Veteran lighting designer Jenifer Tipton made her debut as a director in October at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater with a harsh, uncompromising production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Her sudden transformation from design artist to director was a bold step that surprised many, perhaps no one more than Tipton herself.
The project had its beginnings in the spring of 1990, when Guthrie artistic director a Garland Wright was mapping out an upcoming season dealing with illusion and the theatrical imagination. He envisioned Shakespeare’s romance as “a sort of Rosetta stone” for the other plays he was eager to produce, among them Corneille’s The Illusion and de Musset’s Fantasio. But Wright had directed three previous Tempests and felt it was not time for him to attempt the play again. “I started dreaming about what other kinds of artists might do The Tempest. Maybe a sculptor or a filmmaker or a painter. Before I could think of anyone who fit those categories the name Jennifer Tipton screamed into my head. And curiously, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t thought of her before. It seemed very right, because she’s one of the wisest people I know.”
“When first I raised the tempest”
Some might have been intimidated by the prospect of making a directorial debut at the Guthrie, hardly an inconspicuous place for a first effort, but Tipton says the theatre, with which she has an ongoing relationship, was one reason she decided to accept the assignment. “They have a permanent company and a resident staff that works there year round. It’s sort of a built-in support system. In other words,” she adds with a laugh, “there’s someone around to pat me on the back and hold me up at every step of the way.”
“Jennifer’s mind always reveals itself through the play,” says Wright. “She lights from the idea. The lights are ideas. So I know she works from the same fundamental place as a director. Apparently a lot of eyebrows went up when it as announced that she would be directing The Tempest, but I’ll lay you money that when those eyebrows came down some of the same people said, ‘Oh, I get it.'”
Tipton does not come to this assignment completely inexperienced. She choreographed a number of dance works during her student years and more recently was an artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, advising on repertory and play selection. But her real preparation for the role of director, she feels, has been in the classroom. For the past 10 years Tipton has taught every Monday at the the Yale School of Drama, where she initiated a course in text analysis for students in the lighting program. Though it never occurred to her at the time, she was laying the groundwork for directing by thinking about dramatic works in a concentrated and systematic way.
After agreeing to take on the project, Tipton began to delve into the play as intensively as her schedule would allow, packing books and research materials in her luggage and grabbing “a couple of hour of study here an there” on the road. She also began bringing together the members of her production team, asking John Conklin, a frequent collaborator, to create the scenery and costumes. Tipton says she came to the production without any thoughts about the space in which it would take place. When the Guthrie’s dramaturg, Michael Lupu, first asked what images she had in mind, she replied: “I have no images. Only ideas.”
“And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle”
It is an afternoon in late May and a design meeting is about to begin at Tipton’s New York loft a few steps off lower Fifth Avenue. The long space is crowded with the souvenirs of a 25-year career in the arts as well as with fax and photocopying machines, drafting tables, computers and rolled-up lighting plots and computers. (A small captain’s bed placed inconspicuously against one wall reminds the visitor that someone lives here.) Tipton is speaking with Scott Zielinski, a former student who has assisted her on a several shows since leaving Yale and will be lighting The Tempest in Minneapolis. It is a formidable assignment for the 26-year-old Zielinski—creating the lighting for one of the most exacting lighting designers working in theatre and dance today. “The first question I asked before accepting,” Zielinski confides, “was ‘Will you be telling me what to do?’ Her answer was, ‘No, are you kidding? I have my hands full.'” Tipton confirms this: “I’m leaving it totally in Scott’s hands—and I’m amused at myself that I’m able to do this.”
Conklin arrives late from another meeting, the very picture of the overcommitted designer, all professional weariness and nervous energy, his canvas bag bulging with pieces of the other sets he is working on. He and Tipton began their collaboration some months before by poring over a pile of visual material the designer had assembled from his vast collection of picture files and art books, a practice intended to break the ice and spark the imagination. They also flew out to the Guthrie and spend a day “sitting out in the house, just wandering around in our heads.” Conklin somewhat perversely suggested that they set the play in the blasted ruins of the Guthrie itself. Though, as often happens in the theatre, the scenic conception would eventually evolve into something else, a few elements of disintegration remain: a bare wooden platform, the center of which has burned or rotted away, and a sagging piece of gridwork above the stage which seems about to break away from the ceiling of the auditorium.
