Letting the Audience Figure It Out: Cotey on SPIRITS pt. 2

Michael Cotey Talks More About His Second Time As A Director

Apr. 22, 2010
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Some time ago, Youngblood Theatre co-founder Michael Cotey Googled the words “superhero” and “theatre,” and ran across something by a playwright named Mickle Maher. Having read Maher’s script for SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, Cotey knew that this was going to be a very, very interesting project. With a dozen actors sitting down and facing the audience as characters in a call center, the challenges of Cotey’s third directorial project were going to be unique. As a student at UWM, Cotey directed himself and one other actor in a production of THE DUMBWIATER. Some time later, he directed a particularly memorable short for a Pink Banana Theatre show. Now Cotey is helming a single production featuring a spoken choral arrangement of a dozen actors. The premise goes a little something like this: a dozen superheroes are out of costume in a submarine making calls to try to raise money for their production of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST. The piece pairs the “high art” of Shakespeare against the generally disrespected “pop art” of superhero fiction in a weird fission that hits all kinds of dichotomies. So Cotey’s got his hands full.

He talked with me over coffee a little while ago . . .


Me: The only big criticism that I’ve heard about this show is that it’s just so dense. It’ hard to follow and you’ve got all of these characters up there and they’re all lined-up with T. Stacey Hicks looking Christ-like in the middle of it all 

Michael Cotey: Laughs.

Me: Is what I’m visualizing correct?

Michael Cotey: That’s not giving too much away. You’ll notice that the first thing when you walk into the room.

Me: It is like The Last Supper.

Michael Cotey: Well, Jason Fassl whose lighting the show for us [said] you do realize the width of the table is the width of the proscenium arch at the Cabot Theatre.”

Me: Laughs

Michael Cotey: . . . and I’m like, “well? So be it.” I’ll bet it is. Here’s the thing: if someone comes to this show expecting a standard play . . .it not that. It’s something different. It’s still theatrical. It’s still a play. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee. And that’s what kind of appealed to me in the first place. It looks challenging. It was very interesting and I don’t expect any other company to even attempt to tackle something like this. So those are a lot of the reasons why we decided. Red Light Winter was a challenge based on content and themes and it was a challenge for the actors. This also a challenge but in a completely different spectrum. The language is challenging. It’s a very intelligent play  and it involves a lot of chops in order for us to act and I feel like we’ve assembled a really solid cast in order to do it.

Me: One of the comments that was made [in previous productions] is that it’s difficult to differentiate between the characters. Are you working on tat at all?

Michael Cotey: Well, these characters have sort of bizarre super powers . . . and they lend themselves to their personalities. And I think each of the actors is unique both in how they look—just physical appearance and how they approach the work . . . it’s not going to be difficult to keep them straight. I do imagine people are going to have a hard time keeping . . . maybe through-lines of characters straight, but that’s the nature of the beast. If you go to listen to the symphony, you’re not going to hear—unless you’re an aficionado of the music, you’re not going to hear each instrument . . .

Me: or even certain sections of the symphony.

Michael Cotey: Yeah, you’re going to hear it as a whole. I mean, I would love people to come multiple times to catch things that they didn’t the first time. But, yeah I think if you get worked-up and try to understand everything and hear everything to the syllable, some people might get frustrated. But I think that if people come with an open mind, it’ll be something different to see.



Me: So how does this thing look? I’ve never been inside that building. [The Miller and Campbell Costume Service where the play is being staged] You’ve got the long table . . . you’ve got the audience facing them . . . I would imagine that’s a proscenium, right? Straight ahead? Twelve people lined up?

Michael Cotey: It’s a VERY wide room.

Me: Laugh. Well, it would have to be.

Michael Cotey: It used to be some sort of office space. It’s currently NOT being used for anything and we were . . . uhmm . . . originally we were going to do it in the Alchemist [Theatre.] How we would have fit the table in there now is beyond me, but there was a scheduling conflict. We weren’t able to do the number of weeks there that we wanted . . . and I’m going away for the summer, so I needed to get it in in a certain timeframe. So we heard the Uprooted [Theatre Company] was doing some of their  rehearsals in the building and we just needed a space to rehearse, so we checked it out. There was one space with one entrance five flights up, so it didn’t work. I asked what else was available and we saw this space and I was in there for a little while and it sat with me and I thought it would actually be really cool . . . this would work. The play takes place in a submarine, so the space feels a little claustrophobic because the ceilings are low and . . you get the feeling of being confined in the space.

Me: And there’s a whole set that’s been designed for it?

Michael Cotey: Yeah. It’s pretty minimal, though. It’s a table and chairs . . . after that everything else is icing on the cake. It’s pretty simple among the complexity of the whole thing.



Me: And with the costumes, that’s pretty minimal too?

Michael Cotey: Yeah. Leave it at that.

Me: Presumably, these people have seen each other outside their masks, right?

Michael Cotey: Yeah.

Me: They don’t physically look like super heroes.

Michael Cotey: Yeah. I feel like one of those superheroes trying to keep everything in secrecy, but I want people to experience as much of it . . . but I think . . . I think people will think that . . . since it’s superheroes it’s sort of the “wham,” “bang” [Adam West in Batman] variety of thing but I think it’s nothing like that at all. If anything it’s much the opposite of that.

Me: Right this is a drama. And how much  does the Shakespeare end of things enter into the show?

Michael Cotey: Oh, it’s integral to the script.

Me: So this could be a sequel to The Tempest?

Michael Cotey: I think that was [Mickle Maher’s] intention all along. I mean, it really is . . . Ariel is Ariel in the show. And the Shakespeare text enters in from either a sales pitch or a sheet of text from the show. They’re all trying to put on a production of The Tempest in this homage to what their past used to be—this time in their life when they really felt needed and worthwhile. The story opens when the superheroes had just put away their biggest super villain ever. And now they don’t know what to do with themselves. They’re out of work. And they don’t know what their purpose now is in life. And so they go back to their past by doing this version of the tempest.

Me: THAT’S really interesting.

Michael Cotey: Yeah, it is.

Me:  Because . . . [Alan Moore’s graphic novel] Watchmen did a lot to sort of finish-off the superhero genre [by bringing it into a world of contemporary politics] and then this is now tying that into heroes from ancient literature . . . do we need heroes at all . . that sort of thing.

Michael Cotey: Yeah it’s that and also a love affair with The Tempest. It’s a great commentary on fundraising for the arts and what you’re willing to give-up in order to get a dollar in order to put on a show. So there’s some really brilliant commentary there on.

Me: Are they working from a fund raising script? Are we hearing a lot of repetition?

Michael Cotey: Yeah, they have a script that they work off of with some unusual things that you probably wouldn’t find in a normal call script. Whereas the Rep might say, “Did you see Government Inspector?” “How did you enjoy the show?” This is “Did you enjoy our last victory over Professor Cannibal?”    

Youngblood Theatre’s Spirits To Enforce runs April 22nd – May 9th at the Miller & Campbell Costume Service on 907 South First Street. 

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