An Actor’s Actor: Adrian Roberts tackles two in
Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’
By Lou Fancher
During the 18-month Covid-19 lockdown on live-theater performances that was extended in 2021 due to the Delta and Omicron variants, actor Adrian Roberts did exactly what his well-established career taught him to do.
“There’s that saying, handle your business before it handles you,” he says in a phone interview.
Which means Roberts did play readings on Zoom, appeared in television shows broadcast primarily on Netflix, appeared in industrial films shot for corporations and businesses, took on roles in art and indie films streamed online, built up his home studio, worked out and stayed mentally in tune. “It was tough, I won’t kid you; but you just do what you can. You find your way,” he tells me. It’s early February 2022, and Roberts is in rehearsals with Oakland Theater Project, preparing to tackle not just one, but two, roles in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Director Michael Morgan’s re-imagining of the classic work opens Feb. 19 with live performances at Oakland’s FLAX art & design through March 13. Focusing on the play’s timeless themes of exile, power and magic, Roberts—as Caliban and Prospero—and Abril Centurion—who makes her Bay Area professional debut cast as Miranda and Antonio—are tasked with handling the paradoxes and parallels found in double portrayals.
Asked if he ever in the past played one—let alone two—roles in The Tempest, Roberts says, “No. I’ve been asked to audition for Caliban many times, but I was always busy doing something else. When Michael called me and told me his crazy idea [of playing both Caliban and Prospero], I said yeah, it is crazy, because they have a scene together. I was intrigued about how he wanted to pull it off, and I think he will. It’s just one scene, and I think we’ve found a creative way to pull it off.”
It’s an understatement to suggest creativity is Roberts’ domain; the point made by the previous description of his pandemic-time activities and underscored by two other gigs he took on. “I got into books on tape, just by a fluke, really,” he says. “I just sent in an audition tape and ended up doing something for Audible.” Roberts can’t reveal the name of the book before it’s released, but says he liked the medium and it was a great acting exercise. He especially liked learning about a new topic while reading and plans to do more audiobook projects while continuing to prioritize live-theater performances.
“I also participated in UC Davis Medical Center’s doctor-training sessions during the second year of Covid,” he says. “I did standard patient-care work, once they figured out what to do with the medical students. Those medical students had missed a full year of in-person training.” UC Davis hires actors for training young medical students in their third and fourth years of study. “They give us a script to act out; with things like a patient with diabetes. It’s for them to see if students ask the right questions and to see if they’re on track with the right diagnosis. We have a script, and our job is to have them pull the information out of us so they start learning things before they go out in the real world. It’s a fun little gig.”
The roles of Caliban and Prospero are far more challenging. “If I get on top of Shakespeare’s script—just like with August Wilson, who has long speeches, too, and kind of exacts a pound of flesh from the actor—well, I did this role to see what happens after two years,” Roberts says. “Why the hell not? I’m not afraid, but it is scary, fun-scary … but I need the challenge for myself and my craft. I’m just grateful to have the opportunity.”
The process undertaken by Roberts, Moran and the rest of the cast is arduous, all-consuming and familiar. “We started [online] because Omicron was out there. I had been doing a rehearsal in Sacramento for another show, and we didn’t get beyond the first week because the director and an actor tested positive,” Roberts says. “We did the first week of OBT rehearsal on Zoom, just reading through the play and doing table work. Even now, I approach it simply: I just keep reading the play. I work on my lines, which is the bulk of it, because I’m playing two roles. The language is very dense, so memorization takes longer. I want to understand what I’m saying, and make it accessible.”
Roberts arrives at the work with solid credentials. His recent Bay Area credits include performing as Bob in Sarah Ruhl’s Becky Nurse of Salem at Berkeley Rep; the title role in Macbeth at African American Shakespeare; and appearances at Z Space, Aurora Theatre Company, Cal Shakes and other venues. Roberts spent three seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has appeared on television in various shows such as Scrubs, Criminal Minds and Chance. He is a graduate of ACT’s MFA program.
