Episode 164: Drama Teachers Directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Four drama teachers talk about their vision, their experience, their successes and their struggles directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The same play with four completely different outcomes. A great peek into how a director interprets a script and how they illuminate the Bard for their students.
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and Theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello. Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 164.
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode164.
Some of my favorite episodes – they’re all my favorite episodes; I love this podcast! I love hearing from you guys when you come up to us at the Theatrefolk table when we’re at a conference and you tell us you listen to the podcast – you listen to it in your cars. Somebody was cleaning out his office or painting his office and listening to the podcast. That is, like, the best!
I’m glad that it’s something that appeals to you guys, that is informative for you guys. I hope that there is something that you guys get out of it. That’s why we’re doing it! We’re doing it for you!
This, I think, was a very interesting one to put together and I hope it’s interesting for you, too.
What we’ve got here is I really love it when we can get more than one voice involved on whatever topic so that we can hear more than one point of view.
Today, we’ve got four. We’ve got four teachers talking about their vision, their experience, their success and struggles with directing not just any play but a Shakespeare play and what they all have experience with is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, how do we take this play? How do you interpret it? Ad how do you illuminate the bard both for your audience and for your students?
Here’s a little hint of what’s coming – John Hughes does a Shakespeare. I know, eh? Pretty good!
Let’s get to it!
LINDSAY: Okay. I am talking to Marsha Walner.
LINDSAY: Awesome. We’re talking Dream.
Just before we got started, you identified that Midsummer Night’s Dream, favorite production, favorite play – good place to start.
MARSHA: This is true – very true.
LINDSAY: What makes it your favorite play?
MARSHA: I think because it’s just so fun. I mean, that’s kind of the easy answer but it’s silly and fun and magical and exciting and it’s just silly and I love that.
And then, of course, there’s the deeper meanings that you can extrapolate when you really dig deep into it and I love doing that in terms of working with older actors. This particular production was a group of K through 12 students so I had everything from little tinies that just wanted to be silly up through high school actors who really wanted to get serious. This play really provided that.
LINDSAY: What a wide range of students to work with.
LINDSAY: Your sanity was kept?
MARSHA: It was! And that all came from a very meticulously created rehearsal schedule.
LINDSAY: Ah, perfect, perfect.
Let’s step back and let’s look at your vision.
LINDSAY: When you’re looking at this play, you love the play, you know you’re working with students. What are some of your first thoughts when you were thinking about how you were going to present it?
MARSHA: Well, my main thought was how to stay true to the material and really work with the language. Obviously, with Shakespeare, that can be a challenge for students, especially working with really young students. So, really thinking of ways that I could make it both deep and intellectual for older students as well as still fun for the younger ones.
We incorporated a lot of movement. For the very youngest, we did some choreography for them. There was kind of a little boys versus girls thing happening amongst the young faeries so I kind of invented a lot of little ways that they could have little rounds of battle throughout the show – kind of non-verbal sort of interactions – and then it all, of course, culminates when things culminate between the older characters.
Just incorporating a lot of appealing material for the kids I’d be working with – whatever their age is.
LINDSAY: Did you have a specific look for the show – something you were going for?
MARSHA: Sure, yeah.
With the sort of real world elements, I went with kind of a classic ancient Greek – you know, the long toga-type look and kind of militaristic. With the faeries, of course, lots of tulle and sparkle and some more unnatural kind of lighting in terms of design elements to really draw that distinction between the real world and the dream world and doing that through all those design elements.
LINDSAY: Yeah, it’s interesting that you identify the real world as sort of a military world which is quite true. I mean, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it described that way which gives such a lovely picture, doesn’t it? Like, you can really get a visual as to what a military look might be.
MARSHA: Yeah, and it’s interesting because, I think, a lot of times, with this play, it’s seen as a romance. It’s seen as very lovely, especially after the Hoffman movie from 1999 – the one with Kevin Kline – beautiful movie, don’t get me wrong, but definitely very romantic in the human world.
If you think back on some of the origins, the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta was of war and conquest, you know. It wasn’t particularly romantic. I didn’t want to delve super deep into that because, of course, we wanted to have a fun production that has some of those romantic elements nut acknowledging that that’s the other side of the story.
LINDSAY: Also, the relationship between Egeus and Hermia.
LINDSAY: Like, full fixation come against my daughter Hermia. Let’s kill her!
LINDSAY: Not funny, not funny, but exactly so – that there is that element to it. I think, too, that the more you play up that element then the more fun – and more “otherworldly” I think is the word you use which I think is really great – the forest seems.
LINDSAY: Did you have a team when it came to the look of your show in terms of costume and sound and set or are you a one-man band?
MARSHA: Sort of. There was a bit of a team, yeah. This was in an independent school so I was directing and then we had a set designer who worked full-time in the school and he did all of the set elements and kind of all the backstage stuff and then he brought in an artist who did lighting design and I had a student costume designer that I had been working with for a couple of years before this and so this was her first production she really took on by herself as a designer. Kind of a little team of combination of local professionals, in-house staff, and students.
