Back on Stage: Digitized Images from OSU’s 1989 production of The Tempest

Post by Karl McCreary, Collections Archivist

An elfin Ariel playfully peering down from her rocky ledge to meet the eyes of a bespectacled and bearded Prospero looking upwards at her with a rather pedantic glance.

Scott Gilbert as Prospero and Julyana Soelistyo as Ariel in The Tempest, 1989.

This photograph from a 1989 production of The Tempest staged at Oregon State University enchanted me from the very moment I accessioned the print as an addition to the University Theatre Photograph Collection (P 112). The image resides among several thousand other views of campus theater productions here in the holdings of the OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center. Other archival items documenting OSU’s lively and rich legacy of theater include scrapbooks, play programs, posters, director prompt books, and letters to theater faculty from their former students with updates of their acting careers.    

Little of this history would have been preserved were it not for a long and fruitful relationship between the Archives and Professor Emerita of Theatre Arts Charlotte Headrick. With a deep respect for the study of history and 35 years of directing and acting on campus, Charlotte has been a true advocate for our work to ensure that the stories from the OSU stage be saved and shared.  

A longtime friendship with Charlotte has placed me in the role of her research assistant many times. So when she approached me last summer for help in researching the history of Shakespeare productions at OSU for a presentation, I donned a very familiar hat and eagerly dove into collections I knew well! Among the resources I uncovered were a set of photographs depicting Charlotte’s 1989 staging of The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable plays. The images, taken by Charlotte and another OSU staff member, beautifully captured a production full of energy and color with vibrant costumes, monumental set design, and expressive faces.  

It is little wonder then, that when Charlotte agreed to reprise her Shakespeare at OSU lecture as an event for Oregon Archives Month, I remembered the Tempest images fondly and decided to feature a shot of that magical encounter between Ariel and Prospero (described above) on the poster publicizing Charlotte’s presentation. 

After Charlotte’s fun and fascinating talk, which was recorded and is available online for download, I began the process of preparing the slides and prints depicting the Tempest performance for digitization. In the expertly capable hands of my colleagues Kevin Jones and Brian Davis, all 139 images became available for viewing on the Oregon Digital in February of this year and can be accessed online. To add more dimension to the scenes and characters reflected in these images, I’m sharing in this blogpost some of Charlotte’s stories about the production. So here are some of the tales of the 1989 Tempest at OSU!   

Buffy Bowman as Miranda and Scott Gilbert as Prospero.

For those who saw the curtain rise for the 5-night run of The Tempest at the Mitchell Playhouse in April 1989, the stage resembled a stony landscape of blues and greys with a series of cliffs and corridors. The play is set on an island where magic and reality are intertwined by spells cast by the exiled Duke of Milan Prospero and a sprite, Ariel, who conjures up a storm to shipwreck a group of travelers upon the isle with ties to the Prospero’s past. 

Charlotte vision’s for staging this interplay of characters (realized by set designer Richard George) was reserving the upper “plateau” of the rocky stage as the magical realm where Ariel flits about and sends enchantments (at the command of Prospero) to those on the earthly plane below. Prospero resides down on the “terrestrial” level of the stage interacting with both worlds. While he confers with Ariel above, Prospero is also communicates face-to-face with daughter Miranda and the many shipwrecked “guests” he brought to the island.   

Soomi Kim as Ariel, adding a gymnastic flair to the role!

Charlotte gave the character of Ariel a unique twist in this production by casting two students, Julyana Soelistyo and Soomi Kim to both play the same role. The scenes were carefully directed to have only one Ariel appear on the stage at a time, requiring Soelistyo and Kim to coordinate a sort of choreography where they alternately darted back and forth onto their rocky bluffs. The images of the show depict the silvery-suited Ariel(s) in a constant state of motion, casting spells and spying on the islanders unaware of her presence above. As one of the images reveals, Kim used this kinetic role to highlight some of the moves she picked from her experience on the OSU Gymnastic Team. 

To enhance the magical ambience of the production, Scott Gilbert in his role as Prospero incorporated a few slight-of-hand tricks and employed a little flash powder to give his stage presence a little added magic.

For the overall look of the characters in the show, Charlotte wanted a Renaissance feel inspired by the sumptuousness and vibrant colors captured in the paintings of the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite artists. Miranda’s white dress was directly modeled on a subject in a Pre-Raphaelite work Charlotte saw in a London exhibition. That costume designer Marie Chesley was able to painstakingly reproduce the beautiful draping quality of this garment is still one of Charlotte’s favorite memories of her Tempest production. 

Staging The Tempest required a sizable cast and among the 28 actors and technical crew members who made it possible were what Charlotte affectionately referred to as the “three Pauls.”  This trio was made up of J. Paul Hopkins (Stephano), W. Paul Doughton (Caliban), and Paul Seipp (one of the mariners). For the power in his facial expressions and movement Doughton was a clear standout in the cast as the roguish and anguished character of Caliban. Playing a character that is essentially indentured to Prospero on the island, Doughton vividly conveyed Caliban’s sense of feral rage, guile, curiosity and self-pity. The images also highlight Doughton’s mastery of physical comedy in Caliban’s zany interactions with the characters of the drunken butler Stephano (one of the other Pauls!) and the jester Trinculo (played by Brent Norquist).   

W. Paul Doughton as Caliban and J. Paul Hopkins as Stephano.

For many of the “alumni” of this production of The Tempest, there would be many more roles to come after 1989. Both Soelistyo and Kim have had active careers on stage in a diverse range of productions in New York City, Seattle, and Denver. Soelistyo has gone on to play the character of Ariel two more times. One of these performances, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, won wide acclaim (with Christopher Plummer as Prospero) and was profiled in the Winter 2011 issue of the Oregon Stater. Kim, who describes herself as a performance artist as well as an actress, returned to OSU in April 2014 to give a weekend workshop in the Lab Theatre. Other Tempest actors Michael Lowry (Sebastian) and Jorji Knickrehm (Ceres) have appeared in a variety of stage and TV productions since their days at OSU.   

These colorful glimpses of the Bard on the OSU stage is a reminder that life is made up of fleeting moments of amazing and intense experiences that can be captured. And in sharing these fun images of historically staged drama available, perhaps we can make our current drama a little more bearable.

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