Not Walt’s fairies

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In Shakespeare’s day, fairies were not Disney’s pixies and flower sprites.  Will o’ the

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Not quite what Shakespeare had in mind

wisps waited in the night to lead travelers astray, elves kidnapped infants from their cradles and replaced them with changelings, kelpies lurked by lakesides, ghosts haunted lonely graves, and quixotic brownies could either do your housework or drive you mad with their tricks—depending on their mood.  The “Fair Folk” and “Good Neighbors,” as they were often called, had their own laws and morality—they were not necessarily virtuous or evil by human reckoning.

 

But they were perilous.

Although Summer Shakespeare’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be taking place in the present day, director Ron Parker has decided that he is not modernizing the fairies. He feels strongly that the Midsummer fairies are outside of time—they are the same  in our time as they were in the Renaissance and the Victorian period.  However, Parker is not portraying the characters in the same way he has in productions past:

“I’ve always played Oberon and Titania very regal and stiff (on a stage, you can do that), with very restrictive costumes that kept posture very straight.  They were the nobility of the forest.  They would walk around restricted by what they were wearing.  It kind of gave them a powerful, formidable bearing. 

You can’t do that in the woods, there’s no way you can walk that way, you’ll fall over—we tried it!  So I had to look at those characters differently.  If they live in the woods—if this is their home, if they walk over rivers and across stones and under branches—they would have to be a lot more agile and elemental than I’ve ever played them.

I had the actors try it: I told them to come in connected to the earth, to feel free to swing around a tree trunk, or crouch down or make themselves the ‘masters of the forest.’  That gave me a whole new view of them.  All of the sudden they were much more vital and energetic—still powerful, but in a whole different way.”

In this production, since it is in the woods, the fairies can be intimately connected to their natural environment—both in how they are dressed and in how they move.  Camouflaging costumes in the dark will allow the actors to imitate what the Elizabethans always believed about the fairies: that they were always present, but not always visible.

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Leah Dreyer as Puck in rehearsal

The most popular of the fairy characters in Midsummer is, of course, Puck.  The feisty trickster is the henchman of the fairy king, and the cause of many of the antics that take place in the woods.  Leah Dreyer (18) portrays Puck, who she calls Oberon’s hitman: “He is very mischievous and finds joy in causing trouble,” she says, “he is the thread that weaves together the three stories of Midsummer.”

 

Shakespeare didn’t invent the character, though.  Puck would have been well-known to the British audience of the Renaissance, since he has his origins in Celtic legends.  “He comes from various European myths and folktales” Leah says, “he was a forest sprite that would cause people to get lost in the woods.  They would say that they had been ‘Puck-ledden’ or that Robin Goodfellow (another name for Puck) had been with them tonight.  Puck exists in many forms—the Irish version of him has the head of a donkey.”

Puck, like the master he serves, is neither good nor bad, but can switch between being

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Leah Dreyer as Puck and Oscar Brautigam as Oberon in rehearsal at the Refuge

kindly and dangerous.  Parker says that “we’re trying to play the fairies with that kind of dichotomy of personality—they can serve you one moment and sever your jugular the next.”

 

 

We can assure you, though, that the throats of all audience members will be left intact.  We cannot assure you that you might not begin to look twice at the shadows when you enter the woods.

Summer Shakespeare’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens this Thursday night.  Tickets are now sold out!

Guest Post: Find a Fairy, by Tara Pohlkotte

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I was 17 when I found myself alone and more than a little lost in the woods at night. No matter how hard I tried to get my eyes to focus, I couldn’t make out even the trees around me. I had finally given up trying to find my way out, and decided to sit and listen in wonderment at the sounds of the woods so full of life I hadn’t even noticed all around me. It was then that I heard a familiar voice bellow, “Find a fairy!” and the natural noises of the woods were overtaken by the sound of 20 other teenagers, all similarly disoriented and unable to see, trying to find those of us who had hidden themselves away among the trees.

 

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2001

 

 

It was 2001, only the second year Summer Shakespeare and Mr. Parker had been in the Fox Cities area and the first time A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be performed by a cast of local high school students. We had been practicing our monologues, for many of us it was our first attempt to make practical sense and direction from a Shakespearean text; building sets that depicted castle walls and fairy lairs; washing cars and selling program slots in hot Elizabethan dress outside our local Wal-Mart.

 

 

But try as we might to understand what it was our follied lovers and forest creatures had encountered that fateful night, we couldn’t really understand how it was that you could mistake your lover for another, or how the woods could play tricks on your mind. That was, until we found ourselves tucked in between the trees late one night and told to find one another and to find our own way out.   Laughing we traced faces with fingers trying to read features, grabbed hands with those we hoped were a part of our fairy troupe, and slowly the truth of what Shakespeare had envisioned came to light for us.

