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ASIDES: UP NEXT with The Tempest director Ethan McSweeny

Can you discuss your relationship to The Tempest?

Well, The Tempest was the first play that I ever directed! I chose it while a junior at Columbia University right around the time that I was discovering that I might actually want to be a director. Aside from great hubris, I am not sure what motivated such a decision except that I had always deeply loved the play: it is gorgeous, difficult and rewarding—and it is Shakespeare the master playwright at the most sure and mature phase of his career.

A few years later, as the Resident Assistant Director at STC, I assisted the extraordinary Garland Wright with his final production of the play in 1997. At the time, Garland was dying of cancer and he knew it and yet the production had a great beauty and buoyancy to it. It was his fourth time directing the play and he had returned to it every decade or so as a sort of artistic touchstone. I think it can be that kind of play, one that provokes and challenges a director over and over again. I feel very fortunate to have a chance to return to it at this phase of my career. And I certainly hope it isn’t my last Tempest!

What do you feel are the key themes that drive this play?

It is widely believed that this is Shakespeare’s final work and through that lens it is hard not to see how he infuses the play with a bittersweet farewell to his muse. On some level, Prospero and Ariel—and I now think also Caliban—embody the relationship between the artist, muse and work. It is a love/hate relationship, pulled between the polarities of inspiration and perspiration, management and creativity. As an artist I’m especially drawn to that aspect of the s tory, but there is also much more to be mined.

One of the other great threads is a classic revenge narrative that explores the very nature of forgiveness. It has always meant a lot to me that at the end of his career, it is in forgiveness that Shakespeare starts to locate the saving virtue of our humanity.

What can audiences expect from your Tempest?

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Jose Ortiz (Scenic Artist) and Sally Glass (Charge Scenic Artist) work on a scrim for “The Tempest;” scenic design by Lee Savage. Photo by Laura Genson.

Every show is unique of course, a product of the vision of the director, the interpretation of that vision in collaboration with the designers, then the application of that vision by the actors and the theatre company. I find myself drawn to the purity, economy and Aristotelian unity of the play. Accordingly, we’ve pursued a sparer look than the colorful backstage environment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream [2012-2013]. I was also inspired by the concept of the desert island and the metaphors implicit in that idea—not long ago, I visited the Aran Islands in Ireland and I was reminded how a barren island can be an elemental, theatrical and magical place.

Will this production reference your past work at STC?

I’m very aware that this production puts me in an interesting creative spot, following as it does on the heels of Midsummer. Both plays have elements of magic and mystery, which create some wonderful thematic and theatrical parallels but also present challenges. I’m working with part of the same design team—Lee Savage on sets and Jennifer Moeller on costumes—and we asked ourselves provocative questions about how to differentiate the magic in this production. By the same token, the many similarities (Puck/Ariel to name but one) suggest to me that Shakespeare was himself consciously revisiting some themes from one of his earlier theatrical triumphs and so we will too. For the audience that has seen both productions there may be some compelling Easter eggs to watch for.

What can you tell us about the casting choices made for this production?

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Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I’m personally very excited to introduce to STC some wonderful actors who are alums of Chautauqua Theatre Company, namely Clifton Duncan, Rachel Mewbron and Dave Quay. I am also thrilled to bring together old friends like Ted van Griethuysen (who was a memorable Prospero for Garland Wright), C. David Johnson, Liam Craig and Sofia Gomez, as well as a very talented supporting company.

At the center of the play, of course, is Prospero, who is one of Shakespeare’s most marvelous, complicated and dimensional creations. I find him industrious, ingenious, versatile and self-aware. Naturally, it was a joy to learn that the great Geraint Wyn Davies was available. He is a mainstay at Stratford Festival, and while we’ve worked side by side there several times this will be our maiden voyage together. It is wonderful to bring him back to Washington and I am excited to get underway.

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The Tempest runs December 2 through January 11 at Sidney Harman Hall.

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