August 25, 2009
Tempest #45—Notes to Myself

How do you write about doing stuff while in the midst of doing it?

Not a problem when you’re in pre-production, struggling to pull it out of the air—text analysis, design, creating the outlines of the staging scenario. But actually plunged into rehearsal, not easy.

Still, I’m determined to do it. I think it forces new perspective. Makes me stand back, at least once a week, and try to see this thing afresh. Might be better to drive over to the ocean, walk along the beach, and think about it. But I’ve chosen to do it this way, at least this time around.


Nearly halfway through the rehearsal span, opening Sept. 18th, 16 rehearsals to go—only 3 hrs each, and often not with full cast. All the lighting, about half the music, and many of the costumes are complete; the video sequences (14, used only behind the “magical” scenes”) are in a rough state, but I have do-fers plugged into the computer. Props are ready.

So this week is devoted mostly to what we’d normally be doing the final week, working out tech problems. With puppets, it’s more complicated than otherwise. Caliban is left Off Right so that Anthony comes in with Alonso from there, but then the puppet has to be Off Left for next entrance. Who pulls the curtain? Who strikes the log? Who switches Circuit 23 on the A/B box at the blackout on Cue 19? The cast are doing all this, but operating on a tight quota of two arms and one brain each.

Meantime, videotaping a lot so I can see not only my own performance but the others when I’m onstage. Takes lots of extra time reviewing stuff the next day, sometimes playing it in rehearsal to illustrate a point. But the camera is brutally honest and generally sees more than the spectator would consciously.



Right now, the tendency is not trusting the puppets enough—trying to give the puppet energy and expression with the voice rather than with his physical action. And immediately the listener hears the actors straining to be funny or pathetic or whatever.

As verbose as this play is, the puppets’ energy must come from their physicality. All these characters have strong emotional needs or obsessions. The tempest has brought great trauma upon them all, so they share a volatility that gives this play a special life. Right now, we’re sounding too emotional and not physicalizing it nearly enough. With a puppet, if the voice reacts but the body doesn’t, then voice and body seem disconnected and unreal—you’re acting behind your puppet, not through your puppet.


On the other hand, on video I see myself (with the puppet Prospero) going to the opposite extreme. I’ve always had a tendency toward sharp, abrupt gesture, and right now Prospero is tearing the air to tatters. I need badly to follow my incessant note to the other actors: make your gesture specific, no generalized hand-waving. Let it translate the key feelings and images. Bring the creature’s whole body into it. Probably about two physical impulses per line, and distinct ones.

My other great challenge is eye focus. My Prospero puppet has long hair, replicating my own, and it’s often very difficult to see, from the back, exactly where his eyes are focused. This is a constant challenge in puppetry, and one I need to pay much more attention to, lest he come across looking blind as he gazes past his darling Miranda into outer space.


Where the characters are going:

Alonso: Here too, the actor has all the ingredients, just needs to intensify the role physically. Difficult, because Alonso is so deeply trapped at the outset in depression. It’s just occurred to me, though, that right now we’re treating him more like a chronic depressive who can’t summon the energy to react. But this is radically abnormal for him: he’s an iron-fisted ruler of an expansionist state in the raw jungle of italian political strife. His life is pragmatic action. So while he shrugs off Gonzalo’s persistent attempts to rouse him from the trauma of his son’s death, there still needs to be an intensity in his innards—moments of power, abruptness, pain—a man totally unfamiliar with inner turmoil or being struck impotent by Fate, now with the tempest wrapped inside him.


Antonio: The actress has developed a very direct voice: he’s like Iago in being a very sneaky character who gains the confidence of others by sounding very straightforward. The female hands seem too evident, need to study men’s hands more, and how they’re carried. I like the rather flat, dispassionate tone that oddly sets up his utter collapse at the Harpy scene.

Sebastian: Very good characterization, always. Main thing now is to find the rhythm and connection between him and Antonio. Oddly, it mirrors Stephano & Trinculo (see below); they’re bonded by a core amorality, by a similar wit, by having been in their older brothers’ shadows. Now we have to feel something is unlocked for them, and they’re moving toward it hungrily—again, like the clowns. We also need to find more specfiically what Sebastian’s state is, following the Harpy. Thus far we’ve only begun to touch on this; and again, it’s strongly dependent on his relationship with Antonio. Probably, as we discussed last night, this event precipitates the unraveling of that bond.


