The Tempest

Theatre Arts to present a Regency-era version of “The Tempest” on April 16 and 17

The campus community will have the opportunity to enjoy the play “The Tempest” as it was originally performed—outside.

Faculty, staff, students, and their families are invited to watch students from the Theatre Arts program perform the classic work by William Shakespeare in shows on April 16 and 17. Both shows will start at 7:30 p.m. and will take place by the gazebo on Nebel Green, using a set designed by Theatre Arts Director Danielle Curtis. In the case of inclement weather, Saturday's performance will be postponed to Sunday, April 18 at 7:30 pm. The shows will also be available to watch via livestream.

“The Tempest” follows the characters of the sorcerer Prospero and his daughter Miranda, who have been stranded on an otherwise uninhabited island after Prospero’s brother Antonio usurped Prospero’s dukedom. The play opens with a magical storm causing a ship carrying Antonio to land on the island, setting the stage for Prospero’s revenge.

Michael Hannah, the director of the show and the program coordinator for Theatre Arts, explained that “The Tempest” is an interesting play to study and perform because many historians consider it the last work Shakespeare wrote on his own. Although the story does have dark elements and intrigue, it is considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

“It’s a magical romance,” said Hannah. “In the end, two houses are brought together in reconciliation.”

Due to the demographics of the Theatre Arts program, several male roles were changed to female characters, including that of Prospero, who is now called Prospera and played by Lilian North.

“It adds a twist to the story,” Hannah said. “It draws attention to the plight of women. She’s a duchess who gets kicked out by her brother, and experiences a lack of agency and power common to women at that time.”

Recasting Prospero as a woman has been done before, most notably in the 2010 film version directed by Julie Taymor, which stars Helen Mirren in the role.

“I enjoy this character much more as a woman,” said North. “Her relationship with Miranda is heightened, because a mother-daughter relationship is different from a father-daughter relationship. It’s also nice that they’re open to changing roles like that. You can’t often do that in theatre because of copyright.” 

North pointed out that in Shakespeare’s day, women didn’t perform as actors at all. All roles would be played by male actors, regardless of the character’s gender. “It’s so nice that we can think about that, and now have mostly women doing the show, as women,” she said.

The Theatre Arts program produces an older play by Shakespeare or other classic playwrights every few years. Classic plays tend to be more difficult than pieces from modern writers, particularly due to the unfamiliar language, but learning how to perform Shakespeare is essential for anyone wishing to be an actor.

“Shakespeare is by far the most-performed playwright year after year,” said Joshua Yoder, an assistant professor of Theatre Arts. “It’s a style they need to know.”

For the student actors, much of the challenge of performing Shakespeare comes from having to learn the language. According to Yoder and Hannah, the word choice, grammar, and sentence structure of Shakespearean English are so different from modern English that it adds a layer of difficulty to memorizing lines. And because the audience will likely be unfamiliar with the language as well, the actors need to have a firm grasp of the story so they can accurately portray it despite the limitations of the lines.

“Shakespeare’s language is really muscular, visual, and emotional,” said Yoder. “The actors have to know what they’re saying. If students can tap into that emotion, it doesn’t matter if the audience doesn’t get every word.”

For North, a junior majoring in Musical Theatre, playing the part of Prospera comes with added challenges. She was originally cast in another role, but took over as the lead when the first actor had to drop out.

“I normally play the comedic relief, or the supporting secondary characters,” North said. “And that’s what I was originally, but Dr. Mike said ‘I think you have the power to do this.’”

“I’ve never played this powerful of a character,” she continued. “It’s definitely pushed me.”

The size of the Lees-McRae theatre program means that every student has the opportunity to take on responsibilities outside their comfort zone. As a Musical Theatre major, North’s emphasis is on musical performances, but playing the lead in a straight play allows her to focus on different skills.

Yoder and Hannah emphasized that one of the goals in the program is to make the students comfortable with “doing everything.” Actors help make costumes and props, and everyone learns how to stage manage and run the technical equipment. One student, Lucas DeVore, even composed the music for the show.

DeVore, a freshman Theatre Arts Administration major, collaborated with another student to develop a musical last fall, and based on the success of that work DeVore was asked to write the music for “The Tempest.” The music needed to match the time period of the story, which for this production has been set in the early 1800s.

“Dr. Mike and I would sit down and talk about what kind of instruments he’s wanting, what he wants to hear,” DeVore said. “A lot of the music that I wrote was based off the specific genres he told me to look into, like sea shanties, so there are some songs that are sea shanties and more that are a traditional choir-like song. Instrument-wise, he wanted light strings and flute-like instruments, so I went with an erhu, which is a Chinese wind instrument.”  

In addition to composing the music, DeVore is playing the role of Caliban, Prospera’s servant on the island.

Usually, the spring play is presented in February, but because of COVID-19 concerns, the Theatre Arts department moved it to later in the year to allow for an outdoor performance. This has caused some scheduling difficulties with the student one-act shows, which are also held in April, but the students worked hard to bring everything together in time.

“This is probably the only time we’ll get to perform a Shakespeare show while we’re here, and I’m thrilled that I get to be in it at all,” North said.

The shows are open to any Lees-McRae student or employee who wishes to attend. It’s recommended that audience members bring a blanket or towel to sit on. In accordance with local health and safety protocols, cast members will be wearing masks.

By Emily WebbApril 13, 2021
AcademicsCampus Life