Reflections on The Tempest


 

The Tempest [1] is an enigmatic play that has an incredibly simple story, but still holds many challenges that are needed to be tackled during the rehearsal period. As the assistant director I had considerable influence on the outcome of the production as a whole, but came to be in a very unique position as I also took on the role of Sebastian.
On the surface, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible and exciting plays, but it is also very self-aware in its use of magic or in the fact that Prospero references costumes and acting fairly directly. An example of this can be found in the very first act where Prospero commands Ariel to make himself ‘like a nymph o’ the sea,’ (The Tempest, p. 33) and again at the end of the play where the sorcerer begs the audience to literally free him with an applause. The play is also filled with many convenient plot points: Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love seemingly because they are destined to do so, Prospero’s enemies just happen to be sailing near the island which leaves even the sorcerer himself somewhat dumbfounded before he uses the opportunity to shipwreck the king and his party. These examples bring the play into the realm of metatheater.

A possible interpretation of these moments can be that Prospero’s magic is spiraling out of control. It is possible that he just barely understands and wields the sorcery he has learned. After all, it seems that most of his power comes from his ‘book and ‘the staff.’ The unpredictability stemming from this interpretation became a key factor when we started to cast the play. Our Prospero needed to be somewhat unraveling, at the end of his rope but still holding onto the last vestiges of his power. He is a clairvoyant after all and can see the possible endings for this story.

This speaks to the inherent self-referential or meta nature of the Tempest as well. At the end of the play Prospero speaks directly to the audience and expects them to set him free. He has finished the play and played this part and hopes it pleases. This happens in Shakespeare’s plays (for example Puck in The Midsummer Night’s Dream) but I would argue that because magic is central in The Tempest it brings out the meta in a very real way. Prospero knows there is an audience watching because there are things in this world he barely understands like Ariel, but also other spirits who he can call to ‘enact my present fancies.’ (The Tempest, p. 57).

               As this seeing Prospero is in the center of the play, he can take on a more clear understanding about the world he is in and thus obtain some power over the play itself. The play then transforms into a philosophical one where we can observe unaware characters (shipwreck victims, Stephano, Ferdinand and Miranda etc.) and the aware characters (Ariel, Prospero, the spirits). Once I had chosen this as a central theme, certain possibilities started to reveal themselves. For example, as Ariel is somewhat aware that this is a performance he can jump in and out of the play-world. He can use the theater as a tool to extend his power over the unaware.

Over the rehearsal period we had already started to see the ideas of freewill vs. hard determination rear its head. We experimented with push and pull between actors, with leadership and crude command. With manipulation and change that is forced upon an unwilling party. This coupled with what The Tempest is from a purely theatrical viewpoint makes it a perfect choice to explore the ideas of metatheater. To quote Jan Suk:

Like in The Tempest, with the audience members believing that Prospero is aware of their      presence, and at the same time realizing their own spectating experience, the play turns into a         genuinely postdramatic experience.[2]

Thusly we arrive to the inherent problem in this production of the Tempest which is the problem that metatheater often deals in: to what extent can a play be self-aware? This is a self-conscious play and I would argue that our production aimed to balance itself between the two worlds by selective awareness in certain characters. This production of The Tempest was teetering on the knifepoint of aware and unaware.

Building a Foundation

I reviewed past productions while preparing for my assistant director duties and then again after it had become certain that I would have to play Sebastian. On the first run through I examined the whole of each performance, how it gelled together and what were the unifying strands. On the second viewing I focused particularly on Sebastian and how he was portrayed by different actors.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2010[3] production starring Christopher Plummer was a very warm version of the play. Plummer’s Prospero had not lost his humanity or his vengeance and his terrifying presence often dissipated into empathy. The design was similarly warm, with soft colors that brought out the magic in a way that was never frightening. Sebastian and Antonio felt equally intelligent in this production with a sense that there could be further danger between them even after they would succeed with their plot. However, contrary to our Antonio this one was grimier, perhaps a thief who had lucked his way into nobility. Their pivotal scene also came to a close differently as they ended up somewhat far from their victims robbing the scene of its immediacy.

