Q&A: A chat with Seattle actor Michael Winters, who plays the bear of a role Prospero in the upcoming Seattle Shakespeare Company production of "The Tempest," playing June 4-28, 2009, at the Seattle Center theater.
Wizard. Doting father. Slave master. Avenger. Prospero, the lead figure in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” is a bear of a role.
Even Michael Winters, who plays Prospero in the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s “Tempest” opening tonight, concurs. And Winters knows his way around the canon.
The seasoned Seattle actor spent four years performing at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and 10 years doing stage classics at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, in Santa Maria, Calif.
He’s lately shuttled between stage work in Seattle (“Becky’s New Car” at ACT, etc.) and TV gigs in L.A. (he was a regular on “The Gilmore Girls”). But Winters inevitably returns to Shakespeare. And he’s that rare actor who makes these densely packed texts sound cogent, conversational.
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This week he sat down for a chat about playing Prospero, and cracking the code of the Bard’s lofty canon.
Q: How many of Shakespeare’s plays, roughly 37 in all, have you acted in?
A: I think it’s 10. And I’ve been in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” like five times, “Hamlet” four or five times.
Q: And “The Tempest”?
A: Never. It’s one of the biggies, but I’ve never been around a theater while they’re producing it.
Q: So how do you speak the speech with such fluid clarity?
A: I think a lot of people don’t realize this is real speech, it’s English. The main thing is to know exactly what you’re saying.
I took a workshop with [British director] Peter Hall, and he said in Shakespeare’s world much of this was everyday speech, and not weird. He also said it had to be fleet, keep it moving.
Q: But some actors rattle the verse off at top-speed, and you don’t catch the meaning.
A: Exactly! You have to really be talking about something, making your points. If not, you aren’t communicating.
Q: In “The Tempest,” believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone, Prospero is a deposed duke exiled on an island who uses sorcery to wreak revenge on his old enemies. What’s the hardest thing about the role?
A: He rarely talks to anybody! He’s generally talking to himself, which makes it a hard part to learn.
The play also isn’t very dramatic. It’s more emblematic, with elements of Elizabethan masques and pageants. You can tell it was done indoors because it has special effects you couldn’t do outside then — fairies appearing, storms at sea, a banquet arriving out of nowhere.
Q: How do you see Prospero?
A: This is a guy with a rage addiction. I see him as someone who’s been walking around the beach muttering, for 12 years. Then when revenge is at hand, he changes on a dime. He knows he must forgive. Like all the late Shakespeare plays, “The Tempest” is really about forgiveness.
Q: You’ve been in all kinds of Shakespeare productions — from the very traditional to the extremely offbeat.
A: I think the plays have lasted because they’re very elastic. They can support so many concepts, and I’ve seen some bizarre ones. One of the best things was [British actor] Stephen Dillane doing “Macbeth” by himself. He did the major roles, the story, it was great. He made some things in the text more clear to me than they’ve ever been.
Q: What keeps you so interested in acting in these plays?
A: They are endlessly enticing. They are so satisfying to perform in, even the smaller parts can be fascinating. They’re endlessly rich, and they’re fun. They’re just fun.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org