Backstage: After the ‘Tempest’ – Caliban continued

James Donlon
James Donlon

James Donlon is directing “Caliban’s Dream” which opens Nov. 6 at Southern Oregon University’s Center Stage Theatre on the SOU campus. Donlon devised the script from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” With its imaginative framework, unique staging and iconic characters that morph through time, “Caliban’s Dream” promises to be a stimulating and unique theatrical experience.

Donlon, an assistant professor in SOU’s Theatre Arts Department, found his affinity for theater as an undergraduate while attending Humbolt State University on a basketball scholarship. Since then, he has shaped a long theatrical career that includes teaching at such prominent theater schools as The American Conservatory Theater, The Yale School of Drama and the University of California at Santa Barbara and San Diego. We lunched at the Standing Stone Brewing Company in Ashland.

EH: What attracts you to Shakespeare and “The Tempest”?

JD: In Shakespeare, it’s easy to get into the language. There’s a certain poetry and physicality that comes from the heart. Every Shakespeare play has magic and love and violence. It’s really basic stuff.

Caliban has some beautiful passages in “The Tempest” that resonate with life itself. I’ve projected him into the future. I’ve taken Caliban to be the primal male, a kind of an archetype: someone in search of the freedom to express himself. He’s interested in living a good life: just basic human desires and needs. He’s looking for love, like anybody.

… My own work is toward the physical theater side. There is a real blending in just about everything I do. For me, the athletic background is very important. There’s a basic primal relationship between playing a sport and being in theater.

In basketball, the process is like the acting process in theater. You still have an audience, you still train; you still have a strategy (like a script). You have to find freedom within a structure. It’s like an open improvisation. There’s failure; you have to audition; you have to have stamina and be strong.

The good thing about actors who are athletes is that they’re quick to get back on their feet. They take failure in stride; that’s part of the process. They don’t have a lot of self-criticism or judgment or inferiority.

Every play I do is very physical. There is a great quote by Antonin Artaud that says, “The actor is an athlete of the heart.” My whole approach is to introduce people to the athleticism and the physical, sensual, textures of the present. Some of the work is almost like choreography; and then you work on the acting process.

A lot of my plays are about this sense of competition with the universe, competition with the way life is. So as an artist, you are challenging yourself to understand and incorporate elements of living into an artistic expression.

Part of my job as a teacher is to introduce the actor to the brain of the artist: You have freedom to do what you want. You have to have craft, a base of technique, but you have freedom to be your own artist. The pieces I create are based on that philosophy.

My theatrical experience has been making my own pathway, creating my own pieces and working with colleagues. And it’s a good experience for the actors to see how you can create something on your own terms.

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