September 14, 2008
Tempest #2 – Caliban & Other Guys

[Next post Oct. 2: on actual vacation for two weeks!]
I’m sculpting puppets for Rash Acts in January while thinking about The Tempest for September, behind schedule on both. Laminating papier mache on the head of the Cheshire Cat, puzzling over Ariel and Caliban.

Ariel is elemental, a force of nature, transformative. Held in check and controlled, he’s the energy of fire, explosions, or splitting the atom. And as dangerous. Action delights him. He could happily set Prospero afire and joy in the dancing flames. Mankind harnesses and controls the natural elements, colonizes them, crafts a civilization based on their enslaved but lethal power that’s always crying “Set me free!” Prospero as the nuclear engineer.
Paradox that Prospero forces Miranda to visit Caliban but never allows her to see Ariel. The secret knowledge that allows him to contain this force is damnable — black magic akin to necromancy, which he later confesses — unfit for his daughter’s knowing, though her life depends on it.
This slant on Ariel gives stronger life to his scenes with Prospero, I believe — a servant whose merest touch could kill his master. Not malign, simply ”other,” an alien intelligence. That’s why it’s so astonishing when Ariel confesses empathy.
Apparent contradiction here. Prospero describes Ariel as “a spirit too delicate to act her earthy and abhorred commands.” How does this mesh with my concept of Ariel’s nature?
Caliban. He’s mortal. He’s deformed in some way. He’s human — I see nothing interesting in making him half-alligator. Nor in making him African, Mestizo, or Indian — for me that popular gloss adds a narrative that simply flattens the play and the historic complexities of the colonial experiences it references.
For me, the compelling fact of Caliban is his isolation. His mother is the refugee, the émigré. He’s born into an alien landscape that’s alternately embracing and terrifying. His exiled mother dies in his childhood. At the age of twelve, strangers appear: a father and an infant, magical beings, his salvation, his never-known family. He’s not seeking freedom or dominion: he’s seeking connection, family.

The teenage Caliban and the child Miranda are each other’s only playmates. Prospero tutors his daughter, and the tiny girl tutors her “big brother.” Then Miranda becomes adolescent; Caliban is 27 and without a mate. What must happen, happens: a clumsy attempt at sex. Prospero is horrified and enraged, and at that point the tortures and enslavement begin.
And, I believe, when Caliban says, “Thou didst prevent me,” he’s referring to having been castrated. That would be perfectly in character for an Italian duke and outraged father of an adolescent girl, and what else would assure Miranda’s safety? And when he conspires with Stephano and Trinculo to overthrow Prospero, he holds out no prospect of having Miranda himself: he offers her to Stephano. For Caliban, there’s no hope of freedom or restoration, only for being part of a less oppressive regime and finding a semblance of kinship.
Much more thinking required.
Visit to Larry Reed of ShadowLight, talking about his several productions of [[The Tempest]] based in Balinese shadow & music traditions. Saw several of his videos, one with students, one with professionally trained Balinese performers, both using large shadows of the masked live performers. Both interesting, but the vast difference was in the actors’ whole relationship to gesture and spine. For the Balinese, the physical style was totally organic to the mask, very spare but fully expressed. For the acting students, they’d clearly been coached to go beyond realistic conversational gesture, but still vast disconnect between the body and the head. The source of gesture, its linkage with the word, its connection with spine — this is the huge challenge we must face.

I need to learn to sketch better. Maybe practice by copying my son’s skilled cartooning, capturing only the essential lines of expression. Still need to find the character in the clay, but sketches can be a shortcut.

Larry Reed: The key line in the play is Prospero, speaking of Caliban, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” Caliban and the entire cast of characters as aspects of Prospero’s dream, c.f. Gestalt psychology. So also, then, the whole visual/aural field of action: the island. What is the experience of that island? Shifting, constantly transformative. Utterly alien, enclosing, comforting, generous, deadly, psychotic, beatific — the backwater of every human passion, achievement, crime and blessing.

On the way to SF on the bus, I read Eileen Blumenthal’s review of the Perth UNIMA Festival, describing a painter/puppeteer drawing huge swaths & smears on his canvas as the story proceeds. This is the sense of The Tempest‘s environment-in-process. Could I do this with rear projection, with the action of the drawing itself as part of the experience? How to do this technically?

More soon.
–Conrad Bishop

September 8, 2008
The Tempest – #1

This is the first installment of a weekly journal to span the next thirteen months. It’s to chronicle the creation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a live theatrical animation, with puppets, masks, music, live actors and digital media, premiering September 2009.

I hope, by submitting to the turgid discipline of writing prose — I’m a playwright, dammit, and hate writing full sentences — to offer something that may be useful to other artists involved in ensemble creation, to give friends a engaging backstage tour, and to force myself to take a deep breath once a week, Sundays or thereabouts, to reflect on what we’re doing, where we are, and where we need to go.

