Between the Lines- The Tempest

Between the Lines:

Insights and Reflections

Thank you for joining us at the final production on Race Street.  See you at 12th and Elm Streets at The Otto M. Budig Theater this summer!

"Our revels now are ended.  These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

William Shakespeare
The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1

Plot Synopsis (Warning: Includes Spoilers)

Twelve years ago, Prospero, the Duke of Milan and a sorcerer, was overthrown by his ambitious younger sister Antonia, and Prospero and his baby daughter Miranda were exiled to a deserted island in the middle of the ocean. Now, Antonia is traveling with Alonso, the King of Naples, and his court when their ship chances into Prospero’s waters, and Prospero calls up a magic storm to wreck the ship on his shores and throw everyone onboard into the sea.

Prospero’s magic brings all the ship’s passengers safely to shore, but the group is fractured and each believes that they are the only survivors. Prince Ferdinand, separated from the rest of the court, happens upon Miranda, falls immediately in love with her, and sets out to serve Prospero to prove he is worthy of her love.

Meanwhile, Antonia has formed an alliance with Sebastian, the younger brother of Alonso, and attempts to persuade him to overthrow the king and usurp the throne, much as Antonia herself did with Prospero. Elsewhere on the island, the hard-drinking servants Stephano and Trinculo encounter Caliban, Prospero’s monstrous servant, and the three of them concoct a plot to kill Prospero and set themselves up as masters of the island.

Prospero and Ariel, an air spirit of the island and Prospero’s other servant, watch the scheming and plotting of the island’s castaways, and draw them together to reunite them. Prospero consents that Ferdinand and Miranda will marry, he humbles the ambitious Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, and he confronts Antonia and Sebastian with evidence of their treachery. Caliban and Ariel are freed from their servitude, and Prospero vows to give up his magic and return to governing Milan.

A Tale of Three Directors

The artistic top brass at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company teamed up to direct The Tempest, leaving this production helmed by three directors at once. “As this is the last show in this space, we wanted to make sure that the three of us got to leave our mark on this final production,” explained Sara Clark, CSC’s Associate Artistic Director, who worked with Producing Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips and Director of Education and Outreach Jeremy Dubin to co-direct The Tempest.

That sounds unusual, but according to Ms. Clark, whenever one of them is directing a show at CSC, they’ll frequently consult with the other two for advice, so the three of them are very comfortable with this kind of collaboration! “It helps that The Tempest has all these subplots that don’t combine until the end, so it was really easy to divide the work,” she added.

She took leadership on the scenes with Prospero, Miranda, and Ferdinand, while Mr. Dubin, who’s particularly adept with comedy, largely led the subplot concerning the clownish servants Stephano and Trinculo. Mr. Phillips directed the scenes that depict  the politics and scheming of the Neapolitan court. Ms. Clark said this division of labor meant that all three of the directors could bring their own clear visions to the production while drawing inspiration from the others’ ideas, and this allowed them to create an artistically cohesive whole.

Inspiration and Influences for Prospero: John Dee

Although William Shakespeare didn’t leave a record of the sources of inspiration for his plays, it’s very possible that the character of Prospero was modeled on one of the most prominent occultists of Shakespeare’s day, Dr. John Dee.

Dee was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and occult philosopher in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, as well as a proponent of British expansionism; the first recorded use of the phrase “the British Empire” occurs in Dee’s writing. Queen Elizabeth consulted him for astrological predictions when choosing the date of her coronation, and later he advised her during the attack of the Spanish Armada. Dee correctly predicted that the Armada would be wrecked by a storm, and there were widespread rumors that Dee had used magic to summon the storm himself.

In his later years, Dee devoted himself to attempts to communicate with angels, and claimed to have made repeated contact, via a self-professed medium and psychic named Edward Kelley, with an angel called Uriel. We can’t be sure if Shakespeare fashioned his character of Prospero as a direct homage to Dr. Dee, but the similarities between the character and the man suggest that Dee was a probable inspiration for the magician of The Tempest.

Sources: The Encyclopedia Britannica, the National Library of Wales. Photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum.

Interview with Nicholas Rose, playing Prospero

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company: Can you tell us, in as brief a form as you can manage, about your history with this company? It’s been a long one.
Nicholas Rose: Jasson Minadakis, Marni Penning, and I are all alumni of James Madison University. It’s where the kernel of the company came from. The university had a student-run experimental theater space, where you learned how to put up your own show with a $2000 budget. Jason and I utilized that space a lot as directors, and we became really tight friends. Jason and Marni were dating, and the kernel came from us sitting around at a Waffle House one night, talking about how it shouldn’t be that difficult to start a theater company with all we’ve learned. We were going to do both new works and Shakespeare – because Shakespeare is cheap! You don’t have to pay royalties!

CSC: Hold on! Is that why Shakespeare? There wasn’t a big poetic drive behind the mission?
NR: Well, we also had Ralph Cohen, from the American Shakespeare Center. They were the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company at the time, also run out of James Madison University, and Marni and I toured with them. We were building a lot of momentum on Shakespeare with that. But we didn’t know where we wanted to start our company. Jasson got a directing internship at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, and he called some of us and said “There’s no Shakespeare here! You’ve got to come up!” So it was us and some other Cincinnati interns. That’s where Chris Reeder came in, he kind of got the ball rolling. So we’ve got these parallel origin stories – there was the beginning at James Madison University, and Jasson and Chris got it actually going on the ground here. I took some time off to do some other jobs, and then came back in a big way with acting – that was my King Lear, my 27-year-old King Lear. People still come up to me and say they remember that Lear, and although I’ve done other big projects since then, things I’m more proud of, but I think that was my first big undertaking as an actor.

