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DIRECTOR’S WORD: The Tempest
By Ethan McSweeny
Adapted from remarks to the Company on the first day of rehearsal, November 2014
Not long ago, I was sitting with the costume designer Susan Hilferty and she reminded me that her friend and frequent collaborator Garland Wright once said that each director should encounter The Tempest a minimum of three times: once in early career, once in mid-career and once in late career. It was, in his opinion, the ultimate artistic touchstone.
Garland was on my mind as I prepared for this production in 2014. I still vividly recall working for him on my final show as a young assistant director here at this theatre. That Tempest was to be his last. He was very sick at the time, and he knew it, but the production was breathtaking: beautiful, elegant and—amazingly, given the weight of his personal circumstances—amazingly buoyant. Ted van Griethuysen starred as Prospero, and in a display of the true evolutionary nature of what it means to be part of this acting company, offers us his Gonzalo this time around.
As it happens, The Tempest was the very first play I ever directed. I undertook it in my third year as an undergraduate at Columbia University, when I was only beginning to dare to think of myself as an artist, and with only the slimmest notion of what it might mean to be a “director.” On my side I had only the hubris of youth and the unfortunate, “inspired” idea to stage the play under the stars in a quadrangle of Barnard dormitories at 116th Street and Broadway. Although that choice of location paved the way to raise substantial additional funds from a dorm council, I ultimately learned the hard way why there is not more outdoor drama in New York in late April. “Tempest” doesn’t describe the half of it.
But that is a story for another time. I feel deeply fortunate to take on this play a second time, from a more mature perspective and at a distinctly middle point in my career. As probably everyone knows, The Tempest is widely considered to be Shakespeare’s last work. It’s hard not to view the play through the lens of a master dramatist wrapping up his career. There is an essentialness to the writing, a purity of line and form as well as an Aristotelian near-unity of time that marks it singularly among the canon. The trio of Prospero, Caliban and Ariel seem to echo the complicated and conflicted relationship between creator, muse and created. And there are elements in its triptych of plots where the playwright seems to be consciously revisiting some of his greatest hits: a shipwreck a la Twelfth Night, innocent young people falling in love at first sight as in Romeo and Juliet, scheming Neapolitan lords reminiscent of Julius Caesar, low comedy clowns who could be equally at home in the Forest of Arden and, of course, a world of magic and spirits co-existing with our own.
Last year’s Free For All featured my production of Shakespeare’s other most magic-laden play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this spring we had the opportunity to revisit that production yet again on an exciting journey to open the Macao Arts Festival in China. It was inspiring to take a play written by an English guy who had been dead for 400 years, perform it with an American company in front of a Chinese audience, and watch it transcend time and place to speak with immediacy and humor across cultures. We talk a lot about the universality of Shakespeare, but to see that theory in action was real magic.