July 27, 2009
Tempest #41—The Week That Was

Back from the Atlanta puppetry festival on Monday, jumping into intense tech work the next day. It was with some anxiety that we took a week out of production work to attend this, but it’s felt worthwhile. Not anything specially learned from seeing or conversing, but just an opening of the vision. The pressure of production tends to force a progressive narrowing, an attention to detail, that makes it very difficult to step back and see things with fresh eyes. Of course The Tempest was always in my mind, but being unable to take the narrow focus—e.g. gluing on Ferdinand’s hair—I think I started to feel more viscerally the intense swings of the play, its musical balance, and the need to find how the audience can be drawn into intense connection with Prospero, not just watch the old fart emote.


We now—thank ye, o gods—have a Stage Manager, starting Aug. 3. A standard practice for our SM is to have a daily “note sheet” that has little boxes for Things to Do: if, during rehearsal, I mumble, “We need to widen Trinculo’s neck” or “So there’ll be a special down left when you enter,” the Stage Manager notes this in the box marked Puppets or Lights (or Set, Costumes, Audio, etc.) and then hands me the sheet at the end of rehearsal so I remember everything that’s come up that needs to go on the worklist.

So here I’ll use this structure as a way of reporting not what we need to do, but what we did this week:

Finished the 14 pieces of text fragments, projected onto pieces of canvas, which were then inked in, the edges frayed and then burnt with a butane torch, then appliqued onto the set by strips of heat-adherent. A huge task of dye-painting the set still remains, but this is the start of it.


Elizabeth worked on the track for the rear curtain, but we found that there was some glitch in its smoothness, causing the curtain to jam, and so the whole thing has to be taken down and rebuilt. And then a pulley system built. She’s not happy about this. She can recall countless experiences from early childhood where she’s taken on tasks that seen insurmountable, impossible, and she goes through a hell of anxiety … and then figures it out. That’s the way it works.

For myself as well. I finish the appliques, then look at the whole set and think, “I haven’t even begun.” I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing next. I’ve decided to do the whole set painting with dye, and that’s unforgiving. I’ll figure it out next week.

David brings in the first costumes: Boatswain, Ship Master, and Caliban. Good start. The process of “fittings” with puppet costumes is unique. They don’t have to fit the body—the costume itself is the body—but finding exactly the right place for the slits for the puppeteers’ hands, and how the neck relates to the shoulders—these are tense moments. We work stuff out.

Next up will be the costumes of the Neapolitan court, but also Prospero’s dressing. We’ve come to agreement that the puppet Prospero (“island Prospero” we call him) will be light in color, very plain, and the “magical garment” he asks Miranda to remove (after the Tempest) will be a hood with magical symbols. But this is not his true magical garment. That’s the robe of the live-actor Prospero, the same dark gray that’s the basis for Caliban’s clothing. It’s a heavy, hooded ceremonial robe, plain in the front (offering a neutral background for the Prospero puppet) but with a back covered with magical symbols.


The costuming design is by necessity collaborative, as we’re creating both heads and bodies of our characters. So we’ve gone back and forth with thumbnails, influencing each other. And as I email a scanned image of my ideas for those magical symbols, I suddenly see these as mirrored on the rear curtain that opens to reveal the video projections. We see those symbols first on this curtain, then on Prospero’s back as he conjures up the Tempest, and recurring through the play.

What do the symbols mean? Well, the caduceus is the most important for me, and it has to do with balance & healing. Visually, it presents a powerful spine. For the rest of it, the figures are taken from alchemy, and for all I know, they say “Drink Coke” or “Eat at Joe’s.” But for me they have a form that’s true.

All but three puppets now have hair, and what a difference it makes. I love Alonso.


Miranda’s hair will be mostly hidden by her cowl. Ferdinand’s is just adapting an existing wig, main challenge being to keep it full and romantic but not to make it too feminine. Got a start on this about an hour ago. Prospero is the demon: I have a perfect match for my own hair—he’s intended to look exactly like me—but it’’s not on a wig cap, just on some kind of cord, and adhering it will be utter hell. So I’m procrastinating.

The other vast challenge, already procrastinated upon, are the five Ariel heads. The first stage here is to find the right head-dressing, and this week things have started falling into place. Our costumer Dave brought in some cheap China-made plastic grass-shoots of various ilks, and combined with thin foam-rubber cut-outs, I think we’re onto something. A trip today to craft stores yielded a bunch of great stuff. Now I’m faced with the problem of how to adhere it: epoxy glue won’t adhere to the kind of plastic these are made of, so we’re plotting exotic combinations of epoxy and hot glue, maybe combined with fervent prayer.


And two of the Ariels have been completed: the Sea Nymph and the Harpy. Their plastic foliage gives a wonderful movement, the Harpy suggesting flames, the Nymph a kind of slow undersea quality.

Two rehearsals this week: schedules make possible only six in July, so I’m trying to tackle the scenes that offer the biggest challenges. Best to start out being stupified rather than wind up being stupified.