Julie Taylor’s cinematic version of the Tempest[4] follows another path filled with flourishes and special effects that made the film very muddled and diminished the actual magic that is in the play. It is strange how more is less and how all this technology fails to add anything meaningful to the experience. It is very similar to the problems I had with the most recent RSC version of The Tempest[5], where the most interesting scenes were the ones that featured barely any effects. It has become clear to me that a flick of the wrist can be a thousand times more visually effective than a hundred hours of rendering work by (no doubt) talented CGI artists.

Having said that, I borrowed heavily from the Sebastian in Julie Taymor’s film. I found him to be equally dangerous to Antonio even if he was slower to catch up on the sinister plan. He also brought a sense of innocence to the role which I found captivating. The scene plays out as if, for a moment, they were the main characters. Antonio’s thought process was enjoyably clear: some god has brought this opportune moment to them and it is up to them to use it.

The last source of inspiration was Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books[6] which created an imaginative world that resembled a living, breathing painting. This version of the play was less about the story, but helped me to see just how much leeway there is to portray scenes. Greenway often used the same voices to dub scenes, while the actors themselves never even moved their lips. This gave the film a very strange dream-like feeling that still felt real, unlike Taylor’s adaption.

First Rehearsals
Between Acting and Directing

The rehearsal period started with a range of improvisational games and exercises in which I also participated as I had taken on the role of Sebastian at the last minute. I find improvisation a useful tool to rid oneself of stage fright or failing. It also fosters a strong sense of community inside the company itself. Improvisation can be embarrassing; no person in the world will always succeed in it but you come to count on the company for support. It also includes every person in the room, as Anne Bogart put it, ‘in the creation of an event. ‘[7]

As an actor I found improvisation terrifying, but also incredibly necessary to calm the nerves in a very cathartic way. The real challenge stems from bringing this collective exploration forward into the performance. As an actor one must be mindful not to lose this sense of play, or even trickery, during actual performance nights. After the director’s eye has set things in stone, actors naturally start to fight against it bit by bit and I find this necessary for the play not to become stale.

This is clear in Anne Bogart’s work for example as she sets things in place, but still leaves the actors enough agency to be creators. Bogart calls this an ‘act of necessary violence’[8] but this caging is necessary to explore even deeper ideas of spontaneity. During these exercises I explored energy levels in my own work and aimed to discover how to procedurally arrive at those specific levels. Improvising a simple scene gave me a certain parameter to reach for which came in handy in the performances on the night.

Improvisation was also particularly helpful in developing a dialogue between the performers. As you need to offer & accept you gradually start to read the people you are in the scenes with much better. It also helped to see my own choices in performing much more clearly. Improvisation can also be used to meld text with improvisational techniques where ‘”text” becomes a porous field of interplay and revelation, where actors begin to develop the kind of antennae which can pick up their own ‘pre-expressive’ shifts which are so essential.’[9]

It is noteworthy to mention that as you accept your co-improvisers suggestions you slowly start to rid yourself of your own censor. This generates a safe microcosm and gives an opportunity to perform a full-length story with remarkable characters, narrative surprises and a satisfying ending. I particularly enjoyed the improvisational exercise where we played members of the aristocratic elite who were fed hallucinogenic cake that elevated our eccentric traits each time we took a bite. This was a play on the different energy levels from number one being normal and number ten being incredibly over the top.

I made a point to distance myself somewhat at times and observe as the assistant director and it gave me significant lessons that I aim to use in my career. One of the most important and simplest ones is how a person changes when faced with an audience. The founder of Estonian theater, Voldemar Panso, wrote about this:

When you converse with an actor before the curtain opens you see a person who is simple, natural. He or she looks, listens, thinks and sighs and experiences. But when the curtain rises, in a manner of seconds the person changes: his eyes widen, they might become distant and the natural has been sidelined in favor of a forced grimace. In favor of a need to be liked or the   desire to convey kindness, confidence, keenness and so forth.[10]

One of the ways to avoid this is by simple repetition so you become ‘tired’ of the text and comfortable with it, but it’s important to note that there is no one way to combat this. Every actors needs are different: some need physical work before they can relax, some need solitude and time for reflection. The general rule is that, within reason, comfortable situations should be avoided during rehearsals as it will dull every actor’s toolkit in a manner of hours.

