Short Shakespeare!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

SATURDAYS 11:00 A.M. & 2:00 P.M.

February 3

March 10, 2018

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare

adapted & directed by Jess McLeod
Touring Chicago schools through March 23

A Conversation with the Director

If you were asked to describe what you want to see in your upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, what would you say that your overall vision is?

Jess McLeod: The play brings together disparate groups of beings who inhabit one world because that’s how we live—we are disparate groups of beings who inhabit one world who, by encountering each other, grow. For me, focusing on Midsummer now, it is a story about how we all impact each other.

The way in which the different groups of characters—the Court, the young couples, the Mechanicals and the Fairies—all intersect and affect one another?

This play can easily feel like it’s just shifting from group to group, and so especially in this abridged version of the story, I‘ve been thinking of how to pull the strings of the play tight, to solve how it moves toward one destination, not four, and to make sure all four pieces feel like they’re all in the same world and need each other.

We’re living in a time when, no matter what your politics are, it’s clear that individuals, groups, even entire demographics are struggling to let go of what they believe. We don’t want to admit we’re wrong. Our learned instinct is to preserve the status quo, despite the consequences of that status quo on other individuals, other groups, even the environment. And I’ve been thinking about the impact of theater and trying to make sense of out of the action of watching in our current climate. Can watching something actually change your mind, or how you think?

I had forgotten that Oberon and Puck watch so much of the play. Oberon reacts to Titania investing time and love in the changeling boy jealously, impulsively—and delights in taking revenge. Only watching the four lovers destroy each other as a result of the love-juice—as a result of his own meddling—teaches Oberon that messing with love is cruel and wrong.  Watching strangers play out their internal drama inspires him to right the wrong he’s done Titania.

Why do you think that act of watching allows him—or us—to see something we may not have seen otherwise?

I think about this all the time. Perhaps because watching temporarily frees us from decision-making, it allows you to consider other perspectives. And then, when we re-enter the world and have to make our own decisions again, we see more possibilities, more choices.

You’re connecting Oberon as an onlooker and what you hope that an audience will experience as they watch this story.

Yes, I would say that’s true. We can always be thinking more about the consequences of our own actions. In junior high or high school, you’re trying to figure out who you are. It’s a daily pursuit and a challenging one. In that process, you try on a lot of different identities and experiment with all kinds of behavior, ways of being, tribal associations. You can sometimes lose sight of the impact you have on other people and the consequences of your actions because you’re so occupied with figuring out who you are, which is a genuinely difficult endeavor. To me, what is great about theater at that moment in life is that the pressure’s off—you get to sit there and watch people dressed in costumes from a different time, a different place. Hopefully, new ideas and ways of looking at the world can pass into you.

What are the intersections you want us to understand between the different stories in this play?

We all live in our families, in our classes, in our schools, in our groups of friends, in our countries. We live with a lot of different people, and what I have found to be true is that the more I interact with people who are different from me, the better, smarter and kinder I get. The characters at the beginning of this play don’t quite understand the value of that, but they learn it as they go along. 

I’ve dug into the text to find the moments when minds are changed. What’s interesting about Demetrius is that Shakespeare makes sure to tell us that he and Helena were together before he started pursuing Hermia. He’s not in love with Hermia and he’s clearly made some kind of deal with Egeus. She’s the safer choice. I think it’s because Helena scares him—she’s so strong, so intense, they’re so explosive together that it attracts and scares him. It’s easy to fall into playing Demetrius just being a jerk and treating Helena really badly. But, ultimately, this is a romantic comedy, so how does Shakespeare want us to feel about the fact that they end up together? To me, Demetrius is a guy who’s trying to be with the partner he thinks he should be with, to adhere to social rules that serve him in a particular way, instead of being with the person who challenges him the most. And I think that Shakespeare wants us to feel good about it. Demetrius can stay under the spell and the love juice can bring different things out of different people. Then what you end up with is how you feel about that, which is much more important than figuring out the logic of how a love juice can mean different things to different people.

Jess, do you see clear distinctions between these two couples and their relationships?

I do see the relationships as very different, yes. With Demetrius and Helena, there is unstoppable connection and chemistry that is too much for him—and that she can’t not pursue. Being a relatively strong woman and having scared many boys, I can relate. I think of Hermia and Lysander as a girlfriend and boyfriend who are best friends. They know each other so well and admire each other deeply. I’ve dug into how to make them not cardboard and interchangeable so that, when they are interchanged, we don’t want them to be. Oberon sees this when watches them pursuing the wrong partners under the spell of the love-juice. Puck, on the other hand, is having fun watching it play out, and his different perspective is also important—he doesn’t care as much about humans and their feelings and craves mischief and chaos.

