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Lighting the Stage: Modern 'Midsummer' reimagines classic tale

Teresa Mathew/Daily
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By Carlina Duan, For The Daily
Published December 2, 2012

Students stand in a loose circle in the middle of the studio, going through a series of vocal practices: trilling, singing, whispering. Backpacks lie crumpled across the floor. Actors in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” temporarily shed their roles as University students, their academic lives wedged into studio corners along with scattered sweatshirts, boots and scraps of paper.

During rehearsal, the students evolve into fairies, confused lovers, kings and queens: the dazzled and spunky cast of William Shakespeare’s play.

“Give me the first five minutes. In French,” Prof. Malcolm Tulip, the director of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” called out to his cast on a Tuesday evening.

Tulip sat at a large wooden desk, overlooking the center of Studio Two in the Walgreen Drama Center. The cast lay sprawled across the wooden floor, draped in costumes and props. One actor flung a red stuffed animal dog across his shoulders. Another grasped a potted plant in one palm. Immediately, the room fluttered with motion and buzzing, halting French, the cast rapidly belting out their lines in a swirl of bonjours and oui-ouis.

And so it went on a second time. “Do it in German,” Tulip commanded. One actor hollered out the only German phrases she seemed to know repeatedly— “Nein! Nein! Deustchland! Nein!” — repeatedly, while brandishing a cardboard sword.

Tulip paced back and forth, scrutinizing his actors’s movements, while his assistant director, MT&D sophomore Ruby Grammatico, jotted down notes on the stage movement in a small notepad.

During rehearsal, actors swooped into their roles of fairies, royalty and lovers: swallowing love juices, hissing pledges of romance and guffawing into their shirtsleeves. Not just any ordinary fairies, royalty or lovers, either, but a crew dressed in dark, plucky hues reminiscent of tattooed biker gangs, set in a carnival scene similar to the Burning Man Festival — an annual carnival-like event held in the deserts of Nevada.

“We feel those are the modern tribes, those are the modern fairies, the modern workers, the playground,” Tulip said.

A modern take

A classic Shakespearean comedy peppered with wit, romance and chaotic revenge — takes on a more modern twist under Tulip’s direction.

Throughout the performance, characters are clustered in three main groups: the court, the lovers and the fairies. The general plot occurs within these three realms, with characters swallowing magical drinks, falling in love with donkeys, eloping to the forests and tangling in a net of passion and humor.

While the general plot and language remains preserved in the original Shakespearean roots, the play’s setting, costumes, casting and overall atmosphere veer away from Renaissance elements.

Tulip described Shakespearean plays as needing “space” rather than a physical setting.

“Back in the day, there was the Globe Theater,” he said, referencing the famous London open-air amphitheater where numerous Shakespearean plays were performed. Tulip noted the wooden “O” shape of the Globe Theater as an undertone for the final setting of Tulip’s adaptation of the play.

“We kept on thinking about that globe shape in our research,” Tulip said. “The moon and the roundness of the moon appear a lot in the play.”

The globe shape is consistent throughout the production and affects many of the set choices.

According to Tulip, Vincent Mountain, the set designer and professor of theater and drama, researched the Wall of Death: a carnival set inside a rounded cylinder “wall” that motorcycle riders would cascade across, performing carnival tricks. This finding led the team to incorporate a carnival theme to their setting.

Once the staff had established a “globe” base for the scene, the team worked to establish a setting based off of the Burning Man Festival. The new setting would maintain both the globe-like shape of a circus performance and the sense of creativity that the team wanted to capture.

“They do have an imagination and create things out there in the desert,” Tulip said. “We thought, ‘Let’s take that as an inspiration for the setting.’ So we have this carnival-ish half (of) a Globe Theater, a Tunnel of Death … it also looks a bit like a wooden circus.”

While the set was being chosen, costume designer and Associate Professor of Performing Arts Christianne Myers, was brainstorming as well.

“All during the summer, Malcolm and I were battling around ideas of gypsy culture and carnival culture. It’s this kind of dangerous, noisy and dirty mentality — and those aren’t usually the adjectives you’d associate with ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” she said. “People are usually (looking for) pretty fairies.”

Tulip steered away from the traditional fairy realm of glitter and blossoms.

“I don’t need to make it contemporary, but I don’t want to fit 20-year-olds running around in satin and gold pretending to be fairies,” he said. “I don’t think people believe in that anymore.”

Myers stressed that her fairy costume designs are not of the “pretty” sort.

“We were talking about ideas where the references of fairies would be a manipulation of light and shadow, or maybe puppetry,” she said.

This led the cast to incorporate the use of shadow puppets as a part of the props.

Meanwhile, costumes for the fairies are similar to the attire of bikers.

“We started to hone in on research on the vibrant contemporary gypsy culture that is happening outside of major European cities,” Myers said. “The one thing they all have in common with this biker gang is the appropriation of other things and turning them into something for themselves.”

Myers discussed the popularity of body adornment in such gypsy culture, including tattooing and piercings.

“The one thing they have control over their lives is what they look like, so when you look at their clothes, the way that they’ve turned them into something else is what’s interesting,” she said.

Through her research, Myers collected flavors from gypsy and carnival culture to infuse her costume designs with a gritty, earthy and unusual vein. She wired LED lights into body suits and fiber optics in wings, so their skin will glow on stage.

Trippingly off the tongue

Despite these non-traditional hues, the basic script remains almost entirely true to the original. According to the cast, being involved in a Shakespeare play requires a slightly different process than that of a contemporary play.

“When you work with Shakespeare, you have to come to it with a really open mind, because there’s so many ways to interpret it,” Myers said.

