A Tempest off Matiu Somes Island

The Birth of Adventure Theatre

While marketing Frogs Under the Waterfront and Quarantine I simply let the journalists label my shows in whatever they would, as I was just overjoyed to have the publicity. The genre they were always most inclined to choose was "interactive" theatre. I never liked the classification, but I'd never been to sure what label to offer in replacement.

So you can see why I didn't really embrace the media's label of 'interactive'; and so promised myself before the marketing for The Tempest started in earnest that if any journalists contacted me I'd be sure to slyly push another label on them. But what label?

"Site-specific" was the first alternative that sprung to mind, and although more descriptive and accurate, it (firstly) fails to encapsulate the entirety of the experience of our shows, and (secondly) I think its a bit off-putting for general members of the public. Theatre buffs and practitioners know what the term refers to, but as a stand-alone descriptive phrase without any background, its not at all evocative, verily dripping with insipidity.

From the Campfire to Adventure Theatre

Entertainment, and human interaction in general, has come full circle since our days of a few hundred huddled round a bonfire. At the outset of the human experience, in a state of nature, communication was more or less among equal peers, and entertainment was what the wide world had to offer, and the limits to that entertainment was simply the limits of one's own intrepidity and curiosity.

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However, as technology developed, labor divided, and superstitions institutionalized, the communication became one-sided (the rulers informing the ruled ), and the entertainment became vicarious. Exploration and curiosity became unacceptable in the prescribed roles doled out to people: and so in the place of the wide world, people we were given a stage with performers imagining adventure.

But the days of intrepid exploration and personal communion with our environment has been replaced to forcefully to return wholesale into our lives. Invisible barriers restrict us at every turn from engaging with our environment, from delving into the dark parts of the city, from scrambling across the rooftops, or spelunking through drainage systems. We've been taught to regard our fabricated world as purely utilitarian, a plane on which to carry out our prescribed duties. We no longer see the city as a place to explore, but only as a place to use, and only in the ways it was intended to be used.

But there is no reason for this frame of mind. There is no reason we shouldn't take our desire for adventure into the dark urban antipodes, for they are the only unexplored places on Earth, For in the process of mapping every inch of the planet we've mutated our homes, these cities, into completely alien conglomerates of conflicting aesthetics, ideas, and egos in physical form, rubbing up against each other. Buildings fuse into one another; sculptures are buried; tunnels remain unexplored, alleyways untrod, roofs unclambered upon, the undersides of waterfronts unexcavated.

"But why explore," the lazy drunks will moan, "there is the pub," or the movies, or the video games, or any other number of ready-made activities at your fingertips. "Everything's been explored, everything's been thought of, everything's been done," is the common mantra of the already-dead. Quite the contrary: almost nothing has been thought of, almost everywhere has yet to be explored. Our world is so constantly in flux that any venture into a new part of the city-scape will be new, because the world around has changed so drastically, both in terms of physical character and available information with which to interpret that character. How can things not be new, when everything around us is constantly changing, physically and intellectually?

Despite what people may be led to believe by their restrictive upbringings, everyone has the urge to explore. Both the hidden city and the hidden bits of their own imagination. Theatre, being the only art form that is directly accessible to life, is therefore the ideal form to fulfill people's most burning desires: to explore, to adventure, to take curiosity's lead without wondering about the consequences.

And that is why a theatre of adventure will one day become far more popular than video games.

And those people who say that a popular form cannot be artistically powerful are swimming in their own wanky manure. Art should not be snobbish. The human soul (or the bit of the frontal cortex that serves said function) is essentially uniform at its primal level, and if art cannot touch that universal primal aspect, if it only can connect with the cluttered intellects a small group that like to call themselves elite (but who are actually far from it), then it is not good art, nor good entertainment - it is, in fact, nothing more than wanky horse piss (bullshit).

Adapting the Tempest

When I first decided that Matiu Somes would be a great place for an adventure-theatre spectacle, The Tempest is what immediately popped into my mind. Along with being the only Shakespeare play I'd ever been truly interested in directing, it also matched the location, and the audience's journey physical journey seamlessly.

However, after re-reading the script a number of problems became apparent. The length, firstly, considering the long boat ride and the lack of facilities on the island itself, it would be stupid to try and cram the whole play in. Secondly, there are are over 15 characters in the original. I'm sure Shakespeare used to double up his actors, but that was back when people were more used to suspending their disbelief. Modern entertainment has all but annihilated that ability. So I'm fervently against doubling actors unless there is a convincing way of having it make sense artistically or within the narrative.

