When the lights come up on Robert G. Anderson’s production of The Tempest on Thursday, October 24, the audience at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts will have another world to behold. A world of magic. A world of romance. A world of revenge and survival and beauty.
The Tempest is, in some ways, a confounding play amongst Shakespeare’s canon. It’s sort of an odd, lovely duck—neither his best nor his worst—full of bits and bobs of other stories. It is a terribly sentimental piece, generally considered Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, with its protagonist Prospero as a stand-in for the playwright himself. When Prospero breaks his staff (sorry, spoiler alert), it is Shakespeare taking his final bow and saying goodbye to his art. A magical figure, a scholar, a father, a powerful weaver of spells who has been worshipped and maligned in equal measure…. It does sound a bit like Willy Shakes.
I’ve read scholarly pieces on this play. I’ve read reviews of productions taking place around the country and the world. I’ve viewed films and stage adaptations. You could say I know the story pretty well. And yet, as I prepare to visit Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday evening, I am giddy as can be to see what KCPA can do. In part, this is because of the production team, including director Robert G. Anderson, voice coach Robert Ramirez, and fight choreographer Robin McFarquhar. It also has a lot to do with my personal anticipation of the set, designed by Chad Tyler and employing, according to the show’s program materials, a focus on sustainable materials and green practices.
But mostly, dammit, I am excited to see this cast.
In addition to the formiddable Henson Keys—a theatre professor and chair of the acting program since 1999—as Prospero, this play features some of the most talented young actors I have ever seen, many of whom have been acting on various local stages together for the last several seasons. I have had the opportunity and great good fortune to see most of these actors multiple times. A few I saw in last year’s Armory Free Theatre production of The Wild Party. Some others I saw cast together in Dracula. Still more I saw in Station Theatre productions like Hairspray, Rent, and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Sidney Germaine, Ellen Fred, Mark E. Fox, Sally Hamer, Thom Miller, Ryan Jenkins…. To put it colloquially, these people have some considerable Game.
Right in the middle of this impressive group is Christopher Terrell Brown, a young man whose acting career I have watched closely over the years. I’ve admired his abilities for some time, and I have seen his confidence and his talent smolder and finally catch fire.
Yeah. Okay. I’m a fan.
When I discovered that he had been cast in The Tempest, I jumped at the opportunity to (theatre pun alert) spotlight Mr. Brown, who is now in his final season at the University of Illinois and finds himself in a great ensemble, working on a great play.
Here’s what Brown had to say about The Tempest, his time at the U of I, and worlds beyond.
Smile Politely: For those who don’t realize just how prolific you are in our local acting community, list for me please the shows you’ve done in the last 12 months (and where).
Christopher Terrell Brown: “Prolific” might not be the right word, but I like the opportunities I’ve been presented with in the last year. This community is lush with theatre.
In the last twelve months… Dracula (October 2012, University of Illinois), Hamlet (November 2012, Station Theatre), Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party (December 2012, Armory Free Theatre UIUC), Spring Awakening (April 2013, University of Illinois), Evil Dead: The Musical (July 2013, Station Theatre), The Tempest (October 2013, University of Illinois), Come Back, Little Sheba (in rehearsal now and opening November 2013, Station Theatre).
SP: I know you’ve done Shakespeare before, obviously. Is there anything about performing Shakespeare that you particularly like? Is there a role in Shakespeare’s canon that you’d like to attempt someday?
Brown: What I love about Shakespeare’s plays is that each one of them has a touch of timelessness. Family struggles, politics, ambition, honor, love, friendship, revenge, justice, existence… What’s not to love about exploring Psychology with such wonderful language? I can understand why people say these works are daunting; the structure of the language is different enough from how many of us speak today. It is easy to get lost in a scene or monologue unless a dutiful and personal understanding is cultivated on the part of the actor. In this day and age, conversations are often layered with subtext; with Shakespeare, the speaking is the action, and there is a lot of power in that. Marc Antony from Julius Caesar is at the top of my list right now. The passion he unleashes across Rome after Caesar’s death is extraordinary. I grew up hearing people quote the first couple lines of “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” and I just thought he was pleading for attention; now I can appreciate the wit he employs while rallying the people and debunking the accusations laid upon the slain.
SP: I know the plot of The Tempest, of course. Prospero and his brother, Mirandaand blah blah blah. Tell me the story from your character’s perspective.
