An Interview with A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Director, Tony Speciale

“…for it hath no bottom…”

You’ve done both tragedies and comedies by Shakespeare. Do you have a preference?

No. I love working on them both and find that they often overlap. Shakespeare rarely introduces us to a world that is purely one thing or the other. His plays are full of paradoxes and contradictions—just like real life. It’s his “tragical mirth” that interests me: the juxtaposition of humor and terror, poetry and blasphemy, the ridiculous and the sublime. I find that to be a wonderful common denominator in both his comedies and his tragedies. I love that MIDSUMMER starts off as a tragedy in Act One, but culminates in a triple wedding in Act Five. The journey from beginning to end is epic. Those kinds of stakes and events are fun to play as an actor and fun to shape as a director.

What attracts you to MIDSUMMER?

It’s a perfect play. The structure, the poetry, the action, the conflict and ultimate resolution is satisfying to work on and satisfying to watch. There’s a reason why MIDSUMMER is usually the first play we all read in school: it’s utterly accessible to a modern audience. It just works. On the flip side of that, each scene introduces a staging problem to solve as a director. How do I deal with Bottom’s transformation into an ass? Who are the fairies and what makes them visually interesting and different from the mortals? Where do I place Titania so she can sleep on stage unnoticed for two whole scenes? How do you stage Pyramus and Thisbe for a modern audience so that it doesn’t feel hammy and antiquated (in a bad way)? There’s a lot going on in any given moment in this play and the potential interpretations are bottomless. It’s a fun challenge as a director to organize and articulate all of these elements while keeping the play’s engine running towards the denouement.
It seems, with this play, that the director becomes most essential in figuring out how to deal with the fairies: who they are, how they function, what they look like and what exactly is the magic that they wield, in short: how does all this manifest itself? Can you talk a little bit of how you envision this aspect of MIDSUMMER and how you came about it?

I started with the idea that the fairies were part of a traveling sideshow called Fairyland, which was strolling through Athens, Ohio to perform for Theseus and Hippolyta on their wedding day. The fairies translated into oddities (the magician, the fortuneteller, the medicine man, the hoochie coochie dancer, the bearded lady, the strong man, the ventriloquist, etc.). For me this was a way of contextualizing the play’s magic, illusion and theatricality. As a kid I remember going to county fairs and circuses and was mesmerized by magicians and other oddities. I wanted to be a magician myself for a while and even had my own magic kit, which I frequently used to terrorize my neighbors. From a very early age I was enthralled by magic. I wondered whether these oddities’ abilities were somewhat real, or was it all just make-believe? There’s a lot of that same wonder in MIDSUMMER, so I wanted to embrace the visual vocabulary I loved so much. There also can be a real roughness and darkness to magic, which seems to support the play’s visceral imagery. This is where I started.

It’s evolved a lot since. The vocabulary of the fairies as oddities is still there but it’s less literal. The fairies now represent figments of the mortals’ imaginations, their dreams (nightmares), and the manifestation of repressed desires and fears. By the time Hippolyta and Theseus exit the first scene in act one, they’ve reached an impasse. They go to bed separately and dream in order to work out their real-life conflict. This has to happen before they can peacefully marry. In our production, the rest of the characters in Athens share the same dream. All of their storylines intersect in the woods, which represents their shared dream state. Theseus becomes Oberon, Hippolyta becomes Titania and the mechanicals become the fairy-oddities. The doubling is symbolic. Each person has to work out his/her issues through role-playing or dreaming. It is said that love is the waking dream and that it follows its own logic. Both dreaming and falling in love can shake you up but both can ultimately be transformational. Shakespeare understood the psychology of dreams before there was a Jung or Freud! After the characters detox in the woods, they can return to Athens and enter relationships, which are healthy, mutually satisfying and full of respect…for the most part.

This is Shakespeare at both his most comedic and lyric; the verse is rich, with a propensity toward rhyming couplets and other artful poetic conceits—how do you work with actors to make that feel natural—or should it feel natural? What is one to do with this extraordinary, ornate, linguistic banquet that Shakespeare has given you?

The language is everything in Shakespeare. There are so many clues embedded in his poetry that can inform and activate the physical choices an actor makes. When I work on any Shakespeare play, the actors and I spend several days around the table picking apart each line on a cellular level. This is one of my favorite parts of the rehearsal process—textual forensics. We discuss and question everything: word choices, scansion, imagery, punctuation, repetition, tonality, rhythm, musicality, vowels and consonants, we paraphrase and “translate” into modern English; all in an effort to unearth as many interpretations as possible so that we have plenty of options when we finally get on our feet. Yes, Shakespeare’s language is heightened but its heartbeat (iambs) is the same as ours today, and that is what makes it modern and universal. People talk to themselves in real life just like they do in Shakespeare’s plays and we’ve all waxed poetically at times. There’s more similar than dissimilar in our languages. The key is to make every word mean something specific to the actor so that no one is ever speaking generally about anything. I think that’s what will make the text ultimately sound organic.

We understand that next up for you is ROMEO AND JULIET at Actors Theatre of Louisville; can you talk a little bit about what your focus might be on this other, more tragic tale of love?

I’m very fortunate to be able to work on these two plays back to back. Each has illuminated important aspects of the other for me. I read somewhere that scholars believe Shakespeare actually wrote them in tandem, which I find fascinating. I like to imagine a young Shakespeare working on his comic masterpiece during the day, and at night turning to the darker aspects of his “story of more woe.” You definitely get a sense when you read them together that they stem from the same creative period. In a way, one is the photo negative of the other. MIDSUMMER starts off as a tragedy but quickly develops into comedy. ROMEO AND JULIET starts off as a comedy and it isn’t until Mercutio dies that the play crosses over and becomes a tragedy. Both deal with young love, mysticism and bad parenting. The myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is only play-acted in MIDSUMMER, is sadly fully acted out by the star-crossed lovers in ROMEO AND JULIET. In terms of my focus for the Actors Theatre production, I’m still in my dreamy-dream phase of imagining all the possible interpretations. However, the one thing I know is I’d like to do a modern production. I’d like to embrace and accentuate the exuberance of youth and the culture of violence, which the play seems to be obsessed with.

I’m very fortunate to be able to work on these two plays back to back. Each has illuminated important aspects of the other for me. I read somewhere that scholars believe Shakespeare actually wrote them in tandem, which I find fascinating. I like to imagine a young Shakespeare working on his comic masterpiece during the day, and at night turning to the darker aspects of his “story of more woe.” You definitely get a sense when you read them together that they stem from the same creative period. In a way, one is the photo negative of the other. MIDSUMMER starts off as a tragedy but quickly develops into comedy. ROMEO AND JULIET starts off as a comedy and it isn’t until Mercutio dies that the play crosses over and becomes a tragedy. Both deal with young love, mysticism and bad parenting. The myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is only play-acted in MIDSUMMER, is sadly fully acted out by the star-crossed lovers in ROMEO AND JULIET. In terms of my focus for the Actors Theatre production, I’m still in my dreamy-dream phase of imagining all the possible interpretations. However, the one thing I know is I’d like to do a modern production. I’d like to embrace and accentuate the exuberance of youth and the culture of violence, which the play seems to be obsessed with.