September 8, 2008
The Tempest – #1

This is the first installment of a weekly journal to span the next thirteen months. It’s to chronicle the creation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a live theatrical animation, with puppets, masks, music, live actors and digital media, premiering September 2009.

I hope, by submitting to the turgid discipline of writing prose — I’m a playwright, dammit, and hate writing full sentences — to offer something that may be useful to other artists involved in ensemble creation, to give friends a engaging backstage tour, and to force myself to take a deep breath once a week, Sundays or thereabouts, to reflect on what we’re doing, where we are, and where we need to go.

I very much welcome response, questions, all that.
So how did it start?

January ’08. Jennifer at Sonoma County Rep, our downtown corner theatre, emails me. She’s making a grant application for their “Rep on Tour” school tour, considering a condensed version of The Tempest. Would I like to do the script adaptation? Well, one always wants to be wanted, needs to be needed, and money’s always tight, and it’s far in the future. So I say sure, though I’ve never been that much interested in Tempest, and I’ve never seen a good production of it, and what’s an “adaptation” of Shakespeare, anyway? — but I bite.

Then I read the play, for possibly the fifth time in my life. And maybe it’s having had an utterly magical experience with staging The Winter’s Tale back in Pennsylvania, or my own proclivity toward Prospero’s bitterness, or just being a certain age, but I finish Act 5 at the end of my daily mile-and-a-quarter walk downtown to have my morning muffin at Sebastopol Cookie Company, and I’m weeping into my de-caf.
We email back and forth, and the project dies. Uncertainties about the grant guidelines, and a tight deadline, so let’s wait’n’see.
Mid-February: In midst of a 24/7 work schedule, five months straight, on our puppet staging Descent of the Goddess Inanna, I keep thinking about The Tempest. Another grant opportunity comes up, and I’m thinking about calling the Rep to propose that we apply jointly … when the Rep calls me about the same damn thing.

Back and forth, and a project evolves. We’ll do a full-scale production as part of the Rep’s Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival, a condensed touring version for schools, and a DVD. I’ll direct and design, Elizabeth will do music, and we’ll develop it over a year with our Mythic Kitchen ensemble and actors from Sonoma County Rep’s evolving cadre of artists.

Some quick meetings, emails, and scrambles to attune my brain to something 18 months hence while opening a monstrous epic in four months — no, a month — no, next Friday — while writing the grant application: Describe the project. Describe the company. Reasons for collaboration. Methods of collaboration. Timeline. Detailed budget. Personal artistic statement. Goals and evaluative method. Work sampler video, ten minutes max. Ten copies please. But we get it in the mail.

So we open Inanna, fabulous response, and slowly it becomes clear to me that I’m committed to The Tempest, no matter what. And Jennifer and Scott at the Rep seem to share the sense that the noble thoughts we expressed in the application — its importance to both our companies, to the community and to human history — well, we really believe the stuff we wrote.

So right now it’s the end of August, 13 months from opening. The show is scheduled on the Rep’s season. I’ve read the play many times. I’m into Act 3 studying Variorum notes, including two fine-print pages of scholars debating the meaning of the word “scamels” and twelve pages glossing the phrase “Most busy lest, when I do it.” For me, production research is a bit like beach-combing: you sift through a vast seacoast of pebbles, shells, seaweed, and start wondering “Why the hell am I doing this?” And then suddenly, something glitters.
And I’m sketching character ideas and an action storyboard, researching centuries of past productions, bouncing ideas off Elizabeth. Until I started to research, I wasn’t really aware of the vast range of interpretation: Prospero as colonialist, as power-mad psychotic, as the all-controlling stage director of a dream, or as Shakespeare’s alter ego, making a farewell to the stage. In the productions I’ve seen, Prospero’s a benevolent Father Christmas doling out rewards and punishments with an avuncular smile or a cranky Ed Sullivan hosting a variety show. But all present the same problem. Is there actually a dramatic conflict here?

How can you have conflict when your protagonist has absolute power? Shakespeare is pushing the bounds of his skill, doing something that hasn’t been done before: to put the central conflict entirely within the mind of the protagonist. Of course, countless characters, from Henry VI to Hamlet, are at odds with themselves, and their inner turmoil feeds into external hubbub. But who else has Ariel — gifted with the powers of the CIA, James Bond, and Yoda — to quick-freeze all possible opposition?

For us, Prospero is the absolute puppet-master, with his own well-crafted scenario to right all wrongs. But he’s no benign, avuncular presence: his antagonist is himself, and the tempest he’s raised rages within him with all the powers at his hand. It’s the struggle of a man to be free of the bitterness of injustice — the overwhelming baggage of the past. A near-mad, deeply wounded victim who attains power, struggling to keep his rationality, to reject vengeance and choose life. The text supports that, I believe, as will the puppetry style.

And it’s a story we have great need to believe in. Is it true? Well, I’m grasping for a visionary theatre within the rubble of reality. Maybe inspired by Aristophanes’ bizarre synthesis of the blackest view of human absurdity with fantasy happy-endings that, while ironic to the core, still point toward that impossible possibility of peace & joy.
More next week. Back to work.