“The great playwrights, and Shakespeare’s probably the best, they do most of the work for you,” Roberts says. “I go down to the basics: What are people saying about my character? What am I saying about my character? If you just ride the poetry, your character is there, the emotion is there. All the great playwrights, it’s easier to memorize the stuff because the writing is good, or great. You’re able to tap into it fairly quickly. Like anything, you just have to spend time on it. It’s hard [at OBT] because we’re a small company, you don’t do the traditional rehearsal all day like when I’m at ACT or Berkeley Rep. Everybody has jobs so it’s a little challenging, because you have to carve out your time.”
Roberts lives in Sacramento, and during the commute to Oakland, he reviews his lines. “Every day, I just keep drilling my lines; because that will free you up to play the room so you’re not thinking so much about what you’re saying all the time,” he says. Prospero, in particular, presents a formidable cavalcade of words. “We don’t speak like this. Preparing is almost like starting from the beginning with vocal warmups, articulators, breathwork. There’s a lot of punctuation, so Shakespeare will put a comment somewhere, and then there’s a long sentence and you have to hit the right notes. Prospero is super, super intelligent and long-winded and talks in a high way. I want to make sure I am saying all the words, and make sure it’s making sense. If it makes sense to me, it will make sense to the audience.”
Finding deep threads of longing and beauty in both roles, Roberts connects the personal with the professional. “That’s the weird and beautiful thing about being an actor. You are the work. The more you live your life and have life experiences, the more you can bring it to the table,” he says. “I’ve dealt with loss, I’ve dealt with feeling usurped, isolated. Prospero is a magician. I feel acting sometimes, on those beautiful nights when everything hits, it feels like I’m a magician. The power of what you do; I’ve seen it when I’ve come off stage. People want to hug you or touch you or tell you their life story. You realize the personal is universal. They might have gone through that thing you’re portraying up on stage. You’re not even trying, but you’re connecting.”
He also finds an anchor in The Tempest that holds the work firmly and with relevance to current times. “The times I’ve seen this play, I think people think it’s just a whimsical fantasy. The more I’ve read it, there’s a streak of darkness through it,” he says. “We want to bring up all the elements: the fantasy, the magic, the funny—but there is also hurt. Prospero is isolated and in exile, he’s raising his daughter alone, he’s raising both Caliban and his daughter, really. There are stories about revenge, and themes that are like what we’re going through right now. We all need to be kinder to each other, and forgiveness needs to happen. Those themes run through the play—love runs through the play, and the magic of love, which is awesome.”
He adds, “With Caliban, because this play was written when Britain was at the height of its powers, there’s colonial dominance. Which is interesting, as a Black man playing Prospero, because of the point of view. I think that’s why we’re having a lot of problems in the world today. There’s that old colonial view of the world; that claw is still gripping us, it’s still ruling a lot of worlds where most of us just want to keep moving forward. That’s the chaos in the world: a breaking from that Old World way of thinking.”
As a marker of “breaking” thought patterns and behaviors, I ask Roberts for his take on white theater and Black theater artists and organizations calling for greater equity and diversity at all levels of the industry. Roberts says, “I’ll say this: There’s progress, but there’s a lot of work to be done. I’ve been blessed, as an actor of color, to get cast by directors who have given me roles that traditionally wouldn’t go to an actor of color. The last thing I did at Berkeley Rep was Becky Nurse by Sarah Ruhl. She said, ‘I didn’t think about an actor of color, and then you did your audition and it was wonderful.’”
“So it was one of those things. The director liked me and Sarah liked me—so we’re living in a new kind of world where it’s not too far-fetched,” he says. “When I did the audition I didn’t think too much of it, because I could see in my mind this role going to an older white actor. I did the audition as best I could. That’s what it is: you just go in, you have your five or whatever minutes and you just do your thing. That’s a hard lesson for younger actors to learn, but as you get older you make it a performance, do your thing, then just go home. So much of it is out of your control.”
As a younger actor in New York, Roberts values a casting director who gave him the opportunity to serve as a reader for auditions. “I saw actors who became famous who did not get a callback,” he says. “It puts a perspective on things. So for Black actors, I think we just gotta keep doing great work, set a high standard, do the best job possible. If a director—brave isn’t the best word—but if they think Adrian or Margo [Hall] is the best person for the job, and they hire us … it does take a level of bravery to do that. Sometimes, as a Black actor, I think I don’t need to play that role. I don’t let it get in my way. I wish there were more opportunities—baby steps is what they say. But along the way, just do great, consistent work and the people who need to will recognize it.”