One night devoted to the accumulated throng of Act 5, the problem being how to gather 12 characters on the stage when you have only 5 puppeteers. The other, the enchanted masque of Act 4. What’s this all about? Why does Prospero suddenly end it?

Some discoveries. Having the detailed scenario (see previous entries on this blog) has been absolutely essential. But of course when you actually go into rehearsal, it’s a new ball game.

• Great potential power in moving from the puppet Prospero to the living Prospero. This movement within the “revels” speech, as he follows the logic of what’s intended to be a speech of comfort into something as dark as Beckett.

• Choreography of the clowns as the dogs attack, quite absurd until we see that there’s real pain involved. They wind up in a heap, with sudden jerks as of electroshock. Just finished building the dogs: silly and horrific at the same time.

• Sketched in the barest start of the masque. Starting just with hand shadows for Iris, then a full-scale shadow of Ceres appears on the screen, then a dance between Juno and Ceres. Ceres disappears, Juno turns, and for the first time we see (in shadow) that she’s pregnant. She stoops as if to deliver, and the shadow of Caliban’s head rises up. This all assumes that we take Prospero literally when he explains that the spirits “enact my present fancies.” His fancies and his nightmares.

We’re beginning each rehearsal with the actors’ exploring their own puppet characters, focused on making them breath, giving them a sense of independence, and developing a characteristic gestural vocabulary for each. These puppets live in the dynamic between head and hand, and while gesture must be sparing, it must be very specific, not the vague, generalized emphasis-wave that most actors indulge in. We each work privately for five minutes, then show what we’ve come up with, trying to integrate it with the voice and the phrasing.

So it’s Monday evening and time to go back to gluing Ferdinand’s hair.

Peace & joy—

July 21, 2009
Tempest #40—To Please

Returned yesterday from Atlanta, five days at the biennial festival of Puppeteers of America, 18 performances, workshops, six hours of open-mike cabarets, and mingling among some of the immensely diverse world that’s American puppetry.

So, back into the grind. Today I finished the hair for Sebastian and Alonso, started the lettering on the set (fragments of text on appliques glued to the sweep of the canvas), and began some private work on Prospero. Two rehearsals coming up at the end of this week. I felt quite anxious being away from the worklist, but it gave me a chance to step back and get some perspective on the whole project.


Several European puppeteers spoke of their work as a kind of circular transaction between actor, puppet and audience. The puppet is a transmission pathway from actor to audience but is also an active instigator, as if the electrical conducting wire not only transmitted the impulse from the source but also called forth that impulse. And the audience is not only the recipient but also—if the channels are open and the actor fully present to them—the fertile center of this erotic flow.

Which leads me, naturally, to The Tempest. Prospero’s epilogue is a curious thing. In a way, it’s so much in the tradition of “Our play’s done, folks, please applaud,” that some producers have cut it entirely and replaced it with “Our revels now are ended.” To me that’s not only a grotesque misreading of the “revels” speech but a failure to see the profundity of Shakespeare’s very simple statement.

Gentle breath of yours, my Sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.

What does it mean, “to please”?

To post-Romantic artists bent on self-expression, truth-telling, provocation of thought, farting in the face of the bourgeoisie, the notion of “pleasing” the audience conjures up the saccharine blare of The Sound of Music. To many serious artists, “pleasing” is synonymous to “pandering.” So do we take Prospero at his word when he says that the whole purpose of this masterpiece of redemption, forgiveness and resurrection was “to please”? Is The Tempest merely a tap-dance?

Well, no. Though I love tapdancers and wrote a play about one. Prospero’s epilogue, summarizing the play itself, is about freedom.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your Indulgence set me free.


So to put these two things together, if I can. How does “pleasing the audience” connect with freedom? We tend to think of it as a binding, an obligation, not a freeing.

Actors, musicians, athletes know when they’re in the groove—and probably more often, when they’re not. Lotsa writers drink lotsa booze to get there and stay there as long as they can. “In the groove” is outside yourself, outside the self who’s writing his own reviews, who’s chewing that old cud of karma, who’s plotting revenge, who’s rehearsing his acceptance speech, who’s grieving for the lost lost lost lost years. “In the groove” is flying free.

Then to the Elements
Be free, and fare thou well.

The black desolation of Caliban is one with Prospero, and so is the flight of Ariel.

The audience then—my forthcoming audience—I ask to give me their hands, their presence, their breath, to free me from this barren island of self. Prospero relinquishes, as we all must, his staff, his book, the ecstatic adrenalin rush of the mage in full power. At the outset, my power is infinite; at the end, my power is zilch. And, weirdly, my victory is in my toilet flush.

And what this grotesque quiz-show consolation prize leaves me with: my freedom. I ask you to clap your hands. You do. I thank you. We are one.

What do they get from it? What pleases them? Infinite answers to that one, but a couple of universals: they want the familiar and the new, the safely dangerous. They want the excitement of the journey, but they want to be protected: they need to trust the guide. Whether we’re going into the jungle, the sewers of Paris, or Disney World, the trip can please us if that trust is there.

