October 27, 2008
Tempest #7 — Where Do We Start?

[Next posting Monday, Nov. 10; I’m not going to be in any shape to write anything the day before the election.]

Had a good meeting this past week to rebudget, plan further fundraising, and schedule the first workshops beginning Nov. 15. Finished reading Cymbeline and Hamlet, plus writing an outline for staging 3:3.

Meantime, we continue building & costuming the puppets for January’s Rash Acts. For your visual enjoyment, here are some of the puppets for one of the show’s five sketches, “Alice in Wonder,” which has nothing whatever to do with The Tempest except, well, yes maybe it does.
We tell it via an adult woman who finds her Alice doll as she’s packing to move; and as with our concept of Prospero, she makes her underground journey through manipulation of this doll, encountering the other puppet characters. How does this surreal dream world impact on the living person? And what’s her relation to her “baggage,” the flotsam and jetsam that’s sloshed up on her little transitory island of isolation?
So back to The Tempest. The invitations are going out to actors to be part of the workshops. Since I’ll be writing here about what happens in the workshops, it might be useful to post here what we’re telling the actors to expect. Here it is:

Thanks much for your interest in being part of the Tempest workshops. Here’s further information, and if you have more questions, call me at 707-824-4307 or email eye@independenteye.org.

We’ll meet twice monthly for 3-hour workshops intended to develop skills and experiment with concepts in preparation for our September ’09 staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Sonoma County Repertory.

Workshops will continue through May, so overall you’ll be expecting about thirteen sessions.

With some variations, each workshop will involve three elements: (1) work on voice and Shakespearean delivery; (2) puppetry and movement technique; (3) improvisational exploration of character and scenic dynamics in The Tempest.

I’ll be leading the workshops in collaboration with my partner Elizabeth Fuller. You can scan our dossiers here.

For these workshops, no money changes hands. Your involvement contributes to the concept and quality of the eventual production. In recompense, we feel you’ll gain skills as an artist. The work has specific application to puppetry and to Shakespeare, but its value extends well beyond those applications.

It’s expected that insofar as possible you attend every workshop and arrive promptly. There’ll likely be many time conflicts; absences are ok as long as (a) you let me know in advance and (b) they’re not frequent.

(And there’s no stigma whatever attached to your dropping out along the way, so long as you let me know.)

In January, we’ll cast actors for the September production, aiming for a cast of five. It’s not required that you commit to this, and obviously we can’t use everyone, but we do expect to cast entirely from the workshop. We hope that all participants will continue with the workshops through May.

We’ve used this type of pre-production work for many shows, to great effect. Our “improvisations,” unlike performance improv (Theatresports, etc.) are exploratory, focused solely on finding those moments, images, or character quirks that can illumine a scene. As a director, I do very detailed pre-planning, then use these workshops to shake up my notions to the max. My obligation is to make your creative work immensely valuable to the eventual feast.

Please read The Tempest even if you already know it fairly well. There won’t be a test, but I’ll be talking on the assumption that you’re familiar with it.

If at all possible, read through our web-log on The Tempest, begun seven weeks ago and continuing weekly throughout this span. It may give you a general sense of the direction we think we’re heading.

For the first session, think about experiences you’ve had in being betrayed or deeply wounded, in desiring or perpetrating revenge, or in finding your way to forgiveness. This is not a therapy session, so you’re perfectly free to withhold anything you don’t want to share with a bunch of people. But one segment of the workshop will involve exploring our personal linkages to Prospero’s condition: that’s where it all begins.

Wear loose-fitting clothing you can move in easily, footwear likewise that’s light and flexible. The floor is carpeted, so you could go barefoot, but feet can get cold on the floor. We have space heaters and a portable air conditioner in the studio, depending on the weather, but you might want to bring another layer of clothing in case it’s too chilly. We’ll offer tea and water.

Bring calendars so that you offer info about your time availability. Tentatively these will be on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, and it’s essential that we have it at regular times; but we’ll take a survey to see what’s actually most convenient for the greatest number of people.

The Tempest will premiere Sept. 11 or 18 at Sonoma County Rep and run five weeks. It will possibly be remounted for a school tour in the spring, and a DVD will be produced for general distribution. It’s a collaboration between The Rep and The Independent Eye, directed & designed by Conrad Bishop, music by Elizabeth Fuller, text by Shakespeare (with very slight editing).

