I wrote about the fairies at the bottom of my garden (during lockdown!) for Snapping the Stiletto.
Click here to view the piece, and for a recording.
I wrote about the fairies at the bottom of my garden (during lockdown!) for Snapping the Stiletto.
Click here to view the piece, and for a recording.
There is a Play…
Indeed, there was, but, unlike the Mechanicals’ production of Pyramus and Thisbe, the 2021 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Lockdown was superbly well directed, filmed and acted. It was, as always, a real pleasure to take part in an Open Air Shakespeare production. I particularly liked the imaginative use of different settings in the two gardens, the ‘socially distanced’ interactions between Demetrius and Lysander and the way the use of the camera added to the fun of the Mechanicals’ play.
It was, of course, a very different experience to previous years’ productions; no first night to work towards, no audience to interact with, no continuity. I thought I knew this play fairly well, but couldn’t always work out which bit went where until the final rehearsal.
I was originally cast as one of the Mechanicals but the number in the merry band was reduced to comply with the then current Covid regulations, so I was offered the part of Egeus instead. In real life I do my best to be a reasonable sort of chap (although I don’t always succeed) so it was interesting to play a thoroughly unpleasant character.
Firstly, he’s very angry with his daughter because she’s fallen in love with a man he doesn’t approve of, so angry that he demands to have her executed (Shock! Horror! Shame! Shame!). Then he sneers at the sincere, but admittedly comic, efforts of a bunch of working class people to stage a play and then comprehensively trashes their performance (Boo! Hiss!).
Like most people, even the best of us, I definitely have a dark side to my nature. Even Saint Paul wrote: ‘the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.’ So it was rather fun to let my dark side out of its cage, without hurting anyone. To quote George Orwell, it was ‘a harmless rebellion against virtue.’ Oops, I’m beginning to sound like ‘Thought for the Day.’
So, what part would I like next? Hamlet’s murderous Uncle Claudius? Othello’s evil nemesis Iago? Actually, no, I’m not dropping hints to future directors, I wouldn’t like either of these roles. There would be too many lines to learn.
It says something for Helen, our director’s, vision and planning, that she could envisage how filming Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2021 could address the limitations of Covid regulations. Her rehearsal spreadsheets were a miracle of logic and infinite variations!
As actors, we didn’t have to worry that much: turn up, either in person in a damp and mosquito-ridden garden (sorry, Helen. Some of us were designed as mozzie snacks…) or on Zoom, at a specified time, and do what was required. There were occasions (much more frequently for the directors, but occasionally for us too) when we had five minutes to get from one scene in one garden to another in another at the other side of Wivenhoe.
In all likelihood, Hollywood will never come calling on this particular actor; I suspect that my star is now unlikely to shine in Tinseltown. But this year’s production has made me aware of some of the differences between film and live performance. For a start, there is no sense of continuity. I know the play quite well, but when we reached the “speed word run” rehearsal, although we were fine within scenes, we were completely at a loss about scene sequence (What happens next? Is it me??)
Secondly, and Midsummer Night’s Dream possibly lends itself to this more than some other of Shakespeare’s plays, rehearsals were tightly segregated by number and by group. Fairies never met mechanicals (apart from a spot of illicit ear fondling between Titania and Bottom); mechanicals never met the lovers. As a social group, we did miss each other! We’ve always loved watching whole rehearsals to see the magic unfurling. Helen was able to arrange a quasi “dress rehearsal” when regulations allowed (some of the scenes had already been filmed by this point, but we needed a chance to watch each other!)
And, as others have commented, we didn’t have to travel to reach our spot. No storming on or off; no climbing onto a stage encumbered with a plastic sword or a long dress: filming began when we were in situ. This was odd; I always feel that you can set a mood by the way you enter a space, but we needed to summon emotions from a literal standing start! In fact, I found that limitations of movement (I’m a big arm-waver, it appears) when you have one fixed camera, could be very demanding. “Use something else rather than storming about to show your frustration…”
Was 2021 the same as previous productions in the execution? No, it was entirely, completely different! I missed the buzz of an audience and the backstage camaraderie. However, this was an inspired opportunity to try something new when nothing else was happening out there, to work together as a group and to produce such an outcome. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to try it!
I was thrilled to get the part of Demetrius (one of the four lovers) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Lockdown – and very surprised, as I’d originally auditioned for a role as one of the mechanicals. When Helen (our wonderful director) phoned to offer me Demetrius I was momentarily hesitant. Could I, as a middle-aged woman, play the part of someone Oberon describes as a ‘disdainful youth’ (and remember my lines?)