CSC: So how many plays of Shakespeare’s canon have you acted in?
NR: I’ve done thirty-two of the thirty-eight.

CSC: So you’ve done some of these big iconic roles – like Lear and now Prospero, and you’ve also done some less well-known plays. Is the process of how you go about creating the character of Prospero any different than when you were, say, Cromwell in Henry VIII?
NR: My process doesn’t really change too much, usually. Lear was a little different because we went all in on my playing an old man. But my process tends to be find the voice, and then find the character from that voice. In our Titus Andronicus – one of my favorite productions of all time – I took inspiration from Edward James Olmos as Adama in Battlestar Galactica. I really let the gravel in my voice come out, and I let Titus be really soft-spoken until he was really angry. With Macbeth, there was kind of a mental thing that came to the voice and from there the body. We came to the idea that he was not someone who should have been king; he’s maybe not the sharpest tool in the woodshed. I came to the realization that his voice was a little on the dumber side, a little more hollow, but he was also a killing machine, so I started working out a year and a half beforehand, and I was in the best shape of my life.
So each role requires a little change in the process. With Prospero, I started with the voice, but we also found some other things in the process. In this production, we’re really working with the idea of addiction – an addiction to magic. Prospero lambasts Sycorax for being a witch, for using all this magic, like he’s better than she is, but if he kept doing magic, would he become like she is? So his staff became a symbol of his reliance on magic, and how it’s so hard to put down – it’s an “I can’t put this down now, I’ll quit tomorrow” mentality. Even though it’s a story about forgiveness and saying farewell, the act of forgiving is a very destructive thing to part of your personality. You have to blow up part of your ego to be able forgive someone. Your ego has to get out of the way. So we aren’t taking it from the perspective that Prospero’s immediate plan is to forgive everyone. Prospero’s only positive motivation is his daughter. She’s come of age, he doesn’t want her stranded on the island, and this is his opportunity to get Miranda off the island. But in everything else, he’s got a very revenge-driven motivation. With his addiction to magic, and how it’s beginning to turn against him, there’s a beautiful chance to play with those Lord of the Rings themes about the corrupting influence of power. Does he have the strength to put that behind him, to forgive and to move on?

CSC: Is there anything else in the rehearsal process that’s surprised or delighted you?
NR: In working the lines, the big discovery was the addiction. That was my big “a-ha!” There’s a moment where we call up an image of Sycorax for Ariel, and Sylvester [Little Jr, as a spirit] does this kind of twisted, jerky motion that is creepy, but we realized – maybe that’s the physicality of someone who uses too much magic. It corrupts them over time. That makes giving up the magic much more of a struggle, much more of a big deal, instead of a sort of wistful attitude of “I’ve had a great time here, but now it’s time to say goodbye.” That forgiveness, that blowing up of the ego – that was another big discovery for me. And his lines say it! “I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art.” Textually, that revealed to me a sort of darkness in the forgiving process for him. But once we get past that moment, and once he does forgive, then there’s a beautiful morality tale. He finally becomes calm, and then it becomes more about saying goodbye to the island, and to Ariel.

Another of our big discoveries was about Ariel – how do they work together? What do they mean to each other? Ariel is sort of the supreme spirit of the lot, and even though Prospero freed Ariel, and Ariel has agreed to serve him, Prospero feels the need to protect himself from Ariel. And so toward the end, when Prospero says “I will discharge you,” he doesn’t say “I shall.” He says “I will,” which is much more definite. And from there on, they become partners, and they grow a little bit with each other.

Ultimately, we discovered this play is not about a big exposition followed by a big denouement of closure and forgiveness. It’s a very active piece, with a lot of character growth along the way. I think Shakespeare does a beautiful job in crafting these speeches of Prospero’s that are very meta, about the art of theater and the art of magic, and about giving it up.

CSC: Is there one particular line that you really love?
NR: The one that really struck me was “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” It’s not one of the famous ones, but for me it was the lynchpin that really made me understand Prospero. If said one way, it’s very egotistical and self-righteous, but he’s saying it to a being who doesn’t understand humanity so well, and so for me it became something else. It’s an attempt to explain human nature, and why it’s so tough to forgive. When you see that scene, you’ll understand.

CSC: Why is this play still relevant? Why are we still doing it?
NR: We live in a society where we draw battle lines, we draw these lines in the sand, and we never take a moment to reflect and say “what if I’m not right? Or what if, even though I am right, I need to at least think about the other position?” And in doing so, we get hard and cranky and angry. And yet, for us to find our better angels, we need to be able to break some of that down in ourselves, and to say “I do forgive you, unnatural though thou art.” It’s a strong moment in the play, but I think it pertains to how we interact with each other now. We have this attitude of “I am righteous and you are not,” and the power of this play is that it says “you might be righteous, but unless you can forgive and let go, you will never be happy.” If people walk away, and that strikes them a little bit, that’s great. And, you know, if our long-time patrons come to this show wanting to say goodbye to this space, it’s a great play for that too. It’s about saying goodbye to art, and it speaks on that level too. But for me, if it haunts you in the back of your brain, the next time you’re tempted to get self-righteous and you soften even just a little bit, then the play is relevant.