WIL Festival 3.2: “The Tempest”

 “The Tempest” is a play concerned with books and authority. Caliban has a great deal of anxiety about books especially, arguing that they are the root of Prospero’s power:

Why, as I told thee, ’tis a custom with him,
I’ th’ afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books, or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.

And where exactly did Prospero get his books? You might say that the conflict of the play is the elderly Gonzalo’s fault, who, when helping Prospero and Miranda escape the coup,

Out of his charity, being then appointed
Master of this design, did give us, with
Rich garments, linens, stuffs and necessaries,
Which since have steaded much; so, of his gentleness,
Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

By the end of the play, Prospero connects the dismissal of his books and end of his powers—saying,

I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

—with his own death. Having discarded these, married his daughter well, he plans his return to Milan, “where every third thought shall be [his] grave.” Like the play, the ways in which we talk about the relationship between William Shakespeare’s plays and their printing has much to do with managing narratives about death and books.

Brian Allard (Prospero).

Printed playbooks were not a thing when Shakespeare first became a presence in the Elizabethan theatre marketplace; they were very much a thing by the time he died in 1616. Because playbooks were a new market, there were not yet standardized ways of selling this object, and their relationship to the actual performances of the texts were complex. OPS Fest relies on the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays, what we call the “first folio.” This edition, comprising 36 plays, eighteen of which had never been in print before (as far as we can tell based on extant plays), was the first of four folios. In the later printings, additional plays were added, but scholarly and performance communities alike have been reticent to add them to the accepted oeuvre. This first folio, a vanity printing that would have been very expensive, very big, and not exactly portable, was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.

What was being printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime? Quartos! These will dime-novel sized thin books that contained the text of only a single play. They were cheap, pocketable, and could easily read aloud to others. Quartos have had a bad rap, seeming less posh than the fancy folios, even though they likely reached more people and more ordinary people than the fancy prints. They also usually differ substantially from the text we find in the folio. This has given critics a great deal of anxiety. Which is the “right” text”? Which “one” was Shakespeare’s? This is when watching an original practice troupe helps clarify things about the relationship between performance and print.

From left: Joel Patrick Durham (Trinculo), Isabella Buckner (Stephano), and Kerry Leek (Caliban).

As the interruptions and prompter cues suggest when you get to perform a play more than once, revision is part of the performance process. An actor may discover a more efficient, more logical, or more interesting way to do a scene. If the audience responds well, typically the director and company adopt that change. This happens all the time in big-budget rehearsed productions of Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare plays. That, and writers change their minds. Walt Whitman eventually published eight distinct versions of Leaves of Grass, after all, reflecting his changing intentions over time. We might think of the relationship between quartos and folios similarly: each of these volumes marks a different moment along the lifeline of a play. The folio, collated by friends and published post-mortem, are a snapshot of the afterlives of the plays, in some sense.

So which to perform? Either! Whether it is a folio or a quarto text, these are fully contained plays with dramatic mechanics. The real trouble is taking a performance text from what we call “critical editions,” academic printings of the plays that combine all of the pieces related to a play called “King Lear,” for example, together as if they were one all along. While instructive in getting every bit of that play in one place, it is the combining of them that creates issues. The two versions of “Lear” have nearly 500 lines different between them, making it a difficult play to teach and perform due to the length and loose ends this Frankenstein-ing creates. More importantly, this is a fiction: critical editions of plays do not represent a play someone would have actually seen in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. If one was to be more generous, you might say critical editors are operating as kinds of co-authors with Shakespeare, not unlike the First Folio printers.

From left: Bryn Butler (Miranda) and Nikolas Hoback (Ferdinand).


Shipwreck, romance, treason, revenge, spirits, clowns, song, and dance create a perfect storm of fantasy. Years ago, Prospero and daughter were shipwrecked on an island. Twelve years later, a “storm” brings their enemies. With the help of sprite Ariel, Prospero manipulates plots, bringing them happily together before giving up magic. [From the playbill.]

Clever Cues

 Starting the day as Balthasar in “Much Adoe” (with a lovely, full-throated interpretation “Sigh no more”) and ending the day as Prompter, Alec Lugo took on the posture of a master of revels. (If only there was a production of “Midsummer” to squeeze in!) After the weekend of watching him alongside Shandi Muff, Joel Patrick Durham, Kerry Leek, and Isabella Buckner prompt, it has become clear that one of the Prompter’s most powerful tools in this performance style is to help with scene-setting. The plays themselves do this all the time, such as at the start of “Hamlet.” In the broad daylight of an afternoon, the characters start by talking about how cold and dark everything is, stamping their feet and rubbing their arms to keep warm. These behaviors tell us as spectators what the conditions of the fictional world are. The cues frequently do this, especially with interruptions (as I discuss shortly), but also with character-building cues. An effective prompter is someone who gives actors a chance to evolve their characters in context, not merely ask them explain themselves away.

PROMPTER: Can you guys do a fashion show and discuss the clothes you’ve found?
CALIBAN: These are clothes. I wear them like a man do.
STEPHANO: These are the latest in island fashion. I am the best model on this island!
PROMPTER: How about you, Trinculo?
TRINCULO: I was feeling pretty good until the others went and now I’m just sad.

