There are small placards on a few conspicuous light poles along Piety Street in the Bywater. They have intriguing quotes stenciled onto them, hinting at the coming of some uncommon spectacle to this tranquil yet bustling little riverside block. On one of them, for example, it says: “Where should this music be, i’the air or th’ earth?” There had been one that said “This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing,” but it was apparently stolen almost as soon as it went up.
Too bad, because that line has particular meaning for me, since I’m the one who gets to proclaim it in the upcoming production of The Tempest, opening at the Old Iron Works on Piety Street this weekend. The play, which was William Shakespeare’s last and, some say, most perfect accomplishment, will open Friday, July 10 and run for seven performances in the outdoor courtyard of this sometime event space and part-time summer snowball stand, which is right down the street from the funky and iconic Piety Street Bridge entrance to the new Crescent City Park.
My personal involvement in the production has been something of a return to my roots: though I spent much of my college and adult life pursuing a life in theatre, I have been mostly dormant as an actor since moving to New Orleans nearly nine years ago, focusing on other pursuits. And though the opportunity to be an actor in this company has been like an old revelation made new, the theme of “homecoming” reverberates in much bigger and profounder ways throughout the production—from the venue, to the timing, to the text, and particularly, to it’s many collaborators.
Rebecca Frank, the director and co-producer of the production, has been wanting to bring Shakespeare to this neighborhood for quite a while, and this was the summer when it finally came together. She turned down a job in California to focus on teaching and producing theatre in the New Orleans community.
“I’ve been leaving town for the last three years to go and direct pieces in New York, so I knew that I wanted to do something at home,” she explained, during a recent dinner break between rehearsals. Though the play rehearsed and was built in one of the dance studios at Tulane University, where Frank has worked extensively, it had it’s conception very much in her downtown experience. “I wanted to do something that related to New Orleans, but that also appealed to an audience that was not necessarily an uptown theatre crowd,” Frank added, explaining why she chose this play at this moment in time. “A friend and I were sort of thinking, ‘What show could we do, what show could we do?’ and it really hit me like a ton of bricks… ‘Oh, The Tempest, of course’.”
Frank says ‘of course’, because the timing of this production coincides with the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, an event which had a profound, if not complicated, emotional impact on Frank’s experience in this tight-knit downtown community.
“Well, I didn’t want to do a play about Katrina,” Frank said, referring to an early conceptual discussion about how she wanted to present the play. “But I think to not reference it at all, or to not make any sort of reference to it, is weird as well. I mean, there’s this colossal storm that drowns people at the beginning of the play. How can it reference Katrina but not be about Katrina? And I thought ‘I want this to be for the people in my neighborhood and I want it to be of my people’.”
Indeed, the production is billed as “a love-letter to the community of the Bywater” on its Facebook event page.
Frank and co-producer Stephen Eckert, a colleague from Tulane, decided to join forces for the inaugural presentation of Frank’s In Good Company. Eckert brings, with his Promethean Theatre Company, a wealth of experience producing theatre in New Orleans, and their collaboration also helped take a smaller initial concept and turn it into something with bigger legs. While funding much of the production out of pocket, they launched a page on the crowdsourcing platform Hatchfund, which helps to pay expenses and afford a handpicked collection of designers and actors, all of whom are getting paid, a rare thing in the world of local theatre, particularly in New Orleans.
“We raised a third of our budget [with Hatchfund]. It allowed us to get a huge cast, it allowed us to use Equity actors, which a lot of people can’t [afford to do]. It was important to me to get the best people that I could possibly get,” Frank explained.
By the standard of tapping into a rich, local artistic pedigree, she certainly did that. One of the first on board was friend and previous collaborator Ratty Scurvics. He is a New Orleans musician and composer who is creating and playing original music for the show, mostly on instruments he built himself.
“I like to do that. I like interpreting the environments of the characters, wondering what they sound like to me. The storm instrument, for instance—I built that during these really horrible storms we were having a few months ago, and I sat on my porch and just created that song. I felt a connection with that,” Scurvics said.
There are also the ingenious ‘thunder drums,’ which serve as both visual components of shipwreck debris, and one of the characteristic auditory delights in his arsenal. “I couldn’t use any recorded effects or sound system or anything like that, so I had to figure out other ways,” he explained. “You get a sense of rolling thunder by having it spread from one side to another, you have this kind of movement.”
