Monthly Archives: January 2009
A follow-up from last week’s workshop, this time posting a video selection from character interviews with three Calibans. While the dialogue content is possibly useful in offering glosses and tonalities to the Shakespearean text, I find the actors’ physicality extremely evocative: how they think, how they hide, the body and the face the thoughts emerge from. The characters obviously appear very different from one another, but they can also be seen as different aspects of a single character. I could certainly see David’s rage and anguish, Danny’s guarded recessiveness and confusion, and Elizabeth’s flashes of cunning and longing all as aspects of our puppet Caliban.
I was struck by several elements:
* Caliban’s capacity for astonishment, as when in the video David is dumbstruck at the thought of seeing himself objectively. In the play, he parallels Miranda in this respect, discovering a new world and its potentials.
* As with Miranda, memory of the sexual attempt and its ensuing punishment is a deeply unhealed wound, a radical shift in the worlds of both.
* The yearning for freedom pervades the play: Caliban and Ariel from their enslavement, Prospero from his victimhood, Miranda from her isolation and dependency, Ferdinand from his grief, the nobility from their guilt-spurred hunger, the flunkies from their flunkeydom, the living island from its intruders, and everyone from the throes of the Tempest itself.
And this exploration throws me into renewed wrestling with the knottiest issue in The Tempest: how does it end? It’s clear, though bittersweet, for Prospero. it’s clear for Miranda & Ferdinand, and the others more or less fall into place, with Antonio stifled but clearly checkmated. Yet for the most compelling character, Caliban, it all trails off. Prospero’s “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” could be glossed as deeply metaphoric or simply as taking responsibility for his own slave’s actions. At the end, Prospero simply orders him to tidy up the study if he hopes for forgiveness, and Caliban vows to “seek for grace.”
Do they all sail off without Caliban, leaving him as the free king of the isle, the spirit-ridden psychotic, or the lonely exile? Does Prospero take him back to Milan, as bastard son, court fool, or some retarded foster child to be kept back in the servants’ quarters of the palazzo? Shakespeare sweeps him under the rug and gets on to the end, but I don’t think the audience is satisfied with such a low-key non-conclusion. We needn’t know what happens outside the play: Malvolio’s future career isn’t spelled out, but his final “I’ll be reveng’d on you all!” makes a resounding final chord to his role. Somehow the role of Caliban must find its final note, and that note must crystallize its essence.
Sunday, we did another exploratory workshop, this time focusing on the first Caliban/Prospero/Miranda scene. Part of this involved “character interviews,” a technique we use a lot. One actor takes on the character, the rest interview him/her — no situation or objective, just a process of instinctive exploration that may go on from five minutes to an hour. Usually this is done in the process of writing new plays, but it’s adaptable to exploration of existing texts — not only as a means of deepening “backstory” but as a means of connecting the actor more viscerally to the character. And by doing this with multiple actors, you discover the many tonalities each individual face brings to it.
Inevitably, it brings up questions. Is such-and-such a response valid in relation to the text? Is this the most interesting premise? How do we resolve utter contradictions, or must we? What’s the difference in the view of key incidents in the play between that of the the literary analyst and of the character?
On Sunday we explored both Miranda and Caliban, with three actors embodying each. I’ll post a video of the Caliban interviews next week. We see them first encounter in Act 1 Scene 2, as Prospero brings along Miranda as he curses Caliban off to work. The crucial questions here: Why does he insist on Miranda’s presence here, much against her will? What in fact was the nature of Caliban’s seeking to “violate the honor” of Miranda? Does Miranda have feelings toward her father and toward Caliban that color what she expresses?
This video is a 9-minute condensation of a 20-minute interview. The actual Miranda will be embodied by a puppet; these actresses are simply exploring her soul.
Some ideas that emerged from this:
* Her own sense of guilt at the possible molestation, and sense of loss of a friendship that was preciosu to her.
* Her immense loneliness, and a longing for a mother.
* The terror of Prospero’s absolute power over her, yet great love. Is there an evolution in the play from this absolute dependency? In what ways does she embody the temperament of Prospero?
* Possibility that Prospero’s objective here is not to get firewood but to set up Miranda’s meeting with Ferdinand, making her deeply vulnerable emotionally by humiliating Caliban.
* Miranda’s explosive rant at Caliban is very much an echo of Prospero’s style, almost as if she’s speaking what he’s said many times. Editors have said it doesn’t sound like Miranda and have assigned it to Prospero, but that’s the whole point: she’s deeply conflicted about it and is internalizing Prospero’s condemnation.
That’s it for this week. Friday we open RASH ACTS, today packing four storage bins with puppets and starting to worry about over-population. And today listened to the Inauguration — first time in my life that I can remember seeing (and feeling) a surge of national pride and patriotism that wasn’t tied up in war-making or hollow chest-thumping. Feels good.
