were in “Julius Caesar” last year have returned this year.

“Many were already top-notch Shakespearean actors, but, just like with ‘Julius Caesar,’ they don’t fit into traditional Shakespeare roles,” Colton said.

Anatasha Blakely, who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” is back in another gender-swapped role as Macduff, a leader in the rebellion against Macbeth. She remembers reading Shakespeare in high school. “I always thought the sword fights seemed cool, but I thought, ‘I’ll just put on a dress.’ I finally got to play Brutus, but I’m well into my adulthood. I would have loved to have seen a female Brutus when I was in high school.”

Stephanie Escorza is also returning to Anniston, this time as Lady Macbeth. “This community is so welcoming,” she said. “We all thought it was such a great experience.”

This will be her first time playing Lady Macbeth. “It’s always been a dream role, since I read it in high school. It’s such a bold role. She is famous for being exactly who she is,” Escorza said.

Powers was a high school apprentice last year. This year, she is a weird jester onstage and a junior carpenter backstage. “I was terrified last year,” she said. “I’m in the professional company this year, but I’m still learning. I want to eventually work in educational theater, and start my own company.”

Sorling, who appeared in “Julius Caesar” last year, appreciates the chance to bring live Shakespeare to students who otherwise wouldn’t have it. “I talk to these kids, and when I ask them what they do for fun, it’s just ‘go out to eat’ and ‘go to Walmart,’” he said. “The chance to bring a thought-provoking experience to them … It can be so inspiring.”

Starting next year, JSU will play a bigger role in the Shakespeare Project, as the organization’s two principals have taken new jobs out of state.

Emily Duncan, who co-founded the project while she was working at the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, is now a development associate at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. She will, however, continue as executive director of the Shakespeare Project.

Co-founder Carrie Colton, who has been teaching drama at JSU, is starting a new job in a couple of weeks as a professor of theater at Metro State University of Denver in Colorado. She will continue as artistic director of the Shakespeare Project.

Starting next year, the Shakespeare Project will be funded by the JSU Foundation and will involve more JSU students. This year, JSU art students designed the logo and poster for the play. JSU student Shauna Steward is stage manager, and JSU student Kendrick Sean Golson is playing Malcolm, Duncan’s son. “It has truly become a project for students to work on and get professional experience for their resumes,” Duncan said.

Performance dates will also be moving from August to January. “It’s really chaotic for us to do this at the beginning of the school year,” Duncan said. The next Shakespeare Project production will be in January 2021.

Once again, teachers will vote to choose the play. “We have our fingers crossed for a comedy,” Duncan said.

Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or ldavis@annistonstar.com.

Features Editor Lisa Davis: 256-235-3555.

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