November 30, 2008
Tempest #11 — Storms, Sex & Puppet Necks

A week of heavy building on Rash Acts, plus seeing two Hamlets, one a solo collage, the other a six-actor, rapid-fire version. Strength of the first: the powerful presence of the solo artist in control of all except for a volatility that keeps us wondering, “What’s he going to do next?” — an essential sense for The Tempest. Strength of the second: the power of just telling the story, no frills or flourishes, just get on with it, trust it. I need to keep this in mind as I get flashes of new images, start getting caught up in the illusion that the show can only be interesting if I make it interesting. Must keep focused on my belief that, contrary to some notions out there, Shakespeare isn’t interesting for the poetry, nor is he interesting for what you can “do” with him: he’s a storyteller, and everything must emerge from and support the story.

New Puppet Mechanism–
Now in process. We’ve generally used a style of puppet with a 3/4ths lifesize head on a short rod and a hand up under the costume to operate it. The puppeteer’s other hand through a cuff on the costume becomes the puppet’s hand. The puppeteer’s face may be hooded, or in our Macbeth was always visible as one of the Witches. It’s a very visceral, dynamic style.

The downside is that the large heads plus costume can be heavy, tiring to the performer, and that the entire weight is against the top of the hand holding the head rod. Sometimes this restricts the ease of head movement or causes the head’s turning to turn the body. At someone’s suggestion we tried an alternate weight-suspension technique, supporting the body’s weight from straps going into the sides of the head, but this produced even more body swing.
Now I’m experimenting with another idea, and if it works we’ll probably use it for most of the characters in The Tempest. A fingerless glove is attached to the neck ring of the shoulder girdle, and the operator’s hand goes up into it and grasps a horizontal rod inside the head. Thus the operator’s wrist becomes the puppet’s neck, with almost the precise flexibility of an actual neck, and the weight is held by the glove.
Will try this with the Red Queen in Rash Acts (though I’ve been nursing a sore wrist, so the Queen may need a chiropractor), and also hoping to get some responses from pros on the puppetry listserv who may have some ideas for improvements. With luck, we’ll advance our technique another few inches.
About the Storm–
After the opening scene, the sounds of the tempest recur twice. First, as Caliban enters cursing, then scaring Trinculo to hide under Caliban’s garment. Second, when Ariel appears as a harpy to the courtiers. Prospero’s interruption of the masque, to a “strange, hollow and confused noise,” is in a sense another recurrence. The play is the tempest. We need to feel it’s always imminent, a direct emanation of the turbulence in Prospero. The man is volatile, full of sudden changes, great anger, then sudden calm. He’s not subject to the storm, as Lear is, but keeping it in rein takes great effort. His swells of anger in Act 1 Scene 2 — first at the memory of his brother, then at Ariel’s ingratitude, then at Caliban, finally at Ferdinand — exactly parallel the tempest’s surges in the previous scene.
How do we create the storm? Sound & music are primary. Probably need flash units for lightning. In the first scene, the storyboard suggests that the Spirits are whipping fabric about — this is kind of a staging commonplace by now, but still workable, I think. We also have to feel it in the characters’ bodies, caught in the whirlwind and creating its power through their unison movements. What’s essential is the surge of the storm. The first scene is built in a series of dialogue units, and this suggests an extreme dynamic range, quieting so we can hear what’s said, then swelling into a roar between each unit and pitching them one way and another. It’s terrifying to the degree that it builds suspense each time it slacks off.

Prospero’s Gender–
I spoke this week with an actress who saw the Ashland Festival’s staging with Prospero played as a woman. She felt it was very powerful. And Julie Taymor is in production for a film of The Tempest with the same sex change. That doesn’t lead me to consider doing that, but it does push me to question what in fact is significant about Shakespeare’s choice of Prospero being male. How does his maleness function in the story?
With gender as with race, to venture into the question of audience response is to risk exposing all one’s own biases. But obviously in the theatre we’re telling a story to an audience who do bring their biases along and aren’t likely to shut them off as easily as their cell phones. A black Caliban carries certain connotations: would the same be true of a black Prospero, or are we meant instead to drop all sense of a culture where race is of significance and enter, in a twinkle, another world entirely? What of a very obese Juliet? Physical traits carry meanings that are part of our culture. My actress friend commented on the very moving flashback image of the shipwrecked mother Prospera cradling her toddler Miranda; the implication was that Prospero as a father wouldn’t have been so compelling. Likely not.
So despite the fact that it’s the conventional choice, how does a male Prospero uniquely shape the story? Some thoughts:

* There’s nothing impossible about a female holding political power, but it’s an anomaly. We’d want to know how it came about and to what degree gender was a factor in her overthrow. Prospero’s flaw is that he’s neglected his duty; he’s disregarded the nature of the world of power that he’s part of, seeking a different world — and it’s forcibly landed him in it. So it’s important to me that Prospero starts out as a “normal” Duke, i.e. hereditary male, never questioning his position or his vulnerability. At the end, he returns to power in a political arena he sought to escape from, and which even now he sees as a kind of dutiful limbo “where every third thought shall be my grave.” This journey of escape from responsibility and return to it is to me a very male journey, at least in our culture thus far, and it’s central to The Tempest.
* Miranda never sees Prospero doing magic. She sees only the results: the tempest, the masque. Ariel is unseen to her. Prospero reveals the depths of his magical studies — the practice of necromancy, etc. — only as he renounces them. So the gap is vast. His learning is in the European Hermetic tradition, has nothing to do with female-oriented folk magic. The female magician might pass on her wisdom; Prospero does nothing of the sort.

* Miranda is motherless. It’s not the same as being fatherless. She’s learning, with no life model, to be a woman. This sense of unique insularity is especially significant in her scenes with Ferdinand, as is also the fact that she has two examples of males, Prospero and Caliban, and Ferdinand fits neither category.

* Conversely, Caliban has seen two women, Miranda and his mother Sycorax, and the contrast is overwhelming to him.

* One might expect a mother of Miranda to react with vengeance to an attempted rape of her daughter, but it’s hard to imagine her enslaving Caliban and living with him daily, much less forcing her daughter (in I:ii) to visit him. Prospero is certainly vengeful, and as I’ve mentioned, I think it’s quite likely that he’s taken the precaution of castrating him. But he seems, as a self-proclaimed loving father, to be utterly oblivious to his daughter’s revulsion at seeing Caliban. It’s almost as if this forced visit is a way of forcing her own condemnation of Caliban, which finally bursts forth at “Abhorred Slave.” The operative word here is “force.”

* The lushness and earth magic of this domain is lost on Prospero. It’s something to control and conquer and turn to his larger plan, but ultimately for him it’s all illusion. He’s a disembodied man. His wife is mentioned only once — “Thy Mother was a piece of virtue, and/She said thou wast my daughter” — and so it’s likely she died in childbirth three years before the coup. Is this what impelled Prospero to lose himself in studies of ceremonial magic?

A nasty question remains: our overall feeling of Prospero. Interpretations seem to swing between the wise, Christlike daddy and the tormented despot, but in either case people seem to wind up not liking Prospero very much. Of course Lear probably would probably be even less pleasant as a dinner guest, but at least he’s clearly victimized right in front of our eyes. A female Prospero would likely be more emotionally accessible, her excesses more easily forgiven. So how do we bring an audience to stay close to Prospero?

Maybe I’ll know next week.
–Conrad Bishop