I got the call from Arby on a cold spring day, the kind of grey soggy New York morning that melts into a grey soggy afternoon and a dull damp night. Back home in South Carolina we'd call this winter, but I'd spent enough time in NYC by this time in my life to know the difference. Winter up here means you pack all your heaviest coats, drag out the big clumpy boots you bought the last time you were up north, and resign yourself to never feeling quite warm enough except when you're under stage lights. Spring just means you can never predict one minute's weather from the last.
"Hello?" I mumbled, holding the phone with my shoulder while I dug through this sublet's tiny closet with most of my attention. I was running late for rehearsal, and I couldn't find where I'd put my raincoat. I'd promised my wife I'd call before work, but now it'd have to be a quick one as I dashed for the theater.
"Nat," said that booming voice, older now but still with that same deep commanding timbre, and I nearly dropped the phone.
"Arby?" I straightened up, raincoat in hand. "I haven't heard from you in years -- what's up, how are you?" There weren't many people I'd have recognized at one word, especially after so long. But Arby was distinctive.
"Nat Field," he declaimed, ignoring my question as he ignored all distractions, "this October I'm directing The Tempest."
"Yes, I heard. Your last show, Jenny was telling me." I didn't believe it for an instant. Not from Arby, even if he was probably pushing eighty by now. I could barely believe that he'd aged since I was twelve, and I'd seen his silvered hair and wrinkles myself. Sometimes I wondered if all that was only another sort of misdirection, subtler than makeup or dye. But as usual he only snorted instead of giving me a real answer.
"That's what they tell me. Think you're up to Prospero, my boy?"
Of course I said yes.
"And money to buy a ring," says Henry Condell, slumping onto his elbows. The tavern table is sticky from the evening's spilled beer, but he doesn't seem to notice. The trouble is preoccupation, not drink. "'Twas kind of Will, and I'm grateful, but I'd sooner him back."
"So would we all," Richard Burbage rumbles, and takes a long pull of ale. "But he's with God in's heaven, better far than we poor villains down on this green earth. We have a friend to mourn, and our companies to manage."
"And poor Will's share to sell." Henry wipes at his balding pate, and sighs. "Hast any thought of who might buy it?"
John Heminges makes a meditative noise. "I had thought perhaps Nathaniel Field." The other two cast him glances: Condell surprised, and Burbage thoughtful. "His star rises, and carries some little gold in its train. Enough to buy into another company if he had a mind to it, and he writes besides. The King's Men could use another such. Though none can replace our good Shakespeare."
"Nat Field, say'st thou." Burbage tugs at his beard consideringly. "Perhaps. Aye, there's a thought."
I'd told Arby I'd be his Prospero, but in truth I had no idea if I was up to it. Doing a really good job of it, I mean -- making the role my own, being his Prospero, not just saying the lines and thundering about onstage. He knew that, of course, and knew precisely why, and he'd asked anyway.
That was why I'd said I'd do it. Because it was Arby. Arby was one of the best directors I'd worked with in all the past forty years, for one thing, and I'd have leaped at the chance to work with him on anything you could think of. But mostly, it was because if anyone alive in this century could have asked me to play Ariel's master it was Arby.
I called him again the next day to find out more details. Chasing after Arby for more information was always hit-or-miss at best, as I'd learned very well, but this was the kind of thing he should have told me last night: where we'd be playing, what the schedule was, if he'd signed on anybody else yet. It wasn't Arby's fault he hadn't told me all that, to be fair. I was on my way out the door, and I'd told him so. Arby respected a rehearsal schedule as he respected little else. All the same, I was a little relieved when he picked up the phone.
I was half-wondering if he'd managed to finagle another showing at the Globe, and I couldn't help pondering what it looked like now. Not shiny-new as I'd known it in the 1990s, and not the rush-strewn frenetic reeking bustle of its Elizabethan newness either; what would its cramped backstage be like now? I hadn't been to London in years -- I'd stuck mostly to local shows while my son Will was young, because it wouldn't have been fair to Ellie to wander off to Europe for weeks or months and leave her holding things together, and it wouldn't have been fair to our budget to try to make a long family trip of it. Not to mention the difficulty in pulling Will out of school. But anyway, seeing backstage during a show's run is different than poking your head in when everything's quiet and empty. Quiet just doesn't happen in the theater, and a deserted stage had always felt to me horribly wrong.
