[by Susan Shepherd ’11]
As some of you might already know, the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble‘s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened last Thursday evening. Longtime Ensemble fans are used to brilliant performances, clever new interpretations, and a great deal of humor, and Midsummer Night does not disappoint.
The play follows three story lines that frequently blend together and influence one another. First, there is the love plot of the nobles, which focuses on four young ladies and gentlemen who quickly get into trouble when they encounter the Fairy Folk. Next, there are the Mechanicals, a small, poorly equipped and ill-experienced acting troupe that just wants to perform at the Duke’s upcoming wedding. Last, the story follows the activities of the Fairy Folk, whose leaders, Oberon and Titania, have gotten into a spat over a foundling. Titania wishes to raise the human boy up on her own, as best she can; Oberon is furious at her refusal to hand the child over.
If you think this means the play is old and boring, think again. The Shakespeare Ensemble takes a “text-based approach” to Shakespeare’s plays, which means that they frequently come up with new interpretations that wouldn’t seem apparent at first glance.
Here, Robin Puck, played by Sara Ferry ’11, misunderstands one of Oberon’s orders.
In addition, the words of the play haven’t been changed except for a few brief instances where the actors have added in-character lines. (These are extremely brief. For example, I’m pretty sure the death scene in the Mechanicals’ play involved more repetitions of the word “Die!” than were strictly called for by the script. I’m still citing it as an example of a change that was made.)
But despite the fact that this play is a must-see for anyone 13 and older (it’s rated PG-13, and deserves it), that’s not the only reason I’m writing about it. Actually, I’d like to talk about stagecraft using examples from Midsummer Night, and those examples won’t make any sense at all unless you know a little about the basic plot.
Stagecraft has to do with everything in a play excepting the actors. This means lights, music, costumes, props, and scenery. Done well, these things give the audience an easy way to tell when changes in time, location, and mood have taken place, or when an actor has switched characters. They also allow the characters to be divided more easily into their respective groups, whether those groups are “noblemen” versus “yeomen” versus “fairies,” “pirates” versus “ninjas,” or “Hork-Bajir” versus “Andalites.”
In a really good play, like Midsummer Night’s Dream, all these elements come together in such a way that the audience feels that it is immersed in the world of the play. For example, there is a palpable mood difference between these two scenes, even though nearly nothing but the lighting has changed.
Theseus and Hippolyta, played by Zachary Tribbett ’12 and Ginny Quaney ’10.
Here, the costumes help to define the characters. The Fairy Folk employ makeup and natural tones to identify themselves as a group. Their leaders Titania and Oberon stand out by virtue of their bright hair.
From left to right, the Fairy Folk are played by Sarah Laderman ’12, Lee Fuchs ’12, Kellas Cameron ’10, Grace Kane ’11, Sara Ferry ’11, Jessica Wooton ’12, Ginger Yang ’12, and Naomi Hinchen ’11.
Facepaint helps to distinguish the Fairy Folk from other characters.
The noblemen and Mechanicals, by contrast, wear clothing more suited to their position in society. They also carry props that suit their personalities.
The Mechanicals, played by Ned Carpenter ’10, Brianna Conrad ’11 (not shown), Naomi Hinchen ’11, Lee Fuchs ’12, Sarah Laderman ’12, and Jessica Wooton ’12, are equipped with playing cards, a bottle of wine, and workmen’s clothing.
The Royals and Lovers, played by Zachary Tribbett ’12, Ginny Quaney ’10, Christopher Smith ’11, Rachel Williams ’12, Stephen Goodman ’12, Bianca Farrell ’11, and Steven Pennybaker ’12, are not always so dignified as their titles would suggest.
As you can imagine, stagecraft entails a lot of hard work and extensive knowledge of the action in the play—what is going on, who is doing it, and where it’s happening. The best way to gain this experience is through first-hand training, of course, and MIT students who take an interest in the subject will discover early on that there are a fair number of ways to get that experience.
Twice a year, MIT offers Introduction to Stagecraft, whose title says it all. This class covers most of the basics. One student who took this class, Naomi ’12, said, “We did a little bit of everything—everyone made pats in the costume shop and built a widget in the set shop, and then we did one or two lessons each on lighting, scene painting, stage managing, sound, and makeup. The final project had to be either a set piece or a costume piece, and most of the work on that was done outside of class hours.” Another class, Foundations of Theater Practice, covers stagecraft as a somewhat briefer part of a curriculum that also includes acting and directing.
For students with some experience under their belts, there are classes such as Costume Design for the Theater, Lighting Design for the Theater, and Technical Design: Scenery, Mechanisms, and Special Effects. (There are other classes available as well, including specialized ones where you can learn how to make chainmail costumes, but you’ll probably benefit more from browsing the selections yourself here.)
So whether you’re interested in designing costumes, collecting props, or taking charge of the lights and sound effects, MIT has something for you. The Shakespeare Ensemble and other acting groups are always looking for new talent, so I hope to see you on the stage—or as one of the masterminds behind it—in a performance to come.