LINDSAY: What are some things that you said to communicate what you were looking for in the production to your team when they went off and started work on their own elements?
I was lucky in that the set designer was somebody that I saw everyday and we worked together everyday. There was a lot of just casual conversation as we thought of ideas and different little things that we could include. That was a little bit unconventional in that we were able to have a considerable amount of conversation and kind of see things as they came together and give each other feedback. That was how that worked out in terms of set.
With lighting, it was a lot of, you know, there’s the two worlds, just kind of talking about the basics of the emotion – I guess that’s how I usually communicate to designers. “Here’s the emotion I want to get across,” and then allow them to make their own creative choices that exemplify that.
LINDSAY: Oh, I think that’s an excellent way to describe vision and I think that’s a good thing for anyone listening when they are trying to think of a way to verbalize what they want to somebody else who’s going to build because it’s really easy. We have a lot of directors that usually do everything themselves and then, if they have to give over an aspect, give over that baby to somebody else, it can be really hard to do and I think that, just as you said, describing it in terms of emotion, because you can explain without saying, you know, “Build this set piece,” but then they can think about that aspect of it.
LINDSAY: I think it’s really great.
MARSHA: Some of it has to do with functional elements.
MARSHA: For example, I told the set designer, “It’s a forest so I’d like some trees but I want them to be able to climb in the trees so hopefully they’re weight-bearing and structurally sound.” Things like that. Like I said, we were able to have a lot of just day to day conversations about things and the actors were able to rehearse on the set, on the stage, as we would discover, “Well, that area there needs a little bit of work.” Some of those more nitty-gritty structural things kind of came about as well just through, “Okay, now we know aesthetically what want. Now, we have to make it functional.”
LINDSAY: That’s another great point – what is the functionality of this set? Also, the functionality of costumes, too.
LINDSAY: Like, does an actor have to move in this costume? Particularly with the faeries. If you want movement, then the costumes have to accommodate.
LINDSAY: What was it like working with a student… You’ve worked with a student costume designer before but it’s a little bit different relationship. Was it a learning experience? Was she just on-board and was able to bring everything to the table?
MARSHA: She was definitely very enthusiastic about the artistry of her position which was great to have. We had worked on, like I say, a couple of shows previous where I had functioned as costumer designer for a different director and she was kind of my assistant. So, I was able to kind of set the tone for a lot of the tasks and how to accomplish things really professionally and she really came through.
I was really very impressed with her maturity and her ability to do things like conduct fittings and kind of do a costume parade and be able to give actors notes in a really professional way. I was really proud of how that all came about and it came about from letting her work her way through all those steps and being really intentional about cultivating those skills in the students as opposed to, “Hey, student! All of a sudden, you’re going to be a costume designer. Go.”
LINDSAY: Yeah. Oh, what a great experience for her.
MARSHA: Yeah, I was really glad to make that happen for her.
LINDSAY: Okay. So, let’s talk about the text.
How do you work on a text? Even as fun and as lighthearted as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, it’s still Shakespeare and there’s still the language barrier and the communication barrier. It’s really important that actors be able to communicate their characters. I find, sometimes, that’s the thing that gets missing with Shakespeare – it’s that we spend so much time on the language that the characters aren’t as full as they sometimes can be.
What do you do when it comes to communicating the script to your actors?
With the younger actors, again, a lot of movement – even sometimes with the older group. Like, the mechanicals, we did a lot of kind of slapstick movement stuff that helped them get a better handle on character before having to really put that into the dialogue. So, getting a lot of opportunity to work on ensemble and physicality and kind of get all that under control and then start applying that to the text. Maybe a little backwards way of doing it but I felt it was successful with this group.
LINDSAY: I think that can work, you know. Like, if they get it into their bodies first and then figure out the language.
MARSHA: Right, yeah, and giving a lot of opportunity for fun sort of character moments that don’t have the pressure of the language. For example, when the mechanicals first appeared, they would come in sort of one at a time and we kind of developed this kind of teasing relationship between Starveling and Snout and they would kind of pick on Snug. And so, we developed all these little slapstick-y kind of things that they would do and then Bottom comes in. We had this prop giant sword and the kids were like, “We have to use this somehow!” So, I let the actor playing Bottom kind of come out with it as though she were balancing it. It was a female who played the role and it was just a lot of just fun kind of silly stuff that sets the tone for the relationships and the dynamics. And then, we would get into the text.
LINDSAY: So, you took a very classical approach to presenting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. How did you work with your students to make these characters relatable?
MARSHA: Ah, that is a great question. I talked a lot with the “four lovers” – and I put that in finger quotes – a lot with them about how is this like high school right now – you know, these kind of jockeying of relationships and wanting to follow your heart but having pressures either from a peer or a parent and just kind of taking all of those themes and applying them to what might be happening today and some of them – without going into great detail, of course – would tell me that they had experienced similar things at various different degrees.
