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The Bard meets the Big Easy

Actors perform on the set of 'The Tempest'

Director Natalie Gaupp set The Tempest in post-Katrina New Orleans.


atalie Gaupp is fearless about tampering with a work of genius. Even if it’s Shakespeare.

“If I had written plays 400 years ago, I wouldn’t be at all disturbed if a director decided to make them more relevant to today’s audiences,” said the visiting assistant professor and award-winning playwright. “But the dialog has to work; I won’t change the dialog.”

When she was slated to direct The Tempest this theater season, she immediately thought of setting it in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“Katrina was certainly a tempest. And the French Quarter, like Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest, escaped virtually unscathed,” Gaupp said. “It all seemed to fit.”

She read through the play again to make sure the revision would be in her personal comfort zone and not swim in the face of reality. The parallels blew her away. Prospero’s conjuring magic easily became voodoo, for example. In one place the script talks about seeking safety in “Algiers.” Shakespeare meant the North African city on the Mediterranean, but the Louisiana town of Algiers, just outside New Orleans, likewise was a haven, as it dodged Katrina’s wrath.

Set designer Kim LaFontaine, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts, said that when he discussed the concept with Gaupp, it was “remarkably solid.” He built a scale model of the set, half an inch to one foot, with the French Quarter as the island enclosed by storm debris and surrounded by a levee wall. The model was more than a plan for the actual set. It let the director visualize what needed to happen on stage to create the magic that is live theater.

Enough time has passed since the hurricane for everyone to recognize the repercussions, Gaupp said, yet the subject remains topical. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when students called the Tarrant Area Food Bank to discuss their idea to conduct a food drive.

The food bank still has clients who fled Katrina. Most have jobs now but have difficulty making ends meet and likely would fall through the cracks without assistance. More than 2,500 nonperishable food items were collected during the six performances, said Gaupp, who deems the spring production a success.

“It is such a challenge for young actors to do Shakespeare with its 400-year-old language,” she said. “But they were amazed and amused at the humor, that the Bard could be quite bawdy and that people back then laughed at the same things we laugh at today.”

— Sue Stevens

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