After that initial moment of hesitation I leapt at the chance, however. Demetrius is not a very pleasant character; he begins by dumping Helena for Hermia and is then horrible to Helena when she follows him into the forest. However, his character undergoes an interesting developmental arc in the play. After being initially angry and disdainful, he then makes a fool of himself fighting over Helena with Lysander, after they are both enchanted into falling in love with her.
Then in the lovers’ final scene, Demetrius becomes much humbler, declaring his undying love for Helena (and also helpfully recapping the tangled love stories for the sake of anyone who is still confused!) This change over time, plus the chance to fight Lysander with a large stick, convinced me that Demetrius would be a great part to play.
I wasn’t wrong. Rehearsals with the other lovers (Max as Lysander, Sara as Hermia and Katie as Helena) were great; they are brilliant actors and I learnt a huge amount from them and our wonderful directors, Helen and Clare. We bounced ideas for scenes, props and costumes off each other. Eagle-eyed viewers of the film will hopefully notice Lysander’s cool and casual approach to running away into the forest (packing only his shades and a blanket), while fussy Demetrius felt the need to take an entire backpack and sleeping bag. (The sleeping bag was actually a good idea, as I was able to huddle up in it at the especially cold rehearsals in April).
Max and I also used our sticks in various different ways; as walking sticks, weapons, and poking devices; I felt quite bereft when we had to give them back to Helen at the end of filming. The highlights of the whole experience for me were the camaraderie of our group; finally getting the hang of 3.2, the complicated lovers’ argument scene (which took more hours of rehearsal than all our other scenes put together); and the full-cast dress rehearsal, at which we finally got to see what brilliant things the fairies and mechanicals were up to. Being involved in the film will certainly be my best memory of lockdown.
On a cold evening in early April the first rehearsal for MND 2021 took place in our garden. Only six people allowed due to Covid restrictions, and social distancing to be maintained at all times! Back gate open to welcome the actors and director, chairs suitably spaced on the lawn. I retreated inside to listen and observe with script in hand.
These regulations continued as the garden gradually progressed from Winter to Spring, while the valiant actors rehearsed twice a week whatever the weather – wind, rain, even snow!
It was a joy to receive the actors in the garden and watch the characters develop and evolve as the weeks went by, under the direction of Helen and Clare.
My role as Prompt took on a new dimension as I was introduced to rehearsing and line bashing in a Zoom Room – a new experience for me!
The day finally arrived when the whole cast could meet in our garden for a dress rehearsal. It was a wonderful opportunity to see everyone and the rest of the play.
Filming took place a week later, Saturday in our garden, Sunday in Helen’s. Sameera, like a true professional with her camera, captured each scene calmly and efficiently. We then waited with excitement and anticipation for the film to be edited and released.
MND 2021 has been such a happy experience. Our garden came alive at a time when we were feeling isolated and uncertain about the future.
Thank you to Helen and Clare for making it all possible, and to the amazing actors who created a performance we will never forget!
For me, it was more than just putting on a production that was cancelled in 2020. For me, it was a lifeline, a way out of the quagmire of covid and a way of reconnecting with friends in a safe, controlled environment.
I was so grateful to be cast as Hermia. A dream role for me, as she goes through so many different emotions throughout the play. She starts off by being incredibly brave, standing up to her father, even though refusing to marry his choice of suitor could result in her death. Then she continues on a rollercoaster of drama, from head over heels in love, to mildly irritated, to excitement, then fear as she wakes up alone. Then the fun really kicks off, as act 3 scene 2 sees her reach new levels of anger, confusion and hurt.
Working with Max, Alison and Katie was fun from start to finish. But boy, did I have to up my game, as the speed with which they learned their lines was phenomenal!
We laughed a lot, as did Helen and Clare. To say we were grateful to be there sounds a bit corny, but we really were! Even though Max and I suffered from terrible hay fever, we never minded laying on the grass “asleep” as the action continued around us. When still on script, it got to the point where my eyes were watering so much, I could barely read my lines, so learning them early definitely had its advantages, that and the fact we could concentrate on the moves.