So, really making it relatable – not just generally relatable but specifically to their own experience. I usually– when time allows – have actors do some biographical writing and maybe write themselves an additional monologue in modern English but just kind of addressing some of those emotions that they’re experiencing and finding other ways to connect to it beyond just the text and what I’m coaching them in.
LINDSAY: These students, did they have a lot of experience with Shakespeare or was it new? I mean, with some of the little ones, it was new. How did their relationship with Shakespeare change through your process?
MARSHA: Well, I was fortunate in that a lot of these students have experienced the text in English classes. Again, I was fortunate in that they had a pretty thorough experience.
Most of what we were dealing with was sort of the basics of relationships and character building. The language itself was relatively natural for them and I know that’s unusual so I think I was lucky in that respect. But, when working with a group who isn’t necessarily familiar – like some of the younger students – again, just going back to what is the purpose of what you’re saying and how would you paraphrase this or restate it in modern English and sort of using that as a tool to help understand meaning and then determining things where things like inflection and emphasis go within the language itself.
There’s plenty of the poetry to kind of hang your hat on in terms of feeling comfortable about it and letting it come out naturally as it does flow naturally. So, allowing yourself to get beyond “I don’t know what this means” to a place of appreciating and understanding not only the meaning but just the beauty of the language.
LINDSAY: That’s lovely. I love that. That’s a really great approach.
As we wrap up here, how was the response? Who was in your audience and how did they take to the story?
MARSHA: Yeah, it was mostly families. It was a school production so majority of the audience is family and teachers and school community. They all really enjoyed it.
There was always the feeling of gratitude from the younger families – you know, because I had, of course, kindergarteners in the play as some of the younger faeries – and their families were just so grateful – not only for the experience but the opportunity to work with the older students.
That was one of the best things about this particular production and many folks would say, “Oh, my gosh, kindergarteners through twelfth graders, that’s such an unmanageable range,” but it worked out that they all sort of paired off and those students that were a little more sort of nurturing might gravitate to the younger students and want to coach them.
I think I was intentional about setting that tone of kind of a little community and taking care of each other. I think that reads when the performance happens and you see Puck come down the aisle through the audience with three little boys and kind of coaching them along. I think that was evident and that was some of the feedback I got was, “What a great way to bridge that age gap and put together something really fun for them,” because, of course, it’s about them; it’s not about me, necessarily. It’s about the kids.
LINDSAY: Oh, I think that’s great. Then it’s not really about Shakespeare; it’s about community and mentorship. What a great thing to pass on to your students!
LINDSAY: Love it. Love it.
Oh, thank you so much, Marsha, for talking to us today!
MARSHA: You’re so welcome! Yeah, it was my pleasure. It was very fun to kind of relive the memories.
And, now, I am speaking to Kellie Riganti
KELLIE: Hello! How are you?
LINDSAY: I’m excellent. Thank you!
Now, we’re talking Shakespeare and we’re talking A Midsummer Night’s Dream and you have an extra level to that in that you are a middle school teacher.
KELLIE: Yes, I am – sixth, seventh, and eighth grade teacher.
LINDSAY: I think that is, first of all, I think it’s fantastic that you are doing Shakespeare with your students. Did you do the whole thing? Did you do a cutting?
KELLIE: We did the whole thing. We did an adapted version but, as I went back and compared the text, they were pretty similar. Some of the meatier monologues were just kind of cut but, in terms of the language and the verbage from I have a first folio copy and I was looking at the adapted version, they were fairly similar.
LINDSAY: So, you’re using original language.
LINDSAY: I find, with Shakespeare, there’s a lot of this happens. “Let me tell you about this thing that happened!” We don’t necessarily need for today’s audiences.
KELLIE: Yeah, definitely. Let me expound on that and let me tell you even more how I feel.
LINDSAY: Have you always just thought that Shakespeare would be great for your students.
KELLIE: I always have in terms of picking this particular play for this set of students. I always kind of look at my students and think, “What would they do well?” The shows that I pick, what would really harness their strengths?
I had such an interesting mixture, just a great mixture of kids with all different various levels. You know, sometimes, we do musicals, we’ll do straight plays. Something just clicked and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, these kids would be great for Midsummer.” They kind of cast themselves. As I’m looking around and I see all these characters, it just kind of happened. A kind of spirit just kind of came to me and I’m like, “Oh, we definitely need to do this.”
LINDSAY: Well, I mean, there’s nothing clearer than, I think, the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when you’re just looking at comparing your students and then putting them into the roles.
So, where did you start with this play? You started with your students, actually. And then, when you started to look at how you were going to present the piece, what were your thoughts in terms of staging and vision?
KELLIE: Well, the overall vision for the show, I wanted it to be engaging for our audience which would be predominantly a middle school audience. And then, we also have some of our elementary schools around the district come see the shows. We were going to have a wide range of audience members. On some nights, we’d have elementary school students. The majority of the time it would be the middle school students. And then, of course, we’d have the parent shows. And so, I wanted it to be engaging for them.