During these first few weeks of rehearsing, I started to wonder about my own abilities and limits. I felt confident that I could play the role, but less so that I could bring nuance to it. To be there and recording. By that I mean how actors may play lovers, deeply looking into each other’s eyes during a scene, but then not be able to answer what color their partner’s eyes actually were. This means that an actor can believe the scene, but still lose some of its edge. A good actor has to discover something about their scene partner every time they act. As Anne Bogart writes:

And interest is one of the few components in theatre that has absolutely nothing to do with       artifice. You cannot feign or fake interest. It must be genuine. Interest is your engine and it    determines the lengths to which you will travel in the heat of engagement. It is also an                ingredient that vacillates and changes in time. You have to be sensitive to its vicissitudes. (A Director Prepares, p.76)

We were also introduced to various warm-up exercises that are essential for any actor. Particularly helpful were the exercises from Lorna Marshall’s book The Body Speaks[11] that made us work from the inside out as much as from the outside in.  An actor needs to convey nuance of expression subtly and not mechanically and the body should be viewed as a tool and an instrument. It is incredibly important that all performers take warm-up as seriously as possible and be present for even the simplest of exercises. If you are not giving an exercise your full focus, then there is absolutely no meaning in doing it and this central philosophy worked its way into every point I stressed as an assistant director.

Everything an actor does from the moment he steps on stage has to be done to further his motivation. Never should an actor do anything ‘just because,’ as this laziness is visible to everyone in the audience. Stella Adler writes in the book The Art of Acting:

You must also justify every entrance. There must be a reason why you have entered the         circumstance of the play. To do this in fact, and not simply have the justification in your head,          you must physicalize the action of entering. Pick up the mail while coming in. Put change in your pocketbook while coming in. Never start with the beginning of something. The curtain goes up while you are in the middle or at the end of doing something.[12]

 

A full commitment is necessary for every action, every line and every thought that goes on during a performance as a lack of focus breeds restlessness which is immediately noticeable.

Multiple times I felt the need to take time out and explain this to actors. An actor needs purposefulness when he or she moves on stage and while shifting feet and general uncertainness is fine at the start of the rehearsal process, care must be taken to remove those over the rehearsal period. Sometimes this manifested in simple directions where I would prohibit any movement from the waist down to ground the actor and make them be present in whatever emotion they are in. This is helpful because we often try to shield our nervousness into movement and by prohibiting the actor slightly gives them an opportunity to refocus that energy back into their core. Anne Bogart writes that one of the possible tasks for a director is to ‘set a fire, a human fire’ inside the actors who she refers to as ‘containers’ (A Director Prepares, pp. 102-103).

During the first 4 days of intensive rehearsals we also read through the play multiple times which gave a chance for everyone to try their hand at all the roles. I think this is massively important and our director, David Ian Rabey, reminded us that too often the blinders may come down on the actors where they are unable to see any other role except for the one they will be playing. This switching of the roles gives everyone in the company an insight into the other characters and what the other actor is working with.

There may be a danger there as well. As you reread the play with the company inevitably a thousand ideas will emerge which can become somewhat overwhelming. This is natural because the actors need to focus their creative energy somewhere, but don’t yet have the intimacy that scene-by-scene work gives them and their characters. This can easily become somewhat chaotic as taste is subjective and it can be difficult to reign it in as a director.

One of the possible ways to solve this problem is to have a definite version of the play ready during the very start of the rehearsal process that then gets demolished and replaced as the rehearsals continue. I think this gives the actors a very concrete framework to bounce against and challenges the director to explain and sell the idea to the actors. Of course, as the rehearsal continues, a director should become much more flexible and bend his view to incorporate whatever the actors are bringing to the table.