I know that we’re double-casting Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta, as productions often do. Apart from the practicality of double-casting, do you also see an intersection between the two royal couples’ stories?

It started as practical, but makes for a terrific storytelling opportunity. When we first meet Theseus and Hippolyta, we see that even though she’s Queen of the Amazons, they are going to be married and seem very much in love. But then we see how shocked she is by how Theseus deals with Hermia’s situation in the first scene. Theseus is completely in control of this world or at least at the head of it; the laws flow through him. Hippolyta doesn’t speak much and doesn’t have a lot of power here. Then, when we go to the wood, it’s Titania who has all the power and Oberon can barely get a word in edgewise!

Are you hoping that we as the audience are also seeing the possibilities of ourselves in different roles?

I think that’s true. The doubling helps us see the partner dynamic change drastically from couple to couple. Oberon, even in his rage and his taste for vengeance, is still hilarious, charming, and entertaining. We should be glad for him when he figures out that he shouldn’t have taken his revenge on Titania. We gravitate toward certain power dynamics in our own relationships, but we can change it, too.

Jess, can you talk about the world of Athens versus the world of the woods—and how Shakespeare contrasts them?

Civilization in the play—Athens, the court—attempts to order, contain, and structure the way people behave. You can only live your life certain ways; major life decisions must be approved by older men who allegedly know best. Hermia has her choice of whom she should marry taken away from her by the society she lives in. Hippolyta watches Hermia stand up to her father and the social order he represents, and I think it’s the experience of watching her do that which inspires Hippolyta to help change Theseus’s mind and verdict toward the end of the play. I have to believe that Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, has something to do with that change.

We humans can keep trying to structure everything, but nature will always thwart us. Sometimes that’s because there’s a fairy named Puck who goes around deliberately making mischief and a fairy named Oberon sprinkling love juice in peoples’ eyes, but more often it’s because our own human natures ultimately resist structure. And that truth outs when we’re surrounded by actual nature, which is why the play’s lessons and revelations happen in the woods beyond Athens.

We haven’t talked about the Mechanicals yet!

Yes, well there’s a lot with power dynamics going on there, as well! I love that the event of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding creates the opportunity for them to do something new —to put on a play. They’ve never done that in their lives, they have no idea how to do it, and they get incredibly excited about it. And we laugh at them, and with them, and both are wonderful. I think that anyone who has to manage or be managed by humans – so, all of us -- can identify with the power struggle between Bottom and Quince. The Mechanicals, to me, are about the challenge and the reward of teamwork. Bottom genuinely just wants to be helpful, but he’s incredibly unhelpful from time to time—something we’ve all experienced: Whether you’re working on a class project with people you don’t really like, or working in an office with people you don’t really like, it’s always a struggle to work together toward a mutually beneficial.

Shakespeare made them laborers to ensure a class difference from the royals and the lovers, and also, I think, because it’s easy to see why they get excited about putting on a play – they may not have any acting or directing experience, but they can already build sets, props, costumes. Theater puts their skills to different use. And when they put on their play at the end, we continue to laugh a little bit at and with them, but we also then see the royals and lovers heckle their well-meant performance, even after Theseus encourages kindness in watching. Even he goes back on his word because it’s hard to resist the smaller and meaner heckling impulses that we all have.

Because it’s fun to laugh at somebody?

It is, you know, and that’s something that certainly happens in school. It seems deliberate and important to me that Shakespeare wants us to end this play thinking about our own ‘audience-ness’—how, as onlookers, we impact the people and situations we’re watching, and how we can be generous or unkind.

So you see the Mechanicals as a group of people who in their everyday lives make things for a living, but here they’re challenging themselves by making something completely out of their imaginations—a play.

If the things they make are things used to support daily life—stools, chairs, cloth—then here they are remaking themselves a little by going out there and performing on that stage. I think that’s really brave, and to witness their courage is a really cool way to end this play.

Do they learn anything from this experience that takes them so far away from their everyday existence?

Absolutely—I think each makes a personal discovery from being onstage and playing these roles. They find themselves out there in the footlights, and that takes courage.

And what the Mechanicals come out with –what Bottom comes out of it with—is a little bit of truth. He’s a man who wants attention. Every move he makes in his first two scenes is about being the center of attention. Then, when Titania wakes up and immediately falls in love with him under the spell of the love-juice, he gets everything he wants and it terrifies him—because I think he’s not sure he deserves it.

It’s that old adage, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ But then, somehow, he is bigger at the end of the play because he has let people in in a way that he hasn’t before.

I think that’s right, and even though he can be annoying and disruptive, they’ve missed him and understand what a crucial part of the team he is. His speech to them when he comes back reveals a new warmth and appreciation of his fellow mechanicals. He becomes a better teammate.

Thank you, Jess! We can’t wait to start rehearsals and watch as this story comes to life!

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