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August 28, 2014

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Q+A: Teller reveals secrets of his William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ at Smith Center

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“The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.

Smith Center Broadway Season 3

Smith Center CEO Gets ‘Kinky’

Myron Martin, president/CEO of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, walks to the stage in kinky boots as he announces the 2014-2015 Broadway Las Vegas Series at the Center Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. The Tony Award-winning Launch slideshow »

When the Smith Center for the Performing Arts unveiled its Season 3 of Broadway productions Tuesday night, magic master Teller dazzled attendees with an advance look at his upcoming version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

But the Rio headliner’s magical production under a 500-seat, climate-controlled tent in the adjoining Symphony Park isn’t in the new nine-show lineup. In fact, it will be staged ahead of the calendar of musicals we reported Tuesday night and that Smith Center President and CEO Myron Martin presented on YouTube.

It was Teller’s first day of rehearsals for the bewitching and timeless play that will have its world debut with previews April 1-4 and a VIP gala premiere and party April 5. Ticket demand has been so high that the American Repertory Theater co-production has been extended to April 20 before moving on to Boston, Washington, D.C., and then hopefully Broadway.

It would be the first show since Smith Center opened that was developed here and wound up on the Great White Way.

“It was our first day in the tent theater,” Teller told me. “We saw the magic come to life. It was phenomenal — better than I thought possible. It’s so exciting. I’m more than over the moon with it. I’m delighted beyond words.”

Director Aaron Posner and he have created an untamed world of monsters and madmen in the timeless tale of love, loss, virtue and vengeance. Tom Nelis stars as Prospero, and the multitude of Elizabethan songs and music has been replaced with more-up-to-date material from Tom Waits.

Teller told me that the company Pilobolus Movement has choreographed the unique magical show that includes an unearthly monster from conjoined twins.

“When we talked into the tent, it was the most beautiful set ever done,” said Teller. “Call it midnight at Coney Island park. The first thing we saw was Prospero levitating his daughter Miranda; it’s so brilliant you won’t see that anywhere on the Strip.

“Then a handstand where the body was completely horizontal. I can safely say you will have a lot of fun with this. It was six years ago we started the process, and this is what Las Vegas should be doing.”

When I talked with Teller in advance of first rehearsals, he explained that his thrilling and unnerving production would stay faithful to the story about a magician using powers to create nightmares to terrify and punish those who threw him out and abandoned him.

This sounds fun. It sounds challenging; magic in a tent with a playwright who died in 1616. Did his touring companies back then even attempt magic as we know it today?

Even in the stage directions that survived from Shakespeare’s day, there are phrases. In “Macbeth,” it says “vanish.” In “The Tempest,” they say the demonic banquet vanishes with a quaint device. There was a certain level of stage tech going on, and since this play really is about someone who is able to make other people see things that aren’t there, it seems like the perfect application to magic.

Prospero is a guy who is able to create hallucinations in other people, and he uses these hallucinations that he creates to essentially teach a lesson to people who did him terrible wrong many years earlier. He’s using magic to fight. He’s using magic as a weapon to fight his battles, only he really doesn’t do things to people.

He doesn’t kill anybody, he doesn’t injure anybody; he just makes these horrifying hallucinations. All of these people are on a boat, and they have the most horrible possible thing. They have a storm that sinks the ship, but nobody is injured; nobody is even wet. They’re just all scared sh*tless.

I had to study Shakespeare in school as part of English Literature. We never focused on the magic within “The Tempest.”

Of course not. My guess is you were studying it in a literature course. It’s the worst possible way to come to Shakespeare. You could not pick a less fruitful way to come at Shakespeare than sitting in a classroom reading it. Shakespeare is directions for performance.

It’s like sitting students down in a classroom, have them read Shakespeare and expect them to have the full experience like handing an inexperienced music student a full score for a symphony and saying, “OK, read this and know what the music is like.” It’s nonsense.

I myself never read a Shakespeare play that I had not first seen because the actors and the production and the conception of the play as presented to an audience is something that you need to digest quite visually before you start fussing about the details. “The Tempest” is not the easiest play in the world to make clear to an audience. It’s got a lot of characters in it. Shakespeare always edited in its performance, so we’ve done some edits to make sure that everything is clear; we’ve done some staging to make sure everything is clear.

