And I have found Midsummer, like a jewel …

Aug 22, 2011   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Shakespeare

I just finished an exhilarating, thrilling, grueling and very fun rehearsal process, directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the American Shakespeare Center.  There was no opening night.  At least, not yet.  My production comprises one-third of the 2011-2012 Almost Blasphemy Tour, and the day after our second dress rehearsal for MND, the actors set to work on ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Rehearsing Helena (Bridge Rue), Hermia (Denice Mahler) and Lysander (Jake Mahler) on the Blackfriars' stage; photo by Michael Amendola

Repertory meets the rubber meets the road

Of course, the day before we started rehearsals for MND, the troupe had their second dress rehearsal for The Winter’s Tale, and one day during our process, we stopped work on MND so that they could have a third WT dress rehearsal (by way of keeping it fresh).  Such is the nature of preparing a repertory to tour.  I won’t be there when the first performances happen, in early September, although I will definitely parachute in to see the production on the road over the next ten months.

All of this makes it just a little bit harder for me as a director to let go of my — uh, the show. One of my great joys, once I know the actors have got the show on the run, is to watch the audience watch the play.  To see what lands with them, to see where we missed, where I might want to go back and tweak a bit.  We had an audience of about 30 people at our second dress last Thursday morning, and I am delighted to report that they laughed until they wept more than once during the play.  Which is what I really want to discuss.

Recovering the joy, all kinds of it

Part of what draws me to ASC is that the company and I share a love of the text and an aversion to the cultural church approach to the plays.

Directing Dan Stevens, Bridget Rue, Kevin Mahler and Ronald Peet (aka Titania’s posse); photo by Michael Amendola


The American Shakespeare Center is all about recovering the joy in Shakespeare.  The company has a devout commitment to Shakespeare’s text and to the mission of connecting that text to modern audiences; one of the salient ingredients in creating that connection is joy.  They (we) stage Shakespeare’s plays using Shakespeare’s staging conditions, which invite the audience into the action.  Not in a ‘tweet while you watch’ kind of way, but in a ‘get sucked into the storytelling’ kind of way.  At ASC, they ‘do it with the lights on’, meaning that the audience is lit by the same light that shines on the actors, facilitating 360° eye contact, which restores the soliloquy (amongst other moments) to its original value of exchange between actor and audience.

When Artistic Director Jim Warren first asked me to return to ASC this season, my heart broke just a little because I love love love working at ASC but I was not particularly keen to direct Midsummer.  Like most of the people reading this post, I imagine, I’ve seen too many mediocre productions of the play where the actors bang mercilessly on the rhyme, slaves (not collaborators) to the iamb; where Titania and Oberon stop to recite rather than act; where Puck is just odd without paying attention to the clues in the text.  As I dove headlong into my preparation and research, I discovered that there were certain speeches or moments in the play that I couldn’t recall seeing staged to my satisfaction.  These moments of disappointment became the kernel of my approach to directing the play.  I was determined to revivify these moments, to make them active, to make them cohere and, yes, jump.

As I worked with the actors playing Titania and Oberon to eschew magical, breathy, Liv Tyler / Middle Earth declamation in favor of using their heightened language to passionately pursue what they want from one another, as I collaborated with the actors playing the four lovers to discover how each character uses the language differently to achieve their desires, as we all dove into the world of the play, I discovered that I am not anything like bored with this nearly perfect play.  On the contrary, the reason we keep doing it is because it is so good.  I was blaming the faults of myriad productions on the play itself.  My rehearsal process at ASC, while seeking to recover the joy for the audiences around the country, helped me to recover the joy, too.

It is easy to get cynical about producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream or A Christmas Carol, but we don’t just produce them because they make for good box office.  Unpack that cashbox a minute:  people buy tickets to these plays because they love them.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is gateway Shakespeare:  if people have a ‘helpless laughter, tears of joy streaming down their face’ experience with this play, they’ll come back to see more challenging pieces.

We love this play, we produce this play, we come see this play because of the rich and multi-faceted ways in which it shows us how ridiculous we are and how essential love is.  Through the four social strata of the play (aristocracy, gentry, laborers and immortals), we discover a sense of wonder, a sense of play, the fragile relationship between order and chaos, the danger inherent in passions suppressed or denied.  Even the misguided performance of Pyramus & Thisbe by Peter Quince’s little troupe teaches us not to take the events in the forest too seriously: everyone makes it back to Athens and no one dies.

Through the very structure of his language – from rhymed couplets to blank verse to stichomythia to intense shared verse lines and back again — Shakespeare shows us relationships fraying and fracturing, recovering and healing.

The four lovers (Patrick Earl, Jake Mahler, Bridget Rue and Denice Mahler). Photo courtesy of the American Shakespeare Center -- Almost Blasphemy Tour -- July 2011.

I was tickled to learn from a Shakespeare scholar and from a veteran actor / fight director that they had both heard things in our production that they had never heard in countless other productions of this play: the Shakespeare scholar said he had never understood Oberon’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” so clearly and the actor / fight director said he had never seen Oberon and Titania engage with one another so directly, nor had he ever seen Helena fully register the risk to her friend that sharing her secret with Demetrius entails.  He also expressed sorrow when he realized that the play-within-the-play was about to end, because, he said, he just wanted to spend more time with these people.  Another actor who sat in on a rehearsal (they’re all open to the public at ASC) remarked that she couldn’t remember seeing a room full of such happy actors.

The Almost Blasphemy troupe will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream at something like 75% of their stops during 2011-2012.  As we were finishing our last notes session the other afternoon, I entreated the actors not to become cynical about this play as familiar in our mouths as household names.  Because it is about love.  And joy.






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