I very much welcome response, questions, all that.
So how did it start?

January ’08. Jennifer at Sonoma County Rep, our downtown corner theatre, emails me. She’s making a grant application for their “Rep on Tour” school tour, considering a condensed version of The Tempest. Would I like to do the script adaptation? Well, one always wants to be wanted, needs to be needed, and money’s always tight, and it’s far in the future. So I say sure, though I’ve never been that much interested in Tempest, and I’ve never seen a good production of it, and what’s an “adaptation” of Shakespeare, anyway? — but I bite.

Then I read the play, for possibly the fifth time in my life. And maybe it’s having had an utterly magical experience with staging The Winter’s Tale back in Pennsylvania, or my own proclivity toward Prospero’s bitterness, or just being a certain age, but I finish Act 5 at the end of my daily mile-and-a-quarter walk downtown to have my morning muffin at Sebastopol Cookie Company, and I’m weeping into my de-caf.
We email back and forth, and the project dies. Uncertainties about the grant guidelines, and a tight deadline, so let’s wait’n’see.
Mid-February: In midst of a 24/7 work schedule, five months straight, on our puppet staging Descent of the Goddess Inanna, I keep thinking about The Tempest. Another grant opportunity comes up, and I’m thinking about calling the Rep to propose that we apply jointly … when the Rep calls me about the same damn thing.

Back and forth, and a project evolves. We’ll do a full-scale production as part of the Rep’s Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival, a condensed touring version for schools, and a DVD. I’ll direct and design, Elizabeth will do music, and we’ll develop it over a year with our Mythic Kitchen ensemble and actors from Sonoma County Rep’s evolving cadre of artists.

Some quick meetings, emails, and scrambles to attune my brain to something 18 months hence while opening a monstrous epic in four months — no, a month — no, next Friday — while writing the grant application: Describe the project. Describe the company. Reasons for collaboration. Methods of collaboration. Timeline. Detailed budget. Personal artistic statement. Goals and evaluative method. Work sampler video, ten minutes max. Ten copies please. But we get it in the mail.

So we open Inanna, fabulous response, and slowly it becomes clear to me that I’m committed to The Tempest, no matter what. And Jennifer and Scott at the Rep seem to share the sense that the noble thoughts we expressed in the application — its importance to both our companies, to the community and to human history — well, we really believe the stuff we wrote.

So right now it’s the end of August, 13 months from opening. The show is scheduled on the Rep’s season. I’ve read the play many times. I’m into Act 3 studying Variorum notes, including two fine-print pages of scholars debating the meaning of the word “scamels” and twelve pages glossing the phrase “Most busy lest, when I do it.” For me, production research is a bit like beach-combing: you sift through a vast seacoast of pebbles, shells, seaweed, and start wondering “Why the hell am I doing this?” And then suddenly, something glitters.
And I’m sketching character ideas and an action storyboard, researching centuries of past productions, bouncing ideas off Elizabeth. Until I started to research, I wasn’t really aware of the vast range of interpretation: Prospero as colonialist, as power-mad psychotic, as the all-controlling stage director of a dream, or as Shakespeare’s alter ego, making a farewell to the stage. In the productions I’ve seen, Prospero’s a benevolent Father Christmas doling out rewards and punishments with an avuncular smile or a cranky Ed Sullivan hosting a variety show. But all present the same problem. Is there actually a dramatic conflict here?

How can you have conflict when your protagonist has absolute power? Shakespeare is pushing the bounds of his skill, doing something that hasn’t been done before: to put the central conflict entirely within the mind of the protagonist. Of course, countless characters, from Henry VI to Hamlet, are at odds with themselves, and their inner turmoil feeds into external hubbub. But who else has Ariel — gifted with the powers of the CIA, James Bond, and Yoda — to quick-freeze all possible opposition?

For us, Prospero is the absolute puppet-master, with his own well-crafted scenario to right all wrongs. But he’s no benign, avuncular presence: his antagonist is himself, and the tempest he’s raised rages within him with all the powers at his hand. It’s the struggle of a man to be free of the bitterness of injustice — the overwhelming baggage of the past. A near-mad, deeply wounded victim who attains power, struggling to keep his rationality, to reject vengeance and choose life. The text supports that, I believe, as will the puppetry style.

And it’s a story we have great need to believe in. Is it true? Well, I’m grasping for a visionary theatre within the rubble of reality. Maybe inspired by Aristophanes’ bizarre synthesis of the blackest view of human absurdity with fantasy happy-endings that, while ironic to the core, still point toward that impossible possibility of peace & joy.
More next week. Back to work.