Creating the World

The central themes in our production: control, manipulation, being aware and unaware, fed directly into the set design and other artistic choices. This is a very organic process where a decision might work on Monday and then lose its place in the production by Wednesday. Patience is key here as is trusting your own taste. A lot of different ideas and suggestions were presented during the design of the production and most of them fell onto the same spike for me: too obvious.

I am not arguing against simplicity, but against shortcuts. There should never be shortcuts in theater, so when thinking of Ariel’s character I would say the last place one should look for inspiration is anything to do with air or elements or even the sky. A prime element like that is essentially untamable, so it must be personified in some way and approached uniquely hopefully via the actors own experiences and what he/she can bring. We worked on this when our director asked all the performers to devise a dance for their characters that was then performed for the company and I think some version of this task will accompany me to any other directing job I should have.

So, even though some airy qualities were part of this Ariel: the light plastic cape, the blue color, I still tried to give the actor a sense of pain and even hoarseness. I am not interested in a spirit that is unbendable, still and simple, instead I wanted a spirit who has perhaps picked something human up from Prospero. Maybe a feeling of pain that is very mortal, conversely the punishments Prospero deals out to him shouldn’t be inherently magical. I gave the actor portraying Ariel a very simple direction for a torture scene between him and Prospero which was to imagine himself as a tree that is longing to grow, or even is forced to grow. This, to me, was the element of air and a spirit of air would long for nothing more than to grow into a gale. I felt this was a unique approach to Ariel that worked particularly well with that specific actor.

Other set design choices emerged similarly. As we had experimented with control and release in our improvisational rehearsal periods, doing the play in the round made immediate sense to everyone. Characters could step in and out of the stage or ‘the circle.’ Here, Ariel and Prospero became key figures that could exist both in and outside of this make-belief reality that the round stage was. I am interested in exploring this further and making the forth wall even more clearly defined. I am interested in how actors shed their roles as they leave the stage and am wondering if this could be a part of the show. In the play, Antonio was unaware of the play and existed solely as a character. What if when he ‘left’ he would still be on stage, but just as the actor observing the others until it is his turn to come on yet again?

At first I was opposed to any kind of make-up as it may take away much of the humanity that an actor has to work with. At the same time I can see how masks, for example, can completely change the performance into something very unfamiliar. In hindsight, the make-up we chose fitted the production very well. We were inching our way more and more towards the dreamscape. We were already dealing with themes of unaware and aware, so why not extend it thematically to being awake, falling asleep and dreaming? So, the castaways became half-breeds. Humans stuck between two realities and two conflicting ideas with their make-up only covering half of their face while Prospero, Ariel and Caliban were fully ‘in it’ with the make-up covering their whole face.

The costumes were also developed based off of the short etudes we performed in character for the company. A few details jumped out as being particularly interesting for example Trinculo’s red nose that squeaked when pressed. As I was also performing I realized just how much costume lends to your own sense of who the character is. Building off of this I gave the actress playing Trinculo a direction to only use the squeaking nose sound whenever she feels frightened.

There is a danger in costume design where certain characters may fall to the wayside and I think this can stem from not having a central artist who takes control of that particular section of the production. As we had three scenographers, their roles and responsibilities developed over time and the first few weeks were somewhat rocky. I now know that as a director I mainly want to have more certainty there, especially when it comes to costume design as auctioning off characters to different scenographers can leave things uneven without a central artistic figure who can then present their combined thoughts to the director.

Our main idea for the costumes was to use found items that could easily wash ashore on a deserted island. Wooden planks with graffiti on them, worn grey plastic against warm, orange sand. Against this, the shipwrecked with their formal wedding attire, would provide a pleasing contrast. I don’t think we ever aimed to escape from the idea that this was a play or a performance. This was not meant to be real, in your living room, but a dream. A vision we sometimes escape into. This was a tempest that marched by you and didn’t necessarily ask for you to come along. It was there for Prospero and Ariel just as much as it was there for the audience.