We expect that people will see this as a radical revisioning of the play. But it’s not an adaptation, and it’s not concept slapped on over the text: to me it’s vital that every image & every interpretation be totally grounded in the text, intensifying the text.

As presently conceived (11 months out), the puppets are three-fourths life-size, with the actor’s real hand as the puppet’s hand, within a 12x8x8 ft. aluminum-frame cube creating Shakespeare’s magical island with the fluid vocabulary of puppetry, shadows, rear-projected video, and an original score of music and sampled audio.

Prospero is a human actor who also animates a puppet Prospero — his own alienated vision of himself, literalizing the inner struggle that’s the play’s central conflict. He’s a puppet master in absolute control, with a precise scenario to right the world. Yet he’s no benign, avuncular presence: his antagonist is himself, and the tempest he’s raised rages within him — a near-mad, deeply wounded victim who struggles to keep his rationality, to reject vengeance and choose life.
Shakespeare’s story addresses themes of power, imperialism, culture clash, torture, enslavement. It embraces forgiveness, redemption, freedom. For me, it speaks to the heart of our world today.

All workshops are at The Independent Eye’s studio, 502 Pleasant Hill Road, 1.25 miles from the center of Sebastopol. Directions are below. Please note the information on parking.

Next time, more about staging and characters.
Conrad B.

October 20, 2008
Tempest #6 — My Egret

[Next posting: Monday, Oct. 27]
This week starting intense work on Rash Acts, a collection of puppet sketches for January, becoming more surreal with every trip to the studio. Tempest work has been confined to a bit more work on the scenario, finishing Act 3, Scene 1, and a fair bit of noodling via Google and YouTube, just scouring for serendipity.
Working too on a new control method for the puppet heads, starting to build some prototypes. Also a new attempt to cast papier mache in negative plaster molds, trying to get a lighter head but with great detail. it might actually almost work.

And reading Rodenburg’s Speaking Shakespeare, a very useful book by a highly regarded coach. An early chapter talks about “readiness” in the body — the actor’s and the character’s — an alertness with lack of extraneous tension that allows immediacy of physical and vocal response. That all seems obvious, yet very foreign to our own bodies’ readiness in daily life, where tension substitutes for attunement. She refers to Shakespeare’s world as dangerous and wondrous, each moment posing a threat to survival or a promise of reward, invoking those intense moments of our own lives that we’ll always remember, even on our deathbeds — those, she says, are the moments he write about.

That’s the danger of interpreting Shakespeare through the filter of our own lives. Not that it can’t be performed in modern dress or that we shouldn’t draw on our own experiences of the world in finding empathy with it, but that we can’t slouch through it, mumble it, play the subtext at the expense of the text, bring it down to what for us is “natural.”

On my morning walk last week, I passed a small acreage where they graze sheep, with a little stream running through it. A small white egret stood by the bank, and I stopped to watch. I was held by its beauty but more by its alertness. Dogs were barking in the distance; once in a while there’d be a passing car or a sheep bleat. It would hold perfectly still, once in a while cocking its head, then take one more step toward the stream.

It struck me suddenly that in gentle, laid-back, bucolic western Sonoma County, here’s a creature alive at every instant to the urgency of survival. Not all tensed up about it, but just utterly alert to the cat, hawk, dog, human or unknown god that might be lurking. The feral cats and raccoons living under our house are part of that world, as they scatter when the screen door opens and then creep back slowly to see what the humans have left. That’s the world, as Rodenburg says, that Shakespeare writes about. An immensely rich, beautiful, clownish, savage and sweet world that it’s our challenge to bring on stage.

In some ways, my egret suggests a model for Ariel. Imagine that creature caged, made a slave, and “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” takes on a profound meaning. At last it took an elegant step into the stream and began fishing for its dinner. Absolute stasis, then a sudden whip of the beak, and a gulp.

October 13, 2008
Tempest #5 — Why Puppets?

[Next posting: Monday, Oct. 20]

For me, every show should begin conceptually with questioning of its media. Why live actors? Why film? Why claymation? It’s fair to guess that Elizabethan acting style was much more fully expressive, both vocally and gesturally, than today’s realism-based performance; and these plays weren’t written for puppets. Producing a very text-heavy piece in a medium that’s predominantly visual is tricky. So why puppets? Thoughts are these:

* To express Prospero’s self-alienation in literal form, splitting the full-size human presence that’s his inner being from his puppet “action figure.”

