In Part Two of a series of interviews with the cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Tempest, meet Clifton Duncan.
Michael: Introduce yourself to our readers, and tell them where they may have seen you on local stages in the past year.
Clinton: My name is Clifton Duncan; I’m a military brat. Although I was born in Heidelberg, Germany, I spent a lot of my formative years in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Glad to be back in DC—last time I was here was a few years ago, when I played Jerome Kisembe in Charles Randolph-Wright’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, at Arena Stage.
I just want to say that I think Washingtonians are SO lucky to have such a vibrant theatre scene. I can’t really think of many other places that have so many high quality venues. I’m jealous!
Your new production of The Tempest is playing at Sidney Harman Hall. Tell us a little about the show and what it was about it that made you want to be part of this production?
Ethan and I had a relationship prior to this production; we met when I performed my solo piece up at Chautauqua, and have been sort of weaving in and out of each other’s professional lives since then. One day he asked me if I was interested in auditioning for The Tempest, saying he could see me in several roles. Funny thing is I’d sent my agents a list of about five productions happening around the country that I was interested in auditioning for, and Ethan’s Tempest happened to be at the top of the list! I asked him if he had a Caliban; I auditioned and, for whatever reason now I’m here.
On a side note, nearly a decade ago I was hired by David Muse as a Non-Equity understudy/swing for the male ensemble of a previous production of The Tempest, that featured Phil Goodwin as Prospero, Daniel Breaker as Ariel, and Floyd King as Stephano. Funny how things come full circle sometimes.
Who do you play and how can you relate to your character? Which character is most like you, and why?
I play Caliban, who is Prospero’s slave (and, in my mind, prisoner). Caliban is a highly controversial character, but from the beginning what Ethan said he responded to is the humanity I brought to the role—and in my mind the text is pretty clear that Caliban is actually a human being; not a fish, not a Sasquatch, not a Ninja Turtle, but a human being. That was my first way in, and I think that audiences are responding to the fact that in our production Caliban isn’t reduced to what Ethan calls “lizard acting”: he is a man, he has flaws, he is wounded, he loves, he hates, he wants revenge, he trusts too easily.
Caliban feels betrayed by Prospero, who had become a surrogate father to him; he doesn’t understand why he’s treated the way he is. I also think he fell in love with Miranda, once they both were at an age where those types of feelings could manifest themselves. So, to be excommunicated from what became your family, and then subjected to hard labor and torture on a regular basis—that’s the crux of understanding Caliban, for me. He’s an orphan (his mother, Sycorax, died when he was young) and an abandoned child and so part of him is seeking to be loved; in addition he’s a prisoner that wants his freedom, as well as revenge for all the wrongs done to him, in his mind.
Have you played this role before, and if so, how is the role being performed and directed the same or differently?
Nope, first crack at it.
The Tempest is known for its supernatural elements. What is your favorite moment of “magic” in this production?
There are several, honestly. The big effects, such as the puppets during the mask, are wonderful, but I think Chris Akerlind’s lighting design and Jenny Gersten’s music also add a GREAT deal of beauty and atmosphere and magic to the piece. It’s quite astounding, really.
6) In the context of your personal career, does The Tempest fit into a pattern? Or does it represent a break in the kind of work you normally do?
I consider myself a character actor in a leading man’s shell, and my career has borne that out, even since my college days; The Tempest fits into a pattern in that there is, in fact, no pattern. And that’s partly by design.
Just this year alone, for example, I did a play based on the life of Bruce Lee, where I played movie star James Coburn to great comic effect; shortly thereafter I shot a recurring TV role on the upcoming Starz show Flesh and Bone as a slightly fey, snotty assistant to the artistic director at a ballet company; and now I’m enjoying my time playing Caliban. And in the near future I’d love to play, in no particular order, Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, Billy Bigelow in Carousel, and Paul in Six Degrees of Separation.
After seeing the recent Broadway revival, I’d really love to someday take a crack at Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
All that said, I hadn’t done a Shakespeare play in four years, and had been wanting to do one quite ardently, and I’m lucky this all came along when it did.
What is your relationship with Shakespeare? Do you approach it differently than contemporary drama? What are the unique qualities that Shakespeare can bring to the stage?
I’ve never been afraid of Shakespeare, or at least the language. I think part of that is from having played a bunch of fantasy role-playing games as a kid, and also from listening to (and at one time practicing) rap music. If you search for rap battles online, you’ll see the best of the best battle rappers engaging in the same sort of heightened wordplay, linguistic relish, rhetorical flourish, and theatricality the Elizabethan audiences enjoyed centuries ago.
I’d also say that for me, acting Shakespeare requires an odd marriage of the highly cerebral and the highly emotive: on top of the usual script analysis work of breaking down the play, I have to incorporate techniques for recognizing rhetorical patterns in the language, and isolating what the images are, and scanning lines to look for emphasis/acting clues, and keeping Shakespeare’s Lexicon and an OED nearby so I know EXACTLY what I’m saying; but at the same time, of course nowadays as actors we want to bring emotional depth and spontaneity to what we’re doing, and that kind of stuff you can’t theorize about, you have to get up, get in there, do it, be alive, and experience it. Then you hope for the best!
What was the rehearsal process like? Was there more of an emphasis on the text than with a non-Classical show?
What was clear from the very first table read is that Ethan hired highly dynamic actors with great training and experience, so ultimately the acting was going to be fine, and we actually didn’t spend an extraordinary amount of time focusing on the text, since we all had a pretty great feel for it already. Good thing, too, because a LOT of rehearsal time had to be spent tending to other elements of the show such as choreography, music, puppetry, and flying, so some of the nuts and bolts of the acting work got elbowed aside a few times. Obviously, the effort to shore up all the technical elements paid off handsomely!
What is your favorite scene that you are not on stage for?
Probably the scene between Ferdinand and Miranda, where they decide to get married. It’s smack dab in the middle of the play, and can be a sweetly moving departure from everything else that’s been going on.
What makes this staging of The Tempest different than past productions?
I think this one is sort of lightning in a bottle—a rare combination of director, design team, cast, crew, and playwright all doing (or having done) great work. I think one thing that I truly appreciate about this production is that it feels like it’s just the PLAY—there’s no wacked out concept, Caliban isn’t some bizzaro Yeti space-alien, and the nobles aren’t dressed as Storm Troopers or Dallas Cowboys or whatever. It’s simply The Tempest.
How can today’s audiences relate to The Tempest?
That’s hard to say—we all bring our own experiences and history to bear on whatever we watch, and it’s never subjective; I think people will relate to the play in whatever way is specific to them and their history. I think because our production is so straight-forward, there are no obstacles between the play and the audience that might muddy its themes, ideas, and emotional resonance from getting across.
Some people will be affected by the imprisonment and torture of Caliban; some will be struck by the themes of revenge and betrayal and forgiveness that run through both Prospero’s and Caliban’s stories; still others may be at a point in their lives where they need the nourishment of watching Ferdinand and Miranda fall innocently and wholly in love. There’s bawdy comedy, political machinations, music and singing and dancing, and even GIANT freaking PUPPETS. I mean there’s something for just about everybody here.
Basically what I’m saying is that you have no excuse to miss out on seeing this show ;)
The Tempest plays through January 18, 2015, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall – 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.
Review of ‘The Tempest’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by Sophia Howes.
Meet the Cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Tempest: Part 1: Sofia Jean Gomez.
Meet the Cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Tempest: Part 2: Clifton Duncan.
Meet the Cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Tempest: Part 3: Rachel Mewbron.