Production Questions

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about the character of Ariel and pondered how one would present the character on stage in a production of The Tempest. And as we begin to move toward the end of our time on the island (and our final podcast discussion of the play, which usually includes a directorial concept), I’m wondering about some of the other elements of stagecraft needed for the play.


All of The Tempest takes place on the island, save for the opening 66-line scene. How do you create a set that is island-like, yet can still stand-in for the ship in that opening sequence?

I’ve talked before of my first Tempest, at the Mark Taper Forum back in 1979, which made great use of a cone of black fabric that covered the island staging, but allowed for a representation of the ship. It was magnificent and–when the cone was pulled away to reveal the island–magical.

I’d call that the “shock and awe” approach.

A more whimsical approach was found in the Teller/Posner Tempest from a few years back, in it Prospero had a large, clear bowl of water and Ariel with paper boat. That worked as well.

I suppose you could do all of that first scene as a a projection on a scrim or screen, or even voices in the dark.

I guess it all depends on what the thrust of the overall production is.


Magic and Masques

This is the tough one. Even without the Teller magic illusions, the tone of his Tempest was magically whimsical; with the magic, it was magnificently magical. But not every production will have access to an illusionist to help with the presentation of the uncanny. So what to do?

The two major moments of magical note are the banquet for the shipwreck-ees in Act Three, Scene Three, and the wedding masque for Miranda and Ferdinand in Act Four, Scene One. How do you pull that off?

Of course, a follow-up question is: does that wedding masque really have to be so long? I mean, really, does it have to be nearly 100 lines long? I’m not even completely sure what dramatic purpose it serves… can anyone enlighten me?



And, for me, this is the big one.

I’ve seen this played as a kind of sasquatch and a scaly man…often by black actors (I think this casting is to push the postcolonial read of the play, about which you know I am ambivalent). But is that what he should look like? Remember Trinculo’s description of Caliban goes like this:

What have we here, a man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish, he smells like a fish—a very ancient and fishlike smell, a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-John. A strange fish. … Legged like a man, and his fins like arms!
  • II.ii.24-27, 32-3

So I’m not sure about the hairy-beast or the noble African or West Indian native presentations. The scaly bit comes closer to the text, but really not THAT much closer. Of course, on the other end of the representational spectrum, the Teller/Posner production had two actors playing Caliban

speaking at times in unison, at others in split lines, but always creating a single body, with choreography by the modern dance company Pilobolus. It’s a wild physical creation mutating with every movement.

Now, this isn’t exactly canonical, either, but setting the play in the world of carnies and barkers allows them a little leeway, I suppose.

Yeah, this play does provide some challenges…

2 Replies to “Production Questions”

  1. That is a most interesting question about the dramatic intent of the wedding scene. I think it is Shakespeare’s attempt to compete and rival but not imitate nor over-emphasize the masques that Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones favored.More, it is Shakespeare’s attempt to give his audience a bit of the masque without overdoing it. The scene also allows Shakespeare to riff off Spenser’s The Fairie Queen. Further, by experimenting with the familiar pattern of using comedy and pleasant scenes as relief in tragedy, the wedding is more entertainment that lessens conflict and brings harmony to dramatic ups and downs elsewhere in the play. The wedding serves as the calm to the rough waves and literal Tempest theme, although marriages have their blustery moments, too.

    1. Jeff,
      that’s brilliant.
      I hadn’t thought of the theatrical conventions/context of the time, and this makes total sense.
      From a twenty-first century view, the masque may not be very “entertaining” but it was conventional to the contemporary audience.
      Thanks for the input!

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