Some of the choices that I made, I really tried to almost make the audience feel like they were a part of it. That’s why we did it in three-quarter round.
LINDSAY: It’s so funny, I’m looking at your pictures and I’m nodding. I’m like, “No one can hear me nod. No one can hear me nod.” Yeah, the thrust stage I think is really for that exact thing about really involving your audience, it’s just so immediate, huh?
KELLIE: Yes, and it was crazy. You can see it – they can’t see – but, in some of the pictures, the faces of the people in the audience, they just feel like they’re in it which was so rewarding, especially for the kids because they were very up close and personal with their audience. And so, it made it almost intimate and it just took their acting, their performance, their level of play to this unreal level and it was so cool because it was Shakespeare! On another part, which is I wanted it to be fun for them and they still talk about it. It’s been over a year and they still go back to Midsummer – the ones that were there – and they say that was fun. For a middle school student to say – even after rehearsing all of those lines of Shakespeare and talking about the subjects and what it really meant – that it was so fun and it showed every night that they performed. It was really magic.
LINDSAY: Yeah, it’s something that even does come across in pictures.
There’s a couple of things I want to bring up because vision is something that is really important and it’s especially important in Shakespeare but it doesn’t have to be complicated and I love your idea that the vision is engagement and that you did this really neat thing where it looks like the woods are all around the audience so that they’re not outside the world. They’re inside the world!
KELLIE: They are and the space is kind of peculiar. It’s an auditorium but it can be turned into this giant black box with this kind of elevated stage performing area in one space. I really did want to bring the audience into the world, especially if the Shakespearean language was going to be a barrier for some of them. They automatically immediately felt like they were in it.
In our classroom discussions, we got to talk about Shakespeare’s globe and then we got to talk about the groundlings and to hear your students say back to you, “Our audience is like the groundling, yes!” Yeah…
I also really wanted to make it relevant. It was really important to me in terms of the kids having fun, the audience having fun, and everybody being engaged to bring contemporary elements to it. We all know that Shakespeare’s plays are extremely versatile and Midsummer was just a blast to play with some of the characters and bring in some of these choices, especially for the mechanicals, to just bring the audience even more, especially younger audience.
LINDSAY: So, let’s start with the mechanicals and how you made them relevant. The first thing I noticed in their costumes is that they are basically dressed like middle school students unless I’m guessing the wrong people. You tell me.
KELLIE: Sure, no problem! You’re right!
We had conversations about mortality rates and Elizabethan England and Shakespeare’s plays and I said, “You know, these characters, some of them aren’t far from your age groups,” especially when we were talking about the relationships with the lover and love triangles and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, that happens every day in middle school!” But, for the mechanicals, as I’m reading the play and I’m looking at my kids, I saw like a guild. I’m in San Diego so I’m just thinking of Comic Con and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, they’re all called tinkerers and they’re a guild.” So, I said, they’re coming in on scooters, they’re going to go through the woods on scooters, they’re going to come in from every direction. They’re going to be part of a fandom and they’re going to, like, LARP. Do you know what LARP-ing is?
LINDSAY: No, tell me.
KELLIE: It’s like live action roleplay.
LINDSAY: Oh, that, yes, yes, yes, okay.
KELLIE: I wanted them to be a band of gamers that met up and were like, “We’re going to go LARP and put on this production. If it’s good enough, we can do it in front of the king, in front of the duke.” And so, one of them’s part of the Harry Potter fandom, another one’s a Percy Jackson – let’s see what else? A Doctor Who or some other… Oh, Bottom is Pokemon.
It lended to each one of their personalities and it made it so much easier for them to connect and it really ended up being – I mean, they’re always a comic relief but they absolutely stole the show and the play within the play – you know, it was almost like the actors’ costumes themselves and said, you know, “How would we show off this love affair?” and it ended up being Mario and Peach and just unstoppable laughter from the audience. It was really cool.
LINDSAY: Is that something that you had in your head or is that something that developed as you saw these students bring these characters to life?
KELLIE: It’s something I already had in my head. I did a production in college – my college did a production of Midsummer – and the mechanicals were actually these versions of nerds. They were kind of more like software engineers and I just really loved that concept and I thought, “How could I take that kind of play and approach to these characters but still make it relevant for middle school?” and kind of connect it to our community. It’s a big fandom community out here because of Comic Con and stuff.
LINDSAY: That is really cool.
So, that is sort of the overall vision – we have the characterization, we have the costumes. How were you communicating the language and, more importantly, getting them to be able to communicate the language to the audience?
KELLIE: Well, our rehearsals were kind of two-parters. They had the script and then they also downloaded an app onto their school iPads where it was basically a translation – a Shakespeare translation. If they got stuck, they would go to it. But I found that they didn’t really want to. They wanted to figure out what the language was saying. So, we had tons of conversation and it would be kind of like me asking a question to them and them trying to make the answer to that question and take that and try to correlate it to the text without me outright telling them.