* To capture the “dream” texture of the piece through the fluidity and the tight, focused concentration of visual image & audio texture, shrinking an epic action to the size of the inner mind’s eye. A frankly illusionistic theatre that doesn’t dissipate the illusion with physical scale.
* To harness puppetry’s capacity to make the human being “strange” in Brecht’s sense of causing us to see the commonplace with new eyes. The puppet’s life is based on surprise, the shock of seeing an inert thing suddenly come alive and even the most casual gesture feeling, somehow, remarkable.
* To allow a more organic gestural life for the spoken text. With our Macbeth, the visceral dynamic of our puppets (large heads on short rods, the actor’s other hand serving as the puppet’s hand) allowed a gestural style much broader — and for me much more organic to Shakespeare’s text — than what would be acceptable with live actors in a conventional staging.

* To eliminate the artificiality of equating actor with character. Absolute focus on the character as ”created” by the story.

* Shakespeare’s magic. The puppet can fly, transform, change heads, disassemble, plunge suddenly into a metaphoric image (e.g. the human Prospero suddenly grasping the puppet Ferdinand’s head to render him helpless or Ariel leading the clowns through a swamp of enveloping black plastic). In the world of puppetry, there ”are” literally higher powers.

* Shakespeare’s realism. These characters have concrete faces. Without radical adaptation you can’t do an abstract Tempest. The scenes are reality-based, and a Gonzalo needs to look like Gonzalo. I can answer this challenge (with a budget for five actors in a region with a limited talent pool) only by literally “casting” my characters.

* And because I want to.


Watched Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. Extraordinarily imaginative & boring film, unique in having no dramatic progression whatever but remarkable for its imagistic extravagance and Gielgud’s presence. Fascinated with the moments of fluttering pages, cutaways to the magical books, inscribing Shakespeare’s text in beautiful calligraphy. And last week saw a FoolsFury production with a set background of huge paintings and a paint-spattered floor. These experiences reinforced a concept for our visual setting.

My strictures are these: 1) We want to use our aluminum tubing cube, 10 ft. x 8 ft. x 8 ft, with all lighting instruments attached; easily tourable; large enough to allow a scope, yet concentrating the action into a tight visual field. 2) We want to use moving rear projections to coordinate with music in the transformative feel of the island. 3) We need places from which the puppets can emerge. 4) We need a place where the human-size Prospero is separate from the action he induces.
So I’m thinking about a field of tattered, weathered canvas, suggesting the sails of ships. Squares glued on larger swathes, different shades, but all white to cream to tan, and with fragmented phrases of text from the play inscribed. Canvas twisted around some of the aluminum pipes. Rear projection screen center with irregular shape, sometimes open, sometimes covered by canvas on a track. The feel of a fragmented, wastepaper island out of which different realities are conjured: to one it’s a jungle, to another barren rock. It catches a frontal shadow-play of the moving puppets that complements the shifting projections. And it’s an island constructed of that most powerful human agent of magic: words.

First rough sketch. I’ll probably go from here to a larger watercolor, then to a model. But that’s all dependent on the evolution of the character dynamics evolving scene-by-scene as the workshops proceed.
And then there’s this. On my birthday, Oct. 8th, I had an appointment for a colonoscopy, had the delight of finding that I have a very healthy gut. My doc was kind enough to gift me also with six cute little photos of my innards — which is “me” as truly as any of my head-shots.
No, I don’t see this as a viable setting for The Tempest, but there’s something about it that connects. Maybe remembering my first shock at seeing Lennart Nilsson’s stunning photos of the body’s inner landscapes. Something about that tunnel vision, the foreignness of what’s inside us, that’s akin to Prospero’s inner journey. Reflected somehow in the projections? We’ll see.
–Conrad Bishop

October 6, 2008
Tempest #4 — Money & Fools

[Next posting: Monday, 10/13]

First, Money. ”In Tempest #1” I mentioned that this project was provoked by a grant opportunity. Opened the mail this past Thursday: we didn’t get the grant. So how, pray tell, do we go ahead without the $40 grand?
Well, we do.