Each actor gets a change to clarify how their character’s attitude is different from their immediate peers with this embedded cue. There are also the opportunities to work in jokes that appeal to those in the audience who are there because they are literary, because their hardcore nerd wheelhouse has to do with words. For example:

PROMPTER: Noble Neapolitan.
PROSPERO: There were two “n”s!
PROMPTER: I know! Alliteration is hard.

Kerry Leek (Caliban).

Interesting Interruptions

We might call what the OPS Fest prompters do “world-building.” Fiction writers use this term to talk about their craft. For OPSF, interruptions can help gesture to some of the nuance that make each character distinct from one another. This is crucial when doubling is involved. In this play, prompter interruptions specifically helped to draw attention to the island and its impossibility in the heart of Portland. Most frequently this was magnified when an actor lost their place briefly, turning to ask “Where am I?” While this is a cue to the prompter to supply the line, it also had a nice double meaning for this play in drawing attention to the consummate lost-ness of the characters.

The “where am I” queries are another case of when an act of necessity—asking for a line—becomes an opportunity to make meaning. Take, for example, the airplane interruptions. When a plane too loud to perform through flew over, those currently performing were asked:

PROMPTER: It’s a plane! Everyone make an S.O.S. real quick!

Then the actors would shout, holler, and have the opportunity to improv anything else one might do to get the attention of rescue—again drawing attention to the fiction that they were stranded on an island. Doing so on multiple occasions worked to conscript the real world into the fiction of the play rather than trying to rigidly demarcate a difference between them.

From left: Kerry Leek (Caliban) and Kaia Maarja Hillier (Ariel).

Distilling Dramaturgy

 One of the things that makes “The Tempest” unique formally is that it is the only play to adhere to Aristotle’s principle of three unities: taking place over the course of one day, in one location, and with only one main action. In the spirit of this attention to threes,  I want to talk about Kaia Maarja Hillier. Hillier played three roles this weekend across and with gender, including Juliet, Antony, and Ariel, the last two which having a long history as male-dominated roles. It seems appropriate to focus on an actress who played across gender lines consider that it is also Charlotte Cushman’s birthday. Famous for playing traditionally male roles, she interestingly had a romantic rivalry with the actor Edwin Booth for the attentions of his wife, Mary Desline. Furthermore, for all three parts she had memorized her lines rather than relying solely on the scroll.

Beside the fact that Hillier proves our minds are capable of having three parts held in your memory, her process is perhaps the closest you might see to what an actor of the period would have done. The trade-off of receiving an education largely based on rote tasks is that early moderns would have been really good at memorization. It isn’t a stretch to say they could have many parts in their head at once. This is fundamentally harder for us to do today because our education is now structured around critical-thinking and analytical skills. We have Wikipedia and easy access to books, so why would we need to memorize large swaths of information? Our culture prioritizes making sense of data, not walking round with data in your head. The pathways carved out and made comfortable in our brains today, because of the priorities of public education reform, make contemporary actors biologically, cognitively different that Elizabethans. That Hillier could replicate that even on a small scale means she works to retrains and remakes the structure of her cognition.

What is to be gained for an audience member that an actor can do this? Because of casting, whenever she comes on stage as Ariel, her interpretations of Juliet and of Antony come to mind. Juliet was light-footed, too, often on her toes and craning for a view, to get at a little bit more. This kind of bodywork links Juliet and Ariel as women with a quick wit, but hemmed in by a glass ceiling. (Something of John Milton’s Eve in “Paradise Lost”—women defined by a lack of access.) Ariel is also colored by the strength, cynicism, and high-heeled command of Antony. Capable and creative, you realize that all three women come up with the mechanics of the plan a male counterpart requires, and don’t need books to do so. Hillier’s performance, coupled with “The Tempest”‘s fascination with books and OPSF’s relationship to the printed word, makes one wonder: To what extent do we still connect books and education with the masculine? What behaviors does this connection prioritize and what skills, such as memorization (which has an unfair reputation for the inauthentic), are likewise unfairly connected with female identity? Putting Juliet beside some unexpected companions begged for comparison (by virtue of the fact that they are played by the same actor) and helps encourage the audience to ask these new kinds of questions.

 Ready for more? Up next week Friday, 28 July, at Irving Park (NE Fremont):

7:00PM “Macbeth”

Interested in chatting about anything you read here on the blog or about the shows you are seeing at WIL Fest? Do feel free to come find me and chat! I’ll be in a blue OPS Fest t-shirt, red lawn shirt, taking copious notes! You can also follow along with the hashtags #OnlyAtOPS on Twitter and Instagram.

  • The WIL Festival, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, runs 21 July to 6 August 2017. These will be rotation between the Portland parks of Willamette, Irving, and Laurelhurst, so check the online calendar for details.
  • Free and open to the public, a green bucket is passed around after the show for donations. Want to donate online? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign going on right now, and get some cool swag, too!
  • Note that this is an outdoor performance, so do bring a lawn chair, beach chair, blanket, or other seating option. There is usually ample free parking in the parks themselves, as well as on the street in the nearby neighborhoods. Do watch-out for boats near the river launches.

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