’Magic To Do’ :: Teller on ’The Tempest’
Teller is best-known as the silent sidekick to Penn Jillette in a magic act that has been a show biz staple for some thirty years. Since they teamed in 1981, they’ve become amongst the best-known magicians in the world; not through extreme stunts, but old-fashioned humor and illusions. Magic was in Teller’s blood from a young age, and, it turns out, so was Shakespeare. When he was ten his grandfather -- a Russian immigrant who worked as a Philadelphia streetcar driver -- gave the family a complete set of Shakespeare’s plays.
"My father, who was close to my grandfather, but goofier, said to me, ’you’re a magician, kid!,’ and he pulled out ’The Tempest.’ Because it is Shakespeare’s big play about a magician," Teller explained from Las Vegas where he appears nightly in a show with Penn at the Penn and Teller Theatre. Not far from their theater was a tent where the Smith Center were presenting a production of Shakespeare’s late play that Teller adapted, co-directed (with Aaron Posner) and, most significantly, provided the magic for that was completing its run. The tent was about to be broken-down and the production was heading east to the indoor confines of the Loeb Theatre at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge for a month-long run.
Don’t expect, though, an autumnal reverie about an aging political refugee -- Prospero -- confined to an island with his daughter Miranda who uses magic to avenge his scheming brother and restore his family to their rightful place as rulers of the city-state of Milan. He has learned magic while living on the island and uses it to capture his brother Sebastian, who stole the duchy from Prospero years before. With his magical powers, he sets out to avenge his brother with the help of an island spirit, Ariel; also lurking is the monstrous Caliban, an island creature raised by Prospero, but now his slave.
"Contrary to the zillion productions I’ve seen where Prospero is played as an wise-old sage, our Prospero is this sophisticated person in his 50s that’s been stranded on this island with his daughter for 12 years. He is not a sad, flabby old philosopher. This is a vigorously intelligent and very, very angry man. So we’re just trying to do the play the way it is asking to be done instead of the way tradition often has led people to do it," he explained.
Part of breaking that tradition is that Teller and Posner set the play in what appears to be a Depression-era traveling carnival. They also punctuate the play not with Elizabethan music, but with songs by Tom Waits and his wife collaborator, Kathleen Brennan. They also employed the movement group Pilobolus to develop the supernatural character of Caliban. Here it is played with acrobatic skill by two conjoined actors, Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee.
When it opened in Vegas this Spring, this ’Tempest’ received great reviews and strong houses. "The expertly crafted performances in ’The Tempest,’ mixing great magic, well delivered live music and captivating acting, seems destined for a Broadway theater," wrote John Katsilometes in the Las Vegas Sun. The ART has been the launching pad for numerous Broadway productions in recent years, including the Tony-winning "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess" and "Pippin," as well as the current Tony-nominated "The Glass Menagerie" and "All The Way."
But Teller was mum on the show’s Broadway’s prospects; instead he spoke with loquacious ease about the concept he and Posner created for the play, how magic is integral to that concept and his own need to be entertained at all. times.
Fascinated since childhood
EDGE:: Is it true you first read ’The Tempest’ when you were a kid?
Teller: The first time I read pieces of it was when I was ten. My grandfather, who was a Russian immigrant who taught himself English, became an English Lit nut. On his job, which was a streetcar operator in Philadelphia, he would take a book and put in on the steering wheel, which means he probably wasn’t the safest streetcar driver. He gave our family a set of Shakespeare. My father, who was close to my grandfather, but goofier, said to me, ’you’re a magician, kid!,’ and he pulled out ’The Tempest.’ Because it is Shakespeare’s big play about a magician. It’s the only great play written about a magician, so I’ve been very partial to the play.
