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Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' gets Dust Bowl treatment by Teller, Aaron Posner and Tom Waits

Nate Dendy (Ariel), Tom Nelis (Prospero), Charlotte Graham (Miranda) in
Nate Dendy (Ariel), Tom Nelis (Prospero), Charlotte Graham (Miranda) in "The Tempest."
The Smith Center/Geri Kodey
Nate Dendy (Ariel), Tom Nelis (Prospero), Charlotte Graham (Miranda) in
(l. to r.) Edmund Lewis, Tom Nelis, Charlotte Graham, Joby Earle, Mike McShane and Dawn Didawick in "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare.
Debora Robinson
Nate Dendy (Ariel), Tom Nelis (Prospero), Charlotte Graham (Miranda) in
Liz Filios, Joel Davel, Matt Spencer and Miche Braden in "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare.
Debora Robinson/SCR
Nate Dendy (Ariel), Tom Nelis (Prospero), Charlotte Graham (Miranda) in
Louis Butelli, Dawn Didawick, Edmund Lewis and Mike McShane in "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare.
Debora Robinson/SCR

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There have been countless adaptations of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest," both on stage and on film, but only one set to the not-so-sweet sounds of Tom Waits. 

The Bard’s famous tale centers on Prospero, the Duke of Milan, who uses illusion to regain the kingdom he has lost. No wonder the story appealed to Teller, the oft-mute member of the magic duo Penn & Teller. He is co-directing, with Aaron Posner, a new adaptation of “The Tempest” at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

This particular production is set during the 1930s in a Dust Bowl-era tent show, and features music by Waits and his wife and frequent writing partner, Kathleen Brennan, with choreography by famed dance company, Pilobolus. Teller says a biography of traveling tent magician Willard the Wizard was instrumental in inspiring the Depression-era setting of the production. 

"I kept thinking about how if I were Willard the Wizard and I had always wanted to do Shakespeare, this would be the Shakespeare that I would pick," Teller told The Frame. "In fact, in the play, there's one moment where we're actually doing a trick that Willard the Wizard did in his tent."

The Frame’s Senior Producer, Oscar Garza, caught up with Teller and Posner as they prepared for opening night to talk about the difficulties in teaching magic to actors, how they got Waits involved, and more. 


Interview Highlights:

Posner on why he and Teller work so well together:

"He is a great artist, a great theatrical mind. We have very different perspectives, very different skill sets...We both have similar values around accessibility and theatricality and engaging an audience in really powerful and meaningful ways, and yet the skill sets we bring and the perspectives we bring are really, really different, and that's made for a really effective and exciting collaboration."

Teller on what inspired the setting of this production:

"I was reading a biography of Willard the Wizard, who was a Dust Bowl musician who toured in a tent and did absolutely astounding magic. Totally first-class magic, and you were seeing it in a tent. So it made it more amazing than seeing it on a stage where there are fly lofts and all sorts of things that people normally use.

"We looked at pictures of that world and I kept thinking about if I were Willard the Wizard, and I had always wanted to do Shakespeare, this would be the Shakespeare that I would pick. And to express the Shakespeare, I would use this repertoire of stage magic that I have been very skilled at. In fact, in the play there's one moment where we're actually doing a trick that Willard the Wizard did in his tent. Our first production of this in Las Vegas last year was mounted in a tent, so there's this feeling of the raw tent show is part of the aesthetic of it."

Posner on how the Tom Waits and Pilobolus partnerships came about:

"Once we had the Willard inspiration, that took us to [the] Dust Bowl. Then, if you're going to say you can have any music in the world that would be awesome for a Shakespearean Dust Bowl magical production, who would you go to except for Tom Waits?  We brought in Tom Waits, we got permission to use his songbook, then we were trying to make monsters and strange creatures on this island.

"Penn & Teller were working with Pilobolus at the time, and that brought us into connection with the most amazing dance company anywhere, so it's been a layering-on of all of these amazing collaborators to try and make a production. Our goals were humble — the best Tempest anybody's ever done anywhere."

Teller on why Tom Waits was such a perfect fit for "The Tempest":

"One of my favorite recollections was with Tom Waits and Katherine Brennan. We were sitting with them and we opened the biography of Willard the Wizard. There was a full-page picture of Willard's band sitting on stage. It's these five or six Depression-era people staring straight at the audience seated in chairs with trombones and beat-up hats, and Tom looked at this picture and said, 'Those are my people.'" 

Teller on the difficulty of teaching magic to actors:

"We cast [Nate Dendy as] Ariel because he is not only a wonderful actor, but he's a stupendous sleight-of-hand artist. He's able to express all sorts of ideas and feelings. Tom Nelis, who plays Prospero, this was his first encounter with magic, but Prospero doesn't have as much hands-on as Ariel does. Basically, what Prospero does is say, 'Ariel, go do the work.' That's not to say that Tom isn't an incredibly good actor who — when taught how to do a magic trick — absolutely nails it, and nails it every time.

"There's a magic consultant that we have on the show who works with me all the time, named Johnny Thompson, and he's 80 and he knows everything and he's in love with Tom [Nelis] because he says you just show him what to do and he doesn't have any stupid preconceptions — he just learns it, he's amazing."

“The Tempest” is at South Coast Repertory Theater through September 28th. 

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