The Tempest

The 2019 program participants will perform in a reimagined production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, Artistic Director of Tyst Teater, Sweden’s National Deaf Theatre from 2005-2018. The production will feature Deaf and hearing actors onstage together. It will be a truly unique retelling of Shakespeare’s most dramatic - and final - script. The Tempest will take place in Shoctor Theatre April 20 to May 12, 2019. Bushell-Mingo was in Edmonton in August, and this celebrated actor, singer, and director took a break from holding auditions to chat with the Citadel about her vision for this production of The Tempest.

Citadel Theatre: How did you become involved with this production of The Tempest?

Josette Bushell-Mingo: I became involved in this production of The Tempest because I was asked to do it. I know Daryl, the artistic director at the Citadel. And, I'm currently artistic director of the National Deaf Theatre of Sweden called Tyst Teatre. Daryl and I met some years earlier, Daryl being particularly interested in inclusive work, in new forms of communication, great theatre. He came to visit me in Sweden and that's how we began our relationship and then I think for Daryl's continued vision to expand the audience in the Citadel, he thought ‘huh, why not? Let's do a production. Let's do this one. And let me invite Josette to help me achieve that goal.’ So that's how I got involved, mischief and yeah, knowing him.

CT: Did the two of you talk about which production you would do and like his reasons for choosing The Tempest? Were you involved with that decision?

JBM: Yeah there were loads of different reasons. He asked me what kinds of work I think would appeal, what kinds of work would at least interest mixed audiences in that way. In the end, Daryl chose to go with The Tempest - I think it's part of the whole season - decided to bring a Shakespeare. I think people, have conflicting relationships with Shakespeare. I understand, I get it, I love it, I love the work, Iambic pentameter. I love it. So I think this way of bringing this kind of story into the whole scheme of things, in terms of the repertoire. So I think the choice was let's put in a real classic.

CT: What is your vision for this production?

JBM: My vision for the piece really is a reimagining of The Tempest, is a Tempest that's asking ‘what if?’ The productions that I've been involved in or I've experienced have always allowed a kind of passivity; it's always been the story of a man, a white man, who is wronged. We then listen and see him get his revenge for that and then there is reconciliation and then he leaves. And although they have been extraordinary productions, I've always wondered to myself certainly ‘why is it so easy for him? What must have happened to Prospero before he gets to the island? Why is he not enraged?’

I need a Prospero who's actually fighting for his existence and fighting for revenge, not just assuming that things are going to happen. So I've approached The Tempest in a visual, physical, sensory way and I tapped into what if Prospero's magic is out of control. What if it's more four horseman of the apocalypse? What happens then? If he's running to catch up at this moment, in this time, the portal, the alchemy of his magic works and he's able to release his vengeance. Twelve years.

The other thing that I'm also trying to bring to it as well is in terms of the characters, is to reimagine them. So, for example, what if Ariel is seven people instead [of one]? What happens if we don't dance around the postcolonial race issue around Caliban but actually in the vortex of the magic, Caliban is able to show exactly what it means to be a black person on that island? He's able to use time and space to bring up images of black slavery, those images. What happens if characters find themselves in the same place? Is it some kind of computer virus, reappearing, turning up in the same spot? What happens if there's real water on stage and its really raining? What happens if, because The Tempest is known as one of Shakespeare's last - well, as the last play - and you can see very clearly other ideas from Romeo and Juliet, the Scottish play, Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello. What happens is as this portal is open all these play start coming through? So Ferdinand is no longer Ferdinand and Miranda. Suddenly Romeo and Juliet texts come out. What happens if Caliban starts to speak as Othello? So everything is beginning to turn in on itself. Prospero cannot control his revenge. What happens if there are tsunamis that are happening, forest are on fire? Does it sound familiar? Exactly what is happening? What about the island or the planet fights back - that's what Prospero has connected into. So for me that's the starting point.

And then the idea certainly is that the audience are able understand, possibly in a different way, why Prospero asks for forgiveness at the end - I never quite understood that. What has he done for the last two hours to make him want our forgiveness? By the time I'm finished with it, you'll understand why. Because his revenge is so, so brutal. What if Miranda is not the young woman who has never had sex before and just says yes to the young man that she meets, Ferdinand and actually says ‘no, I love you father but you're killing things and I will not stand.’ What happens ‘if’? Wow - and that's just the starting point. These are just a little mosaic of ideas you know. People who don't know it should come. What a great night. ‘Was this Shakespeare, I know this.’ The academics should go. [If people said]: ‘How'd she do that, that is not possible’ - that would be a great night for me.

CT: The inclusion of both Deaf and hearing actors in the same production is something that's new for the Citadel. How will this impact the community, particularly the artists?

JBM: That I don't know. How this piece will impact the Deaf community - I can't speak on behalf of the Deaf community. They will let me know if it impacts them. One of the things about the Citadel, by doing this, the gauntlet is down. It's easy to talk your shit. It's easy to say ‘I want to include everybody’ but you have to do it. What I've understood, including your good selves, is that this is the whole theatre, this is backstage and front stage. These are deaf people taking positions of power and teaching you how it should be done. This is how it will impact. The legacy of that really is that it remains within the house. And I, when I work because I'm as interested in process as I am in the production, press night will come I promise you. But up until that point how did we get there really.

