The Tempest, Not Tossed, of Ethan McSweeny

Avery Glymph as Ferdinand and Rachel Mewbron as Miranda in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Photo by Scott Suchman.

You have five chances — next Thursday and Friday, twice next Saturday, once next Sunday — to see The Tempest, handiwork of that guy Shakespeare, at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Some select few might read that sentence and sense some urgency: Gee, we better get there. 

But most folks wouldn’t. Sure, The Tempest is closing. There are also 37 Benedict Cumberbatch movies out and 2 Broke Girls is on tomorrow and our friends want to see Kathy Griffin live somewhere and Mom, I think, has a birthday next month, so. Thanks for the tip.

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Now, what if the sentence read like this:

You have five chances — next Thursday and Friday, twice next Saturday, once next Sunday — to see Ethan McSweeny’s production of The Tempest, handiwork of that guy Shakespeare.

Now it might be urgent. As it should be.

Avery Glymph as Ferdinand and Rachel Mewbron as Miranda in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Avery Glymph as Ferdinand and Rachel Mewbron as Miranda in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Tempest. Photo: Scott Suchman.

McSweeny is not only one of our most successful theatre directors, but equally one of our most important, and for a man who zoomed a few years ago past 40, he continues to sport the aura of a modern Boy Wonder — an Orson Welles with much more in his future than commercials for Paul Masson.

McSweeny has only staged two Broadway productions: the 2000 revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, and Rupert Holmes’ 2013 adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. But he’s an Off-Broadway comer and offers regional work galore, including in D.C., his hometown. We’ll pause now to click over to McSweeny’s website and tally up how many plays McSweeny has staged at Shakespeare Theatre. The answer is seven. It’s not just that he is — as Peter Marks characterized him in his Washington Post review of The Tempest — a “classical imagist,” although he does possess that rare mixture of deep affinity for text and a fanciful eye. He has proven to be fluid in his choices, negotiating between the classical and the edgy-new. For every classic, in other words, he can stage an edgy (Kate Fodor’s 100 Saints You Should Know), or something highly edgy (Jason Grote’s 1001), or else versions of plays so edgy they’re standing almost on a ledge (Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade).

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mcsweenyotsFor tickets to The Tempest, click here. In the meantime, here’s are five questions Ethan McSweeny has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I have been asked so many questions in so many contexts that I honestly have no idea. Fundamentally, I believe all questions have merit and even a seemingly simple one can provide the framework for an interesting conversation. For instance, there is a truism in the theatre about the mundanity of the “how do you learn all those lines” question but I find if you take it seriously and then pose it to the cast you get all sorts of different answers and it turns out that each actor learns differently and that some of them have had to change their memorization strategies as they get older.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Question 1. Just kidding. But the door was left just too wide open for that one.

I don’t do too well with questions along the lines of “Which character do you like best?” or “Which character is most like you?” because that is just not relevant to the work of the director. But again, if you shift the frame of that into a question about how directors don’t need to take sides to tell a story, you can make it a little more answerable. When I need to stall for time, I usually say something like, “That’s a very interesting question.”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Hmm. That’s a very interesting question. I once spent an hour onstage with an academic who kept telling the audience that I had ruined a production of Midsummer because I hadn’t comprehended that Lysander and Demetrius should be identical, and when I pressed him for some textual support to his claim, he cited a production which he had performed in high school in South Africa. That’s probably more dick-ish than weird, but the experience was weird for sure. My favorite slightly-off-topic questions usually come from younger audience members because they are simply burning with curiosity and unconcerned with how “smart” their question might be.

Given your work on new and classic plays, here’s a game of lists. Please state the three savviest ways to motivate playwrights…

  • Encouragement,
  • Love,
  • and a red pencil

…three aspects to the playwrights’ psyche that fascinate you...

  • The imagination to create alone,
  • the rigor to write every day,
  • and the willingness to write stage directions that defy the laws of the universe.

…three attributes of directors who have personally inspired you…

  • Smart
  • Gutsy
  • Theatrical

…three challenges that frighten you most as a theatre artist…

  • Dance
  • Mime
  • Animal Improv
The Tempest
The company.

Given the state of the world, and the thematic elements of revenge, romance and supernaturalism in The Tempest, can you really avoid thinking about contemporary politics as you direct this work? To put it differently: do you try never to think about resonances to current times when you direct a classic play? Or do you think about resonances more than you should?
One of the great things about a classic text in revival is that you don’t have to consciously manipulate it for contemporary themes and parallels to emerge — that it encounters perpetual truths about human beings is one of the things that makes it a classic. And the beauty of live theatre is that we have all read the same newspaper on the same day and so both performers and audience bring that information into the theatre with them and the play becomes part of that conversation. (OK, probably no one but me reads actual newspapers anymore, but you get the idea). One doesn’t get that kind of immediacy from a film, for example. To be fair, I can’t help thinking about contemporary politics while I work, because I am a contemporary citizen. And I like reminding the cast that while in contemporary times we have achieved the internet, basic human behavior and interaction has not changed at all since Aeschylus, let alone Shakespeare.

Bonus question:

William Shakespeare returns from the dead — and the dude is stressed. Up in heaven, he heard that at least one dramaturgical flaw exists in each of his plays, but he wasn’t told what they are. He was told, though, that as a 21st century director, you’re exactly the person to demonstrate what they are. First, how do you calm him down? Then, once he’s calm, what do you say? Are there dramaturgical flaws in Shakespeare’s plays? Should the undead Bard try to solve them?
There are dramaturgical flaws in all plays: I don’t think perfection exists and the achievement of perfect dramaturgy would likely make for boring drama. I would probably tell Shakespeare that he should relax, as he is the most produced playwright the world has ever known. And if he really is back from the dead, he should start asking for royalties!