Unleashing 'The Tempest'

Thursday, Apr 25, 2019
by Emma Pfitzer Price
Juilliard Journal
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Jules Latimer (Prospero) in a 'Tempest' rehearsal
Jules Latimer (Prospero) in a 'Tempest' rehearsal
  1. Sea Change: a change brought by the sea. This term was coined by William Shakespeare in what many literary scholars believe to be his final play, The Tempest, written around 1610.
  2. Sea Change: a profound or notable transformation. A significant change in perspective.

One of the most notable aspects of Shakespeare’s writing—and one of the reasons it has been passed from generation to generation and attracted obsessed scholars and dutiful artists alike—lies in its meter. Iambic pentameter is the heartbeat of Shakespeare’s verse. Storytellers can continue to access these narratives because each carries with it this sensation of universal recognition—the human heartbeat.

In the third-year production of The Tempest, which opens May 11, director Jenny Koons is asking if this story is capable of transformation. Can this classical text create a sea change in the hearts and minds of its contemporary audience? In this production, she posits that maybe theater can have that capability, that it can “grapple with a new possibility.” Koons said that in first talking to Evan Yionoulis, the director of the division, “we asked, What is the story that needs to be told now? What can we be dreaming about?”

Tom Blyth
Tom Blyth (Caliban/Gonzalo)

Artists everywhere, in examining the power structures currently at play in our world and the problematic, deeply rooted systems of supremacy, are wondering with Jenny “At what point do old stories stop us from envisioning the future? Is it even possible to start anew without the structure of white supremacy? Or can a story from hundreds of years ago help us? Can it offer a solution, or will the audience’s imagination just simply dissolve this world after the play ends?”

For actors, these questions are inextricably woven within our work as storytellers. We act with the hope our stories may inspire, change, provoke, or challenge an attentive audience. What the audience takes away is personal and out of our hands. “Every character in this story is a slave. It’s interesting how that kind of correlates to our work as storytellers now,” notes Jules Latimer, who’s playing Prospero in this production. Actors pour themselves into telling difficult stories as truthfully as they can, transforming themselves with the knowledge that it could transform others.

To get as close to the truth as possible, Jenny envisions the magical island of The Tempest as a huge, relatively empty stage, dotted with tiny humans. She hopes to have all six actors onstage at all times throughout this production, totally exposed to their audience. No one gets to be exempt from the complicated systems of power and oppression at play. On this island, there is virtually nothing to hide behind, “neither bush nor shrub” to bear off this tempest. Subverting the rules of the theater, she asks “How can we expose this as a play? Is there any reason we have to subscribe to theater conventions? At the heart of this play are the ways in which we are planning to recreate rules in a place that does not have any.”

Shakespeare himself frequently breaks the rules—he adds extra syllables to his verse line, perhaps when the speaker’s heart is unsettled. He switches a character’s dialogue from verse to prose because of who enters or exits the playing space. Shaking up the rules leaves room for the subtleties of human nature to sneak through—our tendency to vacillate, the duality of good and evil in all of us, and our capacity for transformation.

Mary Cavett
Mary Cavett (Ariel/Juno/Trinculo)

Why can’t we break some rules as the orators of this story? Especially when telling a story like this one, which addresses the consequences or privileges for leaders who broke rules to assume their power. Speaking of breaking convention, Jules notes that in playing Prospero, “I am playing someone who was historically played by a white man.” Jenny explains that Jules will be wearing a cape printed with images of Shakespeare. With this costuming, she asks of the audience, “What does that mean for a black woman to wear this, and what is the weight of carrying on this legacy?”

Toward the end of the play, Prospero famously forsakes his magic books and proclaims “I’ll break my staff.” Jenny wonders what this will mean to today's audience, as we question who gets to be in power. In regard to Prospero’s giving up his magic books, Jules notes, “I never say what’s in the books. The magic is in the play. Magic lives in everyone in this play. I’ve just been imbued with this power because it says so. It is important to the audience that Prospero is not the only person carrying the burden of telling our stories. The audience has the power to relinquish him from the story—not even his own powers could do that.”

The Tempest is a sea change that will provoke a change of tides in the hearts and minds of those attending. Jules explains, “This play is about forgiveness—that’s the one thing I want the audience to know. The amount of effort it takes to forgive—that’s potentially the only way to cross to the other side.”

Emma Pfitzer Price played Touchstone in the third-years’ As You Like It last month