This is not a story about some benevolent old guy sitting on an island. This is a story about a guy who is so full of rage that he’s practically ready to murder everybody who did him wrong in the past and tried to kill him and his daughter. This is not an easy story.

Broadway Season 3 at The Smith Center

“Wicked” is part of Broadway Season 3 at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Las Vegas. Alison Luff is pictured here as Elphaba. Launch slideshow »

How many magic segments have you managed to include in your version? Where did Shakespeare get his magic from?

I think if you total them up, it’s in the 20s for magical things that happen. Either magic illusions that existed or ones that I created with Johnny Thompson. There were Greek magicians. This is shortly after the book “The Discovery of Witchcraft” that acknowledged the existence of witchcraft but also differentiated it from what they used to call jugglers, street magicians and magicians who worked at fairs.

So that’s the kind of thing he would have seen. He would have seen people doing the cups and balls, he would have seen people doing a trick where they appeared to take a knife and whack it into their arm. A trick that’s actually still being used today by some magicians. Clowns would lay on a table and then be beheaded, and the head would be held up and then be put back on the clown. So those things were all currency in the entertainment world.

The story of the banquet table feast where you turn the red wine to sand and the pheasant vanishes, is that the piece de resistance, or do you have another secret that you can divulge?

There’s a section in the play that’s referred to as the mask, and in the original Prospero demonstrates what he calls some vanity of his art by bringing out actors playing goddesses, and they sing about the harvest. It’s a thing that worked very well in Shakespeare’s day but isn’t very good for today’s audience because it was all very neoclassic.

We are substituting for that a single very romantic magic trick involving Prospero levitating his daughter Miranda in the middle of the stage in full light to some unbelievably beautiful music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan.

This is the Smith Center’s first world premiere. Where do you go with it from here? A possible leap to Broadway at some point?

This is with American Repertory Theater, associated with the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard University with assistance by the wonderful people at the Smith Center. It’s so adventurous and so good for our community. It’s about time that things start not just coming to Las Vegas but started originating in Las Vegas and going elsewhere.

This will run here in Las Vegas, then to Loeb in Cambridge and Washington, D.C. Then we’ll see where we go from there. It seems like it has substantial potential. ART is the company that brought “Pippin” to Broadway recently, and they brought “Porgy and Bess.” Things seem to move from ART to positions of great national promise, so “The Tempest” on Broadway is something that’s possible, not something I would state that’s about to happen.

My goal in anything that I do includes that if I went to this show, I’d have a hell of a time. I’m essentially a 15-year-old boy stuck in the body of a 65-year-old magician. I think that pretty much anybody over the age of 12 or so should be able to come to this and enjoy the heck out of it. It will be super clear. They won’t be sitting there translating Shakespeare going what the hell are they talking about.

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t understand every single moment and get pleasure out of every single moment and also laugh. “The Tempest” certainly has some serious qualities to it, but it’s also got some great comedy in there.

Our monster is essentially two guys functioning as a set of two conjoined twins choreographed by Pilobolus. At one moment, you’re talking to one head and then flip, at the other moment you’re talking to another head that used to be stuck out of the first guy’s ass.

* * *

Myron Martin explained Tuesday night that the nearly 2-year-old Smith Center about to start its third year has presented 865 shows to date, and 12,000 of the weekly 16,000 seats available have been sold in advance to subscriber patrons. More than 100,000 students have visited the theater, and last year two Las Vegas students made it to the national New York City musical schools program.

Myron said with a grant from Disney, the Smith Center was able to support six at-risk schools to perform onstage there. “I’m proud to report that Disney is doubling that number for next year,” Myron exclaimed.

He promised not to raise ticket prices, although only 75 percent of the Smith budget is met with those sales. The remaining 25 percent comes from donations.

“We are so blessed that Ford and its Las Vegas dealers sponsor our Broadway series, and they have also indicated they will renew their commitment for next season. We are blessed, and we have achieved more these first two years than we ever dreamed.”

After a video message from “Kinky Boots” author Harvey Fierstein, Myron summed up: “Our nine new shows have won an impressive, incredible 35 Tony Awards and three Grammy Awards. Having Teller’s ‘The Tempest’ as our first-ever world premiere is the icing on the cake of just how far we’ve come in such a short time.”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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