This story is part of a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

TROUPE 5464 from Pennsylvania’s North Penn High School in Lansdale returns to the International Thespian Festival main stage with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The troupe previously presented Zombie Prom in 2005 and She Stoops to Conquer in 2017.

Story

Olivia Greco and Michael Klitsch in North Penn High School's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Olivia Greco as Puck and Michael Klitsch as Oberon in North Penn High School’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Lou Liguori.

Theseus and Hippolyta plan to marry in four days. But before the duke can put the problems of ruling Athens aside and focus on his impending nuptials, Theseus is approached by Egeus asking for an intervention in the wedding of his daughter, Hermia. Egeus insists Hermia marry Demetrius. But Hermia is in love with Lysander and, facing death or the nunnery should she disobey, agrees to run away with him to the forest until they can safely elope.

Before leaving, Hermia confides in her friend Helena, recently spurned by Demetrius and still carrying a torch for him. To gain his affection, Helena tattles to Demetrius about Hermia and Lysander’s escape, then they take off to the forest in pursuit.

Once there, the Athenian lovers — along with the mechanicals, a troupe of workers turned amateur actors rehearsing a play — enter the fairy kingdom of Oberon and Titania. The latter are engaged in a jealous feud, and their attempts at revenge soon entangle their mortal visitors. Mistaken identities mixed with magical love potions create mismatched partners and plentiful mischief. Yet, in true Shakespearean fashion, all is remedied before the midsummer night turns to day.

Background

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s rare plays not based on an earlier work. Instead, its story appears to be largely original, though elements of character and plot were influenced by Chaucer, Ovid, Edmund Spenser, and Thomas North, among other writers. The play is believed to have been written around 1595 and may have been commissioned for a wedding.

TROUPE 5464’S PRODUCTION

In Troupe 5464’s version of Midsummer, Theseus has recently executed a hostile takeover of Amazons, a rival Athenian factory, but then falls in love with that company’s CEO, Hippolyta. The amateur actors are Athenian factory workers. And the entire story takes place against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, layered with steampunk-inspired design and music.

“Having done a traditional Midsummer in fall 2008, we were ready to take on the show again, and we had the right company to take up the challenge,” co-director Andrea Lee Roney said. “As I worked with the script over the summer to scale it down to about 2 hours and 15 minutes, I began to toy with the idea of producing a nontraditional Midsummer that would engage the student company and student audiences while being true to the script and Shakespeare’s intent.”

Roney proposed the steampunk idea, while her co-director Debra Buckner dived into bringing that influence to the dance, movement, and music in the piece. “What we were determined not to do was force Midsummer into steampunk but rather to discover a way truthfully and organically to find steampunk in Midsummer,” Roney said. “Steampunk is about anachronisms. Shakespeare is full of anachronisms. He may have set Midsummer in classical Athens, but the culture is pure Elizabethan, and Victorian social structure is similar to the Elizabethans.”

Students spent the first three to four weeks of rehearsal in Roney’s classroom working through the text. “We go line by line. The students have their phones ready to Google definitions of words and references, so we are doing dramaturgy at the same time,” Roney said. “We also do improv, with students creating their own lines in contemporary English to get to given circumstances, character actions and objectives, and tactics. Then we go into blocking. They have to know what they are saying and why before moving.”

Thespian senior Molly Hofstaedter, who plays Helena, encourages student actors to push past their initial intimidation of Shakespeare. “So many Thespians I’ve interacted with hold Shakespeare on a sort of unreachable pedestal,” she said. “While the prestige that Shakespeare’s work carries should be recognized, it should also be known that the text is not the slightest bit inaccessible. He’s simply telling a story through language we aren’t necessarily used to. With patience and diligence, Shakespeare’s words are totally translatable and can be broken down by idea.”

Midsummer’s story definitely appealed to Roney’s students. “The young lovers talking at cross-purposes resonated with them — it happens all the time in North Penn’s hallways,” Roney said. “And, of course, there’s the innocence and passion of the mechanicals, who are trying so hard to do a good play and fall so short. It’s just been a wonderful romp playing with all those themes, then finding the physicality.”

Hofstaedter was surprised by how relatable she found Shakespeare’s characters. “What really stuck with me was how often I’d witnessed the same situations Helena experiences both in my own life and in the lives of my friends,” she said. “Midsummer was set in ancient Greece, yet the feelings of rejection, blind love, and misunderstanding that Helena goes through remain common today. It dawned on me why, even after 400 years, Shakespeare is still relevant. He writes about human nature and, though we live in a very different time, we still love, hate, yearn for things, and desire to achieve our goals.”

Roney strives to schedule a Shakespeare play every three years to ensure every theatre student has the experience of working on his scripts during their time in the North Penn program. “I think you learn best from the best,” said Roney. “It doesn’t get better than Shakespeare for developing characters, playing with words, and engaging in dramaturgy. I truly believe anyone can get Shakespeare once you take the fear away. Shakespeare was a practical man of theatre. He wanted his plays to speak to people. Frankly, I think he’s rolling over in his grave the way we introduce Shakespeare to our students in many English classrooms. He’s meant to be seen and heard.”

For Hofstaedter, the reaction of her peers to experiencing Shakespeare onstage was one of the most exciting aspects of the production. “I’ve sat in many English classes where students groan at the mention of Shakespeare, but so many of the same people raved about our production,” she said. “Hearing those students say, ‘I like Shakespeare now’ or ‘Shakespeare finally makes sense,’ and knowing that we accomplished that through our work was so rewarding. I think that shows another way that theatre is so valuable in the world of education.”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream features four interwoven stories: the impending marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta; the mismatched couplings of Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius; the feud between Titania and Oberon; and the mechanicals’ efforts to present their play at the duke’s wedding. In what ways do these stories connect? How are they all finally brought together?
  2. Love is a central theme in Midsummer and, as Lysander states, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” What obstacles are faced by each of the lovers in the play? How does Shakespeare contrast examples of young love with the more mature relationships?
  3. Affections are frequently flipped in Midsummer. How many examples can you identify in the play where one character’s affection for another shifts?
  4. In Midsummer, the forest is the kingdom of fairies. How is each character who enters the forest transformed in some way? What role does magic play in those transformations?
  5. North Penn High School’s production of Midsummer incorporates steampunk design to tell the story. Do you think the school was successful in its use of these elements? Why or why not?

ACTIVITIES

  1. The love story of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in Roman writer Ovid’s Metamorphoses, while Theseus and Hippolyta appear in Greek mythology. Explore the origins of these characters and explain how Shakespeare used his audience’s assumed knowledge of them to enhance the humor and themes of Midsummer.
  2. North Penn High School chose to set its production of Midsummer during the Industrial Revolution. Examine the parallels and differences between the Victorian age of the Industrial Revolution and Shakespeare’s time.
  3. Midsummer is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently produced comedies and one that offers tremendous flexibility in its staging. Choose an alternate setting for the play, justifying your choice with the story’s plot and themes.

RESOURCES

Read
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (full text available through Project Gutenberg)
Folger Shakespeare Library’s Midsummer webpage
Royal Shakespeare Company’s Midsummer webpage
Wonderopolis’ “What Is Steampunk?”

Listen
University of Oxford’s Midsummer podcast
BBC Shakespeare Sessions’ Midsummer performance

Watch
North Penn High School Midsummer excerpts and interviews
Royal Shakespeare Company, Midsummer synopsis
PBS’ Shakespeare Uncovered“The Lovers Untangled”
Shakespeare’s Globe 2014 production excerpt, Act 3, Scene 1
Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production excerpt, Act 2, Scene 1
PBS Arts’ Off Book“Steampunk”

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

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