Today Conklin begins by setting up the model of the still-evolving design, and takes out a black cardboard box filled with tiny objects—Lucite cubes and other geometric shapes, pebbles, drops of gold solder, miniature barrels, logs and chairs—which he scatters on the kitchen counter like Monopoly pieces. No sooner is the model in place than Conklin is reconfiguring its elements, retracting his steps and suggesting other possibilities.
“Perhaps there could be objects that come up through the floor or emit sound an light. Is this something to explore? Things, like…suddenly happen. A green glowing something oozes up.” He pauses to consider. The long narrow shadow of Robert Wilson momentarily passes over the room. “Of course, it’s all from working with Wilson. In When We Dead Awaken [which Conklin recently co-designed with Wilson at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.] there’s one little red rock glowing on stage and it’s so beautiful. It’s nothing but a stupid little piece of Styrofoam with a red light shining on it. Why is it so magical? It’s just dumb.” He shrugs. The implication is clear: “That’s theatre.”
Ideas fly this way and that. Tipton, relaxed and good-humored, does the yielding from a nearby barstool. Conklin has been reading Jan Kott. “Kott describes the island as being something out of Bosch. Like New Jersey. The closest thing to Bosch! Burning smokestacks, polluted rivers, chemical waste.” “We’re back to the idea of glowing objects,” says Tipton, “not pretty, but radioactive and dangerous.”
This much is clear of the evolving conception: Prospero’s island will be no lost paradise, no pristine new world drenched in tropical sunlight, but a despoiled domain where nature lies vulnerable and exposed. (As ultimately seen in Zielinski’s hard, wintry light it will also be a cold place.) Tipton, a longtime resident of one of the world’s most unenchanted islands, Manhattan, later says that she could conceived of it no other way: “I just can’t see how there can be an idyllic place in our world today. I can’t find it.”
Hovering over the miniature model, Conklin is both stage manager and master of revel, a kitchen-counter Prospero, animating the action and infusing the process of selection with a sense of wonder and importance. Sometimes he will fall silent in mid-sentence, not necessarily because he has come to the end of a thought or run out of words but to allow the others to enter into his imaginings and ascertain what they are thinking. At other times his suggestions are offered in a wrapping of indecision or self-doubt that does not conceal the note of hopefulness in his voice.
By now Conklin has covered the stage with logs, white rocks, chairs, barrels, transparent geometric shapes and—“for some inexplicable reason”—a tiny gold harp. He reaches for a few pieces of twisted metal. “I don’t know where these came from. I’m just working out of whimsy.” His voice drops to a whisper. “Perhaps instinct might be a more attractive name for it.” Tipton laughs and he turns back to the model. “Perhaps….” His voice trails off. A concentrated silence fills the room. The three stare at the miniature stage with such intensity that one would not be surprised if the little pieces began moving by themselves. Tipton: “My immediate sense is I like all of it. But. . .it’s too much.” Conklin: “Yes. Of course.”
“For yet ere supper time must I perform much business appertaining”
Many other issues are put on the table as the afternoon wears on. Tipton has decided to discard the problematic nuptial masque in Act 4 as well as the mythological figures conjured from antiquity at Prospero’s command; in their place she will fashion a new text from Shakespeare’s sonnets. “I love the idea of bringing together the cocky young man who knew his writing was going to last forever and the older man who must have bee in great pain when he wrote The Tempest.” She reads her selections and they consider how the scene might be staged and costumed. (Eventually four spirits in white veils will move around the darkened stage carrying geometric shapes of frosted glass that glow from within.) Tipton and Conklin also discuss the banquet Prospero causes to appear before his enemies. She envisions “a roast beef that begins to bleed or some mouth-watering dish that splits apart into spiders.” Conklin sighs: “The trouble with that is it’s so hard to do…” Before the meeting breaks up, they exchange ideas about characters, costuming and props and settle on a restricted palette of both scenery and costumes—mostly grays and blacks.
