Laurie Woolery on The Tempest and More

Written by Sarah Rebell

Photography by Marisa Chafetz

April 29th, 2019


For the past five years, Laurie Woolery has led or helped lead The Public Theater’s Public Works program, first as Associate Director (2014-2017), and now as Director. During that time, she has directed several pieces for the program, most notably As You Like It at the Delacorte Theater, created with Shaina Taub. This spring, Laurie is directing The Tempest through a different Public Theater initiative, the Mobile Unit. It is Laurie’s first time directing for this particular program, which adapts a Shakespeare production for a city-wide tour, performing in prisons, homeless shelters, and other social service organizations, prior to a sit-down run Off-Broadway. The original version of The Tempest is about Prospero, a magician and former nobleman who, along with his daughter Miranda, has been left for dead on a remote island inhabited by the spirit Ariel and the witch’s son Caliban. In Laurie’s gender swapped adaptation, several traditionally male characters, including Prospero, are women. I recently spoke with Laurie about Public Works and the Mobile Unit, what it was like to create a Tempest in which characters live outside of the gaze of the patriarchy, why community is her biggest collaborator, and more.


What is it that draws you to The Tempest? Last year, you worked on a piece, El Huracán, that was certainly very different, but also loosely inspired, in some ways, by The Tempest. And now you’re directing the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit production of the Shakespeare play. This seems to be a theatrical piece that really resonates with you.

Yes, it does. That’s true. Last year I worked with Charise Castro Smith on the world premiere of El Huracaán at Yale Rep. That was inspired by The Tempest. It was a very female-centric, female-driven piece about intergenerational relationships, cultural and historical trauma, climate control or the lack thereof. It really spoke to me and haunted me, because I felt like the piece encompassed so much; it’s not one that you can just walk away from. So, when I was approached by the Mobile Unit to direct this year, they said, “You can do whatever you want to do.” And because I work with Public Works, and because I’ve spent a lifetime working in and with communities, what community has taught me is to start with the question of, “What does this community want to explore right now? What do we feel like we need to be investigating?” For me, because of our current political climate, because of the assault on women’s rights, the breaking open of #MeToo, this idea of female rage unleashed made me think that forgiveness is something that we as a country, as a community, need to be talking about, specifically through a female lens.

The Tempest is about Prospero, who traditionally is a father, and his daughter Miranda, [dealing with] the betrayal of his brother and the ultimate banishment, and the ultimate survival of those two [Prospero and Miranda] together. But I thought, “What if it’s through a female lens?” I’m a first generation Latina. I come from a proud lineage of Latinx women—strong, fierce, courageous, who uprooted themselves for a better life, and had to survive really difficult circumstances. That is part of my DNA, so I felt like I could really speak to that. When you have Shakespeare as a great collaborator, you don’t have to change words. I just changed pronouns. I made a very conscious decision to not change Prospero to Prospera, but to let the actual story live. So. that was really why I chose it. I wanted to explore how women deal [with] and process their rage and, as opposed to building walls, build bridges; as opposed to retribution, move into forgiveness. That’s where I’m living right now. Part of it is also processing my own rage, my own outrage, and how to not drown in that, but use it to learn something about myself and make choices that are healthy, and move through something that is positive as opposed to negative.

By interpreting Prospero in this way, it seemed to me that the power dynamics really shifted from power in a domineering sense to power in terms of empowerment.

Absolutely. One of the big things that I realized when I was rereading the play, when I was exploring this, is that the original play is about a father protecting his daughter’s virginity, which is a noble cause, but with a mother in that position, it is about preserving her essence and her spirit. Then, it became very interesting to see how Miranda was raised outside of the gaze of the patriarchy. She’s not being raised to have to seek approval or contain herself, but her mother allows her on this island to be her authentic self, and that was super exciting for me to explore. The other thing was that I didn’t want the island to be a blue lagoon. They were discarded. What happens when people are othered and discarded? How can you still thrive—not just survive, but thrive—in that environment? So absolutely, that was something that was really interesting to see, how we would be able to use Shakespeare’s words, plus who I cast in the roles, to see how we move through that.