I can remember one particular rehearsal, where I was sitting at the table opposite Alison and some white bits landed on the table. It’s snowing, I whispered. Surely not, it must be blossom, but on touching it, it was indeed snow!! We were chuffed, as we were the first group to rehearse in the snow. We’d all been rained on and shivered on the coldest days, but we embraced our snowy rehearsal and wore it like a badge of honour, telling all who’d listen how dedicated we were.
In all truthfulness, this production helped me through the toughest of times and I feel we all bonded as a cast in a way that had never happened before. Whether grinning at each other on zoom, with the obligatory waving when we signed off, or meeting up in either of the two rehearsal gardens, it’s an experience that I’ll never forget and will always look back on with incredible fondness.
In February 2020 I auditioned for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with WOAS, who I’ve been with since 2012. As usual I crossed fingers for a meaty part (at my age I like line-learning just to keep my brain working). Perhaps I would get to air my Bottom, or show off my Titania. Even demonstrate how much of a Puck I could give. My real hope was to play Hermia, as a fellow short person.
Instead I was cast as Tom Snout the Tinker, one of the comedic Mechanicals, who is the Wall in their play within the play. I puzzled on how at 5 foot 1 to play a wall, but one of the joys of the Mechanicals is you can be rubbish and it’s utterly appropriate, so I started thinking of ways to add comedy to the role, and learning lines.
And then lockdown happened. Everything was postponed.
This spring, Helen asked if we would like to still be involved, with the performance being filmed and aired online and rehearsals conducted via Zoom or (adhering to social distancing and “rule of six”) in her and Malcolm’s lovely gardens. Nobody who wasn’t shielding turned down the opportunity. The script was revised and in order for the Mechanicals to be “legal” Snout was merged with Snug the Joiner to create Snuggit – now re-imagined as a Covid Warden which gloriously gave me more lines to play with and the opportunity of playing a Lion in the Mechanicals production.
Despite the usual Zoom glitches rehearsals online were welcome, but the beauty of our little garden bubble was seeing characters and camaraderie develop in “real life”. We were a great gang – Des and his amusing Bottom, Ed a lovely Flute – who nearly reduced us to tears with his genuinely beautiful rendition of Thisbe grieving for Pyramus, Robin hilarious as the constantly bemused and slightly wimpy Starveling the Tailor, myself, and of course the wonderful Mary capturing Peta Quince’s indefatigable (and only a little bit inept compared to the rest of us) nature.
It rained on us lots but we all kept going. Because we loved it! It was interesting to test out ideas with Clare (co-director) then surprise Helen with what worked. My aim was always to make people laugh (I run Wivenhoe Funny Farm comedy club so it’s to be expected). I loved adding little touches (spraying underarms with the sanitiser (water) lifting up my lion’s mane to reveal I was just Snuggit – not a terrifying beast, waving Thisbe’s scarf at Pyramus with a broom handle so he’d remember to notice it just for a reaction, but the rest of our group were obviously of the same mind; Pyramus’s “Die! Die!” speech kept growing until an extra “Die” had us all in stitches.
Costume-wise, my Hi Viz jacket, tape measure and “sanitiser spray” showed how seriously I took my anti-Covid duties. I suggested Robin have safety pins on his waistcoat and a tape measure in the pocket, and he looked a very dapper tailor at the dress rehearsal. That was the best day – when we finally saw each other’s bits (I say!) which had been rehearsed separately, in a distanced perambulatory performance.
The rest of the cast had also been busily upping their game. At one point Malcolm (Moth the fairy) collapsed when enchanted as though poleaxed and remained prone for an almost concerning time. Everyone was perfectly cast for their roles (yet again!) and I laughed lots at the warring lovers, the sarcastic fairies and Puck’s ineptitude.
Chris, our amazing prompt, made a fantastic looking ginger cake – but as I’ve been on a diet since April (have lost nearly two stone of lockdown weight!) I had to make do with watching Oberon eat a slice.
It was a jolly time that took our minds off the frightening world situation and gave us all some hope and company. I’m glad I was involved and hope people enjoy the film as Helen, Clare and Sameera (who took time out from exam revision to film and edit it) have put so much love, stress and hard work into creating this. If you like it please consider popping a quid or two to the Intensive Care Society via:
Actually this title is a joke. See programme notes for close-up cast details and watch these blogposts for all the gossip about rehearsing during lockdown – in their own words – over the next few weeks! But here’s a little more about the characters they’re playing:
The Fairies: Oberon, Fairy King, and Titania, Fairy Queen, are having another domestic disagreement, one which has thrown the natural world into chaos. Their argument spills over into the mortal world. Puck – Oberon’s mischievous servant – enjoys the chaos, though Moth and Cobweb, Titania’s loyal fairies, are less than impressed with the human they meet…
The Lovers: Demetrius used to love Helena, but now he loves Hermia. Lysander loves Hermia and she loves him. Hermia’s father Egeus thinks she should marry Demetrius, so Hermia and Lysander run away, followed by the angry Demetrius and the hapless Helena. After the fairies intervene, both boys think they’re in love with Helena… Got all that, and worked out which one is which?!