LINDSAY: Making inferences and educated guesses.
There were times though where they were absolutely stumped and they were like, “Riganti, tell us what this is. I do not know.” “Sure, let me help you.”
And then, what was great was, after they really started to kind of see definitely how the play was structured and then I’d say we broke it up into scenes and different scenes in the first folio but, after the first couple of scenes, it just becomes automatic. Like, they just start to get it. And then, sometimes, they’re like, “I don’t know what he’s saying.” We’d have to go back and talk about it.
Yeah, rehearsals would be the first time we’d read through it and we’d talk about the text and then the next would be, as soon as they got it up and blocked it, they kind of understood more – like, with the direction of what they’re supposed to do with their body.
KELLIE: That helped deepen their understanding, too.
LINDSAY: It’s the same thing with anything. It’s a muscle, isn’t it? Once you work that muscle, Shakespeare, that language just becomes something that you know.
KELLIE: Absolutely, yeah.
LINDSAY: Very cool. I don’t think I need to ask this question but it sounds like you were successful on all fronts in terms of what you wanted for the play and then the outcome.
KELLIE: Yes, we wanted to make, like I said, an engaging, fun, and relevant show that would be remembered. I remember some of my colleagues that, when we said we were doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they give you this terrified look and they go, “Are you sure? Did I hear you right? You’re doing Shakespeare?” They’re completely supportive but they remember their experience and stumbling through Shakespeare in high school or the first time they read it and thinking, “What the heck is happening?”
I had one of my colleagues, my assistant principal, come up to me and said she talked to the kids. She said, “You guys, I’ve read this play three times. The first time was in high school, the second time was when I was going through my undergrad, and the third time was when I was going through my doctorate program and I hated it. I didn’t understand.”
KELLIE: I know! She said, “I couldn’t, I didn’t understand what was going on. I tried to connect to the characters,” and she gets all kind of the cleanse and she’s like, “You guys, you made it so real for me and fun like I never would have thought I would have liked Shakespeare but you guys had absolutely made me a fan.” That spoke so much and, to get these writings back from the elementary school kids where they’re drawing pictures of the characters and then they’re writing what happens in the play. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, we did get through.”
So, the language and how those kids were able to actually demonstrate the meaning did actually affect our audience. That was very rewarding.
LINDSAY: Oh, my gosh, I can’t think of anything more rewarding than for someone to say, “I hate Shakespeare and you made it real.”
KELLIE: Yeah, that was really…
LINDSAY: Ah, Kellie, that’s so amazing!
LINDSAY: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing this with us and leave us with for anyone out there who is terrified of putting up Shakespeare, what’s the one thing you need to do as a director?
KELLIE: If you’re terrified of Shakespeare…
LINDSAY: And you know you should do it.
KELLIE: You know you should do it.
Remember that the plays are so versatile. You can use it in any way that you want.
The language will be the least of your worries and your kids will absolutely get it. They will. They are so geared now to figure things out and to fail a level and try again. They will absolutely 100 percent get it.
LINDSAY: How interesting is that to put it that way – that these students are geared to figure out things, to problem solve.
KELLIE: I think so and I think, well, in theatre, we could talk all day about how it’s completely related to common core and we’re doing 21st Century skills all the time. Every single minute of the day, those kids are communication, collaborating, being creative and critically thinking. They will do that because it’s fun and they’re problem solvers. So, if you’re worried about getting Shakespeare up on its feet, get your vision about what you want to say with your play and don’t worry about the language. The kids will absolutely get it. I think, if you encourage them to play and see themselves in the play, they’ll get it – no problem.
LINDSAY: That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Kellie!
KELLIE: Thank you!
LINDSAY: All right. Now, I am talking to Lisa Houston.
LISA: Hi, Lindsay!
You have directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My first question to you is, when you did it, why did you choose it?
LISA: Okay. I actually directed it three times.
LINDSAY: Oh, well, I stand corrected. Awesome!
LISA: Yeah. The first time, I guess I chose it because we were in a new performance space and we had just moved into our black box studio theatre and it felt like the type of show that we could really do well with sort of using floor to ceiling and creating a very textured world with a lot of color and interesting… you know, our tree was really interesting and levels. And so, I think I chose it more for the setting at that particular time rather than for the Shakespeare language or that it fit certain actors that I had. I think I actually really went after it because of the setting.
LINDSAY: That’s really interesting. I like that and I like that it’s like, this is a show that we can really showcase a new space.
LISA: Yeah, that was sort of my thinking back then. I’ve done cuttings of it with other groups and so one of those groups was a group of seniors doing a sort of internship and they were doing plays within plays. We sort of focused on Act V for that. Now, we’ve just staged a 45-minute version of it that we took over to England to perform at a school – like, our sister school in England. And so, that, I took a different approach – a more simple approach.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I was going to say it’d be hard to… I think it’s a really easy show to travel with but we always get really caught up with Dream with the spectacle of the costume of it.