Gonzalo: This is a very caring, pragmatic Gonzalo. He’s talkative, but it’s always for a purpose, and while always diplomatic, he never wastes any time. Seems that his overall objective is “to soothe”—he’s the one who keeps everything together, who tries to deflect quarrels, prevent things blowing up, rouse the King from his despair. He’s always intervening. but to do that he has to insert himself quickly into situations. The main challenge right now is that sense of being right on the ball, needs to come in right on the top of cues. The actor has a tendency toward little preparatory moments before speaking. That lags the tempo, but more importantly, it makes us lose sight of Gonzalo’s task.


Caliban: His quiet moments are quite strong, his basic humanity. Now I think we need to focus on the other side of it: the true danger and brutality that can manifest from a wounded, oppressed creature. We have to empathize with him as we would for someone who’s been systematically tortured—which he has. But that mustn’t slide into pathos. We also have to feel, as the clowns’ plot transpires, that while he teams with them, he’s not one of them: he’s truly murderous.

Trinculo & Stephano: Right now, we have very clear images of these characters, and the main task is making their scenes work smoothly. Line stumbles are interfering a lot, and I’m concerned that we not get the tempo of line-struggle incorporated into the characters’ rhythms. There’s already a tendency, especially in comic scenes, to craft one’s line as a funny line, to find a funny way to say it. That’s what’s happening right now: there’s a little preparation gap in front of most of the lines, and then a kind of over-emphasized delivery. Makes for a slow, plodding scene where the characters don’t really have much at stake.

There aren’t many funny lines in this play. In fact, Oscar Wilde excepted, there aren’t many funny lines in the best comedies. It’s all in reaction, in the interaction, in the incongruity between what the character’s trying to do and the way he’s doing it.

So our focus in the next weeks will be on their nature as a “team.” They’ve always needed each other, and now more than ever, but with the same kind off love-hate relationship as the Laurel & Hardy paradigm. When the third wheel—Caliban—is added, the vehicle veers seriously into the oncoming lane. But the essential ingredient is that they’ve played in vaudeville together for 20 years, they’ve consoled & abused each other for decades, they’ve both shared the flea-ridden army cot, they’ll bungle things just as badly next time—but they’ll survive. That’s all contained in their “music,” their picking up inflections & rhythms off one another, their vulnerability.


Miranda: I’ve always seen her as with a lot of strength, and that’s coming through—and finding ways to mark the evolution of her independent will. All the ingredients are there, I think, and now it’s a matter of finding each new “marvel” that she encounters and the uniqueness of her response to each. Easy to become repetitious in response to wondrous things, and then they no longer seem wondrous. How does it affect her to be witness to a huge shipwreck, the revelation of her family’s trauma, a sudden madness in her father, the lightning stroke of love, and the appearance of space aliens—all in a couple of hours?

Ferdinand: Much the same goes for Ferdinand. Added problem in the playing: Once he’s past his confused, distracted entrance, his engagement with other characters in his scenes—Miranda, Prospero, Alonso—is intensely focused, and he tends to get frozen into profile and becomes physically inexpressive. Does he have a secondary point of focus in these scenes that can allow some frontality?

Boatswain & Ship Master: The Bosun has a great roughness, swagger & dialect work well, but sometimes a slow tempo that feels too much like pirate melodrama. We need to keep his sense of the real urgency of it all, shouting orders that just aren’t working. He’s drinking but not drunk: this is the way he deals with danger and cold. Ship Master is on only very briefly at beginning and end, and I think we’re going in the right direction: he’s old, he’s doing his best, but he’s long past his prime and really can’t cope. All he can do, really, is tell the Bosun, “Do something!”


Prospero & Ariel? I’ll focus on those guys more next week.

Need to add this disclaimer: Shakespeare isn’t about character interpretation; it’s about the story. Often, impossible stories that start out with a scene saying, in effect, “I know this is absolutely incredible, but…” And then leading us, step by step, into the human truth of that absurdity.

All great stories are preposterous. They’re not remotely believable, but they’re true.