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Rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It’s one thing to think through an idea about a play on paper, or in discussion. It’s quite another to try to bring it to life with actors. In my last posting, I discussed my initial approach to Midsummer, including the doubling of roles that has one actor playing both Theseus and Titania, and one actress playing Hippolyta and Oberon. Throughout the rehearsal process so far, the actors playing those roles have been somewhat puzzled by how to go about playing their second roles, the ones in which they play cross gender. That’s the polite way to say they don’t know what in the world I was thinking or why I would ask them to do such a thing, and further, that I haven’t done a very good job at offering them a path for their work so far.The good news when actors ask questions is that directors are forced to try to answer them, or at least to engage in the discussion and see where it goes. As we talked, I began to see part of what appeals to me about having a woman playing Oberon, and a man playing Titania. As with most brilliant directing ideas in rehearsal, this one came from watching the actors.

As we work, I’m seeing that by playing across gender, the actors actually gain a kind of permission to delve more deeply into ideas of femininity and masculinity than in ordinary circumstances. Without getting stuck in the issue of what portion of those roles is cultural and what part is something more inherent, I believe Shakespeare uses Oberon and Titania to divide the fairy world (and by extension the natural world) between masculine and feminine. Watching the actors rehearse and experiment with these parts, I began to see that where-for instance-a woman playing Titania might begin to shy away from certain expressions of “femininity” for fear of stereotype, Timothy Smith, the actor in the role, feels freer to pursue those possibilities. As Titania, when he speaks of the votress of Titania’s order and her pregnancy, he rubs his hand sensually across his belly. Where a woman in the role might fear (perhaps rightly) that this was too much, when Tim does it, the effect is somehow more complex. Similarly, when Paula Plum, playing Oberon, unleashes her (his?) anger on Titania, she has a kind of permission to go all out, in a way that might seem excessive if a man played the role.

Where will this lead? I still don’t entirely know, though we open the end of next week. Still, I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore the play with brave and talented actors. I know I’m fascinated to see where we arrive, and I believe we’ll open up doors in the play and catch a new glimpse of what lies behind.