Free Bard!

Director Matt Cosper talks about Shakespeare's "The Tempest"
Photo by Carlisle Kellam

It's that time again when Collaborative Arts offers up one of the best cultural gifts Charlotte will get all year. The annual Shakespeare Festival returns to The Green uptown. As they say, "'tis free," but — prithee — make a contribution. They suggest $5. See it May 31 – June 17.

Revue: OK, let's just get this out of the way first. Not everyone likes Shakespeare. (I'm tensing myself as I prepare to be pelted with sticks and stones.) What do you say to naysayers who might say the language is just too hard to understand?

Matt Cosper: People place too much importance on "getting it." I'd venture to say that when you are straining that hard to understand every word it becomes impossible to take in the larger experience of the show. Shakespeare's verse is so dense that audiences are often better off focusing on the action and visual relationships onstage while letting the language wash over them. It might sound counterintuitive, but Shakespearean theater is a different sort of experience than other forms, and a soft focus is often the best way to encounter that language.

 Revue: What is there to love about The Tempest? It's not nearly as well-known as, say, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Midsummer Night's Dream.

MC: The Tempest has such depth! It's about revenge and regret and the futility of grand ambitions. It's about family and friendship and betrayal.  It's about monsters and spirits and sorcerers! And this very complex, sophisticated stuff holds at its core a very sweet, quite simple love story.  It's also in many ways a story about telling stories, and about how the stories we tell create the world we live in.  It is a story that is rich in melancholy, humor and romance.

 Revue:  What innovations are you bringing to the play?

MC: We're approaching this play from a slightly different perspective than might be traditional or expected. We're setting it both here and now in Charlotte, N.C. and in the mind of Prospero himself. Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at the end of The Age  of Discovery, when journeying to a mysterious island to find yourself was a part of the collective imagination of his audience. In our world today, one of the last unexplored frontiers is the human mind, and our production concept is based around that notion; that Prospero's island is a sort of Bermuda Triangle of the unconscious, where people come to confront their demons. There was a wildly popular TV program a few years back that was based on The Tempest, you know … and fans of LOST will find little nods to that show in our production.

 We're doing something a little unconventional with how we are framing the play. It has always been my contention that effective storytelling is a form of spell casting, an enchantment.  In our production, the sorcerer Prospero's strongest piece of magic is the actual telling of the story. He conjures the story and its characters from out of thin air in order that he might share something of himself with us and that we might learn something about ourselves. So we're working with a device that underscores that notion, that all of us in the audience are a part of telling this story. I don't want to give away anymore, but I think it's pretty cool!

Revue: In some ways The Green must be limiting as a stage, and in others, it seems like the best possible place to create the magic island where The Tempest takes place. How are you making the most of the space? What are you doing to transform it?

MC:  It is a challenging space! But it is also uniquely suited to our purpose. Our design attempts to at once stay out of the text's way, while evoking a twilight zone desert island.

Revue: For those of us who've forgotten our Shakespeare, what are a few of the most memorable lines or scenes from The Tempest? Is there anything as good as, say, the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V or the chaste, but wildly romantic, scene where Romeo and Juliet kiss using only their hands?

MC: The most famous speech in the show is Prospero's containing the line: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on" which really captures a core theme of the play, the malleable, transitory, and elusive nature of reality. This play is also remarkable in its fun-house mirror quality. It takes a simple situation like a plot to overthrow a sovereign and plays and replays it in many different forms. We hear Prospero talk about how he was overthrown, we see newly shipwrecked nobles plotting to overthrow their leader, and then in a grotesque parody we see a similar story unfolding amongst a pair of drunken clowns and a monster of the island. Those drunk scenes, by the way, are hysterical.

Revue: Is Shakespeare harder for actors to perform than something written more recently? What direction do you give your actors that's specifically related to performing The Bard? 

MC: Shakespeare presents his own specific challenges, but there are ways of navigating his works. I enjoin my casts to strive for the same truth and spirit of play no matter what text we're working on, but when working on Shakespeare, I do pay particular attention to the rhythm of the verse. The meter of the poetry provides a guide to the actor, as well as serving as a motor to the action. One is wise to pay close attention to this rhythm.  On the other hand, interesting things can happen when one decides to break the verse, as long as this is done judiciously and with a specific intention.

 Revue: Who are the lead actors? Have they performed Shakespeare before?

MC: Jonathan Ray plays Prospero, and he has quite a lot of experience working with Shakespeare. Most of our cast has quite a bit of experience with this sort of material. I'd feel remiss if I only named a few "leads" for this project.  In our work on The Tempest, we've worked hard to build an ensemble of performers. This is a team effort, without leads — or rather with only lead roles.

Revue: I've seen young children at some of the Shakespeare on the Green performances in years past. (And, I've been impressed with how attentive they were.) Is The Tempest for kids? What ages?

MC: The Tempest was one of the first plays I saw, and at quite a tender age. I don't think there is anything that would upset a child, apart from some scary sound effects!

 Revue: Anything else you'd like to say that I haven't asked?

MC: I hope people will enjoy the work of our team, as we've assembled some crackerjack artists to work on this show, and they are doing really fine work. The actor is at the center of the theatrical event and the actors in this production are outdoing themselves to create performances that are funny and frightening and tender and true. I'm very proud of all of them.

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