Meet the Cast and Director of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘The Tempest: Part 4: Director Ethan McSweeny

In Part Three of a series of interviews with the cast and director of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Tempest, meet Director Ethan McSweeny.

Michael: I think a lot of people around town know who you are, but for those who don’t, could you introduce yourself to our readers and tell us what projects you’ve done in DC in the past year?

Ethan McSweeney.
Ethan McSweeny.

Ethan: Well, none in the past year. As a director, I think showing up once every 12 months or so is pretty good (laughter). I am a native son of the city of Washington, born and raised here, within the city limits, actually.

That’s very rare, for somebody in DC you to actually be from DC.

It is. I tell you, I still have my DC drivers license.

My training years as a director were as the Associate Director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in the early 1990s. I’ve been fortunate to come back fairly frequently over the last eight years or so. My shows in Washington have been: The Persians, Major Barbara, Ion, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Nights Dream, and now The Tempest.

That’s quite a pedigree.

Thank you, and I’ve also directed at Arena Stage, so I wouldn’t want to leave them out. I directed the pre-New York workshop of A Time To Kill, by John Grisham.

We are so glad you haven’t abandoned us for New York.

I love Washington, and my whole family still lives down here, so for me it’s always wonderful to come home. I think it’s important for audiences outside of New York to realize that, frankly, most of the best work in this country doesn’t happen in New York. A lot of it gets shown in New York, eventually, but it doesn’t take place there, that’s for sure.

As a native Washingtonian, how have you seen the theater scene here change since you were first working at Shakespeare Theatre Company?

Well, I can tell you since I’ve been going to theatre, how I’ve seen it change. As a kid I went to the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Arena Atage. In my teenage years Studio Theatre opened. And then when I came back post-college, the explosion had already begun. By that point, Signature was thriving, Roundhouse, Woolly Mammoth, so there was a lot going on. I have had the privilege of growing up here and then professionally being a part of this theatre community and had the privilege of watching it grow more and more diverse, spread out further and further into the greater Washington, DC area, and to support more and more artists who now make DC their home.

For instance, I’ve got two guys in The Tempest, Gregory Linington, who plays Antonio and David Bishins, who plays Sebastian; In the past five years or so Gregory has been part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival out in Ashland. But he and his partner just moved to New York, and then to Washington, nd they are expecting their first child at the beginning of the year. David Bishins has been living in New York for a 25-year career and he and his wife just moved to Washington She was coming down here to do some work but I think he’s going to stay! And that just points to the health of this theater scene. Although, I have to say, I do worry about the fact that there is so much going on, It’s hard to stand out in such a deep, crowded field.

Avery Glymph (Ferdinand), Rachel Mewbron (Miranda), and the ensemble of ‘The Tempest.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.
Avery Glymph (Ferdinand), Rachel Mewbron (Miranda), and the ensemble of ‘The Tempest.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

I’ve heard a lot from local artists that, in contrast to New York City, which is characterized as hypercompetitive, the DC theater community is much more closeknit and supportive of each other. Do you agree with that characterization?

Huh. (laughs). That’s an interesting question. I guess what I would say is that as proud as I am to be from here, since I’m not in residence all the time, I don’t think that I know the community well enough to say if that’s true. I’m delighted to hear that; I do think there’s a fair amount of support here, but I also think there’s a fair amount of support in New York, too. I don’t know that DC is any less competitive than New York. I suppose that the number of people competing in DC is not quite as many as in New York, So perhaps it doesn’t feel as hypercompetitive.

It’s common for a lot of people to start their careers here, and then make the move to New York, and sometimes that goes really well, and sometimes they burn out because of all the hustle you have to do just to stay in the running for things. I do think in a place like DC, people get established, wonderful actors get established, and productions get chosen around them, and I think the same is true for certain directors and designers, so there’s a sort of predictability that’s very nice when you’re in the unpredictable realm of being a freelance artist.

If you’re casting a show in Washington you have to cast local actors way before out of town actors, because they’ll all get booked up. So you have to get in there early, because that’s how they put together a season. A local after will do a show at Shakespeare, a show at Studio, Arena, or Signature.

Your new production of The Tempest, which is wonderful, opened at Sidney Harman Hall in December. What makes The Tempest unique among Shakespeare’s plays?

Thank you! Well, a lot of people think it was his last play. Although there is some evidence that he may have come out of retirement to collaborate on a few other works, I think they’re probably right, and when you view it through that lens, it’s impossible not to see and hear and it elements of the playwright evaluating his career and looking back on highlights, and still finding new ways to challenge himself as an artist. And I think those elements of the journey, considering who the playwright is, are pretty interesting. I mean, it’s a pretty interesting guy to be wondering, “Do I matter”? What have I created that will have any enduring appeal or is it all ephemera? So that’s a pretty key element to the play.

It’s also one of Shakespeare’s only plays that is Aristotelian in its unity of time and place. At the beginning of the play Prospero asks Ariel what time it is, and she says, “past the midseason.” And he says, “At least two glasses.” Right there, that’s Shakespeare telling us that it’s 2 o’clock. And right as the last scene starts, Prospero and Ariel have another strange And he says what time is it and she says at the sixth hour at which point he says “Our work should cease.” Now, I want to reassure any readers that that does not mean our production is four hours long –

Right.

– just a side note. But of course that would’ve been the length of the play for Elizabeth or Jacobean audiences. So I think that the unity of it is also part of the secret code that Prospero himself is some sort of master dramatist of his own revenge. Of course, Shakespeare himself was this master dramatist.