If I revisited the Globe, though, it would have to be on my own time. Arby's Tempest, he told me, was to have a short run at an open-air festival in Cancun, of all places.
It was, in fact, just about as different from the last time as it could possibly be. Then, I'd been Ariel, and a muddled thirteen. It had been the Boys' Company's second season, and Massachusetts rehearsals and a Globe show, and a wild stressful heartbreaking rollercoaster I'd loved every minute of. But now I was a lot older, balancing an acting career against adult life, and I was to be the aging magician in a mixed cast, under an open sky on a warm shore that would have been just as exotic to Will Shakespeare as Prospero's magic island.
"Dick, as you love me, spare me thy tongue."
"I love no man so much to spare him that, particularly when he is playing the natural."
Will Shakespeare cocks an ironic eyebrow. He has a thin, ill look these days; it worries his friends, but serves sardonic expressions well. "My father would take issue with such words, were he still on this earth to tell you so. I am as unnatural a son as any."
"Your father would side with me the more. Always it is word games with thee, Will. Thou'lt throw out my warnings with the pot if it suits you, as ever thou hast, but as thy friend I tell thee have a care."
"I am not so ill that I cannot play thy Flavius, Richard. 'Tis a small role enough. What, am I infirm? Perhaps I am not so heartily preserved as thee, old friend, but I will play thee many yet."
Richard Burbage only grunts deep in his throat and reaches for the tankard in front of him, swallowing words with ale.
The front door rattled shut in a whirlwind of denim and unruly hair. Will, at sixteen, had reached the inevitable stage of teenaged gangliness at which nothing, it seemed, could be done quietly even when he was trying to. Years of childhood gymnastics and more recent track and field had taught him coordination, among other things, but in growth spurts that was a skill that came and went. "Dad, where's my music?"
I went on chopping carrots. "No idea."
"The black binder, you know, the one with the all-state stuff -- I was gonna practice, but I can't find it." He flopped onto a stool and sent me a look equal parts frustrated and pitiful.
"On the piano?" I picked up the cutting board full of carrot disks, so I could dump them in the pot of beef and onions that was going to become tonight's dinner. "In your backpack? Hiding in that mess of a room? On the moon?"
He rolled his eyes with eloquent teenaged disdain at that last jab, and answered the rest with, "I've looked there. Twice. And my room's fine."
He made a face. "Maybe." He filched a stray bit of carrot, and I pretended not to notice. "I hope not, I was gonna work on the Tchaikovsky before tomorrow. All the regular school stuff is easy. When's Mom done?"
"She said about another hour." Ellie, as a writer of both fiction and articles, worked from home. Long ago, we had all struck the deal that when she was in her study, she was to be treated as if she wasn't in the house. (Will, of course, had taken some time about growing up enough to understand this.) She left the door always open in deference to my nerves; I loved her for that, and wouldn't have bothered her for anything less than an earthquake.
"She lied," came Ellie's voice from behind me, warm with amusement, and I turned my head to smile over my shoulder. "Finally figured out what I was doing with that stupid travel piece, and it came a lot faster after that. What's the crisis, kiddo?"
"Gremlins took my all-state binder," he informed her with a gusty sigh, and stole a mushroom from the bowl I was chopping.
"You take all of those," I warned, "there won't be any left for the pot pie."
"Oh, whatever, I took one."
"He's got a bad example," Ellie told me sadly, and stole one herself. "Villains and thieves all around you, honey."
"O sharper than a serpent's tooth, to have a vegetable-stealing child." I shuffled the bowl a little closer to me. "Leave some for the pie, if you please."
Henry Morton is a creditable Ariel. Phineas Fletcher has done his friend a kindness indeed. Will watches from the upper stage as young Henry turns three somersaults across the discovery space and springs up behind stout fair Thomas Miller. In a few days' time Henry will be clad in shimmering pale tatters like moth's wings, the tireman's latest triumph, and Thomas will be monstrous in knavish rags.
"Thou liest," Ariel calls, and Thomas as Caliban jeers angrily at his fellows. Henry Morton has the voice for this role: clear and high, and the knack of making each word sound like a song. If that throat survives the break into tenor or baritone, he will have a rare skill to sell.
