August 10, 2009
Tempest #43—Rehearsal Notes

Fair progress this week. Four rehearsals. Finished a stand for Prospero’s book, the body of the Harpy (our only rod puppet), a nicely-carved foam rubber flask for the Boatswain to swig from; plus starting on editing video cues and wrangling with some projection problems, still unresolved.

Costumes are starting to arrive. “Fittings” aren’t quite the same as with regular actors—the costume doesn’t have to fit the actor’s body, it is the body. But the precise placement of holes in the backs of sleeves and back requires that I test out each one, and in some cases padding is needed under flimsy fabric to simulate a body.

A stage manager at last—Jeanine Gray— who’s plunged into the thick of things: line prompting, writing blocking, running camcorder, hitting sound & light cues, resetting props, and standing in for me onstage when I need to come front and look at the whole stage picture. A godsend.


Rehearsal notes:

Monday, rehearsed the first Prospero/Miranda scene; Tuesday, the Act 1 Ariel and Caliban scenes; Thursday, a miscellany of work on shadow effects, and reviewed the rough blocking of the II.i. Neapolitans.

Moving slowly forward on manipulation. The actors are masked as Spirits, holding their puppets usually at head level in front of themselves, with one hand operating the head, the other hand as the puppet’s hand. The tendency—very hard to overcome—is to follow one’s own actor-instinct, looking at the character you’re speaking to or else letting your posture and your focal point follow your own instincts, as you would if you were playing the role full-blown, without this big pesky thing in front of you.

The result is that that big pesky thing goes dead, except for a few vague hand gestures giving it a whiff of zombie life. Instead, you have to focus your own eyes on the puppet itself: he’s the one who looks at the other character, who changes posture, who breathes. But we’re starting to find it. Next rehearsal I think I’ll play it first as all live actors, allowing that internalizing impulse full sway, before translating it into an utterly new style.

Act 1 is an extraordinary roller coaster ride for Prospero. I’ve always felt that in Hamlet, from his first encounter with the Ghost, Hamlet is simultaneously pretending to be mad and actually going mad, holding onto his tattered shreds of reason in a world that’s crumbling around him. Similarly, I feel that Prospero believes he is “pretending” anger at Ariel, then at Ferdinand and Miranda, yet in each case he’s flooded from his own deep well of rage, clinging to his objective of resolution, but tossed about wildly by his own Tempest.

So in Act 1, Prospero opens his own deeply-wounded past to Miranda, threatens Ariel, curses Caliban, imprisons Ferdinand, and shows Miranda a fury she’s never seen before. Some is real, some is “pretended,” but it’s all part of the storm. What Shakespeare has written here is about the longest expository scene in dramatic literature that’s likewise the longest mad scene. It sets up an extraordinary suspense in a play that otherwise lacks all serious conflict, allowing Prospero to be absent from the stage through the entirety of Act 2 and most of Act 3 while we still have the sense that this man may at any time come in through the door and start shooting.

The key to playing Act 1, I think, is to give every one of his extremes full value. Is he a loving father? Yes. Is he a benign master? Yes. Is he a merciless slave-driver? Yes. Etc. etc. The past has fragmented him, as in a chemical reaction, and only by the play’s end has he been painfully knit together.

Good improvisations with shadow screen for storm scene, with an abstract video projection lighting a model ship manipulated by multiple hands, fabric strips forming waves, and Ariel’s head flitting about. Nothing terribly original about any of this, but it works. Haven’t coordinated this, though, with who’s actually available to do any of it, as the actors are pretty much busy on stage. Probably establish this at the outset, then brief shadow effects as actors are free.

Lotsa work on the first Trinculo/Stephano/Caliban scene. Long, frustrating work on the comic sequence of the two guys hiding under the tarp, dependent on their feet sticking out—and the puppets don’t have feet. So I’ve built two sets of feet, which the actors lift appropriately, protruding from the edge of the tarp. But the tarp keeps sliding off the people, the feet are too heavy, it’s a big mess—though the right idea, I think. Need to get lighter-weight shoes, and then work out the rest.

Worked first as live actors on this scene, then with puppets, to good effect. It brings into play the actors’ own instincts for exploring the scene; and, contrary to what I’d feared, doesn’t mire them in simply trying to reproduce it with the puppet. We’re just starting to tap into puppets’ capacity for extravagance, for truthful exaggeration. To my mind, behavioral reality is the essence of Shakespeare: in the questions you ask about character and action, you need to ask them as if it’s all real. But he can’t be strait-jacketed in “realism.” Language, gesture, stage dynamics—these all enlarge and intensify the truth of the action.

The key to the first clowns’ scene is its final song, Caliban’s declaration of freedom. I’m having all three join in to the chorus. Here, along with Jack Cade’s rabble in Henry VI or the plebes in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, Shakespeare is merciless in his cynicism on working-class rebellion. Here, the gates of heaven open suddenly, and the hapless Fool can have respect, the tormented Slave can have a master godlike in benevolence, and the drunken Butler can float on an infinitude of fine sherry. It’s all terribly absurd, pathetic and ironic. It has to be deeply felt. And finally, it’s murderous in its need. Elizabeth’s setting of the song, I think, captures all these elements, and now it’s just a matter of giving full value and clarity to the evolution of this trio’s cross-current relationships. Certainly, the scene has to be funny, but it has to be much more.

The need came through most acutely at the moment when Stephano and Trinculo, rapt in their tales of survival, finally notice Caliban and he asks, “Hast thou not dropped from heaven?” How long do they hold their breath before they bray with laughter? That moment was a great discovery, the crystallization of millennia’s graspings for false messiahs.