Two and a half years ago, Daniel Higgins sat in The Cup—Wantagh’s favorite coffeehouse—reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Already an experienced director at age 21, he was thinking about how he could adapt the 400-year-old story into a modern tale set in, say, a coffee shop like the one he was sitting in. Shakespeare had a sort of unreachable, elitist connotation that could scare people away, Higgins said. He wanted to bring it to everyone.
Higgins thought to incorporate music in the show, but he tabled the idea while he worked on other projects at Wantagh’s Eastline Theatre, where he is the creative director. One day while at the playhouse, a friend of his told him that the man, John Brautigam, who had just walked out the door was Berklee-trained in creating musical scores. Higgins said he chased Brautigam to his car to give him the five-minute pitch on what he envisioned for his production. What happened right after remains up for debate: Brautigam insists that he said yes right away, while Higgins claimed it took a bit more convincing.
“Now they’re like an old married couple,” Susan Berkowitz, vice president of Eastline Theatre and Higgins’ stepmother, said with a laugh.
Regardless of the wooing that may or may not have taken place, Higgins returned to The Cup in September of 2017 to meet with Brautigam for the first time. The duo brainstormed how they wanted to see the project through, and quickly set to work to make it their own while still maintaining the story originally performed for an audience in 1611.
“It is still The Tempest. It’s still the story, the island, all of that,” Brautigam said. “But we’re interpreting the characters in a new way.”
The Tempest, which is believed to be the last play that Shakespeare ever wrote, tells the story of Prospero and his daughter Miranda as they are on an island, watching a storm enveloping a ship that carries the king of Naples. The storm is created by Prospero’s magic, and he claims that the ship holds all of his enemies.
Higgins said he wanted to make the characters more accessible and relatable to a modern audience. He went into detail explaining the speech of the actors—whether they speak in modernisms or pentameter, and what that means for the kind of emotion they are portraying. As he’s speaking, his Prospero, the main character, walks into the theatre.
“That’s the other thing,” Higgins said. “We also made Prospero a woman.”
He said it almost as an afterthought, something that he hadn’t thought of mentioning before. He didn’t explain his choice to make Prospero a black woman instead of a white man as he had with his choices to add music, cut lines from the original play or set it in a new place. And this was intentional.
“Someone asked me, point-blank ‘Why did you make Prospero a woman?’ Higgins said. “And my response is ‘Why not? We don’t have to justify making people white and male, why should we justify anything else?’”
At this point, Robert Higgins, president of EastLine Theatre and Daniel Higgins’ father, interjected to say that although Daniel does think that writing roles for people of color is important, they did not set out specifically to make roles for people who may not ordinarily have as many available to them.
“We’re going to create great theatre,” the older Higgins said. “Whoever brings the great theatre to the stage is who’s gonna get the part.”
That great theatre came to Wantagh in the form of Selma Jaber—the vivacious, charismatic and to the point 23-year-old is Eastline’s Prospero. Jaber is a classically trained musician, but it wasn’t until her best friend’s dad, who was involved with a previous EastLine Theatre production, told her about this part that she became involved with this playhouse.
Daniel Higgins says that having new people work together is the best thing for the show. When different actors get together, the show can take on a life of its own.
“The best things are gonna happen in the room, with the people, in the scenario that they’re in,” he said.
A Merry Group
Higgins’ time as creative director over the last four years has certainly seen drastic change, as ownership turned over to his father in the fall of last year. Higgins is looking to create a more progressive theatre, one that can tell stories in a way that you don’t typically see on Long Island.
They also changed the EastLine Theatre from a for-profit to a not-for-profit, with the hope that someday in the near future they’ll be able to expand to a larger venue and begin paying their actors. As for Prospero, they hope that it will be a show that can be performed on the road or on Broadway.
The actors now are only there because they love it, many calling it a passion. As each person walked in for rehearsal, the rest of the group cheered and some reached out for a hug.
The leadership at Eastline Theatre likes seeing people from all different places show up to its auditions. Higgins ran down the line of who was in the show and how he knew them—Ashanti Graham was in an old show with Daniel and is a pianist, James Brautigam is John’s brother and the elder Brautigam found Jon Geffner at an open mic night at The Cup, Riley Leahy did children’s theatre with Higgins, Deijah Faulkner is brand new and so on and so on.
Geffner, who lives just five minutes away from the theatre, always saw fliers advertising the theatre. He thought of pulling a tab more than once, but always talked himself out of it. When Brautigam approached him at the open mic night, however, he decided to take the leap.
“I got into this play through a confluence of events, almost accidentally, almost against my will,” he said, drawing laughter from his costars. He does acknowledge, though, that he’s lucky that he did.
“This is the most welcoming theatrical community that I’ve discovered yet,” Geffner said.
Prospero opened to the public at the EastLine Theatre, 2123 Wantagh Ave., Wantagh, on Aug. 4, with showtimes running through Aug. 19. Tickets are available for purchase at www.eastlineproductions.com.