That fascination persists to this very day. There was an episode that was very striking to me, though. I was re-reading ’The Tempest’ when I was about 27 or 28, and was also reading a book on lucid dreaming -- how to remember one’s dreams and was writing down every dream the moment I woke up. One night I dreamed I was Prospero on this desert island. I was fighting my enemies, but I wasn’t fighting my enemies the way that other Shakespeare’s heroes did. I was fighting them by doing shows that would so disturb them that I would take my revenge psychologically. The other Shakespeare heroes would take their revenge through murder -- they would poison them or gauge their eyes out. In the case of ’The Tempest,’ Prospero doesn’t do anything to anybody. All he does is illusions and through making these illusions, he affects people profoundly. That theme really stuck with me -- the whole idea of having the power to make a show that would affect people profoundly.
Best magic in Vegas?
EDGE: You started this project six years ago?
Teller: Aaron Posner and I were directing partners on a production of ’Macbeth’ about six years ago. The premise behind it is simply this: a supernatural horror thriller written by a really good playwright. It’s better than ’Carrie.’ It has more substance to it. But we wondered if we could use stage magic to depict the supernatural events in ’Macbeth,’ and thereby put the audience in the same position of weird uncertainty that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are in. Because they both look out at the world and think they know what’s going on out there, but their world is turned inside-out. It’s all an illusion. So the idea of putting the audience in a position where they see things through the eyes of the Macbeth -- from the inside -- was very interesting to us.
For instance, we put a mirror in their bedroom and when he’s about to kill the King, he sees the translucent reflection of a dagger floating in the mirror. At one point he puts his actual reflection of his hand in contact with the translucent reflection of the dagger and it’s very spooky. And it completely serves what he’s going through there. Later when Mrs. Macbeth has her sleepwalking scene, she imagines blood on her hands. When she wipes them on her nightgown, there’s a huge bloodstain. And when she gazes more on her hands, blood runs over them. By the end of the scene she’s drenched in blood like Carrie. So we are taking the audience inside that hallucination instead of being outside.
We thought this idea had applications in ’The Tempest,’ and wondered what it would be like if we delivered in full everything that Shakespeare promises in the play. Even in the surviving stage directions, there’s a very strong indication that even in his time he was using special effects. He even cites moments that could be referred to as ’magic tricks.’ So we went through the play and clarified those moments that could be thought of as ’magic tricks.’ So the audience would end up experiencing what it would be like to be shipwrecked on Prospero’s weird island and what they go through. It was just incredibly fruitful.
But when we realized how difficult it would be to pull this off, at the ART, which is a remarkable theater,
we did a couple of workshops. And because I have a nightly job in Vegas with my partner Penn, they said, why don’t we do it in Vegas? This gave us the opportunity to bring musicians and actors out and work our ideas on a stage. It was immensely useful. We spent about a year on the script, so have been able to come into this project with far more knowledge that we would have otherwise, largely due to these workshops.
EDGE: You’re performing in Vegas with Penn. How does the magic in ’The Tempest’ compare to other magic shows on the Strip?
Teller: It’s much better than what you see on the strip. Because there is such a difference between viewing a piece of magic as a stunt than in the context of a play where it has meaning. There are moments where there are moving and quite shocking pieces of magic that Shakespeare gives us the right set-up for, so that when the magic happens, it clarifies and enhances his text with these startling moments. The experience I have had in Vegas with this is that people say, this is my favorite piece of Shakespeare and this is the best magic show in Vegas, which I found a little insulting because I am part of a magic show that’s also on the strip.
EDGE: In Vegas you performed the show in a circus tent, suggesting a traveling carny show from the 1930s. In it, there’s Daniel Conway’s set. What was it like when you first saw his set?
Teller: I had only seen Dan’s set in drawings, but when I saw it up through the assistance of the amazing ART craftspeople, I all but fell on the floor. They made this perfect thing. We all practically cried it was so beautiful. And the ART gave us another gift when they let us rehearse on the set, because it is essential for something involving magic. You can’t figure out how to do this magic in a room. You have to do it on a stage with real blocking, real choreography and real optics involved.
EDGE: What was the hardest piece of business -- magic or otherwise -- in bringing your concept to the stage?
