The Art of Remaking the World
It is not difficult to discern why William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (TT) would be an attractive project for Artistic Director David Olson when one reviews the history of productions of Santa Fe’s Theaterwork Company (TW). David has continued to choose challenging works from the classic and contemporary theatrical canons that focus on the transformative power of the artist’s singular vision. Recent memorable Theaterwork productions include Legacy of Light, Emil’s Enemies. The Clean House, La Guida Di Braglia (A Ballad Opera for Puppets), A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, Waiting for Godot, and Lorca in a Green Dress. Such variety and scope encapsulate TW’s commitment to creating recognizably human stories in all their disparate voices and permutations.
Though he continued to collaborate with fellow playwright John Fletcher on at least three subsequent plays, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1613) is considered his valedictory to writing for the theater. Written in the tragicomic mode of the day and atypically observing the unities of time, place, and action with no significant subplots, TT tackles head-on the themes of public rule and private identity that are at the core of Shakespeare’s work. Furthermore, TT contains a panoply of Shakespearean concerns, including “brother versus brother, the corrosive power of envy, the toppling of the legitimate ruler, a passage from civility to wildness, dreams of restoration, the wooing of an unknown heiress, the manipulation of people by art, nature versus nurture, magical powers, the collapse of identity, a father’s pain, and the transformative experience of wonder” (Greenblatt, Will in the World, p. 378). It is the last item in this catalogue that is the essence of TT.
Not only is TT “a lesson in theatrical enchantment,” (Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography, p. 488), but it is an open-ended description of the very process of life itself. A core Elizabethan belief was the need for the reconciliation of polar opposites. A dominant metaphor for this search for harmony is embedded in John Davies’s poem “Orchestra” (1594) in which the expression “the music of the spheres” appears. The poet compares the various components of art (music and dance) with our cosmology to demonstrate how disparate, often contradictory elements can be combined to create a unified, functional, and satisfying whole. TT is, thus, an allegory of the continual process of refinement and reworking of human archetypes. Prospero is the embodiment of the artist who creates his identity in the face of life’s inexorable march to oblivion. There is no end to this process of reevaluation and self-distillation except the final end. Prospero’s decision to dispense with his magical powers is both a moral decision and an acknowledgement of his mortality. His story is ours.
On May 19, 2010, I visited the TW Studio on Richards Lane to discuss with Artistic Director David Olson TW’s upcoming production of TT. We began by discussing why TW decided to change its final production of the season: “Jason Grote is a talented contemporary playwright and it would have been wonderful to have him visit Santa Fe and participate in the production. However, his Maria/Stuart while humorous and insightful is a very dark play. It simply wasn’t the right time to do it.” As for TT, I “kept coming back to it, found it attractive, and decided to do it….I had done the play as a very young man and while I was in my physical prime; [now I am tackling it] as an older person who’s experienced some physical ailments.”
I had the opportunity to speak to David Olson at TW’s rehearsal space and prop/costume shop. The space was full of masks, costumes in various stages of development, and a massive table with art and photography books that were being used for design and costume inspiration. I was most struck by the racks of leather coats from Community Thrift Shop that are in various stages of being transformed into leather vests and overcoats and a large table of leather remnants that are being remade into Renaissance bags and purses—not unlike Native American medicine bags—that contained “relics and defenses” against the world’s threats. This process of making things, “of refashioning and remaking, of taking the given and reconfiguring it” is the quintessential process of TW which “takes the material and physical and transforms it into the imaginative and spiritual.” David describes the TW process of creation as being composed of four discrete steps: “There is the period of thinking; then gearing up and focusing the mind [dramatic vision]; making things; and working with the actors as a collective.”
TW’s meticulous attention to particularized design detail “adds texture and depth [to the theatrical experience.]” In TW’s TT, the shipwrecked Europeans “protect” themselves by their caps and helmets, long coats and vests, collars, ruffs, boots, and purses. This is the Europeans’ “form of magic.” On the other hand, the island inhabitants are dressed in loose-fitting, less constraining clothing. Both groups will be attired in neutral colors. The costuming, then, reinforces the theme of the unnatural and the hidden and the natural and the open that underscores the moral action of TT.
TW’s set of TT also reinforces the contrast of the Europeans and island inhabitants. The Europeans are on a rocky archipelago (influenced by the work of contemporary Norwegian artist Odd Nordrum) while the islanders are living in a rain forest (influenced by African native environments). Thus, the landscapes are emotional and allegorical and suggest the need for some accommodation of these polarities. This doubling is seen throughout the production. For example, Ariel’s costumes are like St. Elmo’s fire, “full of shadow and light”; Caliban has a staff and a book without language that references Prospero; the Goddess Ceres has a shamanistic aesthetic that invokes the rain forest; Miranda dresses in what she believes is “European” style; and the island boys’ helmets, arms, and jerkins as they play at war mirror the Europeans’ actual dress.
David Olson believes that the major theme of TT is “transformation” which is the essence of his company and life’s work in the theater. Materials are reworked into a unique, previously unseen experience. The material world of landscape, costume, props, sets, and color now move into “an intuitive process—the province of poetics—that feeds the imagination. It is [at this stage] that one can legitimately ask the audience to participate [in the experience].”
TT defines the struggle to be human in this world. One must be engaged and detached and acknowledge the need for the narrow and the universal perspective(s). Prospero learns to navigate between the other (Europeans) and the self (native islanders) and to understand that “creation is the core of human existence” and that this creation is “a constant process of regeneration.”
David embraces Shakespeare because “his scripts define our language, our relationships, and even how we think. Shakespeare doesn’t teach anything; rather, he shows us how to engage with the world.” This Shakespearean element is part of the TW philosophy of a radical theater that is a moving force rather than mere entertainment. David wishes to come “to grips with language and image and to disturb Bill and Mary (TW terminology for the casual theater attendee).”
David Olson believes the exalted function of theater is “collecting and making stories and remaking and retelling these stories. I believe if I can answer the question ‘What’s still worth doing?’ that I’ll continue doing ‘any beautiful piece’ that will encourage others.”
TW’s current production of TT and its very raison d’être as a company is the old story of balancing the demands of the head and the heart, of extending the boundaries of the known and traveling into uncharted islands of the possible. Such journeys are attempts to make sense of the real world. That such journeys inevitably end in failure only ennobles the impulse to create and to question.
Theaterwork’s production of The Tempest will be performed on June 25-26 and July 1-3, 2010 at 7:30 P.M. and on July 27 on 2 P.M. at the James A. Little Theater (1060 Cerrillos Road on the Campus of the New Mexico School for the Deaf).
Ticket prices are $15 general admission and $10 for students.
For reservations and information, contact TW at (505) 471-1799 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prospero - Dan Friedman
Miranda - Trish Veecchio
Ferdinand - Monica Lee
Ariel - Danielle Reddick
Caliban - Angela Janda Goldstein
Alonso - Aaron Levantman
Antonio - Paul Walsky
Sebastian - Robert Thorpe
Gonzalo - Esta Gutierrez
Adrian - Zoe Baillargeon
Trinculo - Ian Sproul
Stephano - Dylan Marshall
Spirit - August Markwardt
Spirit - Logan Luiz
Spirit - Jasper Keen
Director - David Olson
Technical Director/Lighting Design - Jack Sherman
Costume Master - Deborah Kruhm
Props Master - Richard Gonzales
Stage Manager - Jahla Seppanen
Text Consultant - Deborah Dennison
Assistant to Mr. Olson - Zoe Baillargeon
Volunteer Coordinator - Susan Friedman
Photos by Petr Jerabek (lightimagination.net)