What we did this time around was that everyone had jeans and Converse sneakers and a grey t-shirt show shirt that had sort of our trip imagery on the front and their character name on the back. So, we were just adding on capes, kind of tutu fringe-y kind of things for the faeries, vests and aprons and things for the mechanicals, because there were some people playing mechanicals and faeries or playing Oberon and Theseus. That was a quick change that that actor had to make. In order to make the quick changes, everyone had this basic costume on and that sort of gave the spirit of like a traveling troupe, right? They were this group of people putting on a play within a play within a play. So, that kind of worked out well. We really simplified because, originally, we were thinking what you’re thinking – sort of what our full scale Midsummer Night’s Dream would be – and you can’t really put all of that into suitcases and take it with you. So, we really scaled back.
LINDSAY: You know, what’s funny though is that that probably was closer to the heart of the original production because it would have been double cast and it would have been…
LISA: More simple.
LISA: And it was funny because it seemed like we were… Like, we kept saying, “This play is our play.” Like, we had moments of, like, this is the worst rehearsal ever of a show because we were doing it on top of our mainstage productions. You know, we had these moments where I was Quince – like, literally, “This is the worst idea we ever had – to put on a show on top of our other shows.”
But, when we really stepped back and made everything more simple, we had sort of this little pipe system. We had PVC pipe that fit together to sort of hold a curtain and a garland and then a less elegant curtain for when the mechanicals did their show. Once we scaled really far back, it just really fit. You’re right; it fit sort of the spirit of the play.
LINDSAY: Then, you’re also left with the creation of the world is not in the spectacle of the setting or the costumes; the creation of the world is in the words.
LISA: Yes, it’s in the language and that was a struggle for our actors because they are used to when they do Shakespeare, we do it here at home and we have really elaborate settings and costumes and a very specific world.
For this, they felt like, “Wait, I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Like, help. I don’t feel like I’m in a forest.” “Yeah, but Oberon is telling us what that forest looks like” or “Titania is telling us about the plants of the forest.” We did have to sort of… We would always attend to the language, of course.
When you’re doing Shakespeare, language should come first – always. But I think, in the last few productions, our kids had been associated in Shakespeare, they had relied on lighting and costume and sound and things that we weren’t necessarily going to have. Then, we had to sort of go back to square one again with the language. Like, what are those important words? I think, for American teenagers, attending to sort of the nouns and the verbs is really important and knowing what are the operative words that the audience is going to understand and catch. Like, they might not catch some of the antiquated language. They might not catch some of those little words like what is the difference between “doth” and “does” but they are going to know “press” – the word “press.” So, how am I going to say press and what gesture am I going to use to really understand that Lysander doesn’t want to be near Hermia right now – that he’s under a spell to love Helena.
I always tell them nouns and verbs are really important.
And then, sometimes, they discover that actually the pronoun might be important here because I’m talking about her and I want the audience to understand that she’s more beautiful than I am and the boys like her more than they like me. Then, sometimes, the actor can discover other operative words. But, I think, if you start with the nouns and verbs, for American teenagers, that also helps them sort of scan the iambic pentameter and it works for prose and verse. That’s sort of something I latch onto.
LINDSAY: I think that’s a really great tip and it’s also just that’s what we talk about all the time – it’s how difficult Shakespeare’s language is and it’s like, “And yet, if you can just get beyond those doth’s and those thee’s, there’s such a universality going on. In this play, it’s teenagers in love and teenagers fighting with each other and the girl fight. Like, you talk about it’s like “how low am I?” It’s not out of the realm of relatability.
LISA: Right, and I think there’s a lot of parent-child…
LISA: Relationships also. They’re just so current for teenagers always. Like, Oberon sort of treats Puck like a child but then expects that child to go take out the garbage. Like, one minute he is scolding Puck but then he’s like, “Okay, Puck, you’ve got to make it darker and use your voice to pretend you’re Lysander.” It’s just like a parent being like, “Oh, your room’s not clean but go take the garbage out and sort the recycling.” It’s a lot of parent-child with not only just Egeus and Hermia but with the way Oberon works with Puck and Titania with the faeries and the mechanicals are sort of in this weird family structure. So, I think there’s a lot for students to latch onto.
LINDSAY: Yeah, awesome.
LISA: And you can really set it in any world. You could set it in a time period. You could set it underwater, in outer space, and that’s what’s so fun, I think, for students. It’s that you can take sort of almost any approach and, as long as you’re staying really loyal to the language, I think it’s always going to be a successful production.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Exactly.
Thank you so much, Lisa!
LISA: Sure! Thank you!
LINDSAY: Okay. I am talking to Nick Cusumano.
NICK: Hello! How are you, Lindsay?
LINDSAY: I am… I am awesome today.
Tell everybody where in the world you are.
NICK: I am in Saint Louis, Missouri.