But it turns out these problems were all easily surmounted.

I started the process by watching all the available versions of the Tempest. I found that the recent 2010 version really sucked. There was no design cohesion, and it seemed as if the actors were doing a first read through of the play on camera, long before they'd discovered any of the pith underneath the words. I suppose that is what screen actors typically do: deliver the lines for more or less the very first time on camera, to achieve an unrehearsed, fresh, 'real' delivery. I just don't think that tactic works for Shakespeare, where there is truly a lot more going on under the surface than in your typical movie script. Shakespeare definitely needs a significant rehearsal period, whether it be be for screen or stage, and the 2010 Tempest was proof of this. Apart from those pitfalls, the movie just wasn't funny. The actual play is absurd and totally hilarious, so the fact that the actors and director sucked all the hilarity out of every scene was truly a stunning feat. I don't know what they were trying to achieve, but it wasn't achieved. 

Anyway, despite its craptacularity, the movie provided me with a few good ideas for my adaption. Firstly, the twisting of Prospero into a woman and the subsequent script re-writes provided me with ample material  when re-constructing the monologues of our Prospero (The Dean of Victoria University of Wellington, rather than the Dean of Milan). And most importantly the movie represented the western world's most recent collective vision of the play, which is always good to use as a touchstone. Luckily it wasn't hard to top!

Finally came the task of consolidating, or just plain cutting, the throngs of characters while retaining the essence of the play. I couldn't afford, nor manage, 15 actors; and as mentioned before I was loathe to double up roles. So the only solution was to merge characters or cut completely. A good gauge of the finest moments in a play are the bits that people tend to cling onto and talk about long after the experience. In the Tempest those moments are wide reaching - people come away from reading the script or watching a production with different powerful moments that remain forever with them: from Ariel's song; Trinculo's first entrance; Caliban's recital of the Island's qualities; Prospero's monologues about his past. But almost nobody remembers Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo and that other guy. Cause they're boring. The only thing important about these characters is their relationship to Prospero's past, and thus their purpose for being shipwrecked in the first place. But the real meat of their characters was limited, and so it wasn't difficult at all to consolidate their past and a few of their traits into Stephano and Trinculo.

Trinculo naturally took the history, aspects of the personality, and some lines of Gonzalo, while Stephano sucked up aspects of both Sebastian and Alonso. 

Endowing our Stephano and Trinculo with the plot-lines and aspects of the personalities of the nobleman was initially a time-saving and actor-reducing expedient. But as I was re-hashing the script I realized that the effect was more suited to our times, and somewhat more potent than the original. Our society is far less stratified than Shakespeare's and to have the lower classes (like Chefs and Jesters - the occupations of Stephano and Trinculo respectively) fill the roles of the bumbling comedic morons doesn't really make sense anymore. Nor does it really ring true to have the higher classes the only characters with the ability to string together pentameter after pentameter of evocative imagery. It seems to me in fact that many occupying the most powerful roles in society (professors, politicians, CEO's, general practitioners, lawyers, councilors) are largely imbeciles; while those relegated to the lower status roles are often just as informed, skilled and intelligent.

It is merely a consequence of our times: the unbridled access of free and unlimited information to anyone with a curious mind, has quashed the uneven distribution of knowledge which had been for years the force that held the hierarchy steady. But despite the even distribution of actual knowledge and skill, the status hierarchy remains, and so a single-minded, dull, pathetic professor is still considered more highly by society than a well-informed, self-enlightened electrician.

So, to get to the point: imbuing the play's foremost imbeciles with the status of Professors, says a good deal about how far idiots can get in this world. And so, as a side-effect of my cuts became a comment on what happens when those who exist in the framework of society's status fabrication confront the chaos of nature.

Ariel was always a female in my mind, although the character is alluded to once or twice as 'he' in the original. Every single godforsaken version I've seen has Ariel played as a half-naked effeminate, cringing man. If you're going to go so far out of your way to make a man so much like a woman, why the hell not just have a woman!

The character of Caliban has had the most fascinating historical development of all the characters in The Tempest. I imagine in Shakespeare's day he would have been more of a novelty than the symbolic center of the narrative that he has become. But surely there is no other character like him in Shakespeare's works, nothing so fantastical and otherworldly in his conception, yet grounded and primal in his action, none that quite embodied both animal baseness and human soul so thoroughly. It is imagined that Caliban was constructed as an allusion to the colonized people's of the New World, as the play would have been first staged during the height of the Age of Exploration. 

