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.

Laughing at Shakespeare

Review of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at Theatre 99.

“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” elevates comedy’s ability to communicate intellectual ideas. But it also challenges the audience to obtain a prerequisite knowledge before enjoying nearly two hours of cross-dressing, slapstick humor.

This production of “Complete Works,” which different companies play across the United States, will not disappoint. The play sails through Shakespeare’s 37 plays while maintaining respect for the playwright’s significance to Anglo-American culture.

Greg Tavares, Steven Shields and Timmy Finch star and direct this production, which plays at Theatre 99 as part of the 2013 Piccolo Fringe series. The actors display an impressive multi-faceted talent for acting, singing and choreography. But their simultaneous mastery of comedic timing and enunciation worthy of the Bard are regrettably underappreciated – sidelined by cheers for their falling down and theatrical screams.

The overwhelming majority of the audience has had at least one interaction with Shakespeare, according to a show of hands at the start of the performance. Yet the intensity of their laughter spiked at moments when one of the male performers feigned discomfort over kissing another playing a woman. For an audience that cheered at a reference condemning South Carolina’s homophobic marriage laws, such behavior was inadvertently reactionary. Knowledge of Shakespeare evidently does not contribute enough to cultural enlightenment.

This was not the lone instance of questionable audience reaction.

Disconcertingly, a mention about Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway produced an outburst of chuckles. Some in the audience may have been under the impression that this factual statement was an anachronistic joke about the Academy Award winning actress. But to be fair, Adolf Hitler found his way into a monologue, and moments of confusion were bound to occur.

Kevin Williamson, theater critic for The New Criterion, found similarly ill-timed laughter troubling at this year’s Broadway production of “Macbeth.” This is hardly a new phenomenon, but it should make us question humor’s relationship to drama.

To borrow from the design of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London: our culture is certainly not in the pits of Hell, but we are not soaring in Heaven’s skies either.