When the pandemic canceled Shakespeare in the Park, Hudson Reed Ensemble made a ‘Macbeth’ film

Old theater lore holds that Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is cursed, that its name should not be spoken in a playhouse so as not to bring on disaster, but for the Hudson Reed Ensemble’s long-planned, long-delayed production of the tragedy, the curse appears to be broken.

The scrappy local theater company, led by Aspen theater veteran and Theatre Aspen founder Kent Reed, this weekend is releasing online a film version of the truncated “Macbeth” it had planned for the 2020 Shakespeare in the Park series in Basalt.

All Reed had to do was learn how to direct, produce and edit a movie. “Double, double toil and trouble” indeed.

“It was a great fun project for us, but a steep learning curve,” Reed said. “We’d never done anything like making a film before.”

Shot in lush 4K black-and-white, the film stars local theater vet Lee Sullivan as the power-hungry Macbeth, Morgan Walsh as his bloodthirsty wife Lady Macbeth and Graham Northrup as the ill-fated Banquo.

Other familiar faces who pop up include Franz Alderfer as Macduff and Chris Wheatley as the porter, while a trio of teens — Meredith Castor, Talulah Marolt and Paige Northrup — play the evil witches whose prophesy sets the play’s action in motion.

The film is free to view on the Hudson Reed website, but the company is encouraging donations to help the nonprofit recuperate the roughly $15,000 spent on the film and to help the company return for Shakespeare in the Park 2021.

In the Hudson Reed tradition, it’s a truncated and palatable adaptation, clocking in under an hour, with the plot mostly intact and all of the iconic speeches included.

In all, Reed and crew shot about 25 hours of digital footage. He and Northrup worked on editing it into shape.

Plans for Hudson Reed staging “Macbeth” go back to 2017, Reed explained.

“Every summer we were going to do it something else happened,” Reed said. “So it was several years of thinking about it.”

The company was planning to produce it at its beloved and free summer series in Aspen, staged since 2005 on Galena Plaza. But venue availability and lost practice space due to city construction projects led the nonprofit to cancel its 2018 production entirely.

Shakespeare in the Park moved to Basalt for its 2019 season, producing a crowd-pleasing selection of scenes from the plays — rather than the bloody drama of “Macbeth” — as its introduction to the community.

Summer 2020 was to finally be the year of “Macbeth” for the company. Reed had made his edits to the text and done his staging and blocking by spring. But COVID-19 scuttled plans for any in-person performances.

Reed made the decision to make the movie in April and then in July he started rolling the cameras with his small cast and learning on the fly.

“We began to see the writing on the wall that we’d be shut down,” he said. “I saw there was no way we’d be able to perform live, even outdoors. So the only solution to keep Shakespeare in the Park relevant was to make a film.”

They filmed largely along the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, scouting for fields and rustic scenes where they could keep contemporary life — cars, roads, homes — out of the frame and keep it in its 11th century setting (editing out the sounds of cars or highway traffic, Reed found, was a more complicated task).

The dramatic lighting of the film came from shooting only in the “magic hour” of late afternoons and evenings before sunset. Two months into shooting, the sun setting earlier and earlier as autumn began, Reed and crew sprinted to get their daily shots in.

Along with learning new technical skills on the job, Reed helped his cast learn to act for film rather than for the stage. He makes use of some intense close-up shots, for which actors had to calibrate their bigger stage habits.

“At first I had to keep saying, ‘Hey, calm down here! The camera is right in your nostril!'” Reed recalled with a laugh.

Releasing the film is a proud moment for Reed and his company, following several years of ups and downs.

“Leaving Aspen has been a dark period for me,” Reed said, noting he has lived in the valley since 1975 and produced theater in Aspen since 1983 before the move downnvalley to Basalt. “Starting all over again in Basalt was a big haul. We had a great opening season in Basalt, but then COVID hit.”

Making the film was a creative rebirth, he said, and — given the uncertainty of live events in 2021 — opens the possibility for more Hudson Reed films to come.

“For our theater company and for me, it opened up a whole new world creatively,” Reed said. “It’s a new realm for us.”