In Front of the Illusions – An Interview with Teller

MAR 18, 2014

A.R.T. Institute dramaturgy student Morgan C. Goldstein interviews magician Teller.

The Tempest is a play about a magician
doing the toughest thing a magician could ever do,
which is to give up magic.

MORGAN C. GOLDSTEIN: When I was researching your work, I came across your production of Macbeth, which was pretty bloody. There are definitely sinister elements in The Tempest as well. Is this going to be a bloody, violent Tempest?

TELLER: Not bloody, but thrilling and unnerving. After all, The Tempest is a story about a magician using his power to create nightmares, from the terrifying sea-storm that opens the show to a demonic banquet to phantom hounds. Prospero can’t forget that his brother and co-conspirators ousted him and abandoned him with his infant daughter on the high seas. So he uses his magic to create shows to terrify and punish those who wronged him.

But there is still a possibility that the audience — although they’re not the target of Prospero’s magic—could be frightened. Is that your intention? Do you want to scare them?

The emotions that interest me most in the theater are fear and laughter. Thrilling and scary and funny are my specialties. So that certainly will be reflected in this production.

What about those emotions do you find so appealing?

I think I’m still a fifteen-year-old boy at heart. Part of my objective in Shakespeare is to make sure that if you put a fifteen-year-old high school student in the room with anything that I do, they will think it’s surprising and startling and worthy of respect. So you’ll find that this Tempest is going to be much funnier than most productions of the play; The Tempest has a lot of humor in it, but it’s often presented with a dusty, museum-like distance, as though it was funny five hundred years ago. But there’s also a whole level in this show that isn’t about laughter or fear or pure amazement. And the thing that I find most appealing about The Tempest is that it’s a play about a magician doing the toughest thing a magician could ever do, which is to give up magic.

You are, like Prospero, a magician. Besides this shared vocation, do you find that you feel a kinship to that character?

Prospero controls the world and affects other people by means of shows. The other characters see illusions that affect them deeply, even though they are just visions. That’s pretty much my job description as a magician… I make illusions that upset the way you see the world. Also, Prospero is about my age, and during the course of the story, he does the hardest thing I can contemplate doing: he’s giving up magic.

Multiple stills of Teller performing a magic trick

But for now, you’re still doing the magic for this production. What will that be like?

We’re incorporating magic in every place that magic is normally depicted by theatrical convention. For example, the banquet: the existing stage directions say the banquet vanishes “with a quaint device.” That’s been a point of argument among scholars for many centuries: what is this “quaint device”? Our plan for a “quaint device”? A table will be brought out and Ariel will whip a tablecloth over it and, Bang! The table will now be filled with the feast. And each of the dishes is something that—as the bad guys go to have a nice snack—will turn into something hideous and horrible. So a lovely glass of wine will turn into dry red sand. What looks like a nice roast bird will turn into live—well, I don’t want to give all of these away, now do I? We’re delivering Shakespeare’s content, but with some terrific magic tricks he didn’t have access to.

How do you design an illusion like that?

If you’re asking me how I get ideas, I’ll tell you that they usually happen in conversation. In this case, the conversation is with Aaron Posner, with me, and with our magic consultant, Johnny Thompson. But basically what you do is to sit and think. There’s no formula—you don’t put it in a meat grinder and it comes out done. You sit and you think and you collaborate and you come up with good ideas.

Morgan C. Goldstein is a second-year dramaturgy student at the
A.R.T./Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater
Training at Harvard University.

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