Becoming Prospero: Harrow steps into alpha male role for ‘Tempest’

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Lisa Harrow, left, plays Prospero and Chasten Harmon plays Ariel in The Tempest during dress rehearsal in Bratton Theater last Thursday.

Lisa Harrow has rarely found a role that scared her.

Apart from when she was 16 and played King Lear in a high school production — Prospero is the first.

“The only other time I ever remember sitting there going, ‘Oh my god what am I doing?’ is when I played King Lear,” Harrow said. “Again, it’s a hubristic alpha male.”

Guest artist Harrow stars in Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of The Tempest, which runs through Friday. Harrow said becoming the ousted Duke of Milan, Prospero, required a combination of thinking like a man and pondering William Shakespeare’s intent for the play.

“I am trying to understand the motivations of the man,” Harrow said. “I am thinking a lot about a few alpha males that I know.”

Though she said the role is intimidating, Harrow is no stranger to the Bard’s work — she started her career with the Royal Shakespeare Company about 40 years ago.

“He’s been with me in my bones since before I was 10,” Harrow said. “It’s been something that I’ve lived and breathed and worked and talked through all my life.”

Despite her experience, she said wrapping her mind around Prospero’s complex ego is an ongoing challenge.

“He’s brutal. He is full of revenge. He is very authoritarian over the people who work for him,” Harrow said. “But there comes a point in the play where … his humanity is awoken.”

Harrow said she thinks that “what I will try and be is the entity called Prospero.”

“I’m going to try and inhabit the entity of Prospero to the best of my ability to illuminate the character and tell the story of the play,” she said.



Embracing these “brutal” and “authoritarian” characteristics offers additional difficulties to adopting what Harrow calls an “alpha male” attitude.

“Whenever you’re playing a female role you can empathetically understand what the character’s going through because you’re a woman,” she said. “But a man, that’s a different world.”

Harrow is opposed to the idea of Prospero being a female, based on the play’s plot and the character itself, so she’s worked to become Prospero as a man. Gender bending has never been a foreign concept to Shakespearean productions, but what Harrow said was more difficult was grasping Prospero’s psyche and seemingly cruel actions.

“As a woman — even as a woman who has some power in my life — and I’m self-determining and have been successful and run a household, there’s no way I would speak to anyone who came in contact with me as anything but an equal,” Harrow said. “But I have seen men, in the world in which I live, [where] the last thing they do is speak to the people that work for them as an equal.”

Apart from understanding Prospero and his motivations as an individual, Harrow said she thought at length about the tensions and themes within the play. Based on events during Shakespeare’s time, like the discovery that the sun does not revolve around the earth, she considered questions the playwright may have examined through his characters.

“ ‘What it is to be a human being and why should we think that we are the masters of the universe?’  ” Harrow said. “That question, which was being asked then, at Shakespeare’s time, is still being asked today.”

In discussing humanity and its power historically and in modern day, Harrow said she drew a line to current issues of climate change and the interdependence of humanity and nature. She said these are the types of concerns that helped her conceptualize The Tempest and her role within it.   

CTC Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch said Harrow’s combination of humility and world understanding makes her a good fit for the part.

“She’s a life force — and filled with this mixture of ‘I know everything’ and ‘I know nothing,’ ” Benesch said. “That wonderful mix is the perfect mindset to come in to play Prospero.”

According to some actors in the production, who have received several master classes from Harrow, the amount the actress knows about Shakespeare and the theater industry is closer to the “everything” end of the spectrum Benesch describes.

“I feel really lucky to be working with a woman of her caliber because I’m learning constantly about this language,” said Kate Abbruzzese, who plays Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. “She spent an hour and 15 minutes working on the Romeo monologue … and basically only focused on eight lines, and blew those lines open into universes and cosmos.”

Christian Demarais, who plays Prospero’s slave Caliban, agreed that Harrow’s experience with Shakespeare — and life — brings distinct knowledge to the rehearsal room.

“She has insight on these characters that we, in our short time on earth, especially conservatory members, just don’t know yet, or haven’t even thought of,” Demarais said. “She connects to the play in a completely different way being of a different age.”

Working with younger actors is an aspect of Chautauqua that Harrow also said she appreciates.

“Having knowledge is no good unless you can pass it on, and I think that’s a very important part of being an older actor,” Harrow said. “The rehearsal room is a lovely melting pot of ideas and perceptions and thoughts and it feels very free and open and that is the best way to work.”

Though initially daunted by her role as Prospero, as she was by King Lear at 16, Harrow said she has found comfort in Brawdy Theater Studios.

“My fears have gone, they went in the first week,” she said. “This is good, this is a good place, it’s safe, and that’s the best place to work — where it’s safe.”