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Rough Magic: Designing The Tempest

by Michael L. Vinson

Working with a director he calls "a visionary, a master musician in her own right," Josh Schmidt has been charged with a nearly impossible task. As composer and sound designer for The Tempest, he must create a soundscape that makes Tina Landau say, “I have never heard something like that before!” And he must do it by harvesting musical styles and genres of her choosing, bending and breaking sounds with which she is intimately familiar. "Never is there a production where she does not come armed with a bevy of music and images that inspire her and speak to her," he says. "The music is what it is. The challenge for me is to take the elements that make it music and reconstitute them. [I need] to take what we know and physically transform it or allow something or someone or some idea to transform some aspect of us from something we know to something different." Change permeates Tina Landau's production of The Tempest, echoing the major themes of this story about a tempest (or “disturbance in the soul”) that causes “sea change” (or radical transformation). Each of the characters experiences profound change wrought in a world where nothing is static; where things appear and disappear; where reality and fantasy collude. In Steppenwolf’s production, the character of that change is primal, disorienting, raw and messy. Landau envisions a "dreamscape of Prospero's creative imagination," an industrial fantasy focused through a 21st century consciousness. And that mythic, illusory world, rich with strange transformations, erupts from a naked stage: exposed rigging, exposed pipes, exposed everything. It is what she calls Prospero’s “studio for exploring the human mind, soul, and morality." Birthing this fantastical world from a bare stage will necessitate considerable theatrical wizardry. Prospero uses Ariel to work his magic; Landau relies on a team of designers (and your imagination) to work hers. The set is critical to establishing tone. In her directives to the scenic designer, Takeshi Kata, Landau reiterates, “The design cannot be too square, too solid, too geometric for this play about sea change, rupture and transformation. The alignment of the space should not be clean. Work against straight lines." The set, she explains, needs to be "immersive," creating an "explosive and disorienting experience." Kata, who also designed the set of The Seafarer at Steppenwolf earlier this season, begins by using the architecture in the room, leveraging material native to the space: catwalks, railings, booms, battens, poles, cables. “My work for this show," he says, “is to create a blank canvas the actors, the other elements of design and the imagination of the audience can fill in. I hope it will feel as though the images are being conjured up by Prospero and the audience." But this is also a place of sound. Sounds that are "nowhere and everywhere." Sounds that "lure, compel, threaten, calm, induce sleep or madness." Landau wants Josh Schmidt to build an aural architecture in which "sounds, voices, and music come from unexpected or unidentifiable sources." The primary generator of sound in the production is Ariel, played by ensemble member Jon Michael Hill. Landau refers to Ariel as a "kind of DJ" who "can produce effects, create ambiences, spin tunes, and make remixes" of music that has elements of alternative rock, electronica, techno, trip-hop, dub and more. Schmidt worked with both Landau and Hill at Seattle Repertory Theater on The Cure at Troy last spring. He is "in awe of Jon's ability to hold the stage, to captivate audiences with his performances." Schmidt says that he needs to "fuse" what Shakespeare reveals about Ariel, what Landau wants of Ariel, and what Hill brings to the character. He readily admits the difficulty of creating something new for The Tempest. "This is not my first time sound designing,” he says, “yet there is something to the notion that I should approach every experience as my first and last—never assume I know the answer, listen to those around me and don't allow past experience to impede me in doing something wholly unfamiliar." In creating this world, several of the design elements must rely on others. Schmidt recognizes the collaborative nature of his work, which is "one of service and support to any and all other design elements that need to be reinforced or augmented." He feels a responsibility to "glue all the ideas together sonically," to "assemble them anew." Lighting designer Jane Cox says that good lighting design tries to harness the energy in the rehearsal room, which is why she wants to see as many rehearsals as possible. Costume and scenic designers spend a great deal of time in their studios creating alone; she doesn't. Most of her work happens in the theatre itself. She uses the work of the other designers to develop a viable tool palette, but she usually finds that "the look and feel of the production is inherent in what the company is doing, in what the actors are doing. They'll discover something in the rehearsal process and a huge part of my job is to reveal the essence." That's why, Cox says, it's so exciting to work with Landau again. (She assisted Landau’s play Dream True in 1998, right out of college). "Tina's way of working is very creative; she's so much about working in the room with the actors. She's so unbelievably invested and she's so in the moment. She's quite inspiring to work with because she's got so much energy. She picks people up and drags them along with her." Sylvia Hernandez DiStasi, aerial choreographer, and Stephan Mazurek, projections designer, agree. Mazurek says that Landau is “a very acute listener. She responds immediately. She's not a director that recedes into gray matter. She's very kinetic. She talks so that you really know where she stands and what her ideas are, what she’s excited about and what needs constructive problem-solving.” Hernandez DiStasi says she felt an immediate connection with Landau, something that rarely happens to her. She has worked on a production of The Tempest before, which makes her "a little bit nervous.” She doesn’t want to steal from herself. However, Landau's production feels "totally different." With Landau’s heavy accent on change, Steppenwolf’s Tempest "feels a little angrier. It's a little more raw," she says, which appeals to Jane Cox. "There's a Mardi Gras quality to it in an aggressive sort of way. There's something harsh about the magic [Prospero] uses. It's not intended to be--certainly not in this production--pretty or ethereal in any way. I think the industrial, raw aesthetic emphasizes the humanity of [Prospero's] magic," she says. In the last act of the play, Prospero refers to his art as "rough magic," a phrase Landau has used to describe her production's aesthetic. Takeshi Kata observes, “The Tempest is about the process of becoming human. Pain in life is necessary and the notion of the unchanging self is an illusion. To me, the play is about cathartic experiences we all go through that force us to give up our old notions of the self in order to find something new.” To forge something new; to take something familiar and make it strange; to undergo immutable transformation. When the designs are finished, the rehearsals are over, and you are in your seat, this team will have arrived at something not even Landau fully anticipated, something that will continue to change with each performance. Through whatever means of creation and imagination, however rough or messy or elemental, they will have taken this classic play and turned it into something else, something that has never existed before. How fitting that in designing a play about the creative use of the imagination (more pointedly, a play about making plays), everyone involved must exercise his or her imagination with greater rigor than ever before. As Josh Schmidt notes, the process has taught him that he is “capable of much more than I thought.”