LINDSAY: Awesome. I love Saint Louis.
We’re talking about not only Shakespeare; we’re talking about Midsummer Night’s Dream and we’re talking about interpretation, vision for this particular show, and I can’t wait to talk to you about your particular vision.
Why did you choose this show to do when you were going to put it up? Why this one?
NICK: This is I think my 20th year of teaching when I did this. I’m ending my 21st and I had yet to do a full blown Shakespeare. I figured it was about time that I tackled the bard.
LINDSAY: You know, it’s the thing that people, sometimes, they just put it off and put it off. As many students that I meet who are trepadacious around Shakespeare, I meet just as many adults, you know?
NICK: And usually I direct a musical but Kevin who I teach with, he wanted to do Pajama Game which put me in the tough spot and so we kept on kind of looking around and I’m like, “You know, maybe I’d do Shakespeare.” I’ve done Kiss Me Kate and Shakespeare and Hollywood and I’m sure a couple of other of those that kind of dance around it. So, I started thinking about it and I think it was still July and I hadn’t really decided on a show yet and I went to the Educational Theatre Association Conference that summer with my theatre cast co-host and we kind of talking and I was kind of leaning towards Midsummer because I was already familiar with it and then started thinking about how to interpret it and somewhere I guess on my drive to Cincinnati, Ohio, the idea popped in my head. What about an 80’s spin on it? And so, I started going with the 80’s spin and then you think, “Okay, what are those references from the 80’s? Who’s the best wrapping up the 80’s pop culture-wise?” Well, it’s John Hughes movies – at least for people my age because those were the…
LINDSAY: Me, too.
NICK: Those were the movies that pulled me in – Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club. And so, I started thinking about that Breakfast Club for the lovers. And so, we had Hermia as Molly Ringwald and Helena was Ally Sheedy and then – I’m trying to remember, I have to look at my notes – you had Bender.
LINDSAY: Was her name Allison?
NICK: Anthony Michael Hall character as what’s his name? The other guy.
NICK: Emilio Estevez. Sorry.
NICK: So, those two were Demitrius and Lysander. Anthony Michael Hall kind of did double John Hughes duty. He was Anthony Michael Hall, of course, and the nerd in Breakfast Club and they came in as if they were going to detention and the Duke was the vice principal. Luckily, I had to see if there was something similar in our stock and so we started the scene as if they were in the Breakfast Club – going to detention – and then he told them, you know, “Write an essay” instead of talking and sharing, they fell asleep. Lo and behold, the curtain opens and we’re on the set and we kind of start the story.
So, the faeries needed to be otherworldly and so they were popstars at that age and the other faeries were solid gold dancers.
LINDSAY: Oh, my gosh.
NICK: We had a great time with that. Bought some neon yellow sweatshirts, cut those.
LINDSAY: Oh, you cut the arms off! Oh, my god, the 80’s! Oh, my gosh!
NICK: And I picked up leg warmers and put them in leotards and so they did the dance at the beginning as we transition into fairyland. And then, our Puck was Ferris Bueller because what could be better? Who could encapsulate Puck better than Ferris Bueller. The mechanicals were all the nerds from the John Hughes movies. The Lion was Ducky from Pretty in Pink. I want to say Quince but I could be remembering wrong.
LINDSAY: Yeah, Quince.
NICK: The one who plays Lisbee was Cameron Crowe and so I had to find the sports team shirt for him and the two friends from Sixteen Candles and then I’m probably missing one on there but all the nerds from those movies and Madonna was Titania and Adam Ant was Oberon.
LINDSAY: Oh, my goodness.
NICK: And the changling boy – and this was just totally inspired from audition – I had a freshman boy come in who had bright pink hair – because I hadn’t really decided what to do with the changling boy, how we were going to address that and then I was like, “Oh, my goodness! I have Annie Lennox! He can sing Sweet Dreams! What can be better?” And so, we have all those fun 80’s references tied in.
LINDSAY: I can already visualize what this looks like. Did you do the costume and the set design yourself or did you just tell this – all these character references – did you tell that to someone else and they just went to town?
NICK: The set was done by Kevin and our theatre design and technology students.
LINDSAY: Oh, cool! That’s cool!
NICK: The costume design is pretty much me – either pulling from or stock or ordering. Like, I found the Ferris Bueller jacket and vest for like $50.00 online and had to order the one thing for Cameron’s character and Cyndi Lauper was like Mustardseed, Susanna Hoffs was Midsummer Moth and Tony Basil was another one. They all sang a little lullaby, of course it didn’t work until Annie Lennox happened.
LINDSAY: So, you did costume. Obviously, you had to sort of explain your vision to the design students. What did you say to them? Because the 80’s – I fear to say it but – it was like thirty years ago and not in the students’ world. How did they do it?