Peace & joy–
Short entries this week and next, as we’re coming up to the opening of Rash Acts, living it day and night. Life at this point becomes akin to ventricular fibrillation — look it up in Wikipedia, it’s as bad as it sounds.
But I’m still studying Spanish on morning walks, and reading two books relating to magic. The first is Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by I.P. Couliano, a studiously turgid but fascinating book about the philosophic tradition underlying the Renaissance understanding of magical practice. I’m interested not only in what the actual practices were in “literate” magic as opposed to folk magic, but also how magicians themselves viewed their goals and what resonances Prospero’s magical acts would have with a Jacobean audience. Some of that is fairly obvious, but Couliano’s book relates magic to a much broader philosophic spectrum, based heavily in spirit/body duality, which I think links to the strangely ambivalent role of eros in The Tempest.
The second is the very well written and researched Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley by Lawrence Sutin, about a man who was as dead-serious about his magic as Prospero and even more paradoxical. I’d hardly portray Prospero as an Italianate Crowley, but there are extraordinary psychological parallels in his will and obsessions. I’m interested in the experience of an individual utterly immersed, as Prospero is, in the exercise of occult powers, and while I’ve read a bit about John Dee and Robert Fludd — magicians contemporary with Shakespeare — Crowley’s relatively modern-day experience is much more accessible. I’ll write more on this as I forge through these books.
For The Tempest to work, we have to feel that Prospero is tapped deeply into a center of power. Shakespeare tells us little about this, but I think the figure of the mage was much more powerful — and fearful — on the Jacobean stage than at present, now watered down by four centuries of fiction, plays, rabbits from hats, sci fi and Disney. It’s the difference between seeing cowboys toting six-shooters in the movies and having a friend walk into your house with a pistol in hand.
If The Tempest is about Prospero’s coping with his own unbridled power and his struggle to steer this mighty force in the direction he wants it to go, then we have to sense the reality of that power, the demands it makes upon him. He calls to mind the revolutionary leader hard-pressed to control what he’s unleashed and to adhere to his ideals when the call is for blood. Or the scientists at the heart of the Manhattan Project, forcing their concentration of will to focus the unimaginable magical act that erupted over Hiroshima. That’s what he’s harnessing and trying to hold in harness.
What are Prospero’s actual rituals? Book knowledge is central to it, we know, involving alchemy, astrology and the vast literature of the Hermetic tradition. But no magician just reads a book and waves a wand. The heart of it in indeed analogous to the concentrated bombardment of electrons — the mage’s focus of will — that spurs nuclear fission. The techniques are diverse: trance, chant, exhaustion, pain, ordeal, bloodshed, sex acts, drugs, emotion-charged substances & symbols, song, dance, drums, fire, mandalas, mudras. What has he done to enslave spirits, make the dead walk, and raise a tempest?
We do need to work out the particulars and at least suggest them on stage. But the core of it, I think, is that the evolution of the mage is always through a life passage, an initiation. Like Paul’s seizure on the road to Damascus, it’s a rebirth, and you’re never the same again. There’s a gain, but also a terrible loss of ego in order to forge a will.
I think the first shock came with the loss of Prospero’s wife in childbirth, which plunged him into magical studies just as Victor Frankenstein was shocked by human mortality with the death of his mother. In the ensuing three years he gave up all interest in governing, and his brother lost no time in asserting power. Miranda was three at the time of the coup, and I feel the leaky-boat journey was the ordeal wherein the raw initiate became a master. Like Jesus’ three days in hell before resurrection, Prospero came ashore in the island with the powers of a god.
That’s all fantasy, with a few scant bits of text to support it, but it seems to me consistent within itself and with the text. And so, for now, we’ll go with that. The greater question is in the play itself, in his capacity, by the end, to give it all up, to achieve rebirth back into his old form. But that’s powerful to us only if it’s as profound a journey as his journey into magic was to start with.
That’s it for this week.
Peace & joy–
A productive workshop Sunday. Eight actors in our chilly studio amid the debris of Rash Acts, opening in a bit less than three weeks.
Warmup with actors in duos doing leaderless mirror exercise, vocalizing the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. A tendency to pull back from the vocalizing, but when it’s given full rein it informs the energy of the physical action, which reciprocally extends the voice into more radical expression. For this production, we need to get past the preconception that a full vocal expression is somehow fake or stagey; it depends entirely on whether or not the expression is grounded in intention and interaction.
We continued into a sound/movement exercise within the 8×10 ft. stage frame, first with the actors in groups of three, then with the actors carrying puppets — the puppet as an extension of the actor, his center of consciousness. It’s freeform movement with the simple direction that every impulse must come as a response from another’s starting or stopping, and exploring the gravitational dynamics between the actors and the empty space. It’s a bit like a time-lapse billiard game, and the intent is to build an instinct for finding organic unity, as if the whole stage were the window into a single dream. We add vocalization, and then direct the actors to be conscious of their stage as a picture-frame, with the puppets aware of the special energy of frontality, as if the front were toward the sunlight, upstage toward the dark.