Speaking of movement, the show’s choreographer, Jeffrey Gunshol, was another one of Rebecca’s early additions to the team, the two having collaborated on several occasions before. Gunshol created the various episodes of movement and dance that help bring, more than almost anything else, the element of the supernatural that permeates Shakespeare’s play, both in the text and between the words. The massive storm and shipwreck which opens the play is manifested here almost entirely by the bodies of the performers themselves, and all of these elements—the music, the sounds, the words, the dance—act as a symphony of disparate parts to create one of the most striking visual impacts of the show.
Another important coup for Frank was the addition of Atlanta-based actress Kathleen McManus to inhabit the role of Ariel. McManus, a mentor and former teacher to Rebecca, is a New Orleans native who moved from the city more than 35 years ago and only later forged a career in theatre. When she learned of the production, she expressed that she had always wanted to act on a New Orleans stage, so in what may be the most literal homecoming of all, she will make her debut here, and she will do it alongside her husband John Ammerman in the role of Prospero.
“John is a renowned Atlanta actor, I grew up watching him,” Frank glowed when talking about bringing both actors on board. “When they brought up the idea of coming down to do this, I thought that was a beautiful idea.”
And though it may seem pervasive both in theme and circumstance, Frank sees in the homecoming theme an even deeper question, not of what it means to come home, but of what it means to be home. “So I had this native born woman as our Ariel, and I started to think of this situation in the neighborhood regarding ownership, and who is of the neighborhood, and who my neighborhood belongs to, and this airbnb struggle that’s been happening, and the whole ‘are you pre-Katrina are did you come after?’….” the director said.
At it’s most profound, of course, the text of The Tempest is about redemption and forgiveness, yet even in that striving there is the sense that in order to arrive there, you have to come back to who, to what and to where you are. Talking about Prospero, the deposed king who uses his mastery of nature and all things magic in order to orchestrate the shipwreck of his enemies onto the remote island he inhabits, Frank added. “His understanding is that he is going to take vengeance on them, but in the process of the play he realizes that the very act of revenge is dehumanizing. And in order to keep his humanity, he has to forgive and go home.”
If there is one thing to report from inside the eye of the theatrical storm, it’s that creating a living, swaying and pulsing shipwreck takes a lot of work, and it is pretty much all hands on deck.
Rounding out the production’s design team, costume designer Jade Brandt, lighting designer Diane Baas, set designer Marty Aikens, and stage manager/assistant director Ele Bernstein, all brought key elements to the overall production, but their contributions to the remarkable human tempest which opens the play are, for me, an illustration of how theatre matters when it works at it’s most perfect. In what Bernstein described as “a layering process,” the construction of the storm has been, from this actor’s perspective, emblematic of my own rediscovery of the thing that attracted me to theatre in the first place: the collaborative process. The dynamic and sometimes explosive reverberation that occurs when many different talents work towards a common vision. And the best part is that the process isn’t complete until the proverbial curtain is raised to an audience for the first time. That is when you begin to discover what you’ve got, because the audience themselves are really that magic ingredient. When they are included, that is when the process can truly arrive. In that regard, it is never finished, it is always striving for home, it is created anew every single night.
One of the things you notice immediately, when working with Rebecca Frank, is that she understands all of this intuitively, and she is overflowing with the energy to engage all of her collaborators in order to share the theatre’s open secret.
“If I could be in a rehearsal room,” she added, “working with actors, coaching and blocking and shaping and molding and inspiring and jumping up and down like a lunatic, screaming ‘Yes!’, for the rest of my life, I would be absolutely content. That’s where I feel at home, more so than any other place. It’s what I really live for.”
William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, presented by Promethean in Good Company at The Old Ironworks (612 Piety Street – Bywater). Friday – Monday, July 10-12, and Thursday – Saturday, July 16-18. Pay-What-You-Will Industry Preview on Monday, July 13. All shows at 7:30 p.m., rain or shine. Limited seating for all shows, pre-purchase of tickets is encouraged. For detailed schedule and ticket info, and to reserve seats, go to Brown Paper Tickets.