My connection to Summer Shakespeare and North Theatre remained long after I put down Oberon’s crown and even my own graduation. See, I married another student who had been lost in those woods with me. If memory serves me, I married the one we all relied on to get us out of those woods before the sun rose the next morning. The one who, with no fuss or frills, still builds worlds from pencil drawings and scraps of wood. My husband Jason Pohlkotte and Mr. Parker scheme together to make Shakespeare come alive and fresh for students and audiences year after year. Each time I get a front row seat to watch the magic of seedling concepts growing all the way to performance and the power theatre has to influence and inspire all involved.

When my brother Cory Chisel and I got involved with The Refuge a year ago, we talked instantly of wanting to incorporate a love of ours, theatre, into the space and fabric of what was being created. My husband had been urging Mr. Parker to do an outdoor performance of Summer Shakespeare for years, and now we finally had the place. Jason initially invited Mr. Parker out to scout a possible location for last year’s production of The Tempest. Parker got quiet, wandered off into a patch of woods on the property by himself and emerged with a look I had seen in his eye many of time. He smiled and said simply “Midsummer.”

Fifteen years later, and I find myself again in the woods at night. A hush has fallen over another group of 30 teenagers and the rustling of the leaves, chatter of the Fox River and birds singing the last song of the day surround me again, the moon peaking in and out through the lace of trees. Until, at last that same familiar voice bellows “Find a Fairy!” …and I smile for what the night will uncover for another generation.

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Fairy Ring at dusk at The Refuge

 

Guest post: creating characters, by Zak Metalsky

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Zak Metalsky

Previous post by Zak Metalsky

Directing a play involves many responsibilities: blocking the actors’ movement, analyzing the script, working with sound cues and stage lights, collaborating with costume and set designers, and telling a story as honestly and amazingly as possible, all while keeping under budget.

The analogy that our director, Parker, gave me was being the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek, spearheading the mission while making sure every sector is running smoothly.

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Captain’s log, Stardate 47457.1: Act 2, Scene 4 still isn’t blocked yet.

As assistant directors, Corrie and I are given many logistical tasks, like coordinating schedules and printing off handouts and making phone calls, but the “directing” part really kicks in outside of our normal rehearsal time. Before and after every rehearsal, I work one-on-one with an actor on their performance, taking the time that Parker can’t to focus on each person. I also got to choose a scene to direct on my own, blocking the movement and all, which felt like taking the reins for the first time and really leading the production.

In the one-on-one rehearsals, I do a number of things with the actors that helps them explore the character more deeply, or give them the tools to enhance the character on their own time. The first step is text analysis, finding when to breathe and what words to emphasize in order to help the audience understand what is happening.

Shakespeare helps a lot in this regard: his use of punctuation, lists, and contrasts are more actor-friendly than people might think. Spending just a few minutes on this makes them leagues more accessible for an audience, and while there are certainly exceptions to the rules of text analysis, it is something that every professional classical actor does.

The second step is character analysis, or reflecting on a character’s objectives, backstory,

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Zak leading rehearsal

relationships, personal life, and more. The theatre cliché “What’s my motivation?” is really extremely important, since motivation drives literally everything that a person does. Analyzing how a specific character thinks gives them insight into how everyone thinks, what desires they have, what gets in their way, and how they try to overcome it.

The beauty of Shakespeare is how relatable his characters’ motivations are; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the main characters are four young lovers looking for love, the Fairy King and Queen dealing with their rocky relationship, and a bunch of bad actors trying their best (but failing) to produce a play. We’ve all had experiences with love, we’ve all had relationships that weren’t perfect, and we’ve all seen a really bad playbut I PROMISE that Midsummer will be a good one.

The third and final step of the one-on-one rehearsals takes many different forms, depending on what the actors are struggling with. The director has to find ways to illicit a response from an actor that may be completely foreign to them; after all, Midsummer is filled with fairies and magic and the supernatural.  Already, we’ve done a number of exercises to give the actors a sense of how differently they can move when they are performing.

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Zak directing a scene at the Refuge

One exercise is to experiment moving like the four elementsimagining how to personify water, earth, fire, and airand finding similarities between the elements and their character. Another is moving around like different kinds of animals, really exploring different ways to control your body, and putting that into a performance. For actors working on conveying the meaning of Shakespeare’s words, I’ve given them comparisons to modern situations and pop-culture references that they can understand, ranging from awkward moments in relationships to John Cena memes. My favorite one-on-one so far was when I needed an actress to show more anxiety and frustration in different scenes, so I had her recite a monologue while holding a heavy stage weight the entire time, and later give a speech while imagining her character’s dead husband was in the audience. Both exercises worked very well.

