“…and then, in dreaming, / The clouds methought would open and show riches / Ready to drop down upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again.”
There’s a moment in the Tempest where Caliban, long since stripped of everything he once claimed his own, laments upon the nature of dreams. Dreams, for all their beauty and splendor, end upon awakening. It is one of my favorite moments onstage and one that hits startling close to home.
I've done a lot of Shakespeare in the past decade; over a dozen productions as either an actor or a director, and when I need an infusion of creativity to my spiritual self. There’s an element of plasticity in Shakespeare that most plays lack – a need to infuse the script with your own ideas and thoughts. Where modern plays are rigid in their scope – Shakespeare’s plays transcend time and thought, and which is why you’ll always find them set in time periods and locations as varied as the scope of human existence itself.
I bristle whenever the phrase “the way Shakespeare was meant to be done” is uttered by directors. As if the Bard’s plays are locked into being performed as an archaic historical re-enactment. It is close-minded, offensive, and ultimately insulting to the thousands of directors and performers who have taken chances with the material to try and shape something new out of something old. There is a place for “traditional” interpretations of the Bard alongside those who infuse his scripts with more modern elements.
There’s lots more I could write about my approach to the Bard – but that is not what this post is about. This post is about Caliban. I’ve been performing onstage since the summer of 1990 when I was a kid – that’s nearly 25 years in the theatre – and during that time I’ve had the opportunity to portray some of my dream roles with varying degrees of success. I’ve also had the chance to portray some roles that ended up becoming dream roles that I never realized existed. Slowly, but surely, I’ve managed to tick off most of the major roles on my bucket list.
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I've been given in the theatre – but a few bucket list roles still elude me. Of these, I've long since made peace with the fact that I’ll never be able to perform them. I’ll never get the chance to play Cyrano de Bergerac, Caligula, or Richard III for a long list of reasons. I still hold out hope for a few of them – Red Peter in Kafka’s Monkey, the Monster in Frankenstein (the Nick Dear version), and Billy in Tribes. And until recently – Caliban was in the “never get the chance” list.
Three years ago I was in a production of the Tempest where I auditioned primarily for the role of Caliban but was instead cast as Trinculo. I won’t speak much of this production other than I wasn't a fan. It happens – not every play you work on will be great. But after that production I removed Caliban from my bucket list as I didn't think the opportunity would ever arise again.
I am drawn primarily to roles that allow me to express physically and spatially what I might not be able to vocally. The gradual loss of hearing has taken away a great deal of my ability to play with vocal nuances. And within fifteen years – the hearing I have left will be completely gone – and so too will my ability to perform onstage in the productions I’ve always wanted to.
By the time I am old enough to play roles like Cyrano de Bergerac, I simply won’t be able to. It is a sobering realization that hit me hard when I first learned of it – but, as I’ve said before, I've made my peace with it. All good things, as the saying goes, must come to an end. I've been incredibly fortunate in theatre and I will eventually exit the stage knowing I’ve accomplished most (if not all) that I've ever expected to do.
A few months ago, on a whim, I browsed through Theatre in Chicago’s auditions page and to my surprise, there was the Tempest. While the bulk of the show was precast with company members and guest artists one of the roles was not – after two years of being done with acting due to repeated poor experiences and simply focusing on administration/management rather than performing, I decided to take the leap and audition.
I expected nothing.
First Chicago audition for one of the dream roles I had written off as “never gonna happen”?No one was more surprised than me when I was cast. A dream I had long since dismissed suddenly found its way to reality -- And Caliban is nothing if not a creature of dreams.
In the show, he is described as a thing of darkness, and various descriptions clarify him as a sort of earth elemental that has been twisted and corrupted by malevolence and greed. And I've seen Caliban portrayed highlighting all of that – I've also seen him portrayed as an emo teenager to try and bring out the sadness that lurks beneath the venom he spews. But me? I’ve always seen Caliban as a dreamer. In the most famous speech in the Tempest, Caliban speaks of his love for the island and mourns for what has been taken from him. He speaks of dreams – and how cruel they can be to provide him with everything he ever wanted and then, upon waking, strip him of it all.I’ve made no secret of the fact that, over the years, it took me a long time to accept that I am, in fact, deaf. When I was young I was offended by the word and demanded to be referred to as hearing impaired. Growing up it was really just me – I didn't know anyone else who was deaf, and the few I met had such thick accents and struggled to converse with us normal people. As I grew older and was introduced to the amazingly broad spectrum of deaf culture, I grew to accept that part of me that I had kept hidden for fear of being branded different. These days I am secure in who I am and talk at length about the issues of audism and deafness whenever prompted, and consider my deafness an important part of me just as my love of theatre is. But, one thing hasn't changed – when I dream, I can hear. The things I know I am missing, even the things I have never heard – the subtle mellifluous changes in melody in music, the sound of the breath of someone I love in bed next to me – all the things I cannot hear when I am awake, I hear in my dreams. It is never a conscious thing, a realization in my dreams that my deafness has been “cured”. In dreaming it is as normal as breathing – I can hear, and this is the way it has always been. There are other things I lack that I find in dreams. Sometimes they are superficial – dreams about being rich or famous or handsome, sometimes they are fantastical – dreams of superheroes and dragons and taking out gunmen one well-placed bullet at a time – sometimes they are deeply personal, dreams of my father, of loves I have lost and loves I will never have – and sometimes they hit far too close to home. And upon waking, I am thrust back into the mundane world - where I am what I am: ordinary. When I think of Caliban, I inevitably think of his dreams – and how he, who once was prince of the Island, had everything he ever wanted stripped from him. Caliban is abhorrent in nature, to be sure, and some of his crimes are unjustifiable. But beneath “this thing of darkness” lies a lonely creature who seeks only his own dreams. There is that longing in Caliban that comes out when he speaks, a desire for things to be as in his dreams. There’s a desperation in him – we see this in his desperate attempts to latch onto a new king in the vain hope that it couldn’t possibly become any worse. It is a lonely existence, to be Caliban, to be the only one of his kind, and it is a loneliness I am acquainted with. In the mornings when I rise from my slumber I am embraced by a deep silence. Without my hearing aids in the world is swallowed by the absence of noise. On the days I rouse from a dreaming slumber – it is jarring. Even when I woke up next to the girls I've loved before; there was still that deep and hollow loneliness that is presented when you step from the richness of imagination and into the void. One day I know that silence will consume me – not in death, nothing as morbid as that, but simply the absence of sound. I've always connected with Caliban on a deep level, despite his black-hearted nature, for I've always, on some primal level, understood him. I don't know yet if I have done him justice or expressed everything I wanted to (I will be the first to admit that I usually don't on either counts) - but as I always am, I am eager to try.