A York actor is taking centre stage in a groundbreaking production of one of Shakespeare’s most revered plays.
Ashleigh Wilder stars in a staging of Macbeth that is pioneering new storytelling techniques to ensure everyone can understand and fully immerse themselves in one of the greatest dramas ever written.
Ashleigh, 28, grew up in Bradford before moving to York about seven years ago when they did their degree at York St John University, before completing a MSC at the University of York.
York audiences saw Ashleigh perform their poetry as part of York Theatre Royal’s Love Bites last year. And now they are about to make their professional stage debut in Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse.
Directed by Amy Leach, the whole production will be accessible to blind and visually impaired audiences.
Audio description will be built into the play as a creative layer for every performance rather than something that is only heard through headphones for one or two performances.
And that should help every theatregoer follow the action – even if they have previously struggled to understand Shakespeare.
YorkMix spoke to Ashleigh to find out more.
Q&A with Ashleigh Wilder
What can audiences expect from this version of Macbeth?
I think, first of all, a story that makes sense.
One thing that struck me was how vast the cast is and how we’d see characters like soldiers come in to deliver an important bit of information and then we’d never see them again. What Amy (Leach) has done is amazing – pulling together a cast that makes sense and a story that is followable and accessible. Not just to blind and visually impaired audiences but also to your average person who might struggle with Shakespeare anyway.
Because we have deaf actors in the show as well, everything has to make sense visually – it’s not like we’re going to pretend that they’re hearing. Similarly, because we’ve got blind cast members, the audio component has to be equally as clear – otherwise there’s really no point to it.
What is your role in the show?
My main role is a witch – I am Witch #2. It’s this band of traditionally three sisters but we’ve been exploring gender, partially because I’m non-binary. We’re aiming for a seamless kind of unity, and I feel like my character as an individual has to be informed by that because these are three people who live with each other, but also function with each other.
So, I’m one witch and then Charlie (Arrowsmith) is another witch who is deaf and then Karina (Jones) is the other witch who is blind. And these are blind and deaf actors – it’s not just something we’re putting on for a more interesting show. Working out communication between the three of us – it’s blown me away like what we can do with that.
What has the rehearsal process been like?
For us witches, in our first session we had to explore the room together. Because when you’re audio describing for a blind or visually impaired person, you may not go into as much detail as you would because you’re in a room and you’re there to work. But what a sighted person can take in is the texture of the walls, and the lights and what colour the chairs are.
I’m also autistic, and for me I take a great pleasure in knowing the textures of things. And finding the ways we all overlap in our experiences.
I know a bit of sign language, so Karina saying things and Charlie asking what she’s saying and then me signing it to the best of my ability – we’re all kind of moving seamlessly. There’s this really strong bond of unity between the witches – it’s just amazing.
You’ve been working on the live creative audio description. What does that mean?
Generally speaking when a piece of media is audio described, what is handed out is plastic headsets which will tell you the very basics of what is happening visually. So in Macbeth, a blind or visually impaired audience might get a headset that said ‘the king looks worried’ – and it’s so boring.
We are integrating it creatively. Which means, instead of being sat there with a headset, all the information that you need to know will be there for you already within the scenes of the play. For example, in rehearsals of big scenes it might be very slight script alterations – so like if we see the king it might be saying ‘God save the King’. How you can quickly establish who is there and why they’re there and let the story unfold from that more equitable lens.
I love poetry and I love Shakespeare, so finding ways to do that without taking away the feel or the tone – I think it’s so exciting.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’d never been to Leeds Playhouse before this experience, despite living in Bradford. But seeing the stage, the Quarry Theatre, where we’ll be at – it’s so big. It’s going to be electric. Every day is going to be something slightly different.
I’m particularly excited about all the schools coming because I’d have loved to have something like this when I was in secondary school.
Anything else to add?
I think the children and the community and the creative engagement of it is so important. I grew up in Bradford, and I’d take the occasional trips to the Alhambra to see a pantomime but I’d never seen a fully staged thing like this until we went down to London on one-off school trips. Never did I realise that the theatres themselves, not just the shows, could be for us in the community.
Theatres as institutions are changing from being these old-school institutions to places that serve the communities they’re in – I think it’s very important.
Macbeth is at Leeds Playhouse from Saturday 26 February to Saturday 19 March 2022.
For more information and to book your tickets for Macbeth, visit the Leeds Playhouse website. Tickets start from £14.