All of those crazy exercises, long-winded conversations about character, and tedious analyses make their performances more believable.  These things help the audience forget that they are watching a bunch of high-schoolers, and to imagine that they are actually watching fairies and lovers in the woods.

Imagination is a huge part of theatre, something that both the actors and the audience need to use, especially when Shakespeare is involved. The audience has to imagine that they are deep into the woods (which our outdoor venue helps with), watching fairies making humans fall in love, and turning an actor’s head into a donkey’s. The director’s most important job is helping the audience use their imagination by creating a believable and engaging story, and if these exercises help at all with that, they will have been worth it.

Come see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, On July 21st-24th and July 28th-31st at 7:30 in the Refuge, 1000 North Ballard Road!

Tickets available through the Appleton North High School office beginning July 11.

When a director changes his mind

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For the first time in Summer Shakespeare history—in order to celebrate the program’s 30th anniversary—we have decided to set a show in modern times.  This is a common trend in theatre today, and productions may “update” Shakespeare’s plays for many reasons: to highlight social parallels, demonstrate the applicability of the Bard’s work to the modern period, or even as a gimmick.

Director Ron Parker’s reasons are also varied.  Practically, wearing layers and layers of Elizabethan clothing in the woods on a hot summer evening isn’t feasible.  Not only would it be uncomfortable for the actors, but many of Summer Shakespeare’s costumes are older than I am, and need to serve for many productions to come.  This challenge has created an opportunity for Parker to interact differently with Midsummer Night’s Dream than he has in the past.

 

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2010

 

Parker last directed Midsummer in 2010.  At the end of the production, he vowed that he would never do so again: he had done the play so many times that he felt he had explored all that it had to offer, and he didn’t want to recycle ideas from the past.  As he put it, there was nothing to get “fired up” about.  However, the idea of doing Midsummer as an environmental production in modern dress was “just too wonderful to pass up”—from the first rehearsal at the Refuge, Parker realized that he had begun to understand certain lines of the play differently.  It has proved to him that he had been wrong to believe he could exhaust the possibilities of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays:

“I’m very intrigued that I’m learning new things about a play that I can quote whole scenes from, because I’ve done it so many times.  Every time you do Shakespeare, you

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Rehearsal at the Refuge

find something else—that’s the magic of his writing, you never just know everything.  Every time you think you’ve figured out a play, something smacks you in the side of the head and you realize that you didn’t consider something, and all of a sudden, you’re whole world is turned upside-down in terms of what this play could mean.  And that’s what keeps bringing people back to his plays over and over again.” 

Parker wants to avoid this Midsummer being “gimmicky” at all costs, though.  He has seen too many bad productions where Shakespeare’s language, rhythm, and cadence are sacrificed or manipulated in order to make modern jokes.  In others, the visual spectacle of modern sets and effects takes precedence over the play itself.  The directors of these shows try to “squeeze Shakespeare into our period—like a square peg in a round hole.”

However, modernized productions can be justified when they focus on helping the audience see that they can relate to Shakespeare’s characters and themes.

Midsummer Night’s Dream is primarily about the complicated relationships between four love-struck teenagers.  Parker believes that Shakespeare had an insightful understanding of teenagers—both as a parent, and as someone who would have worked with them in the theatre.  He understood how teens (both in his day and ours) think and feel.  Parker believes that the lovers have a very modern feel: as a teacher, he recognizes their passions, jealousies, blustering, and cattiness in the halls of North High School every day.

Parker hopes that using modern clothing and props will help audiences identify with these four teens and their quest for love and autonomy from parental control.

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Yasmeen Ashour, Costumer for A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Yasmeen Ashour—a senior at Appleton North High School and the costumer for the show—is taking on Parker’s vision behind the scenes.  Although she has been working in the costume shop for the past two years, this is her first show in charge.  Although one might think that using modern clothing would make her job easier, Yasmeen feels that her job is actually harder: the audience can no longer rely on the elaborate Elizabethan costumes to identify the class of a character–or even that they are a character at all!

In this production, Yasmeen will have to employ subtler visual clues, and the actors will have to rely on their skill—rather than the beautiful costumes—to create their characters and transport the audience into the story.  Yasmeen is excited to watch her friends grow from this artistic challenge: “they will have to find new ways of participating and relating,” she says.

Despite the challenges, she has complete confidence in the Summer Shakespeare team.  “Even though it always seems overwhelming, it always works out,” she reminds me with a smile, “What makes Shakespeare’s plays so wonderful is that they fit in any time period.  Updating the costumes doesn’t change the show, just how we relate to it.”

Performances will be July 21-24 and 28-31 at 7:30pm at the Refuge in Appleton.  Tickets will be available beginning July 11 through the Appleton North office for $10.