Interview with Playwright Jim Lair Beard
On June 11, Pigeon Creek will premiere our first touring production since the start of the pandemic. Not only will this be our return to live theatre, but it will also be the world premiere of Jim Lair Beard’s Blue-Eyed Hag, a modern prequel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Production dramaturg Hamlet Arnott posed questions to Beard about the play.
Where does your interest in The Tempest stem from? How did that grow into creating this script?
My interest in The Tempest has mostly been as a kind of critique of the character of Prospero. I’ve seen the play numerous times, and one of the challenges of this play I’ve noted in different productions is finding an adequate amount of empathy in Prospero. Let’s face it, he can come across as a tyrannical puppetmaster. He can come across as duplicitous with his daughter, and his power in the play is never really challenged. This can make it a hard role for an actor to tackle. How do we understand a character like that? Where are his vulnerabilities? And vulnerabilities offstage or in the expositional backstory don’t count. I would argue that his onstage vulnerabilities are few and far between.
Because Sycorax is considered by many scholars to be Prospero’s foil, I thought there might be an opportunity to create in her what Prospero lacks. We can see her victimhood onstage. Her visionary powers are strong in some moments and weak in others. Though she may have elements of vengeance in her psyche, everything she does is in the earnest protection of her child, and that child’s future.
In addition, there’s that wonderful line from Caliban in The Tempest which reads, “This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me” (1.2. 396-397). That line, which evokes such a sad separation, allowed me to imagine how I might use a prequel to create some kind of ironic reunification between mother and son. Even though this play is set many years before Prospero’s arrival, I wanted to play subtly with that idea of separation and unification that is present in Shakespearean romances including The Tempest.
How do you craft a story that feels Shakespearean, while writing from a modern perspective and for a modern audience? What was the most challenging part of that process?
The biggest mistake I see playwrights make when it comes to writing Shakespeare-adjacent plays is focusing on the heightened language without focusing on any of the structural or narrative elements that undergird the language. Shakespeare wrote parallel plots. He used interesting narrative devices. He had characters enter a scene as late as possible, and had them exit as early as he could while imparting valuable information in the progress of a scene. Shakespeare wasn’t just a brilliant wordsmith. The constructions of his plays is what made the language possible to listen to. Of course, Shakespeare didn’t have the element of our technology in his day, so if one is attempting to be a playwright who writes like Shakespeare then writing with those same constraints is important. No fourth wall. Actors see the audience. Audience sees the actors. Everybody sees everybody. That’s also why writing with heightened language becomes important. The poetry becomes the special effect. And, if one wants to come close to something that “feels Shakespearean” one can’t be afraid to mix different genres into a single work. In Shakespeare the mixing of genres happens all the time. There’s sadness in the comedy, there’s comedy in the sadness.
While the attempt of course is to tether something to a classical world, I believe it is literally impossible to not have a modern perspective imbue the text. My feelings and attitudes are still modern. I think about topical issues of the day, and they are infused into these classical worlds. You’ll see ideas on post-colonialism in Blue-Eyed Hag, you’ll see the abortion issue in Love’s Heavy Burden, and Malvolio’s Twin [These two other titles are Beard’s other Shakespeare-adjacent plays] deals very specifically with the topic of bullying. A big challenge in writing this way is to avoid being too anachronistic while merging classical worlds with contemporary ideas. It has to feel seamless.
For more information about Jim Lair Beard’s Shakespeare-adjacent plays, please visit www.jimlairbeard.me.