Money may seem an odd subject for a log of unbridled creativity. But even Shakespeare’s only extant signatures are on papers related to his will, lawsuits and deeds. No matter your artistry, you think a lot about money unless you’ve got a lot of it. It’s as much your creative “material” as your actors, your paintbrush, or your papier mache. You need to eat & fix your teeth & pay the mortgage, just like the barber my mother once advised me to be.

What’s freaky about the artist, maybe, is that once the vision has snagged you, like the trout taking the fly, you can’t let go. You fall in love with that barbed hook in your jaw even if it lacks a worm. A jollier metaphor might be the monk in the arms of the succubus — damned to hell, but lotsa fun along the way.

So we go forward. We look for more bucks, we rebudget, we get back to serious attention to our addiction. And the same day as the rejection, there’s an unsolicited $900 gift in the mail.

Now, Fools–

Reading and thinking a lot about Trinculo. He’s one of a small clutch of Shakespeare’s court fools, those who actually make a living in service to nobility. Historically, that profession extended from ancient times through the Renaissance, dying out in England by 1660, on the Continent a bit later. In Shakespeare’s time, there was a distinction between the “artificial” fool and the “natural.” The former was the professional entertainer, perhaps combining skills as singer, comic, juggler, etc. The natural was retarded, mentally ill or deformed, sometimes a dwarf, who served the various functions of a pet: affection, display, social diversion or abuse, depending on the owner’s mood. Many gradations, of course: the artificial fool might be a bit bonkers, like many present-day comics; or the natural might be trained in performing skills.

Where does Trinculo fit? He’s been called the least interesting of Shakespeare’s court fools, lacking the wit of Touchstone, the lyricism of Feste, the dark bite of Lear’s Fool. So what is interesting about him?
I’m seeing him as a dwarf, not very bright though he’s learned a few skills. To his superiors he’s an object of sport, the ill-tempered, abused clown. A fool who fits the Naples Court.
And in context of the “comedy team” with the stuffed-shirt egotist Stephano, he’s Stan Laurel without the sweetness. Stephano is the King’s butler, the servant in charge of the wine cellar, and seems to have scant respect — the King refers to him as “my drunken butler..” But like Malvolio, he has higher aspirations; and the bedrock of his friendship with Trinculo is self-aggrandizement: Trinculo will take his abuse and still look up to him. Stephano’s behavior echoes the nobility.
To Trinculo, Caliban is a threat to his status in the team. Caliban wants in, and he’s a better-trained slave, willing to abase himself to the point of kissing his master’s shoe. Trinculo, deformed himself, exults in calling Caliban “monster” and fantasies beating him. So the “liberation movement” forms: a drunken egomaniac, a quarreling underclass, and a battle-cry of “Freedom!”

In our first glimpse of Trinculo and Stephano, they’re simply ”commedia dell’arte” clowns. But as Caliban comes into the mix, the comedy shifts to a darker tone, a pathetic sourness that’s antithetical to ”commedia.” No less comic, but more akin to Jack Cade’s rebellion in Henry VI or the rioting plebes in Julius Caesar — absurd yet murderous, a grotesque replication of the Alonso/Antonio/Sebastian trio and the power structures of the outer world.

A friend once said that every revolution had resulted in something worse. One might argue, true, but there’s no question that, to ears hearing the echoes of the 20th Century and celebrating their birthday this week, the trio’s song of freedom does not inspire hope.
–Conrad Bishop

October 1, 2008
Tempest #3 – On Vacation

Two weeks visiting daughter & friends in Europe, taking along the Tempest sketchbook, text, and laptop. I imagine a similarity of pre-production to pregnancy: that singular fact defines everything you touch and see.

Monday, 9/15 — PERIOD
The day before leaving. At the library sketching Elizabethan/Jacobean costume. This feels right for the basis, though with Elizabethan freedom of anachronism. Something about those stiff power suits. The dawn of Imperial Europe, when Medieval wonder segues into science, that magical channel to true power. I’m fascinated with the multifarious Elizabethan hats.
Wednesday, 9/17 — PREP
Landed in Paris, train to Milan, then Firenze, late into Pisa. Finished scenario for 2:1 Alonso scene just before my laptop battery dies.

Over the years, I’ve prepared for directing a show in different ways. Early on, it was explicit blocking diagrams and notes on business. Gradually I pulled away from that and began to trust the immediacy of the actors — allowing the piece to be a pregnancy made in the moment.

