My first Tempest

So, as we kick off The Tempest, it’s ‘memory lane’ time…

Excuse me while I wax nostalgic.

Anthony Hopkins and Stephanie Zimbalist in the 1979 Mark Taper Forum production of The Tempest.
Anthony Hopkins and Stephanie Zimbalist in the 1979 Mark Taper Forum production of The Tempest.

OK, for long-time listeners, you know I caught the Shakespeare bug from one of the best English teachers and mentors I ever had, Bill Lindquist. When I was a freshman, reading the Bard for the first time, he made Romeo and Juliet feel illicit, dangerous, funny, and tragic all at once. It made a difference.

Because of that initial spark, I think my parents gave me one of those budget Shakespeare collections–meant to look like the Folio only with edits and spelling corrections–for Christmas my sophomore year. Back then, living in Ventura County, if you wanted “culture” (and that’s what Shakespeare equated) you had to go to LA. Luckily, my dad loved to get the early edition L.A. Times Sunday edition on Saturday nights. He would pour over world news and editorials, and I was leaf page-by-page through its entertainment section, Calendar. Well, it must have been spring of that sophomore year when Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum announced an upcoming run of The Tempest, starring some guy named Anthony Hopkins (you know, The Silence of the Lambs was a dozen years later; though this did make me follow his career from that point on–Magic…cool. Sorry. Squirrel.) and Stephanie Zimbalist (whose dad used to star in this FBI tv series, and who would later herself star in Remington Steele). I begged my parents to get tickets. And they did (so sue me, I was a spoiled only child).

In the weeks before that show, I read The Tempest at least two times. I wasn’t sure I got it. My version didn’t gloss any difficult words, didn’t have any commentary. But I wanted to know what was going on. Honestly, though, I still think I went in relatively blind.

We had tickets to a matinee. I remember getting there, and being amazed. There were three–three!–theaters in the Music Center complex: the huge Dorothy Chandler (which I recognized from the Oscar broadcasts), the really big Ahmanson, and what seemed to be the tiny Mark Taper Forum. The Taper was in a circular building, and when we entered, I found out why. The stage was thrust, with the audience surrounding at least ⅔ of it (though in my 16 year-old mind, it was more than ¾). As we took our seats, I was blown away. The only theater I had been in had proscenium and a curtain, this didn’t. Only it did.

Let me explain.

The stage seemed to be surrounded by a cone of black material, like parachute silk. It was attached at the bottom around the edge of the stage, and at the top–in a much smaller semi circle. And there were weird holes cut into it. What the hell was this thing?

When the house lights went down, it wasn’t with a fade but with a sudden black-out and the peal of thunder. A tight spotlight hit one of holes, and a sailor appeared there. When another character spoke, he appeared in another hole, illuminated. The actors all swayed and jerked as if they were on a boat going down. This was the storm, the tempest. It was awesome. And when the scene ended, with another crash and black-out, you could hear click-snapping from the top of the theater where the cone was attached to the ceiling.

And then there was a swoosh. The top fell, but even in the darkness, I could see the middle was pulling the top down. And as the stage lights came up slowly, the silk cone was being sucked, pulled through the center stage trap door. And the disappearing blackness revealed a mountain on stage.

My 16 year-old chin hit the freaking floor.

It was–fittingly–magical. I remember the production being funny. I remember it being weird. I remember it being … awesome.

Beyond that, I don’t remember much. But if Lindquist had baited the hook and got me to nibble, this production sank it. I was a goner.

A goner for Shakespeare.

And since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for The Tempest.

One thought on “My first Tempest”

  1. This is a great story. Thanks for sharing it. It sounds like you got pretty lucky in the parent department (but then, it’s arguable that they got pretty lucky, too).

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