One of the ways that Miranda and Prospero did survive and thrive was through Propsero’s use of magic. Can you talk a little bit about the magic in this production? Was there a conscious choice to make the magic more female-driven?

Completely, absolutely. I think that in the past the magic feels a little cerebral, or can feel a little cerebral. I was really interested in female magic, and I mean the magic of the everyday. I come from a very religious background; my mother goes to church, she prays the rosary several times a day. People can have whatever opinions they want to about organized religion, but I know that my mother was able to move through the darkest of times by her ritual practice of faith and hope and survival. So I explored [forms of magic like] Santeria, Brujiera, even the healing powers that a lot of the homeopaths that I go to practice, or the psychics that I consulted, and I feel like female energy is really connected to nature. It felt really in keeping with what Shakespeare has written about. It’s not that Prospero’s magic is a wand or spells, but it’s really about being in partnership with the elements, being in partnership with nature. It took her twelve years to align with Mother Nature to make this storm happen and bring them [her enemies] to the island. The thing that I discovered about Santeria is you have to ask permission; you make a request, and it can be accepted or denied. There is no timeline connected to when it’s going to be answered. I think that was really just an interesting way [to look at] how we exist in the world. Sometimes, in this country, we’re so transactional and rooted—you know it is a country of commerce—and what happens when you are in true collaboration with the world around you is magical. I think because women are the givers of life, that that is also a magical act. So it felt again, really in keeping with my collaborator, William Shakespeare, to explore this.

I did not want it to feel like I was imposing a director’s aesthetic on to it, but really interpreting and digesting the play in a way that can speak to today. Look at all of our politicians and how they’re being attacked, from their looks to their belief systems to their mothers. The radical act of Nancy Pelosi bringing her grandkids into the Senate, I was just like, “Really? That’s radical?” And I look at AOC who is unapologetically, fiercely taking her place at the table. Looking at that intergenerational[ly], Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez, those women are different; it’s evolving. It’s rough now, but it used to be rougher, and we can’t give it up. And then I look at The Tempest, the dynamic between Prospero and Miranda, what happens when you are raised under the gaze [of the patriarchy]. And then there’s also Gonzalo [a traditionally male role played in this production by a Latinx woman]. Gonzalo is the character who helps Prospero escape, who acknowledges that Prospero’s books are vital to her, who actually saves [Prospero] and her daughter. And yet she still has to exist under the patriarchy and that leadership, and she has had to find her way. There are ways of working within, ways of working around, ways of working through. I have zero judgment on any of them; by any means necessary, let’s see how we can shift this dynamic. I love that in the play, you get to see those three lenses as well as the dynamic between Caliban and Ariel and Prospero. Sometimes productions are the Caliban story, sometimes productions are the Ariel story. But I really wanted to make sure that it remained about Prospero and Miranda. So I looked at those other two characters as both [Prospero’s] Yin and Yang, Ariel as her enlightened spirit self. We chose the gender, the pronoun of “They,” so it didn’t have to exist on the binary. And I had no desire to see another person of color play Caliban, so the only Caucasian actor [Christopher Grant] in the play is Caliban. Christopher, who’s a dear friend and a great collaborator, he and I went back and forth on this [during] the entire rehearsal process. He probably would even say now that we’re still going back and forth on it. He’s like, “[Caliban’s] a monster,” I’m like, “He’s not a monster.” I’m not interested in making Caliban a creature; he’s a man who does monstrous things. Now he can say he’s a victim of his upbringing, however you want to decide that, but I think he is othered; the language of monster is used, and yet we’re all human beings. Nobody should be othered.

What was your process in terms of working with those actors playing Ariel and Caliban? You clearly have some very intellectual ideas about who they are and who they can be. How did you shape that into the physicality evidenced in the production?

