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A comparison of the characters in a midsummer nights dream to high school children

This is Episode 164. You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk. Somebody was cleaning out his office or painting his office and listening to the podcast. That is, like, the best! I hope that there is something that you guys get out of it. So, how do we take this play? How do you interpret it? Ad how do you illuminate the bard both for your audience and for your students?

I am talking to Marsha Walner. This is true — very true. What makes it your favorite play? This particular production was a group of K through 12 students so I had everything from little tinies that just wanted to be silly up through high school actors who really wanted to get serious. This play really provided that. What a wide range of students to work with. Your sanity was kept? And that all came from a very meticulously created rehearsal schedule.

What are some of your first thoughts when you were thinking about how you were going to present it? Well, my main thought was how to stay true to the material and really work with the language. Obviously, with Shakespeare, that can be a challenge for students, especially working with really young students. So, really thinking of ways that I could make it both deep and intellectual for older students as well as still fun for the younger ones.

We incorporated a lot of movement. For the very youngest, we did some choreography for them. There was kind of a little boys versus girls thing happening amongst the young faeries so I kind of invented a lot of little ways that they could have little rounds of battle throughout the show — kind of non-verbal sort of interactions — and then it all, of course, culminates when things culminate between the older characters.

Did you have a specific look for the show — something you were going for?

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With the sort of real world elements, I went with kind of a classic ancient Greek — you know, the long toga-type look and kind of militaristic. With the faeries, of course, lots of tulle and sparkle and some more unnatural kind of lighting in terms of design elements to really draw that distinction between the real world and the dream world and doing that through all those design elements. Like, you can really get a visual as to what a military look might be. If you think back on some of the origins, the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta was of war and conquest, you know.

Also, the relationship between Egeus and Hermia. Like, full fixation come against my daughter Hermia.

Drama Teachers Directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Not funny, not funny, but exactly so — that there is that element to it. Did you have a team when it came to the look of your show in terms of costume and sound and set or are you a one-man band? There was a bit of a team, yeah. This was in an independent school so I was directing and then we had a set designer who worked full-time in the school and he did all of the set elements and kind of all the backstage stuff and then he brought in an artist who did lighting design and I had a student costume designer that I had been working with for a couple of years before this and so this was her first production she really took on by herself as a designer.

Kind of a little team of combination of local professionals, in-house staff, and students. What are some things that you said to communicate what you were looking for in the production to your team when they went off and started work on their own elements?

I was lucky in that the set designer was somebody that I saw everyday and we worked together everyday. There was a lot of just casual conversation as we thought of ideas and different little things that we could include.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

That was a little bit unconventional in that we were able to have a considerable amount of conversation and kind of see things as they came together and give each other feedback. That was how that worked out in terms of set. Some of it has to do with functional elements. Now, we have to make it functional. Also, the functionality of costumes, too. Like, does an actor have to move in this costume?

Particularly with the faeries. If you want movement, then the costumes have to accommodate. Was it a learning experience? Was she just on-board and was able to bring everything to the table? She was definitely very enthusiastic about the artistry of her position which was great to have. We had worked on, like I say, a couple of shows previous where I had functioned as costumer designer for a different director and she was kind of my assistant.

So, I was able to kind of set the tone for a lot of the tasks and how to accomplish things really professionally and she really came through. I was really very impressed with her maturity and her ability to do things like conduct fittings and kind of do a costume parade and be able to give actors notes in a really professional way. Oh, what a great experience for her. Yeah, I was really glad to make that happen for her. How do you work on a text? What do you do when it comes to communicating the script to your actors?

With the younger actors, again, a lot of movement — even sometimes with the older group. Like, the mechanicals, we did a lot of kind of slapstick movement stuff that helped them get a better handle on character before having to really put that into the dialogue. So, getting a lot of opportunity to work on ensemble and physicality and kind of get all that under control and then start applying that to the text.

Maybe a little backwards way of doing it but I felt it was successful with this group. I think that can work, you know. Like, if they get it into their bodies first a comparison of the characters in a midsummer nights dream to high school children then figure out the language.

For example, when the mechanicals first appeared, they would come in sort of one at a time and we kind of developed this kind of teasing relationship between Starveling and Snout and they would kind of pick on Snug. And so, we developed all these little slapstick-y kind of things that they would do and then Bottom comes in. It was a female who played the role and it was just a lot of just fun kind of silly stuff that sets the tone for the relationships and the dynamics.

And then, we would get into the text. How did you work with your students to make these characters relatable? Ah, that is a great question. So, really making it relatable — not just generally relatable but specifically to their own experience.

These students, did they have a lot of experience with Shakespeare or was it new? I mean, with some of the little ones, it was new. How did their relationship with Shakespeare change through your process?

Well, I was fortunate in that a lot of these students have experienced the text in English classes. Again, I was fortunate in that they had a pretty thorough experience.

Most of what we were dealing with was sort of the basics of relationships and character building. As we wrap up here, how was the response? Who was in your audience and how did they take to the story? Yeah, it was mostly families. It was a school production so majority of the audience is family and teachers and school community. They all really enjoyed it. There was always the feeling of gratitude from the younger families — you know, because I had, of course, kindergarteners in the play as some of the younger faeries — and their families were just so grateful — not only for the experience but the opportunity to work with the older students.

I think I was intentional about setting that tone of kind of a little community and taking care of each other. I think that reads when the performance happens and you see Puck come down the aisle through the audience with three little boys and kind of coaching them along. What a great thing to pass on to your students! Oh, thank you so much, Marsha, for talking to us today! Yeah, it was my pleasure. It was very fun to kind of relive the memories. Yes, I am — sixth, seventh, and eighth grade teacher.

Did you do the whole thing? Did you do a cutting? We did the whole thing. We did an adapted version but, as I went back and compared the text, they were pretty similar. Some of the meatier monologues were just kind of cut but, in terms of the language and the verbage from I have a first folio copy and I was looking at the adapted version, they were fairly similar. Let me expound on that and let me tell you even more how I feel. Have you always just thought that Shakespeare would be great for your students.

I always have in terms of picking this particular play for this set of students.

I had such an interesting mixture, just a great mixture of kids with all different various levels. So, where did you start with this play?

You started with your students, actually.