A most creditable Ariel, in faith.
"Say, my spirit," I commanded the empty air, stalking around the coffee table. I could almost feel the heavy magician's robes swirling around my legs, though I wore jeans and in fact I didn't yet know what my costume would really look like. "How fares the King and 's followers?"
We would all rehearse together, of course, first in a practice space in New York and then in Cancun to learn the stage for a few rushed days before the festival opened. But that was weeks away, and so I was reading Prospero's lines to an empty room. Will was at school, and Ellie had rolled her eyes affectionately at me and gone to find something more interesting to do.
Confined together, says Ariel, and goes on to explain how the king and his followers are all trapped together by magic, mourning piteously for people who aren't really dead. It's a speech I would still know by heart even if I hadn't relearned the play for this role. It hadn't taken much relearning to get Prospero's lines down, either. Nearly all his scenes are with Ariel flitting in the background, so I'd gotten them all a hundred times when I was thirteen.
The memory of a homing pigeon, Shakespeare said the first time I met him, and smiled at me. I remember that every time I'm reading through a new part.
"Dost think so, spirit?" I murmured, when Ariel's words had finished winding through my head. I wasn't sure yet about the murmur, but I was trying it out. It would depend on what Arby thought, and on how Ariel played her part. (My Ariel, Arby had grumbled at me, was proving hard to cast. He wanted a girl, young, looking like the actress he'd found for Miranda if possible but that would take second place to getting a girl with the acting skills and the right air, and he was having some difficulty in finding her. Nearly everybody else was settled and safely under contract. There was a girl named Maria Gonzales he liked, but there was some sort of schedule trouble to hash out.)
Prospero asks if his heart will really be stricken by the others' grief. Ariel says Mine would, sir, were I human, which is one of the most important lines, I've always thought. Ariel's not human, and too many actors forget it.
"And mine shall," I told the coffee table, spinning decisively on my heel. Ariel would dart away, swirling as if riding the air currents from my flapping robe, an airy sprite delighting in motion. He would listen sharply for my bidding, held by mastery and an inhuman sort of affection, but straining every moment against the desire to fly and act, while I continued with Prospero's lines about the pity he'll have for the captives--
I stopped, gusting a frustrated breath. I was thinking again about Shakespeare, and what he'd once said to me about writing an airier Robin Goodfellow. Unless thou leave me, or grow old, he'd said, and grinned down at me.
I'd never forget that moment, nor try to. But thinking about it wasn't getting me any closer to a good Prospero.
The stage would help, and the audience, not to mention Arby yelling at me. But I wanted to be able to play Prospero to my empty living room, even months ahead.
"I know the lines, sir," the boy assures him. An earnest lad, young and bright-faced, one of Fletcher's best youths. Will owes him a debt for the loan, though such a large part as Ariel will be an opportunity for the boy as well.
"Master Condell speaks well of his tumbling," adds Richard Burbage, with a quick oblique look Will can only guess at the meaning of. "As well he does, with the flitting about you have given this poor sprite. And more to come when you read it through together, if I know thee." Will has never been sure how much Dick Burbage has guessed of the hurt he felt when young Nat chose the Blackfriars' Boys, but he knows full well that his friend knows which aeriel sprite this role was written for.
Well, that is none of young Henry Morton's fault. And Nathaniel Field would not now be the stripling acrobat Will was thinking of as he wrote, even had Nathaniel a mind to play roles with the King's Men and write his plays for their company. "I know thou'lt play't well, lad," Will says, and the boy grins. "Lessons now, and I'll find thee anon to try our first scenes, if Phineas Fletcher can spare thee."
"Why speaks my father so ungently?" Alicia Martin was our Miranda, a lovely girl with clouds of black hair and a deceptively fragile-looking frame. I'd seen her hoisting scenery, though, and was under no illusions about her delicacy; she had a brown belt in something-or-other, too. Right now, though, when her wide dark eyes were fixed on me and her hands clasped beseechingly, I'd have sworn she really was as innocent as the sheltered girl she was playing. "This is the third man that e'er I saw; the first that e'er I sighed for. Pity move my father to be inclin'd my way!"
