Dallas — Prism Movement Theater is back with their new physical theatre play, As Dreams Are Made On. WaterTower Theatre presented a workshop performance of this project as part of their Detour: A Festival of New Work in March. Now, Prism has two new performers and time to flesh out the story and movement for a full production. It's the second Shakespeare-themed show for Prism this season, after Lear in the fall of 2017.
As Dreams Are Made On showcases familiar characters for those who have read or seen William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. However, As Dreams Are Made On is not an adaptation of Shakespeare’s magical island play, but an imaginative prequel. The story centers on Prospero’s early years on the island and how she (yes, Prospero is a woman in this story) meets Sycorax, Caliban’s mother. Actor Catie McLain comments on the unusual nature of the project, “It’s a hard sell as a Shakespeare play without words.”
I had the opportunity to watch a rehearsal prior to tech, and the company is still experimenting even so close to performing in front of a live audience. The company ran through a sequence in which Prospero unleashes Ariel (a puppet) from a trunk. All the while, a cellist plays in the corner, accenting the emotional tone of each physical movement with original music.
Prism’s Co-Founder Jeff Colangelo created the full concept and “script” for the production (essentially a lengthy description of stage directions). While an outline of action exists, anything can change in rehearsal and Josh Porter serves as the director for the production. However, in rehearsal you see them wear both hats. While I sat in on rehearsal, Colangelo jumped in to restage moments and Josh gave the performers notes after running through sequences—there seemed to be a very collaborative relationship between the two creators.
This kind of work requires a unique ensemble of performers—actors that are comfortable working without language to tell a story and enjoy constant change. Jeremiah Johnson, a local actor and clown performer, enjoys the challenges that a Prism production offers. “I think it’s fascinating because you almost have to create a new language for a show like this,” he says. “Working with Prism Co. you have free reign, there’s an idea of what the show will be and you fill in the gaps.”
Casting is also ensemble-driven as most of the company plays multiple roles in the production, even some non-human entities. Johnson notes, “For the most part I portray Antonio but I am also Miranda at some points, water, trees, little lightning bugs a little bit of everything.”
Another performer, Courtney Mentzel, plays numerous characters and elements in the production, primarily through puppetry. She also plays Miranda as well as scenic elements like a hill or a tree, and even magic objects. While she cannot use language in the performance, she feels comfortable speaking through the puppets and objects. “I can channel my emotions through them, so the puppets become the words,” she says.
Working without language encourages precise physical articulation of thought and meaning. That’s part of the reason why the play evolves so much in rehearsal, the performers cannot rely on a word to communicate a feeling, they must embody it. McLain notes, “It’s very much like choreography. Because it’s a very physical show, Josh and Jeff are very particular in the way we choreograph. It really does matter what hand you use, because that will communicate [for example] how important that decision is.”
For some performers, this restriction of language is a reason why they were drawn to Prism in the first place. They see it as an opportunity to stretch their artistic limitations. “For the character I’m playing, I have to wear a mask the whole time, so I can’t rely on my face. I can’t use my voice because It’s wordless.” McLain, who plays Sycorax, auditioned for this project for this reason.
The prequel and openness of interpretation also allow the performers to connect more personally with characters that are painted in one dimension in Shakespeare’s original work. McClain says, “I think I was always intrigued by Sycorax. For me, The Tempest always spoke about colonialism. It’s a European person who shipwrecks on a place and kills all the natives and exploits their resources. For that reason, I felt drawn to Sycorax.” In the original play, she does not appear on stage and is only described in a villainous manner, but As Dreams Are Made On attempts to humanize this mysterious character.
While a script exists, Prism works through a try, reflect, and change process. In rehearsal, they put their ideas into practice, talk about what works and doesn’t, and then make changes to any component of the performance. The piece constantly evolves without the base line element of dialogue holding the play together. Most company members perceive this constant evolution in a positive light. Johnson notes, “It’s very improvisational, and as a clown that’s something I adore. You come to rehearsal you never know what’s going to change.” He goes on to say that some actions tried out in one rehearsal do not necessarily work the next day, so you have to feel open to “kill your darlings” and try a new idea.