FEATURE: Xavier Students Bring Shakespeare to Life With the Help of an Expert

Mac Blais as Lysander, Katie Mitchell as Helena, Sterling Shaw as Demetrius and Alex Roberts as Puck
Mac Blais as Lysander, Katie Mitchell as Helena, Sterling Shaw as Demetrius and Alex Roberts as Puck

Xavier University’s Theatre program is quickly developing a reputation of excellence.  Under the leadership of Stephen Skiles, the students in this new program get the experience of working with some of Cincinnati’s finest theatre professionals as they produce their season.  Last time it was Regina Pugh (marvelous in Ensemble Theatre’s THE OTHER PLACE) directing BLACK FLY SPRING.  This time out, its Cincinnati Shakespeare Company resident artist, Jeremy Dubin, helping bring one of the Bard’s most popular comedies to life.  A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM opens this Thursday.  We talked with a few of the folks involved in this production:

Skiles-5.7-819x1024
Stephen Skiles

First is Stephen Skilles, Director of Theatre.

You’ve had some great outside collaborators recently from folks like Dee Anne Bryll, Brian Isaac Phillips, and others.  How important is it developmentally for your students to work with industry professionals?

Well, we are a student-centered program. What I mean by that is that students drive our program. We listen to their interests, needs and desires and try to respond to them. They want to have professional collaborations, workshops and residencies. And they get excited to go see professional productions in the community. They want that bridge between what they do here in the academic setting and what is going on in the industry overall. So from that perspective alone, I think it is vitally important for our students to be working with professional theatre artists. Our new theatre program was written around the idea of bringing in professionals to work with our students. It not only gives them a diverse set of experiences, introducing them to a wide variety of approaches, but it also enables them to make contacts that can help them in the future as they begin their careers outside of Xavier. For example, we welcomed Craig Wesley Divino last year to direct FROM WHITE PLAINS. It was a terrific show. His stage manager for the production just accepted a professional internship this summer with his company, Fault Line Theatre, in New York City. You can’t put a value on those relationships. And we have been fortunate and thankful to work with such a great group of professionals, from Blake Robison at the Playhouse to Lynn Meyers at ETC to Donna McKechnie, Pamela Myers and Richard Oberacker. It’s been an unbelievable start to the program. And we are looking ahead to another great year with some amazing artists next season!

We also spoke with Ellen C. Godbey, who plays “Hermia.”

What’s it been like to work with Jeremy Dubin?  How has his vast experience with Shakespeare impacted your
performance?

Working with Jeremy has been an absolute blast! Jeremy is patient and so open to our interpretations, having even incorporated some cast originated ideas into the show. I’m sure I speak for pretty much all of the cast when I say that we feel that we can go to Jeremy with any question about the acting profession, directing, Shakespeare, and so much more. Jeremy is so detailed and diligent in his work and expects nothing less from us. We will redo the same moment or the same line a million times until we get it exactly how it should be. This is my first time working on a Shakespearean play and I can already feel some of the techniques and processes that Jeremy has taught us improving my acting as a whole. Jeremy insists on us putting emphasis on verbs and not dropping ends of sentences so that our scene partner has energy to go off of. Jeremy’s creative ideas are artistically combined with the classic elements of Shakespeare in this show and I can’t wait for an audience to come see it!

Alice Trent is the lighting designer.

How do you approach a show like this from a technical perspective?  Is it different doing Shakespeare than something more contemporary?

When approaching my lighting design for a Midsummer Night’s Dream, I focused on creating as much contrast as possible between Athens and the Forest.  Our production highlights the presence of magic throughout the show, and I want to emphasize this magic in the lighting design primarily through the presence or absence of saturated color   in different locations. More contemporary plays sometimes require strict realism in order to create the world of the play. Creating a design concept for a Shakespeare play set in contemporary time offers a lot of room for  individual interpretation. This production of Shakespeare calls for a mixture of realistic and non-realistic lighting that makes it a unique designing experience.

Jeremy Dubin
Jeremy Dubin

And finally, here’s director Jeremy Dubin.

What has the process been like with college students as opposed to when directing at CSC?  Is there a learning curve for them with the language?  What should we look forward to with this particular production?

The main difference is the educational component. Directing professionally, there is an assumption that all of the actors have a certain set of skills and tools, and a knowledge of how to wield them.  In educational theatre, part of what they are there to learn is those very skills and tools, and how to wield them most effectively. At CSC (or presumably  any professional setting), there is certain pre-production work that it can be expected the actors will have done prior to the first day of rehearsal.  This may not necessarily be the case with student performers, due simply to the fact that they are in process of learning what that homework is and how to do it. This goes beyond just a familiarity with the play and one’s lines. It is a matter reading the play critically, culling useful information in order to make informed choices, and being able to articulate questions about the play or character in the most beneficial way. Like any skill, it gets developed by doing it, and students will not have had the opportunity to do it as often as more veteran performers.
So in educational theatre, part of the rehearsal time is dedicated to the learning of those skills, tools and vocabulary. It’s sort of like playing a complicated board game. If it’s the first time you’ve ever played, you’re going to spend a chunk of time reading the rules and instructions. If you have a couple of experienced players, who have played many times before, you can skip over that part.  But here’s the thing, it can be really illuminating for an experienced player to go back and read those rules. There may be something he’s forgotten, or at least misremembered. And he may find that with a lot of actual gameplay under his belt, he may understand those rules in different way than he did was a noob himself. Okay, I’ve beaten that analogy to death.
Another great thing these students bring is a fresh perspective. Ask the cast of any CSC production of Midsummer, and odds are strong that the majority of them have done it before. A lot. It is one of the most produced Shakespeare plays in the canon, which places it highon the list of most produced play in the world. I’m not sure how many productions I’ve been in and/or directed, but it’s well within the double digits. With that being the case, it’s easy to have presumptions about the play, and a hubristic belief that you’ve got it locked. These students don’t have those same presumptions, and so are finding new things and seeing things in different and unexpected ways. It’s a delight.  (Plus they haven’t heard all my old Midsummer jokes before, so they still find them funny- or possibly they’re just humoring me. Either way I’ll take it).
For the text, there absolutely is a learning curve. I liken it to learning a foreign language. Even though for all intents and purposes it is modern English, the structure and the syntax can feel foreign, especially as the language is so heightened. And, of course, there are some words that have simply passed into obsolescence. Just like with a foreign language, when you are first learning it, you run through an intermediary step of translating in your head, and when you’re doing that, it can feel a little clunky and cumbersome. Eventually though, if you keep with it, you reach a point of fluency. You are no longer translating in your head, but rather thinking in that language. And that’s when it flows trippingly off the tongue and the language soars.
There’s so much to look forward to in this production. It’s a completely contemporary setting, which has allowed for a lot of great inventiveness on the parts of the designers and the actors. The fairy world in particular has proved fertile territory. In this production, it’s based off of Rave culture, which meshes surprisingly well with fairydom. Lots of wings, fur, and ecstatic dancing. The students have been absolutely amazing in bringing in music, creating mash-ups, and choreographing some pretty epic numbers (not to spoil anything, but keep your eyes peeled for some classic Backstreet moves).

Alex Roberts as Puck
Alex Roberts as Puck
I am very excited to see what Dubin and the students have created with one of Shakespeare’s more accessible works.  You should get your tickets now as seating is limited.  I think this one will be a winner.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM opens on Thursday and runs through Sunday.  Tickets and more information can be found here.

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