INTERMISSION | 15 MINUTES WITH:
The writer-director is having a big year with adaptations of Chekhov and Shakespeare
Aaron Posner's work was terra incognita for me until last spring, when Arye Gross told me his next stage role would be Dr. Sorn, blending brother Sorin and Dr. Dorn from Chekhov's The Seagull, in a zesty adaptation entitled Stupid Fucking Bird.
The adapter was Aaron Posner.
As these things happen, within days a magazine assignment arrived to write an advance on South Coast Repertory's season-opening production of The Tempest. It was a high-profile juggernaut with music by Tom Waits, movement by Pilobolus, and showroom-calibre illusions designed by some of the country's greatest magicians.
It also was adapted by Posner, this time in collaboration with co-director Teller, the mute half of magicomics Penn and Teller. Posner and Teller wanted to stage Shakespeare's final work to suspend an audience in disbelief just as the gobsmacked characters are in the play. As Teller said before its world premiere in Las Vegas earlier this year, "The Tempest is a story about a magician. So there ought to be some magic in the darn thing!"
Aaron Posner is a Helen Hayes and Barrymore Award-winning playwright and director. His adaptations include Macbeth (with Teller), Stupid Fucking Bird [REVIEW] (a finalist for the Steinberg Award and the winner of the 2014 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play, adapted from Chekhov’s The Seagull), Who Am I This Time? (& Other Conundrums of Love) (adapted from Kurt Vonnegut short stories), The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev (adapted from the Chaim Potok novels), Sometimes a Great Notion (adapted from Ken Kesey), a nine-actor Cyrano, and a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Murder, A Mystery & A Marriage. He is a founder and former Artistic Director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre and has directed at major regional theaters from coast to coast. He is an artistic associate at Milwaukee Repertory and the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Biography from SCR production of The Tempest
Posner has said, in a video linked above right, "The truth is, this is the most exciting, the hardest, the most challenging, and the most thrilling production I've ever been part of."
The Tempest opens in Costa Mesa on September 5 following runs at the co-producing Smith Center in Las Vegas and American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As background for the magazine article I reached Posner by telephone one morning shortly after Stupid Fucking Bird opened what would become a critically acclaimed, extended run at the Theatre @ Boston Court. [See "Flipping the bird" REVIEW.] Already up to his clavicles directing The Doctor's Dilemma at American Players Theatre near Madison, Wisconsin, he generously gave more than 15 minutes to talk about both adaptations.
CRISTOFER GROSS: As Shakespeare's final play, does The Tempest offer any summations or final statements on life, theater, or art?
AARON POSNER: Just having done the first play [The Comedy of Errors at California Shakespeare Theater], I see the last play less about a summation and more about the fact that he is at that point such a bold and innovative and wide dramatist. And if part of his greatness is spreading the broad tent and including the groundlings and the aristocracy, and looking at all of human experience, in The Tempest he's now doing that with pageantry, and psychological truths, and philosophy, and ridiculous low humor as well as the most sophisticated musings on death, mortality, and the nature of reality. It's a diverse world that he is creating, and that is what makes The Tempest an irresistible draw to work on and such a hard play to actually embody and make effective.
GROSS: Describe Prospero as you see him.
POSNER: He can be described so many different ways: powerful, obsessive, fierce. I think Teller's core way into Prospero is as a man who's been obsessed with magic his whole life, to the neglect of all other things including the ruling of his kingdom. At the center of it for Teller is what happened to make him now choose to give up his magic.
For me, I have a daughter who's approaching 3 years old, and as I started on this play this time, it became the story of a father and a daughter. The father has perhaps learned what's more important and has to make the choices necessary to ensure the future for his daughter, and he feels the pull that she has on him as he figures out how to balance his current needs and his desire for revenge. And, because his brother put Prospero and his daughter out to sea to die, the deep wrong was done to her, too, and that's a whole other level of revenge.
It's such a great, irresistibly engaging character: simultaneously powerful and fragile, who starts the play with a drive to revenge and ends with an acceptance of mortality and of forgiveness and the impermanence of things. That's a pretty interesting journey.
GROSS: In a way, the course of the play is Prospero achieving ultimate power over the others and that finally allows him to relax his revenge and be forgiving.
POSNER: That's certainly one view of it. I've been more focused on how he begins to understand the effect his actions will have on his daughter, and himself, if he continues through with this action.
The degree of his power is an interesting and open debate, because he actually doesn't do much. Ariel does most of the stuff for him. He has a kind of control through forces I'm not sure we understand. But it's interesting that although he certainly has some power, and controls some forces, his power has more to do with show than with anything else.
GROSS: He's leveraging Ariel, so he does it by proxy, nevertheless . . .
GROSS: How did he and when did he acquire his powers?
POSNER: We believe that it is through study. If the play leads us to believe anything solid it's through the books, through the learning, so that the idea of the acquisition of knowledge is the source of a kind of arcane power. It's an obsession with something that draws him inward instead of outward. I'm interested in what prompts him to use his magic.