For me, a director can have an idea, but you’re in partnership with your actors and your playwright. Shakespeare’s a really good one, because a lot of people will approach it in many different ways and hold it like it’s sacred and literal. This is where I also want to give props to Jim Shapiro, who helped do the cut of the play. Once we bring it to the actors, the actors also fight for language to be put back in, or look to see what else we can trim that isn’t furthering that story forward in the 90, 100 minutes we have.

I was talking about Caliban, and I was like, “Let his trauma live in his body.” I am a big believer that not just our life experience, but our ancestral trauma, lives within us. With Chris, it’s really great; you just give him that and he runs with it. I’m also a believer that actors should have their own secrets, even from the director; they get to build their character in collaboration with me, but it’s not important for me to have to vet everything, unless we’re feeling like we’re on completely opposite ends. Chris is a very physical actor, so I think he was able to really think about the backbreaking work that Caliban has to do, the survival that he has to do as a young man born on the island by Sycorax, a witch.

I want to take a moment and unpack that label too, because that was something that I was really interested in: how people are labeled, and especially the word “witch.” To me, that’s not a creature, that is a woman who was deeply practicing her language. But Chris and I got into big debates about it, because I’m like, she was abandoned on the island by sailors; I’m assuming that one of the sailors is the father. So that’s why, again, I will say it’s not a creature, I think you are just a man who is from a broken home, or a man who lost his mother at a very early age. You’re a man who had to survive in this deserted, desolate island on his own, and what does that trauma bring up in you and how can you find that in how you move through the world?

With Ariel, Danaya Esperanza is just such a fantastic actor as well. We kept going round and round about it, because that was even more of a cerebral idea, being the enlightened one whispering in Prospero’s ear. But it’s not like they [Ariel] are neutered of any human emotion. When I have spoken to my friends who are deeply Buddhist, they have such a real objective perspective of the world, and kind of don’t live in the binary, but live in the totality of the world that they’re existing in. We explored that, and we explored elements of how, if you are truly one with this island, how do we find that? I think it was through nature, really connecting her back to earth, wind, fire, water. I think through different emotions that Prospero has, Ariel will try to be the antidote to that. When Prospero was raging, how could she be wind or water to try to help balance that rage? Ultimately, Prospero is her own individual being who is not ruled by either her base or her enlightenment, but has to make choices, like we all do in our lives.

That’s what I’m hoping people will feel when they’re seeing the play, that it is about choices that we make moment to moment, day to day. It was the #MeToo movement that made me feel like I was able to own my rage out loud and say, “I have been pissed off for a very long time.” Your rage suddenly becomes your justified safe place, it becomes that armor that you get to wear. But my rage is only a disservice to me, and not to the human being or the situation that I’m raging against. I think ultimately for Prospero, she goes on that journey. She is completely entitled to be pissed off, and want her pound of flesh. Because of her practices, her ways of moving through the world, her connection to her magic, to her Goddess, to her religion, she is labeled “witch,” labeled “other.” She was betrayed by her brother, who then took over; family betrayal is very rich and deep, and a hard one to get over. Then, she and her daughter were cast aside, left for dead. And so the fierce mother lioness comes in like, “Screw what you did to me, look what you did to my daughter.” And then ultimately, having to be faced with that moment of rage, [after] tending that fire for twelve years, now it’s there in front of you. Then you have to make a decision of, “Do I annihilate? Do I execute?” Which is a very patriarchal way of retribution, that prospective retribution, that idea of equaling out the playing field by force. But it’s actually harder to say, “I’m going to break the cycle of violence, I’m going to break the cycle of punishment, and I’m going to forgive. I’m not going to forget,” she says, “But I’m going to forgive, and I’m going to step back into my leadership role, and I’m going to move forward with seeing how I can take this lesson that I’ve learned and move forward with that.” I do think it’s what parents do. How do we want to leave a better world for our children?