“Up until today,” says Zielinski, “it was pretty much a free-for-all. We were saying anything is possible.” Now the choices are narrowing as the team begins edging toward a final design. Setting a date for their next meeting, however, and getting all their schedules to align is no easy task. Conklin is leaving tomorrow for Paris to oversee his costume designs for Wilson’s new Magic Flute at the Opera Bastille. Tipton, who only just returned from Europe, is flying back at the end of the week. The completed design is due in a little over a month. They exchange schedule, addresses and fax numbers, and Conklin makes a hasty retreat. Another production, another meeting.
“This island’s mine…”
It is now late June. During the previous five weeks Tipton has passed through Vienna, Praque, North Carolina and Washington, D. C. “Now things slow down a bit. All my other work is finished and I have a month to prepare before rehearsals start.” She is meeting Conklin at the end of the week and thinks the set will be pretty much finalized at that time. Her desire from the beginning has been to keep things as simple as possible and she seems to have achieved her aim. The setting is “basically an empty plate,” a broken expanse of wooden planking that might be the deck of a ship or an island or just a stage. No complicated scenic effects, no changing vistas. “I’ve given myself as few tasks as possible,” she says, “just working with the actors is enough this time around.”
The Tempest makes formidable demands on even the most experienced directors, and Tipton is not unmindful of the challenge. “Yes, it’s a tough play because it’s a skeleton. Not everything is fleshed out. That’s one of its wonders and mysteries and ultimately what makes the play so special. It also means that you can do your own vision. I think it’s a pretty wonderful piece to do as a first play.” During the months she has been studying the play Tipton has also found, as one invariably does with great works, that it is her story: “It’s about the search for self-knowledge and balance, the control of passion, and of finding a way to affect the world. All that is somehow part of me.”
Over the last two decades Tipton has worked with some of the most interesting and innovative directors of our time, among them Robert Wilson, Andrei Serban, Jerome Robbins, Liviu Ciulei, Elizabeth LeCompte and JoAnne Akalaitis. As she approaches the door of the rehearsal room for the first time, I ask if any of them have provided a model for conceptualizing the production. “No,” she answers without hesitation. “Never for a second has it occurred to me to do it like anybody else. I latched on. It’s mine.”
“Come unto these yellow sands, and then take hands”
It is early afternoon some months later in Rehearsal Room 1, a large white-washed space somewhere within the backstage labyrinth of the Guthrie. Though a terrific thunderstorm passed over the city that morning, bringing with it flashes of lightning and torrential rain, the late summer sun now pours through a skylight onto a mock-up of Conklin’s set where shortly Prospero will quell the tempest and tell Miranda the history of the island.
Tipton, who is dressed in running shoes, slacks and a loose-fitting smock (her standard rehearsal attire), moves slowly around the makeshift stage, considering—as no doubt she has many times before—the various objects and their physical relation to one another. In her mind these pieces have come to represent the intersecting worlds of The Tempest: nature (rocks), art and magic (transparent cubes and disks), and man (chairs and oil drums). There is also a new addition to the set, a tangled construction of wood and rigging that stretches some 25 feet from floor to ceiling (eventually to be entwined with a fiber-topic lightning bolt).
It is not what Tipton does during these early rehearsals that impresses one as much a her general manner and the tone she sets. Her cheerfulness and cool, concentrated demeanor make for rehearsals that are at once relaxed and focused. Little escapes her notice, whether it is the possible strain on an actor’s knee or the salt content of the instant soup another cast member has brought to rehearsal. She is also a good audience and her ready laugh has a way of reassuring the actors and urging them on. Michael Lupu, who oversees a desk-top library of variant texts and reference volumes just behind the director’s table, counts himself chief among Tipton’s enthusiasts: “She knows what she wants down to the smallest detail of the script. But she’s also very open. I suppose she will be open till the end. Jennifer doesn’t know what it is to have a secret agenda with the actors. No strategies, no playing false.”