I've done the play twice before and the magic has just been by stage devices: you know, gobo rotators [laughs]. What we've done here is replace that with magic tricks, illusions, and appearances and disappearances. It's using the vocabulary of the magic show and actual tricks to fulfill the magic in the play so that the audience is placed in the same perspective as the characters. Ariel is standing there one second, he throws a sheet up in the air and one second later he's Prospero! The audience thinks That's not possible, which is the same response of a character who says, "How was I standing on board a ship and suddenly I'm on an island and my clothes are dry and we're all safe?" Or, "I killed this guy 12 years ago. How can he be standing in front of me?"
It makes it a much more interesting play when we are hurled into the world along with them. And same thing with the movement, you know, with Caliban being played by two actor-dancer-movers: You feel he's otherworldly and intimidating. And you get a more visceral sense of why Prospero would find this so threatening.
GROSS: I just re-watched the opening scenes of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and was struck by its depiction of theater as spectacle. Generating amazement is something high-brow theater shuns, relegating it to big-budget musicals on Broadway or Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. Your Tempest produces amazement in an integral way that engages the audience.
POSNER: Well, amazement is my favorite word in the theater. I use it constantly. My daughter is named Maisie partially because of its connection to amazement. That capacity for amazement, for wonder, for disbelief, to find yourself in awe. There's a thousand words that: awesome, wonderful, unfathomable, I love all of those words. And this is what Shakespeare did in all of his plays. He's the king of it. And again this runs the gamut, because it's there in Comedy of Errors and it's there in The Tempest and it's in everything in between.
Though it's not 100 percent true, by and large in a Shakespeare play every day is the most amazing day of anybody's life. As I've often said, this is the day you will tell your grandchildren about, if in fact you survive to have grandchildren, which often in a Shakespeare play doesn't happen because while it's the most amazing day of your life you may also die! But in a play like The Tempest, this is the day that will change everybody's life. Miranda will never forget this day. Ferdinand will never forget it. No one will forget this one most remarkable day of their entire lives.
And as we know from our real lives, the most remarkable days – the birth of your child, your wedding day, the day of the horrible accident – for better or worse are those we remember most vividly. Those are the days that are filled to the bursting point with amazement and disbelief and awe. And Shakespeare got that, and filled his plays with those days. I think that is a reason they've endured for 400 years.
THE TEMPEST TEAM. Choreographer Matt Kent, co-directors Aaron Posner and Teller, and magic designer Johnny Thompson | Photo by Andrea Shea/WBUR
GROSS: How did you and Teller meet?
POSNER: Teller grew up in Philadelphia and his parents were still there when I was living there working with Arden Theatre Company. So he was in Philadelphia quite often and we had a mutual friend – Bill Collins, critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer – who introduced us and he came and saw a production of the Tempest I did at the Arden in 1993.
GROSS: And the collaborating began when?
POSNER: We worked a little bit on a production of Midsummer at the Arden in 1998, where I was directing and he helped me out with a couple of fabulous magic tricks. That was the beginning of our working together and that was when he told me about this idea that he would like to do Macbeth at some point.
GROSS: You are co-adapters and co-directors. How do those duties actually divide?
POSNER: We conceived everything together through hundreds of hours of conversation. We spent years – literally years – in discussions, reading the plays to each other over the phone, workshopping the play, discussing every song, every magic trick, the whole design process. So in the conception we are just absolutely full partners and equal collaborators. In the day-to-day execution. I am doing more of the duties of the typical stage director. But Teller is very involved with that as well and he is doing more of the magic.
It's a very full collaboration. Collaboration either lifts you up or knocks you down. You turn into a committee of two or three and head towards the lowest common denominator, or you push each other farther to find better and better solutions and challenge each other. That's what we have found. He's an exceptional collaborator and I think a brilliant artist and person of the theater . . . of performance.
GROSS: Can you talk about any cuts to the text and how that fits in with "invented Shakespeare," as opposed to . . .
POSNER: As opposed to transportational Shakespeare, which is specifically transporting it to another time and place. We're sort of inventing a world of our own that is built from inspiration from various times and places. To me, that's a lot more interesting. We knew that this was all going to be about a balancing act, and we've been very gratified to hear a lot of the reviews and response that people say literally, "what an amazing balancing act," which we're very proud of. We knew that as you add magic and music and movement into an already rich text, you need to make sure it didn't turn into an excuse for a magic show or a Tom Waits concert interrupted by people talking funny. We needed to make sure we were fully respectful of all of the elements and got them all speaking to each other in an appropriate balance. That has taken years of conversations and workshopping and trying things. It continued through the rehearsal process, through the production at ART, and we have new ideas for the production at South Coast. It's an ongoing process as we fine tune and we continue to strike those balances.
It is not about dumbing it down but about clarifying it. And cutting the play in a way that gets rid of those things that are utterly inaccessible and focuses on those thing that have the capacity to really engage an audience.