I scowled at Jason, our Ferdinand, six feet three of lanky college student. "O, if a virgin," he said, quick and ardent (and I glowered more for such tact about my daughter), "and your affection not gone forth, I'll make you the Queen of Naples."
"Soft, sir," I warned him, "one word more." Ferdinand and Miranda meet for the first time in this scene -- though of course it was about the tenth time we'd rehearsed it -- and they fall instantly in love. Prospero's all in favor, but he plays the angry father to make sure they'll take it as a challenge. I found this part a lot more unrealistic before I had my own teenaged son around, and learned that even the best kids like to have something to rebel about. Of course, I also found the teenaged love a lot more romantic and less terrifying, once upon a time.
"They are both in either's pow'rs," I told the audience in a smug aside, while Alicia and Jason stared longingly into each other's eyes. "But this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light." Angrily again, to Ferdinand: "One word more: I charge thee--"
Arby, of course. I sighed, dropping the pose, as Alicia and Jason turned to peer at the bulky form in the back row. "Too smug?"
"Too smug. You're a magician, not a used car salesman, for God's sake. Scheme with dignity."
I nodded. You didn't argue with directors in general, and you didn't argue with Arby in specific. Besides, he was right. "Okay. A word, good sir--" and we were off again.
A song for Ariel he writes, seven short lines of cowslips and bats and merry sunlit wandering. The quill is dull, and the last word blots. He has to trim it to a new point and rewrite, fingers itching with impatience, because he knows the next lines and he wants to be setting them down, not paring away at a goose-feather.
They are, after all, the only right lines to say. And it's right to bury them in Prospero's rush of commands and explanation. The play is nearing its end, and all must be set right.
"Why, that's my dainty Ariel!" Will Shakespeare scribbles. "I shall miss thee, but yet thou shalt have freedom." He dips his pen in the pot, and writes on: "So, so, so," and on with the play.
The first thing I do when I get to a new place is go for a long walk, just wandering around and exploring. Sometimes that's not really the first thing -- of course there's getting to the house or hotel and putting down my bags, and maybe having dinner or breakfast or a nap, and sometimes I even have to run straight to rehearsal or a fitting -- but I don't feel like I've really come anywhere until I've done that. So once I'd gotten my bags stowed at the cheap hotel we were staying in, I headed out into Cancun's steamy, sea-scented morning.
Cancun is a funny mix, like most places really. It's a resort town, so it's chock-full of things aimed straight for tourists -- shops selling them food and souvenirs, guides ushering them around, dozens of signs promising the most luxurious hotels or the cheapest beer or the best snorkeling, and all that stuff is shiny and new and loud. But of course people live here too. They need their own shops that have ordinary groceries, and hardware stores and auto mechanics and plumbers, and pretty things to put in a house instead of a hotel room. If you keep your eyes open, you can see all kinds of quiet corners in the middle of the bustle. I guess most people overlook them.
I probably overlook a lot too, honestly. I'm not astoundingly observant, like the spies in all those movies Will loves. I'm just an actor, and we watch people. And I look for things.
One thing I wasn't looking for that day was my castmates, but I found one anyway. I didn't even notice the girl at the taco cart as familiar, with her back to me and her hair up in a swirling black ponytail -- I told you I wasn't all that observant -- until she turned and cast me a quick conspiratorial grin, and I grinned back, and then realized that I knew that face. She paid, shoved her change in a pocket, and turned towards me with a cheerful "Hey, Nathan!" over the vendor's hopeful "Hola, señor."
"Maria," I greeted her. "What're you up to?" Maria Gonzales, an ex-figure skater and my airy sprite for this play. She was eighteen, looked a gamine fifteen, and in her cheerful self-sufficiency acted at least twenty-five. I liked her enormously already, and every time she bounced onstage she made me feel very old. Suitable for Prospero, I suppose.
"I go to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire!" she laughed, posing for an instant, and held up a foil-wrapped tortilla. It was already leaking orangey-red sauce down her fingers. "To ride upon the curl'd clouds, and to have lunch -- there's supposed to be a cool park with a picnic area around here somewhere."
"Parque Urbano Kabah?" I'd seen it on the map and some brochures that morning, and had been spiraling around it for a while. "A block or two that way, I think."
