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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Puppets Bring Shakespeare to Life

Review of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Dock Street Theatre.

Spoleto Festival USA’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is not just about bringing Shakespeare’s play to life. It’s also about bringing puppets to life in Shakespeare’s play.

The production, by Handspring Puppet Company and Bristol Old Vic, makes use of puppets to present the fantasy world. But in this realm (being housed at the Dock Street Theatre), the puppets and actors exist alongside and interact with each other.

Four young lovers —Hermia (Akiya Henry), Lysander (Alex Felton), Demetrius (Kyle Lima) and Helena (Naomi Cranston) — appear as puppets wearing the same clothing as the actors who control them. Though weird at first sight, the puppets soon interweave with the actors’ breaths, gestures, physical movements and voices.

William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The gods Oberon and Titania, meanwhile, are presented in another style, one more reminiscent of sculptures. David Pearce, who plays Oberon, holds a big wooden head and a mechanical hand that can point, make a fist and fetch objects. Saskia Portway, who plays Titania, raises a regal sculpture head. When the gentle yellow light falls on the sculptures, they look stately and solemn, yet the shadow falling to their right also adds a gloomy cast.

The puppets carry the metaphor of the play. As the story goes on, the lovers are aware of the puppets and act as counterparts with them, exchanging and even dropping them. This blurs reality and fantasy, which helps convey the supernatural powers of this uncharted era and place. The contrast between the sizes of the puppets speaks to their relative status. On the other hand, the production also makes room for the absurd, notably the conversion of Puck as a transformative creature made of carpenter’s tools (carried by three actors) and Bottom’s transformation into an ass, who plays a comical word game with his name by reversing his head and his backside.

The production does ask a lot of the audience, however, by demanding that they crane their necks for a better view of the puppets on stage in order to understand the lover’s plight in this rendition of Shakespeare’s classic.

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Playing with Puppets

Director Tom Morris likes playing with puppets. After winning a Tony Award for best director of play in 2011, Morris decided to implement the use of puppetry in his imaginative rendition of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” currently running at the Dock Street Theater as part of Spoleto Festival USA. For Morris, puppetry and Shakespeare came hand in hand as the bard tends to lay out imagery right in his text. After leaving Spoleto, the show (which made its United States debut here in Charleston) will head to New Haven, Conn. and continue its tour from there.

What is your favorite Shakespeare play?
Morris: That’s a good question. Well, it depends really. It’s like saying, “what’s your favorite outfit?” I have to say, I haven’t directed many Shakespeare plays, but I do use Shakespeare as a kind of medicine. Reading Shakespeare is like a fantastic, imaginative workout. This morning, I think my favorite Shakespeare play is “Twelfth Night.” That’s probably to do with being someone from Bristol who’s turned up in this beautiful, strange city, having a really exciting adventure. Though on other days, “Winter’s Tale” and I love, obviously “Midsummers Night’s Dream.” When you work on a play, you can get in the middle of it. I think the big tragedies are amazing—“King Lear,” that’ll do, that’s about five.

An article stated that you always base yourself in Shakespeare when working.
Is that true?
Morris: That’s sort of true. The kind of theater that I like watching and I try to make is theater that makes an appeal to the imagination. It’s a kind of theater that understands,

Tom Morris, director of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Spoleto Festival USA

Tom Morris, director of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Spoleto Festival USA.
Photo: Sam Frost/The Guardian

at first, principles are the foundation for everything. The meaning of the thing is created by the audience. It is by coincidence or not, the case, that in Shakespeare’s theater, they didn’t have very much scenery and the invitation to the imagination of the audience was explicit in the text…The kind of theater that I make, whether there are puppets in it or not, makes a rather similar invitation to the imagination of the audience. A puppet clearly requires the audience to give it life, otherwise there’s no story.

What was the inspiration behind using puppets in “Midsummer”?
Morris: I guess there were two inspirations. One was having made “War Horse” with Marianne Elliot and with Handspring Puppets. It seemed like a very exciting idea to try to do something else with something completely different. This particular play appealed because thematically it is engaged with changes of shape, metamorphosis, how the imagination operates. We know that in the dark you can see something and imagine it to be something else. All of those kinds of transformations, internal and external, connect in an interesting way with how a puppet works, because a puppet asks an audience to transform it. And also, the play is dreamlike in structure. We all know that our dreams are visually bizarre.

Your ideas of using puppets before, with “War Horse,” landed you a Tony Award. What was it like winning the coveted award?
Morris: It was very, very strange. I didn’t grow up in the culture of Tony’s. Tony’s are sort of a mythical object for me, so distant and far away and not anything I’d come anywhere near. The experience of that was a mark of joy for unpredictability and collaborative theater making…Witnessing the emotional impact that show has had on audiences, not only in Britain, but obviously in New York and now in Australia and soon in Germany and Canada, witnessing that emotional response is really the thing. A Tony is the label on top of that, which is fantastic because it’s a thing you put on your shelf. It’s a badge on the heart of the audience, and I think that’s why it got so many prizes because people felt the audience was profoundly moved by it.

Is there a difference between audiences in Britain and audiences in the United States?
Morris: For sure. We’ve done three performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and they’re coming off the end of a run in Bristol. The audiences were very different… very different ages of audience, very different city they’ve grown up in. We had a talk after the first performance here because the audiences here—two shows yesterday—are really excited about the show, and they were excited in very different ways. So the company has to allow the audience here to make it their own in a way that’s true for them. They respond to different things, find different things funny, different things moving. The timing shifts, the audience here has changed the timing of the show. It’s fascinating.

How did “Midsummer” fall into your hands?
Morris: I always loved it as a play because I am fascinated by how you go to sleep loving one person and wake up loving another person, which sometimes happens, and how we live our lives around that. So, that’s the underlying thing…We [Morris and Adrian Kohler, “War Horse” puppet creator] started talking about “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I started to understand and see the images that that text inspired for him. We decided that if we were going to work together that we were going to do something very different from “War Horse.” There would be no point in repeating that experiment. That would be of no interest of us. We knew it was going to be different, and we decided that we would try to do something that would combine lots and lots of different kinds of puppetry, and obviously dialogue. He [Kohler] was creating a visual text that would go along with Shakespeare’s text.

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