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October 22, 2009

Empty Space founder and UW alum Burke Walker directs ‘The Tempest’ in renovated Jones Playhouse

“There’s no such thing as a traditional production of The Tempest.” So says Burke Walker, who will be directing the play as the School of Drama officially christens its newly renovated Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse (formerly the Playhouse Theatre) Oct. 25-Nov. 15 with one of Shakespeare’s last plays.


The Tempest is not grounded in a historical event,” Walker says. “It celebrates the theater and the creative imagination. It has a magician at its center, and two of the most intriguing figures in dramatic history — Caliban and Ariel — are part of its action.”


The Tempest chronicles the struggle of Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan who has become a magician, to regain his honor and save his daughter from a life of isolation. Living in exile on an enchanted island, he uses his supernatural powers to summon a violent storm, shipwrecking his enemies in retaliation for their usurpation of his position. By the end of the play, Prospero has both regained his dukedom and, more importantly, secured his daughter’s future.


The Tempest has a sentimental pull for Walker. It was the first full-length play he directed after he got his MFA at the School of Drama and founded the Empty Space Theatre in Seattle. He spent 20 years at Empty Space, then headed the School of Drama’s directing program for eight years. Since 1999 he has been a freelance director operating out of New York City, but he has returned to the Northwest frequently. He often revisits his colleagues in the School of Drama, and when Drama School Director Sarah Nash Gates called to see if he was interested in directing this inaugural production, he jumped at the chance.


“After a lot of reading, I came up with a short list of plays, and everyone felt strongly that The Tempest was the ideal choice.”


Walker says the play is about imagination, transformation and purification. “It’s also about a man who is trying to save his daughter’s life, and he only has one shot to get it right, so he’s under considerable stress.”


He adds that The Tempest is one of only two Shakespearean plays that unfolds in real time, which accentuates its sense of urgency. The word “now” appears in it nearly 100 times, he says.


Walker promises plenty of magic tricks in the course of the action, and there will also be music in the form of a small ensemble playing live in the theater. He calls The Tempest a “summation play,” coming at the end of Shakespeare’s career, where he examines his feelings about his approach to art and to life.


The Jones Playhouse is a familiar venue for Walker, since he acted in the first production mounted there after an earlier renovation in 1967. “This renovation is the fulfillment of what the playhouse started out to be with the earlier work,” he says. “Then, it was changed from a traditional proscenium stage to a thrust stage, but it was left with several problems, including difficult acoustics and sightlines. With this renovation, those problems and some others have been solved. It feels like a totally new theater.”


The Tempest begins previews Oct. 25, opens Oct. 30 with a sold-out gala and runs through Nov. 15. The cast features graduate and undergraduate actors. The set designer is Michael Minihan, the costume designer is Inci Kangal and the lighting designer is Chia-Huei Seetoo.


Tickets are $10 for students; $13 for UW employees and seniors and $17 general admission. All preview seats are $10. Tickets are available at the Arts Ticket Office, 4001 University Way NE, 206-543-4880 or online at www.drama.washington.edu.