Amanda Dehnert met with members of the Education Department in early October to discuss her thoughts about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was in the process of finalizing the abridged script, casting the actors and making design choices.
CST: In today’s meeting with your design team, you started the presentation by talking about Peter Brook’s concept of “the empty space.” Can you talk about Brook’s concept and how it has informed conceptualizing the space for your production?
AMANDA DEHNERT: Brook revolutionized how we think about theater and its aesthetics, and he revolutionized what theater could be. He has always been interested in what a theatrical experience is and how you make it happen—how you tell a story with actors in front of an audience. It starts from the ground up. It’s a very simple question that doesn’t take anything for granted. It is common to put Shakespeare plays through a lens of an historical period or location. That has never been as inspiring to me as trying to figure out what the metaphor is, and how can you put it onstage. Getting beyond reality has always inspired me about Peter Brook. So with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we’re talking about excess and balance. I wasn’t interested in how we could present its story in a realistic landscape; for example, to place it in a great mansion that is excessively full of books. You could do that successfully, but, for me, that is not theatrical enough.
CST: Perhaps the most famous Dream ever staged was Brook’s famous 1970 Midsummer, which he set in a simple white box, with swings and acrobatic and circus movement.
AD: Play—it was all about play, which then manifested itself as circus. With empty space work, you look for what the play is about. What is the one word your show is about? Only after you know that do you address how you are going to physically manifest it, what it’s going to look like. That’s where the director’s creativity comes into play.
CST: How does your concept—excess to balance—play out in the choices you make? How does it ultimately effect what we will see onstage?
AD: Now that the concept is more refined, we are looking for ways for it to manifest on stage. Tiny things have a big ripple effect. For example, the idea for the set came from Titania’s speech about nature being out of kilter.
The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which. (II, i)
Like places in folklore that are overrun with magic, we have all the seasons happening in a single day. The main element of the design is the excess of the seasons—when we begin it is autumn, and the stage is rather over-run with dead leaves. When we transition into the woods, the world becomes overrun by snow. When the magic flower enters the story, the world is then over-run with flowers—this will happen gradually, as the flower’s force permeates the story over a bit of time. Finally, when balance is restored and the lovers all return to Athens, we have come into a lovely and simple summer, with all the mess of the previous now cleared away.
For the costumes, we’re looking at ways silhouettes can be manipulated to show the transformation from excess to balance. Egeus has to put the plot in motion, but you have some leeway about how seriously you emphasize the law and control aspect of the play he embodies. For example, he has a long monologue about what Lysander’s been doing wooing his daughter. You don’t have to keep it—you get your story told without it. But if you leave it, you’re keeping a chunk dramaturgically that speaks to excess. These things work like ripples in a pool. Once you get your solid idea, it won’t negate all the other things in the play; it’s just a question of what’s in front.
CST: How did you go about abridging the play?
AD: Well, you have the exigencies of time—we have to make this a 75-minute performance. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fairly lean script. It’s muscular, relatively short, and it drives in a pretty organized fashion. There’s not a lot of extra fluff. Some plays you can take whole scenes out. This one you just have to constantly shear away. So you get rid of jokes that aren’t funny anymore, but there aren’t many. Then you get rid of some poetry that you might not need, and cut down the longer speeches. It’s a tough play to cut. Every couple of days I take a pass through and see if there’s anything else to take out and you just keep doing that till you cut it down. I try not to adjust the plot but, rather, overtones of the plot. For example, the notion that Hippolyta is a prisoner of war, essentially the bride prize: that is a really interesting story that you do not have to tell in order to tell the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You try to respect the “bounce” of what’s written, the rhythm of the comedy. The big “quartet scene” that the lovers have is a very difficult scene to cut because it has such wonderful rhythms.
CST: But How you did arrive at your concept?
AD: Midsummer is a journey story. Everybody is setting out to find their happiness with their other person. Hermia wants to be with Lysander and she’s told she can’t, so they run away to the woods to get married. It’s an impulsive and excessive choice. It’s understandable, but it’s excessive. Hermia says, “Before the time I did Lysander see, Seem’d Athens as a paradise to me” (I, i). This idea—that I love this guy and I need to be with him and if I can’t be with him nothing will ever be good—it’s extreme. Helena’s plan to tell Demetrius how to find Hermia so that he’ll get tired of liking her and return to her (Helena)—it’s very convoluted. Oberon wants something Titania has, and in order to get it he decides to get a flower that will drive her crazy. They’re all careening out of control and, over the course of the play, they discover that it’s better to take a deep breath and calm down a little bit. Comedy is about extremes. The message of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not that we should run away to the woods and everything will work out. The forces of nature belong in the woods and we get to visit, but then we get have go back to where we belong. I don’t mean to say that people shouldn’t literally live in the woods, but the play posits that everyone has a rightful place, and they go through this journey and learn, and then they go back. Everything else that rolls out is ultimately the power of love. Be calm and be happy—and love.