Being now 67, I have my stock repertoire of grievances against the world, my little toy-theatre revenge plays I’d perpetrate if I could. I need to understand Prospero in this context. desperately struggling against his worst instincts, seeing his life as a wasteland of confusion, seeking freedom. And finding it.

In the hands and breath of his audience. If, indeed, he can give himself to them.

Peace & joy—
Conrad B.

July 5, 2009
Tempest #39—Eleven Weeks

…Till opening night.

Starting this entry sitting on the ocean cliff, finishing a picnic on our sabbath. Once a week, some day, we require ourselves to take a day when the sole acts allowed are what’s pleasurable, creative, or otherwise energizing. The sea is a good place for that.

And for assessing where we are right now in this voyage.


The Tempest is indeed a play about voyages: a tormented exile, brought about by Prospero’s neglect of his own dharma, and Alonso’s trip to contract the political-convenience marriage of his own daughter. But for all the characters, and for us, a much larger voyage of discovery.

Thursday, our first rehearsal with the full (five-person) cast. A read-thru, then launched into blocking the storm scene. We have only six rehearsals in July, so it was both exhilarating and anxiety-provoking to get a concrete sense of the task ahead.

The read-thru reaffirmed my sense that what’s truly “magical” about this play is the characters’ epiphanies of amazement. For Miranda, the discovery of her whole past, the nastiness of the real world outside her narrow confines, the sudden lightning-stroke of love, the vision of “how beauteous mankind is.” For Ferdinand, the horror of loss, the panic of stepping into kingship, the joy of resurrection and, likewise, love. For Prospero, his first coping with truth-telling and with political decisiveness, his own culpability in neglecting his duties, his acceptance of his own darkness, and the terrible pangs and joy of forgiveness.


And in another vein: For Caliban, the possibility of freedom and its paradox, belonging. For Stephano, the brief window of power. For Trinculo, not being the lowest man on the totem pole. for King and courtiers, the dawning that chases “the ignorant fumes that mantle their clearer reason,” and the discovery of true selves after a madness, in the words of Gonzalo, “when no man was his own.”

It’s a voyage, as a film adaptation is aptly titled, to a forbidden planet. Forbidden, because our daily life shields us from this magic, the discovery of our true natures and wills. Not everyone returns happier from the voyage: Prospero sheds the hope of his most intense epiphanies—his very control of the elements—to take up his mundane political duties, where “every third thought shall be my grave.” Caliban sheds his prospects of liberation and goes off to make the bed and dust the window sill. Ferdinand and Miranda go forth to find a renewed world of love and union; and yet, somehow, the ensuing four centuries of blood and atrocity undercut, for us, the promise of this new Eden.

Still, the amazements grab our hearts.


So this week:

• Our first of a total of 32 3-hour rehearsals total. Good start, with everyone about 3/4ths off book. Some trepidation as I see how cramped the stage space will be when we get five bodies moving in it, with puppets in front of’em. We need to do a lot of work, apart from the puppet manipulation, in sensing each other as dancers would, in using the dynamics of the space—contact improv without the contact. Good starts with the characterizations, though there’s a tendency to rush; and actors are still very much acting behind the puppets rather than through them. That will come.

• Finished mask fittings on everyone. Cut and did the first dyeing of the muslin for the set; after flame-proofing this week, we’ll hang and dye-paint the muslin. With David the costumer, we went through fabric, managed to get about 1/4 of the total selected. We’ve gone through three drafts of thumbnail sketches for the costumes, pretty solid now on most of them, still a few up for grabs. Ariel is giving us fits, and I think we’re not going to find the right line for him until we suddenly come across the right fabric—making a trip down to fabric stores in San Francisco this week.

• Hair now on five of the puppets, no headgear yet; still, they gain new life.

• Started experiments with video filters for approximately 20 video cues, and with Elizabeth finished talking through sound/music cues, about 90 in all. She has first drafts of four of the songs. She’s been struggling with our new sampler, an old model that works only with SCSI connections, so the process of interfacing with one of our old computers and old drives has occupied much time, but most of the bugs have been induced to depart.


In the midst of all this, we’re preparing to attend the Puppeteers of America’s National Festival in Atlanta, GA, the week after next, and rehearsing a five-minute piece for their late-night cabaret. Using a couple of rebuilt puppets from RASH ACTS, plus a new dragon puppet who inexplicably pops up at the end. We’ll also teach a workshop there on dialogue-writing.

And after returning from the ocean, we drove to Santa Rosa to see the new Pixar film, UP—lovely animation, and in my humble opinion, a brilliant script. If you don’t like sentiment, well, it’s not for you. But to me it’s very much like Chaplin: rooted in reality, honest, funny, speaking to adults and kids alike—drawing the adults into child fantasy, stretching the kids into an adult world,—and replete with the same epiphanies of discovery and wonder that make The Tempest blaze.

Peace & joy—