A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
May 1, 2013
Strollers Modernizes ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Since it was first performed more than four hundred years ago, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has become one of William Shakespeare’s most popular plays. But that’s certainly not to say each production is the same.
Indeed, as Strollers Theatre prepared to stage the play, director Greg Harris offered insights into the unique ways he’s presenting the comedy.
Why did Strollers choose to do a Shakespeare play and what made you want to be part of this show?
I brought the script to Strollers initially. The very first play I directed was Twelfth Night twenty-three years ago, and he is my absolute favorite playwright to direct. Strollers has produced a couple of Shakespeare tragedies and one history in recent years, and I thought it might be time for them to approach a comedy. For one, the comedies are all great ensemble pieces, so that one or two people aren’t carrying the whole play—optimum for community theater. Also (and not too cynically I hope), they tend to be more popular with audiences, which is one of the goals of any theater in these financially challenged times. I simply made a list of Shakespeare’s twelve comedies, struck off the ones I’d directed before, then the ones that didn’t interest me, then the ones that aren’t as popular or well-known (namely Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, two of my personal favorites). Soon it became clear that the Dream was going to be it.
How are you approaching the play?
The problem, or the issue, with directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that it is so well known. Nearly everyone has seen a production or film of it at some time. (I asked for a show of hands at auditions and it was one hundred percent.) People have very specific images of this play in mind just walking in—something you don’t have with Pericles, which I directed last fall. But what I’ve found is that those images have very little to do with Shakespeare’s text, and more to do with what certain Victorian illustrators made of the play, which a lot of directors and designers have followed ever since. I’m talking gauzy wings, leafy glades and all the other trappings. Of course you can do a production like that, and it’s very comfortable for an audience, but the more time I spent with the text, the more I realized Shakespeare wasn’t about that. You have to strip all that away and start fresh, which is what can be exciting about working on a play like the Dream.
The first question you ask yourself (and which everyone asks you) is: How are you going to do the fairies? They by far are the biggest challenge. Do you put them in leotards, slap some wings on them and call it a day? Should children play them, as is often done? I found my entrance into the play, that thing that initially excited me about it, when I realized that in Shakespeare’s acting company, the “rude mechanicals,” the working-class men who rehearse a play and then perform it at the end, were probably played by the same actors as the fairies. Rather than seeing them as graceful dancers or small children, I began to see the fairies as workers in the forest. Every time they are spoken to, they are given a laundry list of tasks to perform: Cover the grass with dew, pollenate the flowers and such. It’s as if the natural world would stop if they went on strike. That struck me as both interesting and potentially very funny. But I also had the image of them as overgrown children who have crawled out of bed in the middle of the night and are running around the forest, so the fairies are costumed in various kinds of pajamas. The also carry dolls and stuffed animals, though how those dolls are used in the production I will leave as a surprise.
My other realization, and it is far from being a new one, is that the forest didn’t need to be a literal one. It’s more about the change the characters go through, the darkness they encounter, the strangeness they discover in their relationships. The forest is more like Alice’s looking glass than the well-lit, leafy forests you usually see. And in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play the workers perform, Shakespeare makes jokes about being too literal in the theater: using the moon to light a scene, believing an actor in a lion suit is really a lion, etc. It’s like Shakespeare is warning you not to put it all on stage, but instead to rely on the language to create the pictures in the audience’s minds.
And the language, foremost and finally, is why you do Shakespeare. He is simply the best writer there ever was, and here’s why: Just when you think you’ve figured out a character, you find another layer to explore. One of our most fascinating discoveries in rehearsal concern the four young lovers: While they often are portrayed as silly and shallow in many productions, and their scenes an unwelcome distraction from Bottom, the mechanicals and the fairies, they really are multi-dimensional, recognizable characters. You can see Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius at the mall or hanging out on State Street every day. And far from being shallow, they express some of the most beautiful observations of the play. They go through the biggest changes from beginning to end as they become adults who understand what loving someone really means.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
The most rewarding thing about working on Shakespeare is that his characters are so articulate. That’s also the biggest challenge for actors used to working on contemporary plays. They’re used to scripts with a lot of “ums” and “ers” and dashes and ellipses, because the majority of contemporary plays are about how inarticulate the characters are. What’s either comic or tragic about them is how little they know themselves and other people. In Shakespeare that may be true as well, but then you get this level of amazing awareness about the characters and their world. So you have to view the language, not as an impediment, but as the key that unlocks the door. But with Shakespeare, you have many more doors to unlock. There are all sorts of technical ways the actors deal with using the language, but it begins with the realization that the characters need those words to express who they are and what they’re going through. And every character is completely different. The language, finally, is all you have, it is the play. That seems like simple common sense, but it acquires a special dimension when you’re working on Shakespeare.
Strollers describes this production as “a fresh look at the classics.” How are you doing this?
It’s impossible and self-defeating to set out to do something original. That’s true with any play, and maybe more so with a play produced as often as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You simply have to trust that you and the twenty or so other people who are working on it have never before come together to do this play, in this theater, with this set of circumstances, and that the result will be something totally new. But in this case, I would be surprised if any of the audience had seen a Dream done in modern dress, or with the mechanicals doubling as the fairies, or with a woman playing Oberon, all of which we are doing. I think all of those things have been done before, but maybe never in the same production. Also, we have taken an unusually bare-bones approach to the setting: The stage is practically bare, and we have one piece of furniture, a chaise, which appears in every scene and which becomes whatever it needs to be: seating, a bed, Titania’s bower, and at one point a hill that two of the lovers climb in the forest. I think setting limitations for yourself and relying on your own and the audiences’ imaginations is one of the most fascinating things theater can do. And of all Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the ultimate expression of that idea.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs May 3–25 at the Bartell Theatre. For more information, visit strollerstheatre.org.
Photo by Dan Myers of Lumi Photo.