NICK: They kind of had to do some research and some of this we kind of already talked about we had to show the Greek side when we dealt with the Duke and so we had some multicolor huge columns with kind of rainbow because, you know, if you remember those kind of Lisa Frank stickers and the Rubik’s cube, it was kind of a thrown with some levels and on the right side of the stage, we had lockers for them because now we had to have that quintessential pose that matches the Breakfast Club poster but, on top of that, they incorporated some green into it so it was leaves and part of that – to give those levels once again – was video tapes that said, you know, Sixteen Candles and the other movie references – Pretty in Pink. The front part of the stage was a boom box because, you know, we had to have a mixtape.
NICK: And to the right of the stage, Titania’s bed area was a 45 record.
LINDSAY: Oh, my goodness.
NICK: Way back when. And then, on the left side of the stage, kind of had some multicolored – not multicolored but bright colored pegs that they considered too.
LINDSAY: It’s so funny, eh? Because A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in another world and the 80’s are another world, you know?
LINDSAY: When you think about it and look back, I mean, we’re of the same age so I’m just hearing all this and I’m just like, “Oh! Oh!”
NICK: It’s like reliving it without having to go through puberty.
LINDSAY: So, let’s start with the actors. How did your actors respond to this take?
NICK: They had a great time. I did have to, you know, some of the references we had to explain are some of the things because, you know, these movies’ ratings – you’re going to have to watch this on your own to get a sense of what was kind of going on. A little bit of that style. I just loved the soundtrack, too. There’s that up and down, up and down, I shall spin them. So, you know, dead or alive, you spin me right round.
We had a whole dance break in there so we referenced the Karla DeVito song that they danced around to in Breakfast Club and they do the back and forth stomp and the Ally Sheedy character falls on the floor. We just had a whole bunch of fun with that when she first sees Bottom, when Titania first sees Bottom and she’s Madonna. She sings You Are My Lucky Star. And so, I just had so many songs. It was like directing a musical. Luckily, they just lip synched so we didn’t have to worry about being on key.
LINDSAY: So, how did being in this world and having very specific characters to play, how did this help your actors deal with the text?
NICK: I was very lucky that especially my lovers, they handled the text really well. They were just naturals with it which is always good. But we just took the time to explore. I also used – and still use when we do our Shakespeare unit – the Commedia Zuppa. Todd and Allison Williams kind of guide to that that we took from them – I want to say fifteen years ago.
LINDSAY: Yeah, probably. We’ll give him a shout-out. Todd Espeland and Allison Williams were Commedia Zuppa and I know that Todd Espeland does a lot of Shakespeare stuff. He does a lot of stuff for us – for making Shakespeare friendly.
NICK: And so, I kind of had them do that as their actor work and then we just spent time with it and did the 90-minute version of it so we could take the time to kind of delve into it and I think the hardest part, I think the language, you just kind of have to keep on working with it. Once you get that rhythm, then it gets in their head, brain, mind, body, then they do really well with it and, you know, you just have to take that time to explore it.
LINDSAY: I think that’s the key.
NICK: You give yourself the time to explore, too.
LINDSAY: Yeah, that’s the key. It doesn’t really matter what everything looks like. If they are not connecting to the text, there’s going to be something missing. You’re absolutely right, you’ve got to take the time.
NICK: I think Midsummer is one of our most successful ones because you have the comedy play which was very physical, I mean, Shakespeare already writes the comedy in there for you. So, he has helped us out with that one where it may be more challenging to do a history play. I haven’t worked my way towards that.
LINDSAY: Man, you take one step – one step at a time.
Awesome! Oh, Nick, thank you for sharing your vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with us. I just think that it was so funny, when you were describing it, that was the first thing that came to mind. I’m like, you know, it is another world and it’s so specific – just like Dream is! So, I imagine your audience ate it up.
NICK: Yeah, we had a great time with it. It’s kind of my little bit of chance of being semi-like a playwright where I can always try some different ideas and see how they work.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Thank you very much!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Nick and Lisa and Kellie and Marsha!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS!
It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!
And, since we’re talking Shakespeare, it makes sense that we should feature a play that features Shakespeare – Shakespeare, Shakespeare, I can say that three times fast, right!
Okay. So, Postcards from Shakespeare by Allison Williams looks at writer’s block – more specifically, Shakespeare’s writer’s block. He is in a funk! Nothing inspires him. The best he can come up with is “Now is the winter of our irritation.”
So, he pleads to the one person who can help him – Queen Elizabeth the First – Queen Lizzie, who could be a writer herself is she wasn’t so busy crushing the Welsh. She sends Shakespeare around the world in thirty minutes – Denmark, Venice, Egypt – and you must join his whirlwind tour as he desperately searches for material. Star-crossed lovers or surprise death or shipwrecks! Don’t forget that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Oh, that was exciting. I want to read this play!
You can read sample pages for this script at Theatrefolk.com or you can catch the link in the show notes – Theatrefolk.com/episode164.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word – that very special word: “Theatrefolk.” – because that’s what we are, right? That’s what you, me, all of us, we is Theatrefolk. I love that.
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.