Clifton Duncan (Caliban) and Dave Quay (Stephano). Photo by Scott Suchman.
Clifton Duncan (Caliban) and Dave Quay (Stephano). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Another thing that scholars talk about when they talk about The Tempest is its themes of exploration colonization and, in our modern day, exploitation, particularly in the character of Caliban, played by Clifton Duncan. Did those elements influence your direction of the production?

Well, the origin of them originally is that when the play was written, it was on the heels of some of the earliest English explorations to Virginia, that started the Jamestown colony. And that expedition in fact met with a storm at sea and the lead ship was wrecked on Bermuda. And there was this sensational year they had to spend there before they rebuilt their boat and got off the island. That narrative got back to London, and created a lot of interest there. So there’s always been a kind of New World horizon to the play.

The understanding of the colonial narrative is one that’s emerged more strongly since the end of World War II in the postcolonial times. But it’s certainly one that’s embedded. Prospero has his dukedom taken away usurpation and he lands on this island and immediately deprives the inhabitants of their own Self-determination. And I didn’t want us to run away from that. And the language surrounding Caliban in particular is very harsh. A lot of the use of the word slave… And the thing that I think makes Clifton such a standout as Caliban is that he’s such a powerful actor, and he’s also capable of so much humor. What a lot of people miss is that even though Caliban is this great, tragic character, with so much inherent nobility, he spends most of the plot with the two clowns. And that’s part of his tragedy – he tries to take the island back from Prospero but he ends up with the wrong crowd. I’ve known Clifton for a long time and I think he’s an actor of extraordinary ability, And I wanted to cast Clifton as Caliban even before I was asked to do The Tempest. I really wanted to explore this role with him. And, he happens to be African-American.

Yes, that’s true.

And you’re not going to not notice that.

Did you worry that some people would look at that choice and think that you were playing into the supposedly racist legacy of The Tempest?

Yeah, I worried, but I thought that this was an important theme of the play. The very first image of Caliban is when he emerges from this hole in the ground chained to a huge rock. That’s a really loaded image, and it makes all of us uncomfortable. And it makes us uncomfortable because it should make us uncomfortable. And that’s where I think we’re probably getting it right. Because, the big theme of the play is ultimately forgiveness. What Prospero arrives at, in the course of what he imagines will be a classic revenge play, is that the greater virtue is in forgiveness rather than vengeance. As he forgives his brother, so he needs to be forgiven by Caliban, and I think there’s a bit of staging at the end that begins to suggest that possibility. So it was definitely a bold choice and an aware choice, and one that I think pays off richly.

So, without giving too much away I will say that there is a character who is in flight for much of the show

Yeah, I think Sofia [Jean Gomez] already gave that one away.

Well, what I’m curious about is: what were the unique challenges associated with working with that damn harness?

Sofia Jean Gomez as Ariel. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Sofia Jean Gomez as Ariel. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The idea was that it was important for me to show that Prospero was dominating both Ariel and Caliban, and so Ariel is physically tied by a visible rope that leads into the flyspace, A little bit like a marionette, rather than trying to do flying tricks with wires that you can’t see. And, together with [Flying Director] Stu Cox, we had to invent some relatively new technology in order to gauge the rope so that it was visible.

We started Sofia in flight training over the summer, And we brought the flight director and started her flying in the second week of rehearsal. We couldn’t really do it, of course, until we got into the theater. But we structured our rehearsals in such a way that we were getting in before we actually took the stage and before the stage was finished. It’s very challenging work. The harness itself is not particularly comfortable. Sofia really had to start building up her muscle tone and especially those muscles that would keep her supported and in the air. And we had to train the flight team because it’s really four, sometimes five people working in concert, making that effect work. They too, had to train and practice and they’re getting quite strong. The technology is very sound but it’s not particularly high tech, it’s very old school. There are ropes and you pull on them (laughs). And that’s not a computer or a motor pulling on them, that’s another person. And what that allows is a kind of breadth, and the more they do it, the more confident they become and also the greater ease. Things are floating a lot more than they did at first. The short answer is it took a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of organizational efforts. In rehearsals, for a long time there was no way to imagine what it would actually look like with Ariel in the air.

In the rehearsal hall Sofia would just want to put her hands up in the air to show that she was flying. I’d be like, “where are you?” and she would be like, “Oh, I’m kind of over here dangling above him,” and we’d be like, “Oh, okay”. So I’m very please with it, and how it’s turned out both thematically and theatrically.

Did it make you nervous as a director to not know exactly what it was going to look like for a good deal of the process?

Yes (laughter). I think it made us all very nervous. A lot of what we do in the rehearsal hall is essentially an experiment because there are a lot of things where you think you know what they’re going to look like onstage but you don’t really know until you see it. So I see the rehearsal process as a place we can do a lot of guess work. And if you’re good at it and if you have a lot of experience you make relatively good guesses. But this was one where all the elements had to come together. We had to keep inventing a vocabulary, like, “What kind of flying was this going to be?” Because it’s not like we’re doing Peter Pan, which has its own set of flying vocabulary. We were building our vocabulary around what Sofia could do. And as we got more and more comfortable, she was able to do more and more things. I’m told she still working on an inverted entrance; we’re still looking for a place where she can dive

Wow.

It requires an enormous amount of guts, and I think she’s working her way up to that (laughs). It’s hard to overcome your body’s natural resistance because I know she knows she’s safe… But the body is still like, “I’m 40 feet above the stage.

Which character in The Tempest is most like yourself?

I don’t think any of them are remotely like me. I identify with all of the characters and none of them exclusively

Finally, Ethan McSweeny, what did you ask Santa for Christmas this year?

Well… Audiences.

Fair enough. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, and good luck with the rest of the run.

Thanks so much.

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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.

LINKS

Ethan McSweeny’s website.

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.