Tonight was our fourth preview of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massacusetts. As I sit in the lobby of the beautiful Packer Playhouse after the show, I find myself thinking over the many experiences I’ve had since starting this process.
I've begun to gauge how long I’ve been here by watching the two families of Canadian Geese who live on the property. When I arrived, the goslings were little balls of fluff, guarded by sets of nervous parents. Over our five weeks of rehearsal, they tripled in size and lost most of their baby-feathers. Now their parents stand several feet off as their children sunbathe on the many glorious lawns of the Shake & Co. Campus.
Our production of Midsummer, directed by Tony Simotes, is set in Jazz-Age New Orleans. Spanish moss and glowing yellow lanterns adorn the set and the actors wear white linen suits, thatched hats and floral dresses: a picture postcard of Bourbon Street. The show starts with a full-company blues number and though it hasn’t opened yet, audiences are already loving it.
Though it’s often produced as a piece of lovely fluff—a wildly accessible romantic comedy with something for everybody—Midsummer also deals with complex and difficult material: forced marriage, references of domestic violence, sexual assault and astounding portrayals of classism.
When I first head we were setting Midsummer in Jazz-era New Orleans (I was sitting in a cafe in Copenhagen, Denmark, eating an indescribably good Danish pastry, just to set the scene for you) my first question wasn’t about how we were going to deal with the gender politics of the lovers, or the class differences present in the mechanicals scenes, but about how race would figure in to this landscape. New Orleans has a complex racial history—interracial marriage was illegal until 1967 and even in 2009 a Louisiana judge refused to marry a biracial couple. In the 1920’s the KKK had 30,000 members in Louisiana alone.
Over the course of working on Midsummer, a lot of questions have come up for me on how directors should deal with race in Shakespeare. There are often two camps of thought on this: those that use race to accentuate parts of the text (such the very common racially split Romeo and Juliet, or the oft-replicated Colonial reading of The Tempest) and those that decide to ignore race completely and cast Shakespeare in a color-blind fashion. Though both have their merits, both schools of thought can be problematic for different reasons. The first can ignore huge parts of the text: in Romeo and Juliet the whole point of the Montague/Capulet dispute is their is nothing different between the two families (they are “both alike in dignity”). The second can ignore huge parts of the world we live in: even though your production may decide not to see race, your audience will definitely see it. There are also great advantages to both approaches. The first might accentuate something deep within our consciousness, and seek to affect social change by drawing parallels to current conflict in Shakespeare’s text. Though we all are aware of race, the second approach might challenge an audience to see past their assumptions, and imagine a world not dictated by racial separation. That said, I think there is a middle ground between these two approaches that may prove more useful as we keep producing Shakespeare into the 21st century. This third approach is one that recognizes the racial climate of our times and stages Shakespeare with that awareness, without changing the story of the play to be solely about race.
Though I’m still working out much of my thoughts and questions on this subject, my time at Shakespeare and Company has been invaluable in helping me see how we can make Shakespeare relevant, exciting and transformative for people coming of age today. I can’t wait to continue this journey as I participate in Fall Festival and a 9 week residency directing Shakespeare in the schools come September!
Photo ©2014 Kevin Sprague