Strangely, with puppetry, I’m going back to that early detail, with scenario, story-board, the urge for a whole production generated before the first rehearsal. Is that from sheer terror? Not quite, because I know the first workshop will change the whole dynamic, like the first variant move in a chess gambit.
For all its rewards, the danger of “ensemble process” is its temptation toward chaos. Too many great ideas that don’t cohere. Or else an inner coherence known only to the ensemble, who’ve discussed it endlessly. And thus is born the show of fabulous images, vibrant energy, no human relevance.

Once I’ve got the skeleton, there’s still plenty of work to do on the beast. So this early work is a road map; it’s not the journey. We still need to scour the cathedral till it yields us its secrets, its sacred mummified parts of saints.
Friday, 9/19 — CHANGE
In Firenze. Video exhibit at art museum. Slow-moving cross-fades of water forms in blues & greens. For Tempest possibly a slow transition of projections, no image ever static or permanent — all is change. Seaweed forms? Often, Tempest productions forget the constant presence of the sea and its tranformational “sea change” urgency.
Saturday, 9/20 — FERDINAND
In Firenze at Bargello. Sketch of Ferdinand from a bust by Donatello, and finding Miranda’s nose in about a dozen Madonnas. Jo calls it “a Florentine nose.”

Monday, 9/22 — CLOWN FEET
Wandering in Pisa. Scenario of 2:3 clown scene. Problem of doing physical comic lazzo involving feet with puppets that have no feet. Tentative solution. Hope to get a better idea.

Wednesday, 9/24 — KANTOR’S PRESENCE
Visiting our theatre friends in Zurich (Kammertheater Stok), we saw an exhibit of the artwork and theatre videos of Tadeucz Kantor, the renowned Polish director of The Dead Class and Wielepole Wielepole. Brilliant work, well worth an exhausting afternoon of seeing the films of four pieces.

And useful in relation to The Tempest. Kantor is always present on stage, watching the performance, beating time or giving small finger directions to the actors. Occasionally intervening to lead an actor offstage or to flex the limb of a recumbent body. He’s engaged but distanced, and in a rhythm utterly alien to the intensity and stress of the dramatic action. Even in the most emotional moments, he’s the dispassionate controller.

This is Prospero’s fantasy. He is the regisseur who has defined every gesture, pre-edited every take, eliciting the most extreme emotion from those enacting his inner tempest. But Kantor maintains his control. For Prospero, it’s more difficult.
Friday, 9/26 — MORE CALIBAN
At cafe in Belle Isle, island on the south coast of Brittany. My Caliban sketch turns out in contemporary costume. Elizabeth questions the anachronism — will it occur elsewhere or stick out like a sore thumb? Legit issue, but I’m attracted to something that emphasizes Caliban’s singularity. Costuming him as a fish, an Indian or an African goes in that direction, but all those are wrong for me. The lone child of an exile. What conveys that loss of soul?

Saturday, 9/27 — WEDDING MASQUE
Walked along coast of the island, four solid hours of climbing. Amid extraordinary variety of plant life, thinking about the wedding masque, the nature of the goddesses, etc. It needs to be very beautiful. Possibly in shadow. Photograph leaf shapes, render into high contrast, see what faces and hands emerge. Question continues to bedevil: why does Prospero interrupt the masque? The reason he gives just doesn’t make sense.

Sunday, 9/28 — EXHAUSTION
Starting out mid-morning on another coast walk, I feel a sudden exhaustion. We find a beach and spend the day pleasantly baking. I’m thinking about charting Prospero’s process of high energy and exhaustion. Most productions with an active hero pay no attention to this: he’s assumed to face challenges but never his own fatigue or despair. Willy Loman, definitely. Hamlet, yes, it’s in the text, but actors seem to hit every monolog with high energy, as if auditioning for their next role. Is this relevant to Prospero?
Tuesday, Sept. 30 — HOME AGAIN
Return flight in aeronautical sardine tin. Finished a sketch of the banquet scene, with trick table, Ariel as a multi-clawed harpy. Elizabeth suggests much changing of scale in the play. Good idea, but I’m wary of doing too much. The play is built on Classical unities, needs to stay coherent. Full of magical transformation, yes, but never loses its grounding in reality. And yet I deeply mistrust my own conservatism.

[Next Web posting: October 6]