That means technicians; that means safety and health behind the stage. How do you communicate with the deaf person when behind stage is in darkness? They will have to change their technique behind stage. Yes, step one: communication. How will you send this out? Will it be signed? Will it be texted? Now you know we need a spectrum of communication. You will change that. These are the steps that the legacy and impact however will be taken by the deaf community themselves. For the hearing community of which I am, just because I am a black woman doesn't mean I am deaf. I'm still hearing. What it will mean is that my practice will be enhanced, our audiences will stimulated, you as a team of people will be able to ask questions about what you do in a different way, and most importantly out in the audiences, which is the most important thing, they will see it's possible. That the houses are the place and it's the last place of refuge with these kind of things can happen because out there in the street, it's not. It's still a struggle, it is still political hell and it is still exclusion and homophobia and racism and etc but in the theater, we can try it. Is it state money? Yes it is, because that's where it should be going - here at The Citadel. So I think there's going to be a lot of impact, a lot of questions but it's only the deaf community that can answer that, so you need to interview them.

CT: The role of Prospero was one that's recently had some more diverse representation on stages in Canada. The Stratford production cast a woman in the role and an Indigenous actor will be in the role here. What is the importance of this gradual shift towards having more diversity and representation in traditional Shakespearian roles?

JBM: Well I think there is a kind of danger in getting that question, isn't there? Because one of the most important things is that I look for great actors. End of story. The idea, of course, when you talk about diversity, is that it’s because it doesn't happen enough. So what does it mean about the role? One of the shadows at the moment is #metoo, one of the suggestions was, of course, was that Prospero could be a woman. But for me what's politically important is that - and this has nothing to do with the other productions - but just for me, was that casting a woman is not going to change the shit that's been happening with #metoo. A woman on stage is not going to change that. That's political, that's infrastructure; that is actually a different way of looking at the world we live in. In terms of casting Lorne Cardinal, which I can reveal, is the fact that he brings great wisdom and depth to the role. He's an extremely open actor and he brings his identity with him. It will be his choice how much he chooses to use that or not. It enhances and it is, is like saying ‘Okay, casting me as Juliet the fact that I'm a black woman 54 years old, a lonely attitude about it all. So, for me, it's about what things add, not what they take away. Of course, where we are now in 2018/19 it will still be new. One day, somebody else will not ask this question and it will no longer be a discussion; it will just be, but until the point we have to do it.

CT: I love Lorne, so I'm very excited to see him on stage.

JBM: Oh I know, I was so nervous when I was speaking on Skype. I was all sweaty and I looked up and thought ‘oh my god’ but I actually know Lorne because we have a good friend Peter James. So we knew each other and he'd heard about me through the work that I'd done earlier. So yeah, I'm very lucky. I'll be meeting him actually in Vancouver when I get there.

CT: The Tempest is categorized as one of Shakespeare's comedies but it's quite a dramatic story. What are some of the themes? You talked about the loss of control earlier ... what are some of the other themes in the production that you hope to bring out?

JBM: Well, to be very, very clear, what I have done is that this is not a comedy for me. It's a dramatic tragedy and there's comedy in it because of the tragedy - it's a huge difference for me. I think the themes are revenge - that I would like to bring up. I'd like to bring up in a subtle way. The idea of the environment fighting back ocean, seas, the earth to which Prospero's revenge is connected. I'd like to look at the themes of certainly the female voices and how they would change the roles. The king is now the queen of Naples, Trincula, instead of Trinculo. What will these women's voices do in the piece? I'd like to lift that, explore what that does.

I think the other thing I'd like to bring up in it is forgiveness. What does that really mean? How far people are prepared to go to get their revenge? Yeah, and what I've been doing, which I think is deeply ambitious. I mean I can get rid of half of it but at the moment, I'm picking up every loophole in my production. The fact that we don't go far enough with Caliban, the fact that Miranda is always weak and innocent, the fact that Prospero gets things too easily. The fact that Antonio and Sebastian are kind of villains, there's always a vagueness around it and what I've done is pushed everything to capacity. Now see what happens to the Shakespeare now see what happens to the story. So those are the major themes, revenge, reconciliation, forgiveness, and fighting back ... I think.

CT: What do you expect an audience to come away with at the end of the evening?

JBM: I can't answer on behalf of an audience. One of the first things really is: do we look at these characters differently? The second thing is to be able to look at themselves - what they may do in these situations. And thirdly, is do we look at Shakespeare and to go ‘wow, within all of this there is this huge world.’ So I, as an audience member, demand this and nothing less. The next time I see he's not so frightening. He was a man who wanted to tell stories - he had a lot of help to tell those stories and there were few women who wrote those things as well, I just have to throw in. But the most important thing is that he's not scary. He's telling some of the most exciting stories we have and in there, they're hidden you'll see them in this space. So that's what I hope. Great night at the theatre.

CT: I realize that you have quite a distinguished acting, singing, and directing career. What got you into the business in the first place?

JBM: Oh god, I don't know, I don't know. How did I get here? I would like to say that the arts chose me. I didn't go looking for it. I come from a poor, working class background. There was no intention or desire to be in the arts, so I have a very skeptical relationship to it. As I've said to everybody, art for me is a way to change people, it's a way to change the way we live, the way we interact with other people, and the way we live the short time we have in this world. That's all. I don't see it as the answer to everything. It is a place that you can pass through and gain strength and power, confirmation. So that's why I'm in it still. How I got in it was as much by accident. It flirted with me. I wasn't interested. I actually trained as an athlete. So I had a very different trajectory. But here I am, still running.