In the 1800's, while the Theory of Evolution was the hot new topic, Caliban was portrayed in many productions as a half-ape / half-human missing link in the descent of our species. To even acknowledge the validity of such an upstart theory would have been scandalous at the time (and still is, I guess, in chunks of America).

When whispers of emancipation began spreading around the US, and Britain was taking a strong moral stance against American Slavery, Caliban was played as an African American slave in both countries. This helped him to become more an object of sympathy, as he is often regarded in productions these days.

Then Freud sledgehammered the intellectual world on the head with his release of "The Interpretation of Dreams", and Caliban was cast in a few instances as the Id to Prospero's Ego. A bit too abstract for my liking. 

These days you can find Caliban representing the trodden upon, oppressed, minority, and third world people's. He has come to embody the people, in general, off whose demeaning labour we lucky-born feel entitled to feed. Our world is full of real life Caliban's. And we are generally the worst aspects of Prospero in our own right.

I wanted to stay away from explicitly engaging in politics with the characters. Besides, staging the play on an island that was wrested by colonizers from the native Maori not all that long ago, is already a situation replete with undertones. No reason to overtone it. Indeed, there was no reason to make the politics explicit. And besides, world culture's 400 year sedimentation of meaning atop the character of Caliban will not go away regardless of how I choose to display him. On the contrary, it will be there beneath the surface under any outer layer I construct. So, I thought the best line choice was the simplest: To portray Caliban in light of one of Shakespeare's overriding themes in the play: nature vs. 'art' (human's manipulation of nature). I wanted Caliban, a native of this particular island, Matiu Somes Island, to represent the horror of human interference with nature gone wrong: a conglomeration of war; cold-blooded violence; industrial toil; mechanical rot; imprisonment; enslavement; autocracy; self-important colonization; the rape of nature. I wanted Caliban's personality to effuse the disastrous consequences of 'art', I wanted to see a man deformed by nature and beaten-down by humanity.

This would be in complete contrast to the success of human 'art' on Ariel. The outer beauty of technology and unrestrained fossil fuel driven development. Ariel is the iPhone; and Caliban is the 9-year old child worker toiling away in crumbling factories for next to no pay. Ariel is our ability to jet-set about the world and adventure in foreign lands; and Caliban is the tornado of noxious fumes engulfing our world. Ariel is a beautiful mahogany wooden desk, Caliban is a landfill of Amazonian extinction. Ariel is nuclear fission; Caliban is the chernobyl baby.

The Tempest has also seen its fair share of strange sexual relationships interpreted between the lines. My adaption was a fairly classic interpretation in this regard. I just didn't see any evidence in the script of Miranda secretly wanting to have it on with her father or Caliban, nor did Ferdinand and Prospero really seem to be getting horny for each other. No, we kept our sex energy where it was apparent, between Miranda and Ferdinand, and in a lesser degree between Prospero and Ariel, although that was a more a bond of love rather than lust, being that you can't really have intercourse with the elements. Or so I've been led to believe.

In almost all adaptions of the Tempest, Miranda is portrayed as an innocent, lovestruck precious thing, and Ferdinand a gallant, noble gentleman who would never demean Miranda's honor by surrendering to the ardor of his liver before all sanctimonious ceremonies administered. I don't know if directors go with this because it is tradition, but I think we all know from experience that its a load of malarkey (horsepiss (bullshit)). Think about it: Miranda has just finished up puberty and has been living alone without male company (apart from her father and Caliban) for her whole life. She's horny. Ferdinand is probably in his early 20's, has been away at sea for a number of days under his father's watchful eye, and is now wandering about on a deserted island. He's horny. To see their relationship as anything more than pure instinctual lust (nature) disguised in poetic language (art), is silly. That is where all the comedy is! It is so apparent. I'm 100% sure this is how it would have been performed in Shakespeare's day, as two hormonal youths trying to get into each other's pants. There is nothing overly romantic or honorable going on.

Set

The set construction was strenuous, taxing, and (for me at least) a somewhat spiritual experience.

The Animal Quarantine Buildiing is a protected historical site, and most of the concrete structure's interior is left exactly as it was the day the Quarnatine workers left in the early 1980's. All the giant furnaces to burn feces and carcasses; the slated, raised pallet flooring; the pens, the hand tools; the creaking metal wheelbarrows, and myriad iron sliding doors and swinging gates. Its a fantastic place, and we were given quite a bit of freedom while designing the set. The only stipulation was that at the end of the run everything had to go back exactly as it was when we started.

