Top frame and logo.
Jordan Cho portrait

Staging Magic:

Jordan Cho, director of The Tempest

by Brooke Jones

When Hawai‘i Shakespeare Festival co-founder Tony Pisculli and director Jordan Cho sat down in December to talk about this summer’s Festival, he asked her to name her favorite Shakespeare plays. The Tempest came to mind, but with it a surge of intimidation: “When you love something, you don’t want to mess it up,” says Jordan, who is simultaneously thoughtful and ardent in her responses. “But I’m glad to have directed this play that means so much to me.”

Jordan believes in magic—the kind that manifests from an individual’s will and intention, that leads you to connect with just the right people at just the right time, that is the chaos of the universe orchestrating an order you see over and over once you begin looking. The Tempest is Jordan’s first full-length two-hour directorial program, and this opportunity to direct one of her favorite plays was born from many steps organized from seeming chaos, and meeting people at just the right time who became mentors, colleagues, and friends.

While earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre from Florida State University, Jordan directed several short plays and performed—including performing Prospero’s epilogue in The Tempest. Through studying and performing the epilogue, she fell in love with the play.

“The epilogue was [Shakespeare’s] love letter to theatre,” says Jordan, “Prospero even says—these were all actors, comparing the world to the great Globe [Theatre] itself.” She says the beauty of the language permeates the play. “Ariel and Caliban have wonderful speeches that you don’t see anywhere else. Caliban is a reason it’s my favorite. Caliban is this other islander who is oppressed and subjugated by a newcomer from the West. [This play was] something written back then by an English dude,” muses Jordan, explaining that during Shakespeare’s time, English exploration, imperialism, and colonialism was at its beginning, and the English were encountering islanders. “[Caliban] is a monster and has these speeches that are beautiful. It’s incredible that he’s treated with such care. [Ariel and Caliban] spoke to me. I am Native Hawaiian and there is a tie-in there.”

When Jordan returned to Hawai‘i, she wanted to become involved in the theatre community. Nicole Tessier, HSF’s Managing Director who has long volunteered and acted with the Festival, encouraged her to audition while they were in a play together at Mānoa Valley Theatre.

Jordan’s first play with HSF was that next summer in Tony Pisculli’s 2014 all-female, three-play repertoire of King Lear, Taming of the Shrew, and Much Ado About Nothing, where she played Cornwall, Bianca, and Claudio. Jordan remembers that play with fondness. “There was something so special about the cast of the all-female rep. It was such a positive experience; so much passion, talent, and community. After that, I wanted to play with these people again and again.”

Jordan returned to the Festival every summer since. She also began working at Hawai‘i Opera Theatre (she is now HOT’s Artistic and Special Events Manager), which she says left summers as her time for creative outlet.

At HOT, Jordan coached opera singers in acting and most recently, directed HOT’s one-act opera Lifeboat that played at The ARTS at Marks Garage in November 2018. The stage at The ARTS is a most unusual venue for opera; it is an intimate space with the audience seated on three sides of the performers, close enough to see the dew of perspiration under the hot lights. But Jordan is well-acquainted with the venue—she had performed and assistant-directed at The ARTS for five years with the Hawai‘i Shakespeare Festival. Following Lifeboat, Tony asked Jordan if she’d like to direct for this year’s Festival.

One of many reasons The Tempest is among Jordan’s favorite plays is because of how the show parallels Hawai‘i—it is set on an island and features interactions between islanders and outsiders, and Jordan is especially sensitive to this. It was important to her to give the character of Caliban a more complete storyline.

“I wanted to move away from an animalistic portrayal of [Caliban],” she explained, stating that a script editing choice she made was to highlight misunderstanding in Prospera’s assumption that Caliban attempted to rape Miranda. “They come from two different worlds. When they found Caliban, he didn’t speak their language... We see why Prospera acted the way she did when she thought Caliban had tried to rape her daughter, but it was a horrible misunderstanding that led them to treat him as a monster.”

Jordan pauses as she describes her thoughts regarding Caliban. With feeling, she recalls one of Caliban’s lines that strikes at her heart: “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!“ This line speaks, she explains, to the experience of colonialism’s theft of native language; a loss she feels and one she wanted to highlight in the play for Hawai‘i audiences.

At dress rehearsal three days before opening night, Jordan sits in the front left row of the theatre as the lights darken, her laptop open with a dimmed screen, fingers poised on the keyboard to take notes. The opening scene’s choreography is mesmerizing, and the music begins to envelop the space.

Jordan has found directing an all-consuming process. She explained that as an actor, she had one role to consider, but when directing the stakes are higher. Everything about the production down to the minutiae of doublet colors occupies her daytime and nighttime thoughts, and when a scene or direction “works” (her quotation marks), it is addicting. She says she learned from Lifeboat that 80 percent of her work is done in casting, and she is quick to effuse on the talents and efforts of those she has gathered to work with her, from colleagues at HOT to friends from her previous years at HSF.

She gushes that the sound design is likely the best the Festival has ever had (and it really may be); Sean Choo—Jordan’s friend of many years from HSF—composed original music, and Barrett Hoover—Jordan’s supervisor and colleague at HOT—agreed with enthusiasm to design sound. Jordan explains the instant connection between her and stage manager Veronica Vera regarding the role of magic in life and the play. She is delighted to describe the comedic alchemy of Diana Wan and Victoria Brown-Wilson, who she says she cast because she knew she could ask them to “go play” in those silly scenes, and they would with gusto. She details how Sean Choo and Lala Buzzell are perfect in their roles as Caliban and Prospera; that Harmony Tesoro, who she first met through a previous performance piece at The ARTS, choreographs beauty...

Jordan would enumerate each person in the crew and cast for their contributions and talents, many of whom she formed relationships with during her journey to this show or with whom she discovered an instant connection—a most magical aligning of stars, if you will.

The gratitude Jordan feels is reciprocal. “I’m always coming in with a positive attitude, and Jordan has that positive thought process, too,” said Veronica during dress rehearsal. “It has been absolutely amazing working with Jordan on the show. I would do it again.”

So what is next on this chaotically synchronized, positively manifested journey called life?

Tony has already asked Jordan to direct again for the Hawai‘i Shakespeare Festival, to which she immediately agreed. Of directing, Jordan says she’s hooked.