Teller: You’d be better off asking me whether if there was anything that was easy to pull off. There is nothing about this show that is easy. It’s actors having to have to do all the stuff they’d do in a normal production, plus they have to do magic stuff and the choreography that goes with the music. But the hardest thing for Aaron and me was to edit the script to a manageable size. It took a really long time. I am guessing a year, but I am not sure how long it took.
Every time I see ’The Tempest,’ I’ve been bothered by two things: one, they’re always flabby. They don’t have any drive. They seem like the product of some elderly sensibility that just wants to sit in the chair and contemplate the world; the second is that I can never figure out who the hell is who. It’s hard for the audience to follow who is who in the story. So to edit and adjust it so the audience can understand who is who, what is happening and who is being forgiven for what. Just that technical task that every director of ’The Tempest’ must do took us an enormous amount of time.
And there’s a certain redundancy in many Shakespeare plays that was designed so that if someone went out for a beer during the play and came back in, they’d be caught up in what’s going on by having a piece of exposition rolled out again. Some of that we trimmed back because our audience will not be going out for beers. They have an intermission. They won’t be half-paying attention. They’ll be paying attention. So that economy allows the play to have the drive I would want as an audience member. Anything I do, I like to ask, ’if I was in the audience, what would I want?’ I never want to pay attention. I want my attention wrested from me. I want to be dragged out of my seat and into the show. Anything that has the feeling I’m sitting in church waiting for something to happen is of no interest to me whatsoever. So our approach is to grab them by the back of the neck and take them through the story so nothing is left behind.
And there are things that are laugh-out-loud funny. Some of even the most serious parts have really funny stuff in it. So we made sure we hired actors good at comedy. An actor that can do comedy can adjust to a serious piece than vice-versa. Take the character of Prospero. Contrary to the zillion productions I’ve seen where Prospero is played as a wise-old sage, our Prospero is this sophisticated person in his 50s that’s been stranded on this island with his daughter for 12 years. He is not a sad, flabby old philosopher. This is a vigorously intelligent and very, very angry man. So we’re just trying to do the play the way it is asking to be done, instead of the way tradition often has led people to do it.
EDGE: Did you require your actors to have a background in magic?
Teller: Tom Nelis, who plays Prospero, comes with no magic background and learned a great deal and does it very well. But Prospero’s modus operandi is to delegate Ariel to do the work. So our Ariel needed to have enormous magical skills and we found one in Nate Dendy. He is equally a magician and equally an actor; and he is also tiny and trim and beautifully strange in his bearing. He does a great deal of wonderful sleight of hand as part of the show.
EDGE: You recently called yourself a 15-year old boy living in a 65-year old man’s body. Could you elaborate?
Teller: Well, that’s just who I am. I think people at my stage in life are thinking about retiring from the world, but I am someone that likes to play. And I have no patience with art that isn’t aggressively entertaining. There was recently a production of ’Macbeth’ I attended that was very serious, very lugubriously. There were none of the jokes that Shakespeare had put in, nor was it very scary. And some of the actors had no idea what they were doing, and we left at intermission. I’ve got no patience. I have the patience of a 15-year old boy.
This is a play about a guy in love with magic. This is a guy that almost sacrificed his life and that of his daughter because he’s so obsessed with magic. Now he’s in a situation where in the end he chooses to give up magic. At the root of it this is what thrills and terrifies me -- this person that gives up magic, which is something I can’t imagine. As Penn likes to say about Penn and Teller, we intend to die in office. But to have been around Aaron who has a little daughter who is about the same age as Miranda was when they were tossed out to sea; and I see what I can only describe is the great love he has for her. Then I imagine if Aaron were in the position to choose between his daughter’s well being and the art that he loves, I think he might be driven to make the decision that Prospero makes, which is to do right by my daughter, he’ll give up the thing that makes him who he is as an artist.
"The Tempest" runs through June 15, 2014 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information the American Repertory Theater website.