The biggest challenge was the the audience seating in the animal cell section. (Strangely enough, Prospero often refers to his 'poor cell' in the original script - this being a scholar's, or monk's place of study. And 400 years later he is put in an animal cell, so we didn't have to change the wording the script, but people probably thought we did.) He, Miranda, and Caliban each occupied a cell, all rigged with a self-operated lighting system that could illuminate the cells individually. The audience would be two rows deep, 35 in front sitting and 30 in back standing. To see the performers over the gates and walls of the cells the performers would have to be raised quite significantly. This meant lugging over 50 extremely heavy pallets through the twists and turns of the Animal Quarantine Station and stacking them strategically in the cells, in places where the actors' performances would be centered. Then we decked out each cell with the bits and bobs that these people would have collected over the years in their little hovels. This aspect of the set, although physically taxing, was successful and straightforward.

The epic came with the set construction for the outdoor section of the play, held in the animal exercise courtyard, which was open to the elements but couched within the walls of the building. I wanted the place completely and permanently waterproofed in case the inevitable happened (it is Wellington after all). So, I bought nine 2.4/2.4 gazebos and painstakingly constructed them in the courtyard. They were nothing more than frames of flimsy aluminum  prone to collapse at the slightest hint of stress. Once the tarpaulin is pulled down over the legs, the entire thing is somewhat more secure as one tight bundle. However, the eddies of wind which funneled around the courtyard from outside swept up underneath these tarpaulin topped pyramids and caused them to wander about, hoping, and tripping over their own flimsy legs like gigantic industrial daddy long leg spiders. It truly was a sight to behold by the time I had six of them up: the courtyard was crowded with the creatures and at times there I felt rather in the minority and low on the foot chain what with these china-made tents suddenly chaotically blown full of life all at once around me. When a particularly large gust of wind would sweep through the courtyard, the structures leapt up and attacked from all angles, or smash themselves up against the wall in profound joy at their new found sentience.

To tame the creatures I secured their legs together with bungy cords, creating a 3 X 3 grid. During securing and construction there were minor bouts of mutiny against the enslaver, but eventually I had the uprising quelled and the beasts ready to do my bidding.

The entire team, actors, managers and designers all made a trip out to the island a week before opening to practice in the newly-built sets. The indoor area was a great success, but the courtyard had issues. Something I'd failed to consider while wrestling with the gazebos was that the 3X3 super-structure was patently ugly disrupting completely from the aesthetic, and their low roofs seriously disrupted sight-lines of some of the more wonderful moments of the show, which take place on high. However, what with all I had to think about, this wasn't a problem to reconsider from ground zero, but to modify to suit our needs. I resolved to buy more gazebos in an attempt to extend the legs higher to increase sight lines. I couldn't bear to go through with a complete rethink of how to waterproof the space, and so ignored the elephant in the room - that  these gazebos were unwieldy, ugly things. 

Fast-forward five frantic production week days. Two nights before opening. I've rented two houses are out on the island and the whole crew of 17 is making the journey to the Island and staying the night. Our final rehearsal.

And it was a torrential death swirl of a day: Classic Uber-Wellington weather. Gale force winds ripped through the harbour, flinging white caps across the already billowing swell. rain careened down intermittently in fervent outbursts. Half the group would depart at 10 o'clock on the first ferry to the island, with the rest coming across at around 2 o'clock. Now, the East by West Ferry, which services the island, and was our supplier for the audience's chartered ferries, runs in pretty much anything. It has to be fantastically crappy for them not to go out. And here they were considering cancelling the service; and almost certainly they would have had they not known how important these final two days were for us. So they ran a highly risky service across just for us. And it was a rollercoaster. The catamaran heaved up and plummeted down the crests of waves, white caps smashed across the entire vessel, almost constantly blinding the skipper's vision. Many times I felt we were up on our sides with the weight of the ship just about to tip over the point of no return. The driver twisted this way and that to find the course of least conflict, but the wind god was out for murder.

Eventually we made it to the island without injury and fought against the elements to disembark from the boat. It was there, in the pseudo-protection of the rat house (the biosecurity checking room) that one of the rangers, after going through the formalities, solemnly informed me that my kingdom of gazebos had been destroyed. Massacred. One had actually flown up out of the courtyard within the quarantine station, over the walls and onto the other side, its long aluminum leg found beating itself against one of the windows in unmitigable fury, directing its last throes of life against the closest edifice of its human oppressors.