CST: What is the nature of love in this play? Initially, it certainly contributes to the chaos.
AD: It’s extreme and it’s impassioned and everyone’s making big choices that they shouldn’t do. And the world they inhabit is dysfunctional. Do they make it so by their actions? I think so. When the lovers go into the woods, it’s fun to see the perfect girl get her comeuppance and to see the girl who thinks she’s flawed suddenly have all the guys liking her. The topsy-turvy world lets us examine our own notions about love and attraction.
CST: Do they change the nature of the court when they come back? Is the court changed or are they changed?
AD: I've never thought of the court as a location outside of the people who inhabit it. This is not a play about society in that way. They return happy and relaxed and in balance, so the world around them comes into balance.
CST: Where do you see Egeus in all of this?
AD: Egeus can turn the tone of the play and so you have to be very careful. Egeus says, "I don't care what my child wants. I want my child to marry who I say, and if that doesn't happen, my child goes to a convent or is killed." It's extreme, but it can be extremely comic or extremely tragic. I'm interested in how it can be extremely comic. Thinking about death sentences is not helpful to this particular production. The audience can’t be worried that it's going to happen. They can’t take the threat too darkly.
CST: Does Hermia take it all seriously? It does spur her to leave Athens.
AD: Yes, but I think everyone understands that it’s a ridiculous law. You can do a production that really underscores the lovers’ case for running away, but you need a bit more time, a bit more breathing room. Egeus is still the obstacle. He says "You can't have what you want.” Unlike a typical modern parental structure, this goes to court and Theseus decides. The child has an equal voice and makes an attempt to say what she wants and why. But when Egeus invokes “my ancient privilege,” Theseus basically says, "I'm sorry but this is the law." It’s like all those laws that nobody even knows are on the books anymore. There are all these weird rules. Obscure rules. Odd laws that aren't necessarily commonsensical. Egeus is the authority figure who arbitrarily enforces rules—much like your parent, your principal, or your piano teacher who insists that you have to do your fingering the same way.
CST: What are you looking for in casting the play?
AD: We're looking to create a wonderfully diverse, multi-talented ensemble of actors. I do my work based on who the actor is. I enter the casting process with very few restrictions and I look to be inspired by what the actor brings, and thankfully that's been happening quite a lot. Casting for Midsummer is tricky. Some of the characters call for specific physical types. Hermia is supposed to be very short and Helena is supposed to be very tall. It's delightful if you can accentuate that contrast. For all the lovers, you need young people who can act comedy. Comedy is very difficult. You can make things funny a lot of different ways. I want smart, economical, comic actors, who can get a lot of humor in a short space. I'm also looking for actors who are really physical. It's a very physical world that we've decided to build, and we want them running, falling, jumping and climbing.
CST: What about the Mechanicals?
AD: They will have the same comic style, but have an excessive bag of props and a leader with excessive ideas. Bottom wants to play every part. Their bag of props is the biggest in the world. The props are wrong, but they're determined to make them work. The Mechanicals can be funny in many different ways, but we are aiming for simple and clean. And when you line them up, it has to look like a joke waiting to happen. There are actors you look at and endow with the ability to be funny, and it doesn't have to do with them being odd-looking. There are just some people whose energy is comic—you look at them and you think something funny will happen. Just like there are people you look at and you expect something heartbreaking will happen. We need the funny ones.
CST: What about the Fairies? What is their world like?
AD: The lovers are going to look modern, but in an invented world. So, it will look like the play takes place in the present. The Fairies are glamorous, ancient creatures. They are hundreds of years old and they are not human. They are going to have a King Louis XIV look—think of the painter Watteau, or Sofia Coppola’s movie, Marie Antoinette. And they are going to be played by puppets. We’re trying to underscore a big separation between the human world and the fairy world. I think the idea of going into the woods in Midsummer is about going into a forbidden landscape. Deep in the dramaturgy of the script, there are prohibitions against fairies and humans intermingling. People don’t belong in the woods. You wouldn’t want to wake up and have a donkey for your own head.
CST: In our world, what is the equivalent of the fairy world that we’re being warned against? What does it mean to wake up with a donkey head?
AD: I think the woods are a slightly more abstract idea. It’s a metaphor for what should be forbidden, fantasies and dreams you can’t live in. If you really could live within your dreams, you wouldn’t want to. They’re actually too vibrant, too potent, too extreme. There’s something right and normal about waking life.
CST: And we shouldn’t live in our dreams—is that what the play is saying?
AD: Dreams are good to have but we shouldn’t exist within them perpetually. (Of course, I don’t mean dreams like being an astronaut.) Fantasy and escape are good and important as part of our growth, but we can’t be there full time, it’s too intense. “A nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there”—that’s always been my mental tagline for the woods.