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Artistic Director Interviews the Director of The Tempest

by Martha Lavey and Tina Landau

More than two months prior to the first preview performance of The Tempest, Artistic Director Martha Lavey discusses The Tempest with director and ensemble member Tina Landau
Tina Landau: I want to read to you a quote I just read that has to do with The Tempest-—it’s a Buddha quote: “Know all things to be like this: A mirage, a cloud castle, A dream, an apparition, Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen…. Know all things to be like this: As a magician makes illusions Of horses, oxen, cats and other things, Nothing is as it appears.” I just read that! Martha Lavey: I read in the morning little daily meditations. All of them are drawn from Buddhist wisdom and teaching, and so many of them have to do with what you described: impermanence and illusion. And you know, interestingly, I have this little book of Benedictine prayer, from the fifth century Catholic monk Benedict, and one of those sayings is: “The only significance of things is our relationship to them. The idea that we own anything or that we create, or possess those characteristics that make us who we are, must be utterly rooted out. Let no one assume that we are more than passing shadows created from we know not what for a purpose we do not understand.” You know--this idea that all is impermanence. TL: Well, yeah, and the line that most people think of immediately when they think of The Tempest is “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on,” which Prospero says to the two young people, Miranda and Ferdinand. I have to say, I feel the same as you, that I’m a complete amateur when it comes to this play, and it’s because of what you’re saying. The piece is so mysterious and full of wisdom and layers and depths of all kinds that after almost a year now of reading it and studying it, I feel like I have barely begun to scratch an eighth of an inch of one corner of it. It’s very challenging, because at the same time I’m being asked to make choices— about casting, about design—and part of me wants to scream, “I don’t know yet! I have no idea!” ML: We laughed when you and I concluded that you would be directing The Tempest, because—remember, years ago, we said to each other, “Oh, Shakespeare. We love to read Shakespeare, but who likes to go see Shakespeare?” TL: Not only did I not enjoy seeing Shakespeare, I didn’t even enjoy reading him. ML: But a couple of years ago, after you had directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you said, “There are three things I want to direct,” and you named two playwrights’ work, and then you said, “And Shakespeare. That’s what I want to direct.” TL: Right. ML: What changed your mind? TL: I worked on Midsummer. ML: Why did you even say yes to Midsummer? TL: I said yes to Midsummer because Michael Gennaro (of the Paper Mill Playhouse) pitched the idea of a co-production involving the music of a rock band named Groovelily, who would be writing a score. So I had a very particular in, which was through the music, and an invitation to approach it with some responsibility, but also with some irreverence. And I thought, “What happens if I enter this and don’t put pressure on myself to know more than I do or be perfect in some way, and kind of just swim around there and see what happens?” And I left that experience saying, for months afterwards, “I only want to direct Shakespeare.” ML: We were particularly drawn to the idea of doing Shakespeare because we’re in the season of the imagination. And when I talked to you about The Tempest, you talked about it as one of Shakespeare’s plays you wanted to direct. Why? TL: I had seen a 1984 production of The Tempest directed by Giorgio Strehler at Piccolo Teatro de Milano and I consider it probably the top theatrical experience I’ve ever had. I remember afterwards going outside and looking up at the sky and seeing the moon and truly feeling as if I were seeing it for the first time. It awakened things in me in that way, a way of seeing the world anew. And I feel like I’ve been carrying it in a little pocket by my heart ever since. ML: You mentioned a couple of times the world of the play—do you have an image of what the theatrical landscape of the play is? TL: I don’t know if it’s the play, or just the phase I’m in, but from the beginning I just wanted to do it on an empty stage. And it’s funny, because James Schuette, who is designing our costumes, said to me about a month ago, “So what does the island look like?” and I started laughing to myself because I realized, “Oh! I don’t know! It looks like what we imagine it to look like.” And you know, I consider this both a hearkening back to the way these plays were originally presented, which left a lot of room for the audience to imagine and fill in—an empty stage in daylight!—and at the same time, the play is so much about one central character—Prospero—creating illusions, apparitions, images, sounds. I knew the space had to be very fluid and not any one concrete or literal representation. So when I worked with Takeshi Kata, our set designer, I just kept saying, “Well, that doesn’t look like an empty theater to start.” So that’s just what I knew from the beginning: nothing out of which everything might be created. ML: You’ve alluded to it already in this conversation, but there’s a way in which the play is deeply about the theater, right, and about how we create in the theater. Interestingly enough—your first remarks had to do with the cosmological, or spiritual, which of course is all hooked up into, I think for many of us, the reason for theater. TL: You know, the more I’ve read the play, the less particularly about theater I think it is. It’s only about theater insofar as it’s about creation or control. What I’m discovering right now, at least this week, is that the play is really circling around issues of how we are bound by or attached to things and people versus how we are able to let go of and free ourselves from things or people. You have that in every form and variety: you have literal examples of Caliban being bound to Prospero and Ariel, who is held captive by Prospero and was imprisoned in a tree for 12 years. You have Prospero, who is bound by his own desire for revenge which he has not yet worked through. And yet he wants to work through it and arrive at a moment when he can finally let go—of so many things: his anger and hurt, his need for control, his very own daughter. What all these characters go through in different ways are sea changes—the phrase “sea change” was coined in this play. If you think of the tempest as some kind of core violent disturbance, not only in the atmosphere but in the soul, then that’s what these people must go through in order to undergo sea change, which transforms them radically. And to me, directing and/or the theater is just another version of that, of ways in which we try to control and manipulate reality. ML: You know what’s so fascinating? Frank Galati, who’s playing your Prospero, on the last play he directed, Kafka on the Shore, that is almost precisely what he said he had to do. He said the piece contains so much and it’s so sort of awesome, in all of its implications, that he had to quit trying to control it. TL: Yeah! You know, there’s this great image that Michelangelo wrote about in reference to when he was sculpting two slabs of marble. With one slab he had an image in his head, of the person he wanted to sculpt, so he went at the marble to create it, and with the other one, he believed that there was a creature inside and that if he just started chipping away it would reveal itself to him. There are these amazing Michelangelo sculptures where you see that: half-completed versions of people struggling to free themselves from rock. And that’s how I think of my relationship with the play: I’m here to keep chipping away so that it reveals itself most fully. ML: Well, I’m very excited to start. TL: Me too. And I’m sitting here staring at a stack of 15 books, about to hole up for the upcoming two weeks, doing nothing but The Tempest, and I cannot wait.