With a sensibility shaped by New York’s downtown theatre scene and a dedication to language-driven work, John Kazanjian and Mary Ewald’s New City Theater has been making high-impact, low-profile theatre in Seattle for more than 30 years. New City has commissioned and presented work by experimental luminaries such as María Irene Fornés and Richard Foreman, and form-breaking writers such as Wallace Shawn, Samuel Beckett and Suzan-Lori Parks. On the heels of 2015’s remarkable Hamlet, starring Ewald in the title role, the company returns to Shakespeare this spring with The Tempest, a complex story of revenge, love and magic on a deserted island. Kazanjian directs, with Ewald and Peter Crook alternating the roles of Prospero, an exiled noble turned island sorcerer, and Caliban, an island orphan forced to spend his life in Prospero’s service. We talked with Kazanjian about his approach to the show.
Your artistic history is steeped in experimental work—how did you come to do classics?
I am a neophyte to Shakespeare, relatively speaking. My own interest was always grounded in ensemble-based contemporary work and language-centered experimental theatre, and the idea was to marry classical work with contemporary work.
And then in the ’80s the not-for-profit funding collapsed, which Reagan and the Republicans wanted to happen. Now we see too many reductionist approaches to Shakespeare, I think because the regional system is very director-driven and it’s an opportunity for a director to make his or her mark. Too often they’re put behind all kinds of visual dressing, and then you don’t hear the language.
Why The Tempest?
Around 2004 we were doing The Designated Mourner and I said to Peter Crook, “Are there any roles that you want to play?” He never said anything until closing night of Hamlet, and he said, “You know, John, I would love to do The Tempest.” So Mary and I go home and she says why don’t we split the roles of Prospero and Caliban, because she always wanted to Caliban too. It was an insane idea, and we’re doing it.
Alternating these roles with a male and female actor raises interesting issues of gender and power. Do you consider that while you work, or do you just allow the casting to inform the text how it will?
The issue of gender and how that’s evolved for me is interesting, because it didn’t happen intellectually. I wanted my own theatre so I could do what I want, and my principal collaborator was and is this very talented female actress. So from the very beginning it was about looking at plays I wanted to do, looking at lead roles and saying, could Mary play this role? I love Sam Shepard’s early and mid-career plays; we did The Unseen Hand, and Mary played Willie the Space Freak. We did The Tooth of Crime and and Mary played Crow…There are a lot of talented women in this community, and a lot of the great roles are for men. The women, mid-career and senior artists, are underused. And so I use them.
The Tempest runs at New City Theater March 31 through April 30.