This past spring, I was fortunate to be involved with one of the most extraordinary drama productions of my career: Hewitt’s middle school performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hewitt has always been committed to mounting Shakespeare’s plays — our founder, Caroline Hewitt, was famously a fan of his works — and for the last five years our middle school productions have been led by our seventh and eighth grade Shakespeare Workshop. The students in this workshop have taken the lead on all aspects of their productions, including managing staging and direction; creating their own costumes, props, and sets; performing music; choreographing dances; and of course, acting.
As the faculty advisor to Hewitt’s middle school Shakespeare productions, I had been preparing to direct our spring 2020 play since last summer, reading it through several times, doing dramaturgical research about the text, and watching many productions on film and video. Hewitt’s production of the play, which is originally set in an Athenian forest inhabited by fairies, was going to take place in a steampunk version of Industrial England, where the magic of the fairies had transformed nineteenth-century technology into a bizarre setting with outlandish costumes and equipment. The first middle school mainstage non-musical play to be mounted in years was going to be a grand collaboration between students, teachers, and working professionals. In addition to working with a talented team of professionals to design the costumes and sets, I was also collaborating with Educational Technology Department Coordinator Erik Nauman on ways in which students would use the Hewitt Innovation Lab to create prop and costume pieces that reflected the steampunk technology of the play’s world. And in early March, as part of the honors component of their English courses, eleventh and twelfth grade students did dramaturgical work for the production, researching elements of Shakespeare’s plays and eventually sharing their findings with the middle school cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Our first in-person rehearsal, held in Hewitt’s Performing Arts Center, ended up being our last. At the end of March we closed for two weeks of planned spring vacation and when classes resumed, Hewitt, like schools across the country, had shifted to a remote learning model. As students and teachers acclimated to this unprecedented way of learning, rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream moved online to Google Hangouts and the cast and I started thinking about how we would work within this vastly different rehearsal model. All of our carefully-conceived initial vision and design elements had to be reevaluated. After all, how could actors work with a set that they would never see or props and costume pieces designed for them, but never built? How could they choreograph dances or investigate scenes of love, longing, envy, and hate without looking into the eyes of their fellow cast members? It was a daunting prospect to try to mount a production of a 400-year-old play with 30 young people spread out over 30 different locations, but none of us wanted to throw in the towel.
We never thought of cancelling the production, because what people in theater know is that a play is not just an activity, it’s a community. Each afternoon, after a full day of remote learning, the stalwarts in the cast and crew worked incredibly hard to parse Shakespeare’s difficult language and breathe life into his complex characters. The students practiced their lines together via phone and built props and costumes from whatever they had with them at home. Students who were not even involved in a day’s rehearsal plan would come join in, just to be a part of the experience. That's not a rarity in theater, but it certainly is notable when “coming to rehearsal” means joining another video call at the end of a long day.
To be sure, it is no easy thing to try to rehearse and perform online. By now, everyone is familiar with the challenges of video conferencing: the pauses between when something is said and when it is heard, the freezing screens, the audio and video that drop out in the middle of a sentence. Imagine trying to build a rhythm in rehearsal, when each line is interrupted by the annoying pause of a lagging video connection. Theater is a physical art, and the body of the actor is her instrument. How can she work when forced to either sit in front of a screen (and not use her body) or stand far away (and not see the screen)? What to do when someone’s camera is not working or her internet connection temporarily glitches or there is road construction right outside a window? Each day of remote rehearsals brought new challenges, and the cast worked through each with enthusiasm and good humor. The experience of coming up with creative solutions to each new challenge brought the cast together in a way I was not expecting given our physical distance from one another.
One of the great and unexpected benefits of shifting our production away from school and into our individual homes was that our play community expanded to include new rehearsal partners, costume builders, makeup artists, and stunt people. Yes, stunt people. We had a number of places in the script where we knew we needed some physical contact - a slap, a push, or some other bit of business (this is a very physical play), and we were rescued several times by younger brothers and sisters who didn’t mind being the arm or leg in a scene. Our extended cast and crew was not limited to siblings, and over the course of the spring our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream truly became a Hewitt family affair. Head of Middle School Launa Schweizer's daughter, a theater student in college, volunteered to attend rehearsals to help the actors work on character development and acting technique. My own eight year old got to know the play so well that she gave me production and staging advice, and two upper school students joined each day’s rehearsal to keep the trains running on time. Hewitt is very lucky to have a strong theater community, with upper and middle school students looking out for each other and collaborating in a way that is truly unique.
We didn’t have a firm plan for how we would finally present the work until the last few weeks of school. Once it became clear that local and state health and safety guidelines would prevent us from mounting a traditional production, the cast debated whether to make a radio play, try to perform live via video stream, or do some version of a video recording. We ultimately opted for the latter, deciding that each cast member would record her own parts on a phone so that we could edit all the clips together. Since we were all in different kinds of spaces, we took advantage of the opportunity to film scenes in a variety of locations, including simply decorated bedrooms, plain hallways, and even lush green outdoor settings when possible. A group of very dedicated middle school cast members took on video-editing responsibilities, turning hundreds of short videos into nine intelligible scenes that told the story of Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, and of course Oberon, Titania, and Puck. The whole cast’s work was extraordinary, and they are very justifiably proud of the films they made.
While there is no experience quite like live theater, the spring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was an incredible experience that I will never forget, and I don’t expect the actors will either. Their strength, humor, irrepressible enthusiasm, and flexibility turned what could have been just another event cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic into an amazing opportunity for all of us. We sincerely look forward to the day when we can return to live theater productions, but until then, I have every faith in our students that they will continue to make something magical no matter the hurdles.