 

Performing and Letting Go

In Vancouver, Canada I took improvisation classes from the Instant Theater and from them gained a very simple lesson: to trust. I remembered this as I was waiting behind the stage door for our cue and went to my scene partners and told each of them that I trusted them. This is a very common practice that many improvising groups do before going on stage and I think it ties into an idea from our childhoods. You are building something with your scene partners. This is not ‘performing’ per say, but playing in a world you four are going to create. One needs to know that the trust is there between all participants.  Thankfully, all my scene partners were very confident actors which made me feel much more at ease than it would have otherwise. Improvising together had also built up the trust needed to experiment on stage. Often I talked with the actor portraying Antonio about our characters past and relationships. We discovered darker ideas and our performances became more real and dangerous. We started to play off of each other in a very real way and the acting became a dance where we followed each other’s moves and unconsciously could predict what the other one would do. Our dialogue, obviously in Shakespearean verse, started to become natural. We could predict our cadence and could safely cut into each other’s lines. It started to become honest and natural because it was prompted by the other actor. Stella Adler writes:

We have to feel everything you say is prompted by something you’ve heard. Don’t start from yourself. Start with: what did your partner say that made you say: “I don’t agree with that?”            (The Art of Acting, p.101).

 

What keeps theater alive is its unpredictability. On one of the nights, the energy in the room was much more youthful and fun than on the other. I distinctly remember going on stage and realizing after saying my first line that we would have to go with the energy the audience was giving us. This made the first half of the scene much more comedic than it would have been otherwise. Then, on the next night, it was different again where the energy felt much more dangerous. This is to say that the atmosphere was already there and we actors had to only walk into it. It is necessary for every actor to be ready to roll with these changes and to go with the energy that the audience is offering until such time as you feel change to be necessary.

Even though I was nervous, I felt at ease and ready to just lose myself into the scene. The fears of ‘doing something wrong’ will always be there before a scene, but should clear away once you are on stage. If you feel you are working at something with your scene partners, rather than performing something, then the scene comes alive. So much of acting is letting go and finding the flow. Improvisation and exercises can help with this, but on opening night it comes down to trust. Trusting yourself and the other actors and crew around you is paramount.

Conclusion

Directing Shakespeare was an incredibly intimidating prospect and acting it even more so, but I feel that the greatest lessons come when you are doing something you are afraid of. During the production weeks I could feel myself growing and learning in a way that I haven’t in a long time and it is something to treasure. I feel privileged I had the possibility to learn from a talented director and to act alongside strong actors. The position of the assistant director/actor is a strange one to be in, but theater should always feel somewhat strange, somehow off-kilter and a little bit mad.

 

 

References

 

[1] Shakespeare, W. (2012). The Tempest. 1st ed. Mineola, N.Y.: Calla Editions.

[2] Jan Suk, Zlín Proceedings In Humanities, 2 (2011), 184.

[3] Des McAnuff, The Tempest (The Stratford Shakespeare Festival: Melbar Entertainment Group, 2010).

[4] Julie Taymor, The Tempest (New York: Miramax, 2010).

[5] Gregory Doran, RSC Live: The Tempest (England: Royal Shakespeare Company, 2017).

[6] Peter Greenaway, Prospero’s Books (United Kingdom: Allarts, 1991).

[7] Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, The Viewpoints Book, 1st edn, 2004, p. 4.

[8] Anne Bogart, A Director Prepares, 1st edn (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 47.

[9] Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow, Improvisation In Drama, Theatre And Performance: History, Practice, Theory, 1st edn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 11.

[10] Voldemar Panso, Töö Ja Talent Näitleja Loomingus, 1st edn (Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1995), p. 26.

[11] Lorna Marshall, The Body Speaks, 1st edn (London: A & C Black, 2008).

[12] Stella Adler and Howard Kissel, The Art Of Acting, 1st edn (New York: Applause Books, 2000), p. 140.

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