It feels bizarre to say that this is my sixth year involved with the Summer Shakespeare program. You may not think someone would give up most of their summer for the program, and then decide to come back (let alone after graduation!), but the break from academics lets the students and myself focus on a production in a way we normally can’t. Instead of juggling school, theatre, and other extra-curriculars, we can give our show the undivided attention and quality of execution that the program is known for. It’s infectious to share the same, strange goal with a large group of driven and talented individuals, and that’s what the Summer Shakespeare program has meant to me every year I come back.
When I first became an assistant director last summer, I knew that I was expected to put in a lot of extra time, but what surprised me the most was how many of the students did the same. Costume and poster design, fundraising, supply shopping, and more was all done by students on a volunteer basis, who were happy to go the extra mile. Some of them were new to the program, others were in their fourth year and had a summer job on the side, but they all understood what could make the show from good to great, and everybody pitched in. Coming back to assistant direct a second year, I see that the first group wasn’t just a lucky fluke. The amount of volunteering from the students, from leading dance to shooting promotional videos, is a privilege that very few teachers get.
While the program genuinely feels like a home away from home for many (an alumni who graduated 8 years ago visited rehearsal on the day I’m writing this), each succeeding year, and each mishmash of students, brings something new to the table. Last year we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, but this year we’re performing one of his greatest tragedies, Hamlet. Last year we performed outdoors, rotating between multiple locations, but this year the audience is indoor and stationary while the stage is rotating. Half of the students are new to the program, while students in leadership positions last year, from acting to costumes to set construction, have taken on larger roles to replace those who have moved on. It’s a different energy every year, and every year requires different ideas to harness that energy into what is best for the show.
My favorite part of directing for Summer Shakespeare is the individual rehearsals we have before and after the entire cast is called. Me and fellow assistant director Evin McQuistion, one of my best friends and just one of the best people in general, lead rehearsals with one or two actors at a time so we can really focus on their ideas and channel them into something that fits with everything else. It’s all about listening, and using the strengths of both the actors and directors in tandem. Last year, I discovered that one of my strengths as a director was coming up with what I call “experiments”, or exercises that help take an actor out of their preconceived notions of what they are supposed to do, which helps them see the character from a different perspective. My experiments can range from anything to having an actor holding weights (or holding their breath) to physically embody the metaphorical weight of their character’s situation, to delivering their lines as a pop boy band or a stand-up routine. Evin leads an Improv group at his college, and since Improv is all about listening to the other people onstage and building off of their ideas to create a scene, he utilizes it to help the actors use one another as inspiration. The best part about my experiments and Evin’s improv is that it excites us, and that enthusiasm rubs off on the actors.
As we approach opening night, it’s inevitable that I look back and reflect on my two years in the (assistant) director’s chair, mulling over their similarities and their differences. But it doesn’t feel like two experiences – it feels like 50 different experiences as I form relationships with each student. I love getting to know them, or if I’ve worked with them before, get to know them better. The relationships I get to make between the actors, technicians, and people sitting in the audience is what makes the program so special to me, and why I think theatre is special in general. So if you want to be a part of the wonderful, tangled mess that has lasted for 31 years, come see our latest show.
Hamlet runs July 20th, 21st, 22nd, 27th, 28th, and 29th at 7 pm and the 23rd and 30th at 2 pm at the Appleton North auditorium.