Actors in the play view their performance in Shakespeare as both an obstacle and an exciting opportunity.

“Shakespeare is challenging because it’s so foreign to a lot of us,” said Senior Jon Manganello, who plays Demetrius, one of the four lovers. “(It) is definitely difficult — at least for me — just to wrap my mouth around, but it’s also easier in many ways because it’s got a rhythm to it.”

Kevin Collins, an MT&D freshman, emphasized the difficulty of working with Shakespearean script.

“The language is tough,” Collins said. “It’s in verse, and people don’t speak that way anymore. So in order to begin to memorize what you’re saying, you have to figure out the essence of what you’re saying first.”

Gender what?

Tulip’s casting of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” added another contemporary twist: Several actors were cast in cross-gender roles. In fact, two of the four lovers play cross-gender characters, with a female playing Lysander, and a male playing Hermia.

Tulip explained the reasoning behind cross-gender casting as entwined in logistical and historical roots.

“One (reason) is that it’s practical, because then we don’t restrict students to roles in Shakespeare,” he said. “(The play) was originally done for Elizabeth I, and she never married. There’s this idea that she was a man-woman. She had to be a king even though she was a queen. There’s that gender-role mixing in her role as queen, and I thought that would be an interesting reflection, knowing that the play was maybe even commissioned for her.”

He added that cross-gender parts illuminate modern-day gender issues.

“In the 21st century, who gets to marry who is a big issue,” Tulip said. “If it’s a play about marriage, why not find a way to echo (that) in the current arguments?”

Actors find Tulip’s gender switching appropriate for the play.

“Part of the reason why the show still lives and breathes today is because of all the issues Shakespeare wrote about (that) are still current,” Collins said.

For Collins, playing a cross-gender character was a completely new experience — one that took a bit of adjustment. But he said the experience changed the way he views the play, as well as himself.

“Gender norms are weird to even think about, because people are people,” Collins said. “Everything that happens to Hermia has happened to me in some shape or form, and how she chooses to deal with it is how she chooses to deal with it — not how a woman deals with it.”

Collins further pointed out the irrelevance of gender norms in modern society.

“The essence of a person isn’t indicative of their gender,” he said. “It’s who they are. It’s not because they’re a man or a woman. It’s because of their emotion and their background and where they come from.”

Playing dress up

The cross-gender casting also affected the costume design. For Myers, designing cross-gender costumes was a matter of fashioning outfits that would suit the production’s carnival tone and enhance the audience’s grasp of the play’s message.

“We didn’t want to get into a world where it was drag queens,” she said. “I feel like my job is to forward the production, so is (the audience) going to notice some of the clothes? Sure. Three of them are lighting up like Christmas trees,” she added.

“But I don’t want the (audience) to notice (the fairies) because they’re lighting up. I want them to notice because (the fairies) are supporting the concepts of the show.”

For the cross-gender costumes, Myers incorporated tactics that helped actors better understand their characters, as well as propose answers to the challenges that gender switching creates.

“We can stuff a bra with birdseed to give it a sense of movement and weight like real breasts have,” Myers said. She also noted the use of bust-binders and baggy jeans for the actresses playing men.

Hermia’s costume helped amplify Collins's understanding of his character.

“(The costume) definitely affects my movement, which gives me a lot of information about my character. My dress is very responsible for how Hermia moves,” he said.

Whereas Collins originally began his acting process using a high-pitched voice, he now understands more about his cross-gender role.

“I wanted to acclimate my voice to how I thought a woman should sound, so I originally upped my pitch quite dramatically,” he said. “I think what I’ve learned now, especially with my costume that I have, is that women carry themselves because their weight is distributed differently than mine.”

Collins added that he now believes his acting has incorporated the core perspective of a woman, rather than a stereotypical female viewpoint.

“It’s about playing the essence of that being,” he said. “I don’t think that gender roles are assumed in this show.”

For actors, involvement in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has drastically altered perspectives on Shakespeare and the world around them.

For the cast and crew, the play has involved many changes, including adjustments in stage direction and costume throughout the entire rehearsal process. Tulip explained this constantly evolving nature of the play as an essential part of his direction.

“It’s like being an archeologist,” Tulip said. “You have to mine the text for the echoes that are hidden inside what relationships are there.”

Tulip described changing the lovers’s positions in one specific scene.

“The lovers fall asleep towards the end of the play next to each other,” he said. “It’s only when they wake up that they end with the one they’re going to marry, and I realized by reading the play just this week (that) when the court comes into the forest the whole sound wakes the lovers up.”

Tulip emphasized scouring the text for details such as these.

Myers underwent a similar last-minute adjustment in her costume design.

Close to her design presentation, she thought Hermia's costume was incorrect. “I completely redesigned one of the characters last-minute based on balance and on the cast.”

For Tulip and Myers, such moments do more than enrich a production — they’re inherent to the rehearsal process.

“I see it as a scientific process in that you have a hypothesis,” Tulip said. “You have an idea about what you think (a play) should be. You devise an experiment. You run a rehearsal. You observe the results. You come to a conclusion, and you get new information constantly changing that conclusion.”

Myers described her costume design as a gifting process.

“There’s always a shift and I actually love that moment where I feel like I’m passing a baton,” Myers said. “It’s been my design, and it becomes (the actor’s), and then it’s not mine anymore.”

Collins, meanwhile, likens the play to straw punch candy.

“Originally it has that bite.” he said. “It has that flavor in your mouth that you don’t know what to do with, but after you suck on it for a while, you let it really embody you.”

“It’s a good taste, it’s a good feeling — I’m tempted to say sweet. It is a comedy, so everything ends up being ‘sweet’ at the end.”


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