One of the values Teller and I share is that practical accessibility and communication and clarity are really important to us. I believe this is a production that Shakespeare scholars are responding to and loving, which I very much appreciate, but we're doing it for the 10-year-old kids as much or more than we're doing it for the Shakespeare scholars – or the Tom Waits fans who have never been to a Shakespeare play, or Pilobolus fans or Penn and Teller fans. We're getting a lot of people who are interested in various elements of the show who never think, oh let's go see a Shakespeare play.
GROSS: And according to Teller one of those people is Waits.
POSNER: Exactly. [laughs.]
GROSS: Has it changed his mind?
POSNER: I don't know yet. I don't think he's seen the show yet so hopefully he's going to come down to South Coast.
GROSS: Speaking of South Coast, which is now part of the co-production continuum, what is your collaborative history with that theater?
I did a Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Michael Hollinger's Hope and Gravity, but [Artistic Director] Marc Masterson and I go back almost 20 years. We did co-productions when I was at the Arden and he was at City Theater in Pittsburgh, and again when he was at Actor's Theater of Louisville.
STUPID FUCKING BIRD. Arye Gross, on screen and center, with left to right Zarah Mahler, Will Bradley (with camera), Charlotte Gulezian (from back), Adam Silver, Matthew Floyd Miller and Amy Pietz | Photo by Ed Krieger
GROSS: In your description of the Tempest adaptation, I hear how this pursuit of amazement and so on is a way to infuse the present into the lives of both the characters and audience, and that is a key theme in your Chekhov adaptation. From Connie's play being titled Here We Are to the way characters break the fourth wall and actors break character. The level of spontaneity adds a sense of urgency.
POSNER: It's not coincidental that Stupid Fucking Bird uses a lot of Shakespearean devices in fact and that my 25 years of directing 20 different Shakespeare plays are all wrapped into my playwriting as well and so trying to make sure that the days are the days and that we're engaged with amazement and that kind of thing and full presence. Certainly those are all connected for me. So the distance from Stupid Fucking Bird to The Tempest is not very far for me.
GROSS: It's almost more Shakespearean than Chekhovian on some levels.
POSNER: I think it is in some ways.
GROSS: Especially the interactivity of actors and audience. It's as if we're all watching, but seven of us slip in and out of the world of the play.
POSNER: I don't think I realized it so much when I was doing it, but that's just stolen 100 percent from Shakespeare. No one ever questions the fact that Iago can finish a scene with Rodrigo and turn to us and say "Hey, what I'm doing is reasonable, this makes sense, doesn't it?" We have no problem with him knowing that he's in a play simultaneously and because it's become so ingrained we don't even think about it that way. Just because he doesn't say "Hey, I know I'm in a play . . . " doesn't mean he's ignorant of the fact that this is a theatrical construct. So I've just taken that and pushed it a notch further. . .
GROSS: Again, it's balancing the magic and the reality.
POSNER: I suppose this would be the case with both Stupid Fucking Bird and Tempest. I guess this is central to me, that I trust and ask more from our audience. Television is so good these days, the best of television is so fucking good and movies are spectacular. But they ask less and they just put you in a passive position. And they do it brilliantly and in spectacular fashion that we can't begin to match, but what we can do is ask audiences to step up and in and be part of the process and our capacity to engage with these people as actors at one moment and as fully embodied characters one second later.
And again, this comes partially from me and my daughter. She doesn't need consistency of play, we can be in a fairy kingdom one second, under a castle the next second, under the sea the next second and . . . Oh look, there's a sandwich. I'll go eat it. She doesn't need to do fucking transitions between her realities – they're just all present for her.
We have an innate capacity to do that. And to enjoy that and to like the dizzying nature of simultaneous realities. And that's the fun of theater for us. But I don't know that we always exploit it in as much as we can. And, sure, that's certainly some of the impulse behind Stupid Fucking Bird.
GROSS: I had to laugh when Con said, "But Christ! What they're doing to Shakespeare these days to make him accessible." Are you criticizing yourself or is it one more way of making Con sound like a highstrung idiot?
POSNER: [laughing] No. No. I'm criticizing myself, too. Of course I am. You can look at everything you do from a variety of perspectives. Not that I don't utterly and entirely believe in what we're doing, but you only have to turn the lens a certain way to say, "Oh come on, really you're going to add all this magic?" I've done some productions in the past that I think left much to be desired. We don't always get it right and people are working incredibly hard to make Shakespeare accessible and we are trying to figure out how to keep people coming to the theater. So yeah, I'm making it extreme because Con's a passionate, angry young man who feels shut out and it pisses him off. You always hate what you can't be a part of.
GROSS: [laughing] And wouldn't be a member of a group that would have you as a member, right?
POSNER: Exactly. Exactly. Believe me. Autobiographical for me. But, yeah, I hope I'm trying to be both honest and ironic at the same time.
GROSS: Well, that's another aspect of this balancing act and I think you are succeeding at it. It's sure a pleasure talking to you and I appreciate your time.
POSNER: No, my pleasure. Thank you.