Managing the Bard and Puppets

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Stage mangers often go unrecognized, doing behind-the-scenes chores to make sure that the show runs smoothly. Because of stage managers, props are never lost, cues aren’t missed and the curtain rises and falls (generally) on time. Robin Longley, stage manger for Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Shakespeare’s  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” has an added element to watch over, puppets. Check out what he does and what it takes to make the magic happen at each performance with the Bard, puppets, and festival-goers.

“Midsummer” is a well-known work, how would you describe this interpretation of the classic?
Longley: It is a smart, sexy, inventive, rude and slightly crazy version of the Shakespeare classic. And it’s got puppets, lots of puppets, in it.

Some people maybe reluctant to see Shakespeare, in what ways does this production make the work more accessible?
Longley: I think the time spent in rehearsals delving into the meaning of the text is very well rewarded in the performances given and the story is really clear.

What would you say were some of the highlights of the production process?Longley:Unpacking the puppets that Handspring Puppet Company had shipped to Bristol in on my first day on the job in January has to be up there. There’s also nothing like doing the show for the first time in front of an audience – you learn where the laughs and the rounds of applause generally are – we keep tweaking the show too, so there are new funny bits for the Spoleto audience that the people of Bristol never got to see.

What were some of the more challenging moments for the production?
Longley: From a stage management perspective, every day can be a challenge: from the scheduling of rehearsals that may clash with costume fittings, or trying to work out where a noise is coming from in the building during a quiet bit of a performance, to how to do the show with an actor who is throwing up in the toilet.

How does doing a festival production differ from a longer running production for a theatre’s season?
Longley: Normally you set a show up, and come in and do the set up at the same time every day and do the show at the same time every night. At Spoleto, logistically everything is different. There are four different show times; we have to pack the set, costumes, props, puppets and some of the lighting equipment away every few days for the Opera; every day there are chamber concerts on the front of our set which means the local crew have to move some of our floor sections to get a piano or a marimba or a harpsichord in (Spoleto has an excellent crew by the way).

Tell me a bit about your background as a stage manager and working with the festival?
Longley: Back home in the UK I am a freelance stage and company stage manager. I have worked in many of the UK’s best, in my opinion, producing theaters up and down the country since training in stage management and technical theater at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I became attached to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” after working with Tom Morris on his recent production of Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons,” which played in London’s West End and toured the UK from December 2011 through to May 2012. Tom asked me to work on “MSND” while we were still touring with that and I was somehow able to fill the gap with work (and also become a father to my daughter Olive in July).

Have you worked as a stage manager for other Shakespeare productions? If so, how does this production differ from the others you’ve worked on?
Longley: I have worked on “Julius Caesar” for Birmingham Rep; “Richard II” for the Royal Shakespeare Company; “Much Ado About Nothing” for Regent’s Park Open Air Theare, London; two productions of “Antony and Cleopatra” for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in the title roles, and Chichester Festival Theatre, with Michael Pennington and Kim Cattrall. I have never done one with this few actors or this many puppets.

How would you describe “Midsummer” to someone who is unfamiliar with the play?
Longley: It is a love story with an hilarious subplot involving ‘rude mechanicals’ (to quote Puck) that culminates in a performance within the play of Pyramus and Thisbe with some of the finest stage clowning I have ever had the pleasure of stage managing.

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