“The isle is full of noises…”
Looking on from one side of the room is Hans Peter Kuhn, Germany’s premier sound designer (and a frequent Robert Wilson collaborator), who sits at his audio console, an English/German copy of The Tempest within easy reach. Kuhn was the first person Tipton choose for her production team: “This is an island that’s alive with sound,” she says, “and I felt there should be a fabric of chaotic sounds turning into music that’s always there.” Kuhn has come prepared for the task, bringing with him not only a state-of-the-art sound system but a library of 1,500 sound samples inscribed on microcassettes.
The critic Agostino Lombardo has written that Prospero’s island resembles a great resonant shell “where the voices of the elements merge with human voices and animal sounds.” In Kuhn’s design, the theatre itself becomes this shell, reverberating with fragments of remembered speech, distant music and the transfigured sounds of the natural world. As in his collaborations with Wilson, he plans to put a battery of little speakers around the auditorium as well as on stage so the audience is completely surrounded by sound. “It’s a magic island, no?,” he says. “So everything on it should make some kind of noise.” While the sounds of nature—the surging of wind and ocean the cries of sea gulls, the crackle of fire—are already much in evidence, Kuhn’s soundscape will also underscore the spiritual discord of the play, sometimes by echoing the voices of characters or multiplying their whispers and menacing laughter. (Tipton herself has described the island as “an echo, reverberating everything that has ever gone on the minds of its inhabitants.”)
Kuhn’s sympathies are understandably with Ariel, the mercurial spirit of the air. “Ariel is to my way of thinking the rightful possessor of the island. So whenever Ariel appears something strange will happen in sound.” When she touches the edge of a large transparent disk it resonates; at times her laughter can be heard moving around the perimeter of the theatre; when she drops a rock into the hole in the middle of the floor there is a long silence–as though the space below the stage were a thousand feet deep–and then a distant explosion.
Although Kuhn says that he prefers not to have his sound score mirror the action on stage, The Tempest will be something of a departure for him. “This production doesn’t have the formal aspect of a Wilson piece, so I’m working in a more traditional way—much closer to the text.” As always his soundscapes take shape through intuition and improvisation. “The actors make proposals and so do I. If something doesn’t work then we’ll find something else.”
“‘Tis new to thee”
Tipton is sitting in a restaurant not far from the theatre, discussing her experiences three weeks into rehearsal over a glass of wine and a plate of linguine. “One of the surprises is about actors. I somehow never realized that acting is doing rather than being. They go so fast, they make such leaps. And they all have such definite ideas about how to say the language. I’ve tried to peel away and get back to something much simpler. One of the things that made me unhappy in the beginning was the realization that anything you do causes certain layers of the text to fall away. This thing was so rich I was loathe to make any choices. Then as I got to know the play better the choices became clearer.”
Tipton compares her encounter with the rehearsal process to “an out-of-body experience” and says she has the feeling of “standing apart” watching herself direct. “They should be experiencing what I am—the anxiety and uncertainty.” While she gives no indication of either, the word “terror” has a way of slipping into her conversation as she anticipates the first preview or wonders in “a sudden moment what would Bob Wilson or JoAnne Akalaitis think of this.”
No matter how the production eventually fares, working day in and day out on The Tempest has caused Tipton to give some hard thought to her personal and professional future. “Life’s so…short. And there are so many things I want to do. I’ve never been in one place for three months since I can remember. I have an assistant in New York who takes my calls and sends me faxes. My life is about picking up my phone messages and getting back to people and packing to go someplace else.” At the Guthrie she has found the integrated life and continuity of a small community, an island of sorts, and a temporary release from the kind of existence she has come to accept as the price of a life in the arts. “So maybe what this means is that I can get unhooked from that all of that. May be I can spend part of the year in Prague where I’ve been offered a post with the new opera festival or become more involved in the Yale community. And maybe it means—though I suspect it’s not true—that I don’t have to do the things that I don’t really want to do.”
Though opening night looms, and with it the glare of publicity and high expectation, Tipton does not let herself become unduly concerned about the eventualities. “In my whole life of lighting I’ve always relished the process, and that’s really what theatre is about. People have said things to me like, ‘You’re doing a major production at the Guthrie,’ but somehow it doesn’t faze me.” She regards the last of her wine. “I’m really amazed at myself for…” She laughs. “I’m really amazed at myself, period.”