The Court: Duke Theseus has beaten Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, in battle, and she, as the loser, has to marry him. Meanwhile, Egeus is also angry because his daughter Hermia is defying him in her choice of man, and he publicly threatens her with death, according to the ancient law of Athens. Theseus needs to get all this sorted out and try to win Hippolyta’s love and respect…
The Mechanicals: This local am-dram group has a play to rehearse – if chosen to perform it on Duke Theseus’ wedding day, they’ll be ‘made men’. Peta Quince is (nominally) in charge and they all revere star actor Bottom, especially young Flute. Covid Warden Snuggit is more concerned about keeping to the rules, and Starveling is bemused and confused by everything. Will they manage to learn their lines in time? Will they find their way out of the woods, where they go to practise in secret?
The Crew: Here is the skeleton crew employed for this year’s event: one prompt, two directors, and the clever one, Sameera, who filmed it and edited the film, thus making it possible for you all to watch our ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream in Lockdown.’
After eight weeks of rehearsals in the cold and wet, the weekend of filming at the end of May was hot and sunny. So unprepared were some of us for the unexpected good weather, that we got sunburn! In the above photo, I’m using one of our ubiquitous broomstick props as a marker, so the actors know at which point they’re on or off camera if they have an entrance or exit during a scene.
Otherwise, we discovered that entrances and exits become far less of a deal when you’re filming, as the actors are almost always in place as each scene begins. Live performances need to factor in time (and background music) for getting actors and props on and offstage. The film can cut slickly and speedily from one scene to the next.
Live performances require us to limit use of ground-level acting, unless you’re standing up. If someone sits or lies down, it has to be on raised staging or the audience can’t see, and even then it can be problematic. Sight-lines are crucial. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are no fewer than six characters asleep, supposedly on the ground, at one point in the play – a staging challenge for any company. Filming permitted easy solutions to this problem – our sleepers really were able to do so “on the ground,” and the camera angle could be changed to whatever worked best. In addition, we were able to film in varied locations in two different gardens, instead of having to work with one backdrop.
Productions over a large outdoor staging area (and Covid regulations!) demand that the actors keep well distanced whilst performing – ‘move further apart’ has been a common stage direction in our previous shows. Film works well with close-ups, allowing the actors to drop their voices in more intimate scenes without being told to speak up! In fact, we were often encouraging them to move closer together (within the restrictions of social distancing rules, of course). We have never previously performed a play where the actors can’t touch each other!
The sound quality is so good that watching this film is just like being at one of our outdoor performances (without the risk of cold and rain). You’ll be able to hear all the usual Wivenhoe background noises: birdsong, buses, trains and planes – and lawnmowers – just as normal!
Here are a damp-looking group of Mechanicals, rehearsing in the rain – my umbrella brim is at the top of the photo. We just carried on when it rained, which it did on several occasions. The wonderful cast never complained! It snowed on our first Sunday afternoon rehearsal, and the notes on my script blurred and ran. After that, I kept it in a plastic wallet and often had to wipe each page dry once home from rehearsal.
Drone photo of the final rehearsals and film sessions (taken by Sameera) in bright sunlight. This was how I’d imagined all the outdoor rehearsals would be… I had visions of drifting around in a floaty dress with a sunhat. In fact, many of us got sunburnt during the previous day’s filming and had to cover our ‘sore bits’.
Back in March, planning the rehearsal schedule, I used a sunset timetable in an attempt to calculate how long we could stay outdoors on Wednesday evenings. Our first evening rehearsal (with Hippolyta, Theseus and Oberon) was on a cold March evening. Birds sang, the air was still and crisp and it felt hopeful and exciting. We managed fifteen minutes before the dark forced us to hurry home to meet on Zoom.
We soon became used to the vagaries of the weather and were prepared for anything. Just as well, as our 8-week rehearsal period ran through the wettest and coldest spring for many years!