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Improbable Fictions hosts stage reading of 'The Tempest'

Jen Drouin, David Bolus, and Jonathan Hinnen prepare for the upcoming performance. Photo Courtesy of Nicholas Helms

Matthew Wilson

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Improbable Fictions, founded in 2010 by Nicholas Helms and Alaina Jobe Pangburn, focuses on performing stage readings instead of full fledged productions. The group focuses on Shakespeare and other playwrights’ languages in order to capture the essence of their plays. Improbable Fictions is assisted by the Shakespeare troupe Tuscaloosa Rude Mechanicals and the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies.

Michael Witherell, who will be playing the lead Prospero in “The Tempest,” said Shakespeare was meant to be said aloud. His language and character development are both universal 
and specific.

“This is more about showing Shakespeare’s voice than a full fledged production,” Witherell said. “Prospero’s language and motivations are universal. Everyone wants a good life for their child, but the language in which Shakespeare uses to express that is very specifically Shakespeare.”

As a stage reading, Witherell said physicality is less important than the voice of the characters. Much of the action comes through the voice of 
the actors.

“I’m focusing more on how does Prospero sound,” he said. “He has two huge monologues. I feel that it has to have power and resonance. The idea is to show that this isn’t just pretty language, but these are character’s with motivations and feelings.”

The group rehearses for about a week before their performances. Helms, an English professor at the University, said much of that time is spent analyzing the script, trying different stagings and working through character development and motivation. Since it is a reading and not a full production, he said the entire process moves quickly.

“We’re still going to have scripts in hand when we put on our 
performance, so the entire process is accelerated, rough, but filled with that energy,” Helms said.

Witherell said he was surprised when he was approached by Helms to play Prospero. Witherell said he thought he was going to be cast in one of the younger roles, but he was ready for the challenge.

“I tried to approach this character as a man who’s been wronged and seeks to change that through any means necessary,” Witherell said. “I’ve been focusing on how to play myself older and a father figure.”

One of the main challenges for Helms was adapting the play for an audience in 2015. He said some of the Renaissance jokes and archaic words don’t work anymore. Despite this, he insisted much of Shakespeare’s work is very relevant to today.

Helms compared the nature of “The Tempest” to the occurrence of violence seen worldwide, specifically the shooting of Michael Brown and the terrorist attack on Charlie Hedbo. Helms said “The Tempest” is timely in how it promotes peace and 
overcoming biases.

“2014 was a year of violence perpetrated in the name of feeling threatened by others,” Helms said. “In ‘The Tempest,’ Prospero feels a similar urge to strike out against those he views as threats. By the play’s end, however, Prospero chooses not to pursue violence. I feel that that narrative, overcoming the biases of racism and political difference, is extremely timely. We can hope 2015 will be a better year than 2014, but such change demands conversation, both in art and in communities.”

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Improbable Fictions hosts stage reading of 'The Tempest'