I’m not a mother, but I’m an aunt, and I think about my nephew all the time, the beautiful young man that he’s growing into, and how I want his sweet, compassionate, gentle spirit to be preserved and not hardened over to fit in any box. What world are we leaving him? So it’s not just the liberation of women, it’s the liberation of men too that I’m interested in. How can you keep [both of] our soft, gentle centers and spirits in tact? And I think The Tempest is about that. Also, back to the original question that you had, why The Tempest?, and wanting to explore this idea of forgiveness, my rage has been part of my prison, part of my incarceration. When I think about the places that the Mobile Unit gets to go into, the honor of being able to enter into women’s shelters and correctional facilities and community centers, I wanted to make sure that I was bringing a story of redemption, a story that our men and women could witness and learn from and be inspired by, or ponder. I thought a lot about the men and women who are in our correctional facilities. That’s really who my play is targeted for. They were always at the center of every decision that I made. I wanted it to be beautiful; I wanted them to have something luscious to look at. And Wilberth Gonzalez, our costume designer, did such a beautiful job. And [scenic designer] Claire DeLiso created something so simple, because I wanted not just their heart and their souls to expand, but I wanted their eyes to be able to feast on something creative yet simple, so that that part of them could be fed. Hopefully everybody is getting that, but those are my peeps.

You’ve been speaking a lot about the theme of forgiveness. It occurs to me that another really potent theme in The Tempest is that of freedom, which in your interpretation seems to go hand in hand with how forgiveness is achieved. Were you thinking about the theme of freedom as you were considering the audience and the tour locations?

Absolutely, because I do feel that we imprison ourselves by our thoughts, by our history, by our trauma. It’s a hard cycle to break, because it’s learned, and to a certain degree, there is a loyalty connected to your own history. Even though those men and women may physically be incarcerated, I don’t want their spirits or their minds to be. I have been really fortunate to work within correctional facilities, and what I learned from the men and women that I worked with is how you use your time in or out to set yourself free, so you can actually find your purpose and contribute, and to some degree, rehabilitate. When I talk about historic and cultural trauma, how do we set ourselves free from that? A bad choice, a set of circumstances, a moment of rage, a moment of misjudgment can define a period of your life, but how do you use your time on this earth to trust that every moment is an opportunity to shift, recalibrate, and set yourself free? I think it’s a daily practice, it’s a lifelong journey, but I think it’s a beautiful journey to go on, and Prospero models that. All the characters model that. We talked about that a lot in the room; everybody has their freedom journey, and some are further along than others.

You’ve mentioned in the past how Public Works felt like a collaborator when you were working on As You Like It. Is the Mobile Unit a collaborator to you here? Is community?

Community is forever a collaborator with me. Community was my grad school. Community has been my master teacher. I did not feel, when I was growing up, that a life in the arts was an option for me; I’m a first generation Latinx and I was raised very working class. It was really about how you’re going to contribute to your community, how you’re going to provide for your family, and how you’re going to be of service, and get healthcare, and if you’re lucky enough, buy a house. Those were really the values that I was raised with. I agree with all of those things. I felt like art was for the privileged. Once I decided to be courageous enough to go for it, I actually found that all of those values that I was raised with fit in with being an artist. I had always hoped to go to a grad school and a training program, but my journey was different. Every step along the way, from those early days to now, has been this partnership with my greatest collaborator, my greatest teacher, which is community. It’s part of every decision I make about what plays I do, they are a part of every casting decision, putting every creative team together. I really want to make sure that I’m opening doors for others to be able to come through.

I’ve been really lucky to be able to work on a lot of new work, and a lot of new work by playwrights of color, and female playwrights of color specifically, which has been thrilling. That has been a great joy. Even for the selection of the source text, community was at the heart of that decision. How is the material speaking to the world that we are living in right now? For the Mobile Unit, The Tempest was at the heart of that decision, and Roxanna [Barrios, the Mobile Unit’s Program Manager] completely supported that. Mobile Unit and Public Works are a great marriage. I feel really fortunate to be the director of Public Works and to have the opportunity to direct in the Mobile Unit, because I feel like the conversations are just expanding. Being able to go back to some of our community partner sites, and how they will witness what I’ve created in collaboration with these artists, has been a great teacher. It’s a great expansion of the work, and both the Mobile Unit and Public Works are working on a national level, trying to share what we’re learning, so other people can use our successes and our mistakes. I do feel like collaborating with community, putting community at the center of every arts organization, is the future. You can’t do a play if people don’t show up. It’s the art form that requires participation. I think the more we can start breaking down who gets to come, whose stories we are telling, the more that we’re going to grow and expand as an art form.