She nodded. "That's the one. Want to come?"
I'd been planning to have lunch at a cafe somewhere, but the food smelled fabulous. That and the prospect of getting off my feet for a while decided me. "Sure," I said.
Maria had been to Mexico any number of times before, she told me, but never to Cancun. "Mostly to Mexico City. That's where they usually hold the Americas -- that's a skating competition."
"That's right, you were a skater." I turned over my mango, considering how to demolish it when I'd forgotten a knife. "So your family's used to you traveling around like this?" I always said family, without even thinking about it these days. I remembered how I used to hate questions about my parents.
Maria grimaced agreement. "Definitely. I spent most of the year in Houston for a lot of my childhood, training. Usually with Mom, but not always -- two of my aunts live there, and I'd stay with them. Till I busted my knee." She banged the heel of her hand against her left thigh. "They're less used to me being home and underfoot, honestly. I love 'em, don't get me wrong, but I'm not really used to being underfoot either. They don't blink when I say I'm going to Cancun for two weeks for theater. Just start looking up the visa details."
"You travel a lot?" Good for her, if she did. A lot of work is no bad thing when you're starting out your career, and Maria was level-headed enough to know what kind of schedule she could handle.
"Nah -- well, some. This is my first big tour gig, though. Arby snagged me from a community theater show over in Tempe. This experimental Jacobean tragedy revival thing. Lots of fun, but sales weren't great." She shrugged philosophically. I wondered, privately amused, if that old-hand-in-the-biz nonchalance was genuine or something she'd cultivated. Probably mostly genuine, from what I'd seen of her. "Nobody appreciates a good murder-by-poisoned-tennis-racket these days."
"And so he caught you and told you that you were going to audition for Ariel?" She flipped a sauce-mottled hand in a yep, you got it gesture, and I laughed. "Of course he did." Maria cast me a sidelong glance, testing that for insult, and I hastily clarified. "He did the same thing to me, years and years ago. From a Youth Theater in Atlanta -- I was just a kid."
She laughed, an abrupt delighted sound. "You're kidding! Seriously?"
"Seriously. I was twelve, and he was doing a boys' company Shakespeare on a grant. Grabbed me the dressing room after the show and told me to audition for him, and a few months later it was off to be Puck and... um, Pindarus. In Julius Caesar."
"Wow," I agreed. "That was about what I thought at the time. It was incredible."
Will Shakespeare writes, hunched over his desk squinting against the candle's flickering dance. He's getting older, and this midnight writing is harder on his eyes than it once was. But he has the words now, flowing down through ink-stained fingers onto the cheap foolscap, and he will not wait to lose them in daylight.
Prospero a playwright, he thinks, in the guise of the fantastical. A magician, who casts his comedies with human lives and unearthly spirits instead of words and paid players. A politician-artist, the cruelest kind.
Playwrights, like actors, are a difficult breed: demanding, contrary, absorbed in their own visions. Will Shakespeare knows this, because he has never wanted to be anything else. The theater is magic enough for any man, and Will could glut himself for a lifetime on it.
He has, he thinks with a small smile, and bends back to his writing.
The sultry Cancun evening was lit by an orange sunset and, for those of us in this open-air theater, by blinding colored stage lights. Opening night. I wasn't onstage yet, but I was about to be. From the wings I could see the glitter of lighting up high, and in front of me the sailors arguing. Our set designer Anna had outdone herself with the storm and the rocking ship; it looked like they were really in the middle of some fantastic storm, all drenching waves and fog and psychedelic lightning.
"The wills above be done!" saturnine Bobby Javier shouted. "But I would fain die a dry death." He was playing Gonzalo, who's kindly and despairing and one of the few decent people in this play. Prospero's not one; he's kind of a jerk, really.
In a crash of thunder, the ship pitched, and Bobby and all the other nobles and sailors flung themselves offstage and overboard. The crowd cheered, the ship slid off stage right, and the magic was there.
I strode onstage into the dregs of the storm, with Miranda pleading at my side, and I didn't even try to figure out what seats Ellie and Will were in. That I would do later, at curtain call. After the play was done, after Prospero's epilogue to the crowd, asking forbearance and forgiveness with his Ariel freed and his powers all gone. For now, I was the magician.