A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most frequently produced of Shakespeare’s plays, has undergone many transformations. The students in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Text Alive! program have the opportunity to learn firsthand how theatre artists create new worlds out of classics. I had the opportunity to sit in a Text Alive! classroom as the students discovered how to mesh their own artistic aesthetic with the needs of the play.
During the past 22 seasons, STC’s Text Alive! program has introduced Shakespeare to D.C. students through experiential learning. Over the course of a semester, classrooms around the area learn, develop and produce a Shakespeare play. This semester, students are diving into Athens and the magical forest. Here’s the breakdown: 14 classes read the full play, take workshops on plot, language and design and then rehearse a scene. At the conclusion of the program all the students come together to perform on the Midsummer set at STC’s Sidney Harman Hall.
As part of the production process, the design workshop is an important component of the curriculum. According to STC’s Resident Teaching Artist Jim Gagne, “Students who are not natural performers can find their theatrical voice.” Instead of focusing on how to perform Shakespeare’s words, the spotlight gets placed on the elements of production. Since each class needs to produce a scene, they must develop a concept statement.
Each classroom’s vision is then supported by the set, costume and sound design choices. Before students can develop their concept, they must first be able to separate “what events happen in the play” from “what the play is about.” The events of the play (i.e. “what happens”) form the plot and help to inform the meaning (i.e. “what it’s about”) that the audience is left with as the production ends. The class starts by breaking down the plot, allowing the entire room to be clear on the “what happens” before tackling the “about.” This distinction is not easily apparent for students but given a prompt from the teaching artist, students begin to share phrases, such as “love is easy to manipulate” or ”love is dangerous,” that reflect their understanding of the play. The class debates which ones they wish to explore and votes on one to investigate deeper. In the West Potomac High School drama class, where I watched School Programs Manager Vanessa Hope work with students, they chose to focus on “love is easy to manipulate.” It was clear from their lively and spirited discussion that their creative minds were already well at work thinking about the implications of the word “manipulate” and the various ways it can be visually expressed.
The class discussed two possible worlds that highlighted the theme of manipulation. The first suggested world for the play was a puppet world. The metaphorical manipulation would manifest itself literally as the fairies pulled the humans as life-sized marionettes. They discussed the Duke Theseus, the lovers and other members of the court as bright and childlike compared to the more human-looking fairies. Leaving this idea, the class moved on to discuss a more realistic interpretation: high school. The relationships in Midsummer hit close to home for many of them as they discussed manipulation and crushes. Of course, the Mechanicals rehearsing their play would clearly be the Drama Club. When asked what the forest would look like in this high-school interpretation one student raised his hand and said, “The forest would be prom. It’s a place where wild things…where anything can happen.”
As a fly on the wall taking notes in this high school classroom, it was hard to not get inspired. I may steal that forest-as-prom idea! Hearing the ideas bounce around the room was a reminder that creativity is ceaseless. One may see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or any other play, over and over, and each production springs from a new source, whether it be the world of imagination, one of puppets and theatres, or the world of teenage reality and the wild and forbidden night of prom. At the Text Alive! free performance on Saturday, December 8, at Sidney Harman Hall, the audience was introduced to 14 unique interpretations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each acted and designed by students. Together these students have collaborated in the creation of many new worlds. And there is inspiration to be found in each one.
Hannah J. Hessel, STC’s Audience Enrichment Manager, is in her second season at STC and holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia University.