Brown: I love this question. When people think of The Tempest they immediately talk about Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban; but no one seems to remember the people Ferdinand arrived with… They tend to focus more on the labored love story involving Miranda. And maybe the drunk servants.
Twelve years ago, Sebastian (that would be me!) and the royal Court of Naples aided in supplanting the Duke of Milan (Prospero), which resulted in the exiled Duke being cast out along with his young daughter (Miranda). No one knows what happened to them. Flash forward to the present where Sebastian and the rest of the Court are returning home from having just married the King’s Daughter to the King of Tunis. All seems to be well, but then a storm wrecks the ship, casting the nobles and their crew upon a barren island. The first order of business for Sebastian and friends is to find any survivors, with the next being to get off the island and return home. Sebastian, however, starts listening to the new Duke of Milan, who starts suggesting this could be the moment of great promise if he (I) were to be ambitious. I know this play is 400 years old, but I feel the need to avoid spoiling anything. It gets weird. Magic is cool.
SP: Tell me a little about what it’s like working with your director. What are you getting from the experience, as a student of acting?
Brown: I am extremely fortunate to be working with Robert Anderson. He has been teaching acting at the University of Illinois for 12 years; he has worked across the country doing Shakespeare Festivals—acting, directing—as an artistic director. I have learned so much from him about being an artist at work in a career that asks me to lean into the truth of another life. The faculty know what they’re doing. I had an idea of what the training would be like when I auditioned: scene studies, performances, voice and movement; but there is one phrase—”starting with yourself”—that really caught me by surprise. Looking back, I really didn’t have a clear idea about what acting meant to me before, other than memorizing lines and knowing when to say them. Now I’ve started personalizing my work and actually engaging my scene partners. Not to get too sentimental about the process, but this training has definitely allowed me to broaden my sense of self. Plus, as a senior in the program, I am taking classes in stage combat, dialects, and a very timely Shakespeare class where I’ve been reading a Shakespeare play a week. I’m being trained to be a superhero, essentially. To be where I want to be is going to take a lot of perseverance and hard work. It’s a good thing there’s a lot of pleasure and purpose involved.
SP: As you mentioned, you’re a senior now. What’s next for you, Chris? Long- and short-term.
Brown: Most immediately, there is Come Back, Little Sheba at the Station Theatre nipping at the heels of the closing of The Tempest. I might be insane for not taking a break, but I get to be the studly milkman and, bad pun alert, I have to milk this for what it’s worth. Then there are the spring semester auditions for Much Ado About Nothing and O Beautiful by Theresa Rebeck, which is a play about historical figures appearing in our daily lives to weigh in on a few of today’s critical issues; I would love to be in either. In the next couple of months, there will be recruiters from a Shakespeare Festival visiting Krannert to audition for new apprentices and potential company members. It would be awesome to travel somewhere and get paid to do theatre, but I also have aspirations to write and now might be the best time for that. A little gushing: I have a nine-age fictional world lovingly referred to as the Brauneveldt—or “The Browniverse”—that would make for some wild adaptations as films, television series, or games. At some point I’ve got to get my Lady Gaga musical into workshop, and luckily I’ve got friends who say they’re all for it. When I move, I’ll definitely head to Chicago first; most of my friends will be living in the area, and I want to explore the theatre scene up there. I’ll be in good company. I want to try New York at some point, everything about my career so far suggests that I would make a great lounge singer. And as if that isn’t a great job already, there is the off-chance that it puts me in front of someone putting on a show and then I end up with a new job on Broadway. I’m pretty ambitious about all this, but that’s as opposed to 7 years ago when I started acting in high school. I have a much more grounded sense about my future as an actor. That said, I would love it be in movies and be an international actor. I’m walking away [from the U of I] with the resources to learn just about any dialect and a packet with practical guides for twenty. If I go to grad school, I’m considering directing, playwriting, or even psychology. Cognitive Science fascinates me. Calcium is great for forming synapses in the brain, by the way. Obviously, I’m starting to rant so I’ll wrap up. Let’s just say I’m excited.
As well you should be, Chris; and, based on what I’ve read and heard about the upcoming production of The Tempest, so should we all. Krannert Center for the Performing Arts will debut its interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic Thursday night. For ticket information, visit the KCPA website.