You described Public Works and Mobile Unit as being a “great marriage.” In what ways do you find the experience of those two programs to be different from one another? In what ways are they similar?

The thing that’s interesting about Public Works is that we go into community, like the Mobile Unit, by doing year-round programing. We have eight partner organizations, and week by week we go into those boroughs, those sites, and offer classes. It’s not like I’m making a decision that they’re going to do a specific play and going in and mandating that. At the beginning of the year, we have conversations about what our community is interested in, and it grows and evolves. And the culmination of all of that is they [the students] audition for the pageant at the Delacorte Theater. They get to take all those skills that they have been investing in all year long and utilize them for the audition, and then for the creation of these ambitious works of the participatory art that we do at the Delacorte. So, like the Mobile Unit, they’re going in and they’re sharing a Shakespeare play with community, hopefully reflecting community through those stories, through the casting, through the design, and through the adaptation. But it is with professional actors. This delicious collaboration happens when you have professionals and communities collaborating together; it’s a mutual mentorship. The community is bringing their expertise of their life experience; there is an authenticity, there is a truth. It is unadulterated, unfiltered joy, passion, life experience. A pro brings years of investing into a craft that shows our community how they can take their creative spark seriously. What people witness when they come to a Public Works show is that beautiful exchange, which is why it’s so exciting that the idea of community work is being upended. Before, people wanted to place it in a box of amateur, and it’s not. It’s just its own art form that needs to be experienced, which is why I’m really appreciating that the Public Theater seems to be expanding the number of performances that our community is getting to do. I have witnessed that when community is able to be a part of something that is excellent, when all the resources of the institution are thrown behind supporting it, the message that is sent is, “I get to tap into my artistry. I get to invest in it.” It’s not something that is a hobby or a sideline. It affects every aspect of our lives, of how we deal with our families, how we creatively problem solve at work, how we re-imagine our lives, because ultimately the greatest work of art each of us can make is the life that we live, and how we shape that and how we cast that, how we design that, how we direct that. 

Has your own artistry been enhanced or altered in any way by your years of this community-driven theatrical work?

I think for the longest time, I didn’t feel that I was invited to the party. That I, as a woman, a Latina, didn’t see myself reflected in the stories or in the people who were getting to tell those stories. As I said before, I felt like it was a privilege if you got to do that. I was buying into the limitations that were around me, but your mentors come in surprisingly different ways; it doesn’t have to be through a traditional pathway. The stories I tell need to continue to reflect that, and to extend an invitation. So, I do feel forever indebted to community, to the privilege of being able to be an artist. I think about my grandmother, and my aunt, and my mother, and how they left their country, El Salvador, to come here. I get to benefit from the sacrifices that they made; I get to be an artist. I never take that for granted. Every time I get an opportunity I always feel super blessed. And, to give props to my father, my father is the son of a dirt farmer. They are the poorest of the farmers. They rent a part of land from somebody else’s farm that things are not able to grow in. I was like, “Oh, I’m a cultural farm worker,” because I go into places where the ground is perceived as barren and that nothing can grow there, and I plant seeds of creativity and I water it and tend it, and things grow. That is what my family taught me. I no longer feel disloyal to my upbringing, I feel like that’s what this community has taught me. If I can continue to help do that in communities, share what I know, learn from what they know, together we plant those seeds, and we tool that soil, and we water it. I have seen over and over again that nothing is barren, everything is fertile. It just takes care, attention, and a whole lot of love for things to grow. And that is the gift of this work.