“Blow till thou burst thy wind…”
There was no mention of the opening storm and shipboard scene at the design meeting in May—and for good reason. At Conklin’s suggestion, Tipton had already decided to present the scene as a reading, with the actors sitting in a semicircle with scripts in hands as they might in rehearsal. In part this decision was reached to accommodate Kuhn, who, while seemingly born to realize the tempest in a sound environment, shied away from the challenge: “The first thing Hans Peter said to me was ‘Can we cut the first scene?’ The burden seemed to be so much with him and he didn’t want to start out that way.”
As the audience enters the theatre in October they find not only the sagging grid and the planked stage with its gaping hole, worn stones and mysterious Plexiglass shapes but a semi-circle of black lacquered chairs silently awaiting the entrance of the actors. The tempest is already building and the sound of wind and sea blends with the muffled conversation of the gathering audience (Kuhn has relented somewhat). Suddenly a lighting instrument drops from the grid, spilling light in a gradually dwindling arc as it swings back and forth over the stage. There is a gasp and then scattered laughter as the audience realizes they’ve been taken in. The idea was Zielinski’s and its implication is not lost on Tipton, though she admits “it wasn’t until opening night that the metaphor hit me—and I was very embarrassed.”
The rush of sea and wind grows deafening as the house lights dim and members of the company, dressed in what could be street clothes, file in and take their places. Other actors already in costume—the inhabitants of the island who will be introduced in the second scene—stand behind them in the darkness. As the reading begins, an unseen Ariel moves among the actors with two rocks which she claps together, turning the sound of the tempest on and off like a radio. At one point she approaches the actor playing the boatswain, snatches his pages and tosses them in the air. It is as though the tempest had blown the script out of his hands, sweeping him and everyone else into the play. (At the end of the evening, the same character will enter speechless and amazed at having found himself so suddenly transported onto the island; it is not until Ariel places a script in his hand that he finds his voice and the play resumes. In an instant we are reminded both of the artifice of the theatre and where we began.)
It was Tipton’s original plan to have the stage floor collapse at the end of the scene, with a number of actors falling into the abyss, chairs and all. Ferdinand would have eventually come crawling out, now newly laundered like his fellow passengers, but with blood streaming down his face. None of this happens, at least not literally. Instead, as the ship threatens to break apart in the tempest, Ferdinand leaps out of his chair which bursts into flame and plunges into the hole at the center of the stage. In the tumult, the other actors overturn their chairs, which remain on stage for the rest of the play, becoming—along with a few scattered pages of the script—the debris that has washed up on the island.
“The scene is surprising in so many ways,” says Garland Wright. “It’s cool and formal—silent when you would expect it to be loud and loud when you would expect it to be silent. I can’t imagine anyone else but Jennifer taking the initial idea of actors falling through the floor and coming up with this final picture—and making it mean what she means, which is that the very structure of the play and the theatre collapses into chaos, and out of that collapse springs this wholly magic event called The Tempest.”
“O brave new world…”
On the first day of rehearsals Tipton spoke of The Tempest as “an ecstatic expression of despair” and she has remained true to her initial vision. The world she conjures out of Shakespeare’s romance is a barren place situated in the shadow of man’s darker dreams, blighted by his ambition, cruelty and bitterness. Even the show’s moments of spectacle are touched by an element of menace. When the clowns attempt to follow Caliban across the raked platform at the back of the stage, it suddenly veers up, becoming a towering vertical wall that blocks their way—the single chair placed on its surface now pitched at a terrifying angle. When Prospero raises his staff and vows to abjure his magic, smoke and fierce white light burn up through the cracks in the stage floor as if some awesome source of energy lay festering beneath his feet.
The despoiled world one finds here subtly undermines the benevolent and orderly domain that has been created in and around the Guthrie, where well-scrubbed students gather in the rush line that weaves through the foyer and prosperous-looking subscribers greet one another by the overflowing buffet tables that give the inner lobby the feeling of a community bake sale. Just outside the doors of the theatre lies the city’s pristine sculpture garden—a perfect little island of life and art with its manicured lawns, carefully laid-out paths and Claes Oldenburg’s fanciful Spoonbridge and Cherry, a 52-foot-long spoon topped by a gigantic cherry. Within the theatre, however, nature and art have not fared nearly so well.
