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ASIDES: Mapping the Play, The Tempest

Director Ethan McSweeny and his artistic team design the desert island of his/your/our imagination

By Laura Henry Buda, Community Engagement Manager


Shipwreck on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia; Wikimedia Commons

How can a team of artists construct a world as ubiquitous and mysterious as a deserted island? Artists search for inspiration everywhere, and in theatre, the early stages of the design process usually include visual research: pouring over thousands of images, looking for a texture, a color, a certain slant of light or a particular sense of movement. Though later these images may seem irrelevant to the finished design, something about them ignited inspiration. They provide a window into the mind of the artist—a glimpse of the
enigmatic process of creation.


An abandoned house in Kolmanskop, a ghost town in the desert of southern Namibia; Wikimedia Commons

For The Tempest, director Ethan McSweeny and his designers Lee Savage (set) and Jennifer Moeller (costumes) began with the idea of scarcity. For 12 years, Prospero and Miranda have survived on their island with the few supplies furnished by Gonzalo when
they were banished from Milan. Prospero may have had magic to manipulate his surroundings, but in McSweeny’s mind, the realities of shipwreck demanded economy. The designers focused on raw materials, worn and battered by the elements: old clothes, torn sails, sand, stone, driftwood.


Scenic design model for “The Tempest,” by Lee Savage.

This is a not an island where tranquil palms sway on the beach, but it is an island ringing with “sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” Envisioning an environment that is as varied and volatile as its shipwrecked inhabitants, McSweeny and Savage searched for images of barrenness from the Caribbean to Ireland’s Aran Islands. These stark, desolate places became a blank slate that could be a dreamlike wilderness as easily as a hellish exile. Savage’s muses were as diverse as the film The Fall (director Tarsem Singh, 2006), a desert ghost town in southern Namibia, and the preternatural photography of Tim Walker.


Costume renderings by Jennifer Moeller.

Stirred by sources including Garth Knight’s Enchanted Forest photography collection, the underwater images of Michael David Adams and the fashion designs of Alexander McQueen and Sarah Burton, Moeller envisioned the spirits, including Ariel and Caliban, as pieces of the islands itself that have been bound in servitude to Prospero. Their bonds are clearly evident, binding them both to Prospero and their environment.

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