Part 4: ‘The Tempest: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on:Chessboards & Sea-faring’ by Tracey Elaine Chessum,Ph.D.

Pallas Theatre Collective’s The Tempest: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on – Chessboards and Sea-faring.

Last week, Board President John Horman gave you a picture of his experience with Pallas Theatre Collective. This week, we’d like to offer you an inside look at the design and technical creation of The Tempest: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on, directed by Co-Artistic Director Tracey Elaine Chessum, coming this January.

As I said in Part 2 of our series, Pallas’s The Tempest: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on, tells Shakespeare’s classic play from Prospero’s brother, Antonio’s point of view – as the heightened Freudian dream of a guilt-ridden man.

As we began thinking about the design of a show that was, in and of itself, a dream, it became obvious that we needed something concrete to anchor the design. We knew that to truly depict a dreamscape could utterly confuse an audience. Think about your own dreams – dreams are usually scattered and ethereal, so we rarely expect to be able to understand our dreams as linear narratives. Audiences, on the other hand, do expect to be able to understand plays – whether they depict dreams or reality – as linear narratives! So, we needed a way to explain to the audience the difference between the dream world and reality, while still illustrating Antonio’s calculating motives to overthrow Prospero.

As I’ve said previously, Laura Rocklyn, our dramaturg, focused my attention on the chessboard as a central metaphor. While Shakespeare usually refrained from giving explicit stage directions in the text, The Tempest gives one of the most specific stage directions in the Shakespearean canon: “Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda playing at chess.” Laura began to frame Miranda and Ferdinand’s chessboard as a metaphor for the strategic way in which Antonio and Prospero calculate their next moves in their plans for dominance.  Therefore, the design elements of The Tempest: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on feature dreamscapes focused around chess imagery. Chessboards and chess pieces ground the piece in a physical world of rules, while the video projections that surround the stage provide the disorientation of dreams and backdrops for both the real and dream worlds.

Since we are working in a ‘found’ space, with no theatrical lighting, stages or materials at our disposal, we began by creating a stage from of a chessboard. I approached our fabulous technical director, Andy Derbyshire, with a small physical chessboard with Staunton chess pieces to represent the beginnings of our “world.”

The ‘sample’ chessboard used throughout the show. Photo by Pallas Theatre Collective.

From this, Andy and his team began crafting a 12 ft. square chessboard to serve as the centerpiece, and playing area, of our production – quite a feat when you consider that Pallas does not have a physical plant (the chessboard was constructed and painted in pieces in our basement!)! The finished product will resemble the wood grain of the ‘sample’ chessboard, and be able to withstand several complete chess games, and a lot of sea water and whisky sloshed about on stage!

Members of the Pallas Technical Production Team prep the chessboard for painting. Photo by Pallas Theatre Collective.

The chess pieces we are using are based on traditional Staunton pieces. The ‘back row’ chess pieces on our board are played by live actors, who are only distinguished as a particular piece by their movements around the stage.

One half of the chessboard with one coat of paint, before texturizing. Photo by Pallas Theatre Collective.

Gonzalo, the Rook, moves horizontally and vertically; Ferdinand, the Bishop, moves diagonally; Alonso, the king, moves one step at a time. Therefore, we were only required to create pawns for our life-sized game of chess. There are two types of pawns used on our stage: lighted pawns and seating pawns. Most of our pawns serve to support the dreamscape and create varied stage pictures. Eight pawns are functional stage lights with changeable color media that are moved around the stage by the actors, and hung from the ceiling at varying heights.

Our first Photoshop explanation of the lighted pawns. Photo by Pallas Theatre Collective.

The portability of these pseudo stage lights have allowed the actors and I to create lairs of monsters, jungles, ships, and magical homes – all on a chessboard with no other scenic elements. During the rehearsal process, we resorted to using paper cups as stand-ins for these pawn lights – reminding the actors of the barriers on stage, and giving them objects to work with.

Kelsey Meiklejohn (Miranda) and Brendan Kennedy (Ferdinand) rehearse a scene within the taped dimensions of the chessboard, with paper cups serving as lighted pawns. Photo by Pallas Theatre Collective.

We also needed seating on our stage, so Andy created seating pawns using paper maché, patching, liquid foam, and….lampshades.

A seating pawn prototype. Photo by Pallas Theatre Collective.

Where the chess imagery serves to ground the design elements, the video projections serve to enhance the dream elements and establish the difference between reality and Antonio’s dream world. The show begins (and ends) with a black and white video depiction of Antonio’s real life serving Prospero. It shows Prospero neglecting her duties as duke, and the series of events that leads Antonio to overthrow and exile her.

Chelsea Mayo (Sebastian), and John Stange (Antonio) use the seating pawns in rehearsal, while Rachel Jacobs (Alonso) looks on. Photo by Pallas Theatre Collective.

However, as Antonio descends into sleep, the projections give way to colorful backdrops, grand tempests and shows of magic. Throughout the show, the video projections attempt to bring the audience’s attention back to Antonio’s viewpoint by illustrating his feelings on the preceding scene.

John Stange (Antonio) and Julia Sears (Prospero), from the opening prologue video. Photo by Pallas Theatre Collective.

Through voice-overs of many of Shakespeare’s most recognizable lines, the soundscape and images in-between Antonio’s sleeping and waking make sense of his deepest desires and greatest fears.

Sean Silvia as Ariel. Photo by Pallas Theatre Collective.

Overall, the design elements are meant to bring the audience’s attention back to the purpose of our show: illuminating the perspective of Antonio. We invite you to watch 10 actors, 4 lighting technicians, 3 projection operators, 2 Assistant Stage Mangers, and 1 Stage Manger bring the heightened Freudian dream of a guilt-ridden man to life!

The Tempest plays January 10th – 13th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 24th, 26th, and 27th at 7:30pm at Pallas Theatre Collective at Warner Memorial Presbyterian Church – 10123 Connecticut Avenue, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

Part One of The Tempest: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on: Meet Pallas Theatre Collective, by Michael Boynton.

Part Two of The Tempest: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on: Views from the Chessboard, by Tracey Elaine Chessum, Ph.D.

Part Three of The Tempest: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on: From The Boardroom, by John Horman.

Pallas Theatre Collective’s website.


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