The bleakness of Tipton’s vision is fully revealed in the play’s final scene. Having surrendered the powers of imagination that sustained him during his years on the island, Prospero grows old and enfeebled. The final reconciliation over which he presides is punctuated by the dark laughter of the unrepentant Antonio who literally turns his back on the scene, mocking not only the moving resolution his brother has fashioned but our very capacity for remorse, forgiveness and joy. The world has not been set right. If anything, the stage is set for the whole cycle of unsurpation and revenge to repeat itself—as a local critic suggested, this brave new world may only be the old world grown colder and meaner. In the final moments of the play Prospero bids those assembled to “draw near” and the royal party moves slowly past the wreckage of the island into the smoky void that lies beyond, swaying back and forth as they retreat, like prisoners in formation.
During one of their first discussions, Tipton told Michael Lupu, “A few nights ago, I dreamed Miranda was pregnant.” Momentarily taken aback, Lupu asked, “Pregnant by whom, Caliban or Ferdinand?” “Ah, no,” Tipton replied, “pregnant with the future.” A residue of her vision is contained in the image we now see. As Prospero speaks the final words of the epilogue, the glowing skyline of a modern city appears out of the darkness. The company stands in their flowing robes and Elizabethan collars silently peering across the centuries into the very world that will inherit this play. “I wanted desperately for the piece to have a happy ending,” says Tipton, “but I couldn’t find it. So the final image is of the actors walking off into the smog-infested city. The city at night with its lights is very beautiful, but there’s a price to pay, and I think that’s very much the brave new world.” (Back in May, Tipton told Conklin that the distant city “should either be Milan or Minneapolis.” Conklin replied, “They both look more or less alike now.”) Prospero joins the others in the shadow of this vast, impersonal future while Caliban, the remaining inhabitant of the island, walks to the edge of the stage and stares out into the auditorium. After a moment, he removes his glasses, wipes them and puts them back on, as if to get a better look at us. He regards his new kingdom and subjects—all inherited by default—with detachment as the lights fade.
“Then to the elements be free and fare thou well!”
Tipton is back in New York, sitting behind a computer monitor in the auditorium of City Center checking light cues for choreographer Paul Taylor’s fall season. The Tempest has been running at the Guthrie some three weeks and family members, friends and many of her regular collaborators have been making the journey to Minneapolis. (She flew all her lighting students from Yale in for the opening and then discussed the production with them in class the following Monday.) Local reviews have been respectful, though a number of critics and subscribers have been a bit put off by the severity of her vision. Tipton herself claims to be “as satisfied as one can be” with the production. “I really felt we got deeply into the play. One of the things that surprised me was that my voice was so clear and strong.”
I ask if she has experienced anything like postpartum depression now that a year of intensive study, planning and rehearsal activity has come to an end. “In some sense. As you get closer to the culmination of the process, you’ve already started distancing yourself and giving the production over to the actors.” Actually, Tipton is not quite gone—the newly accredited director seems unable to pull herself away from her creation, and has seen virtually every performance, usually from the audience. Has she been tinkering with the staging or giving notes to the actors? “No, I just like seeing their work. I hang on every word. Part of what I’ve discovered is that human beings are a lot nicer to work with than lights.”
Tipton has come away with a deep feeling for the performers who have shared the weeks of exploration and discovery with her. “People complain about actors. I myself have complained about actors for years. But I found it was really exciting to invest in them, to challenge and stimulate them. Instead of feeling as many directors do that the actors are messing up their work, I came to realize that they’re what the work is.” The production’s opening scene might be a metaphor for her personal experience: a group of actors gather together with scripts in hand, slowly and at first tentatively making their way through an unmarked text on a journey of discovery that is at once perilous and exhilarating.
“I think she’s had a very big experience,” says Garland Wright, “to suddenly stumble upon the other side of this thing she does. She now understands what the investment is, what the labor is, what the pain is. My hope is that she will now want to participate to the fullest.” Tipton, who is already thinking about a possible next project, says only, “I’d love to go into rehearsal tomorrow.”
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