(Note: All the puppets pictured here are from old productions, used here for rehearsal but not as those we’ll actually use.)
My hope is that by the time we get to actually blocking out the movements, the actors can instinctively make responsive adjustments in relation to one another. We’re also expanding the puppets’ movement vocabulary, allowing them to swoop, to fly, to skate and dive. Shakespeare’s scenes must be based in real behavior, but in a way analogous to his use of the variants to iambic pentameter: we can make sudden swoops away from it into broad metaphoric extravagance, as long as we return home to the real.
Then we spent about an hour reading the first Prospero/Miranda scene. Irrespective of gender, we each, around the circle, read a line or two or three or four, whatever formed a coherent unit, with focus on a verbal paradox. On the one hand, the lines must be read so as to flow coherently, often through many convolutions, to a clear point. On the other hand, there’s a reason for line divisions: for sometimes landing squarely in iambic pentameter, other times hitting a stress on the first word of the line or ending on an unstressed word, even on a preposition. As a reference point, we used Peter Hall’s suggestion that there’s a pause at the end of each line — or maybe the better term is an impulse, a catch-breath, a micro-beat, a caesura or prolongation, something however small that makes the line division clear.
The point of this rather arbitrary notion is simply in what it can reveal. Suddenly, you become aware of the extra kick this may give to the start of the next line, or the change of timbre or inflection required to mark the end of the line and yet still preserve the flow of continuation.
And in the process we became fully aware of Prospero’s obsessive through-line of narrative, paradoxically jolted by his equally obsessive digressions. And the strong rhythmic linkages between the characters wrought by one’s response completing the other’s metric line. This is hardly a scene about a loquacious Prospero and an inattentive Miranda: both are keyed to the extreme.
In the final hour, we explored staging the scene. A dilemma: in puppet theatre, you’re carrying a puppet, so before you’ve memorized the lines how do you carry a script? Today we tried a new method. I rewrote the entire scene in eight lines:
-Father, stop the storm.
-They’re safe. I need to tell you now.
-I was Duke of Milan. My brother overthrew me. We escaped here.
-I shipwrecked the conspirators. Now sleep.
Shakespeare did it a lot better. Still, getting past the urge to burlesque it, this follows the frame of the scene. Again, we divided into duos, everyone allowed ten minutes to stage the scene, memorize the lines, and then present it.
It’s high pressure work, but unthreatening: no one expects a final product. We look at the work to see what seeds are there that might be nurtured. And we found a lot, sometimes images, sometimes questions. A few of these seeds:
* Have they both been looking at the tempest together? Has Miranda been forced to watch, as she’s forced into the company of Caliban?
* Her extreme shock at the sight. She’s not a weeping willow bemoaning the poor souls; she’s almost lightning-struck, with powerful, stark gestures.
* Prospero tries to soothe her with words, but never looks at her. He is always dominant, never speaking to her as a peer, but rather obsessed by his own memories and intended scenario.
* It’s in response to her trauma that he is moved to narrate his story. He knew it must happen but perpetually postponed it. Now he’s exhausted, and it’s the wrong time to tell it, but it must be told.
* When she first approaches him, he’s still in the last throes of his magical concentration. She’s horrified that she can’t seem to get his attention. When she collapses in despair, he finally becomes aware of her.
* They rarely touch, and when they do it’s charged with special meaning. As the father of an adolescent girl, hyper-aware of her sexuality, he would restrict himself rigidly. In this scene, perhaps not until the final moment, when he conjures her asleep.
* At the end of the scene, Prospero suddenly senses the imminent presence of Ariel and must therefore put Miranda to sleep: magic is not for her to see.
* The moment of putting her to sleep: he grasps her forehead, slowly lowers it into sleep. It’s a loving and tender gesture, but also creepy in its distance and dominance.
So we go forth.
This week, I put together a prototype of a new mode of puppet head that we’re likely to use for The Tempest, a papier mache casting that allows the whole fist to go into the head, with the puppeteer’s wrist serving as the character’s neck. It’s very light, and the head has exactly the same mobility as a real head on a neck. And also I’m in process for a prototype for the Spirits’ masks, modeling one on my own plaster face cast to get a sense of how to place the eye sockets and the mouth opening. Haven’t started yet on the three lumps of clay our intern Danny has put on the modeling stands, but they’ll soon start sprouting into Antonio, Alonso and Sebastian.
Well, and then there’s Rash Acts, opening in two and a half weeks. Starting to look interesting.
Written by Conrad Bishop & Elizabeth Fuller, Rash Acts was described by American Theatre Magazine in its earlier East Coast version as “a series of highly premeditated acts of imagination and intelligence.” A young couple trapped for life on the freeway, an aged widower beset by swarms of telemarketers, a dead queen resurrected in shadow, a magical baby who grows too big for his diaper, and a grown-up Alice who falls down the rabbit hole into the evening news. With thirty-two puppets, directed and designed by Bishop, with music by Fuller.