The other gazebos were found in one corner of the courtyard: over 300 bits of hollow aliminum legging, twisted, bent, curled, rusted, deformed, bundled up in blankets of ripped tarpaulin flapping feebly amongst the wreckage. Two rangers had spent the morning cleaning the mess up, lugging the remains into an adjacent building with sufficient space to splay the carcasses out for inspection. Though no thorough autopsy was necessary, for it was obvious what happened. But I conducted my own autopsy of symbolism, just think: for a bonafide tempest, the potent messenger of nature, had just wreaked unbridled havoc on our human made story about tempests, our art. There was certainly some mining for meaning to be done. But before I could allow myself the luxury I had to search for a solution. I had to find a set, and fast.

News came soon afterwards that because the actual Tempest had reached such mind-blowing proportions that indeed the ferry which attempted to take the rest of our actors and crew to the island had to turn back halfway, in the place of the harbour through which the most vicious windflow blasted. So we were left without a set, without designers, without a great deal of our actors. Like Noah after the flood I began picking up the pieces.

Mike Ness and I went to work constructing a new set which ended up being far more beautiful, with a rustic charm open to the stars and night sky. Bamboo stakes were secured tightly into large sections of a felled tree and placed around the stage. Orange-tinted camping lamps were then hung from the bamboo, bobbing and swinging happily in the heavy whirlwinds within the courtyard. But there was still no shelter from the rain. The five day forecast promised good weather and so we decided to let the first three shows be exposed to the elements, and to find a more permanent solution for the following week. 

The few of us who ended up on the island enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, basking in calmness brought on by warm shelter at the epicentre of a harrowing tempest. We celebrated the birthdays of two of our group and sang 1990's cartoon theme tunes late into the night.

The following day was beautiful. Perfect sunshine and a light breeze. The rest of the crew came early and we rehearsed out in the open air, under blue skies. That was our dress rehearsal and it went swimmingly, albeit without trialing either the lighting nor the management of the audience up the hill.

And it turns out a more permanent solution never had to be found, for by a stroke of what can only have been divine intervention, there was not a single rainy day over the 4 week run.

Theatre and Its Double

I'm sure it must be this way with all directors, but when immersed in a production, reality and the world of the play often become indistinguishable from each other. Relationships mimic each other, as do circumstances, attitudes, even the weather chips in. And here suddenly we had the Wind God (who I'd paid sacrificial tribute to in a former production) tearing apart this crappy looking set and clearing the way for a the renewed creative drive that otherwise wouldn't have occurred.

On a greater scale, the entirety of my journey to New Zealand to stage the production was a version of The Tempest encapsulated. I'd finally moved to Australia a few months before, after it became far to time and money consuming constantly having to satisfy New Zealand's ass-backward immigration bureaucrats. And by a serendipitous chain of affirmations, grants, and other green lights I found myself with a ticket back to a fairly mystical Island out in the middle of nowhere (New Zealand) to engage in my own art among mystical creatures, before once again being tossed with these dreamlike experiences back into Melbourne, into Milan, into the relative normality of this day to day.

I had hours of behind the scene footage on DV tapes that were truly splendid in their entirety and would have been a great watch for you once edited and put to music. But alas, they were all stolen from the trunk (boot) of my car shortly before I returned to Australia, along with a bunch of other sentimental belongings (including the backpack I'd traveled with for 10 years and had mounted Mount Cook with), and thus all these moments which were supposed to be eternalised in physical form have instead been designated eternally for my memory, and relayed to the outside world only in some future torrents of largely insufficient verbiage. Moving picture documentation of my life in the White House, the team's rehearsal space, and my temporary home; of the actors wandering around in costume reciting their lines in the massive field behind the white house, like absurd ghosts in an impossible reality; Marcus McShane acting like a chicken; the stop-motion construction of the ill-fated gazebos, and their subsequent mangled carcasses; the first rehearsals.

Realizing I had lost these tapes was a blow to me, but I soon discovered this was just further commingling of the play world with my reality: like Prospero was compelled to drown his books before his departure back to civilization, so I had to offer up my recorded memories. By making this parallel, I leave myself prone to accusations of superstition, but nevertheless give my life some sort of cosmic purpose, which is the only way I find that I can remain sane.

 Directors notes from the 2014 productions

Directors notes from the 2014 productions

 Directors notes from 2013

Directors notes from 2013