The enchanted forest, virtually

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on November 13, 2020

Bard’s eye-view: A scene from the NWCTS production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NWCTS

A post-Covid production of a Shakespearean comedy — with a cast of teenagers — pushes the boundaries of creative thinking

* Teenagers identify with the central theme of crushes and the flip-flopping nature of young love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It also appeals to our collective imagination across ages, cultures and time

Introducing Shakespeare to young adults can be a challenge initially, but when they succumb to the charm of his storytelling, there’s no stopping the flow of imagination.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its situational romance and extra-natural magical presence that possesses the power to change the course of love, is usually the play that works best. Teenagers identify with the central theme of crushes and the flip-flopping nature of young love. It also appeals to our collective imagination across ages, cultures and time. “Who doesn’t love a talking donkey,” asks Anita Menon, who directs the play for the North West Children’s Theatre and School (NWCTS) in Oregon, US. Beginning this week until December 6, the production is available online for audiences in India and elsewhere.

I remember seeing a delightful production way back in 1999 by the Artistes’ Repertory Theatre in Bengaluru. The enchanted forest with all its inhabitants spoke the language of Kathak. Wonderfully choreographed by Madhu Nataraj and Mysore Nagaraj, the translation of Shakespeare’s lines to mudras and angik abhinay brought the play closer home.

Menon works with Bharatanatyam amongst other forms. Indian dance and theatre forms have always used mythical tales peopled with gods, goddesses, heroic humans and, very often, the criss-crossing between the two worlds. Previously, Menon worked on Chitrangada, the Warrior Princess for the NWCTS, written by Avantika Shankar, a Mumbai-based playwright.

Sarah Jane Hardy, the artistic director of NWCTS, responds to my questions over email: “As Anita and I were going through our process of picking a title, we tossed around a few names but finally landed on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Anita had previously done an Indian dance version of this story and found that families that came to watch absolutely enjoyed the playfulness of the story.”

The motifs and themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she points out, are similar to those found in fairy tales. “Going into the woods, magic, mistaken identity, use of comedy... The storyline of rebellious love also mirrors typical teenage dramas. Our cast is made up entirely of youth performers, ages 15-18... Typically our productions are best suited for ages 4 or 5 and up, but we are targeting an older age group of 8-12 for this show....”

Five years ago, I directed a production of the play for the Madhya Pradesh School of Drama with their graduating students. Most of the students were in their early 20s and loved the clash of egos between Titania and Oberon. In the adaptation, the enchanted forest became an urbane den of iniquity where a superstar couple fights their domestic battles in the public eye. The play has enough plasticity to accommodate multiple interpretations and settings.

A Zoom production experience can be isolating and seem counter-productive, especially with a play that works best when designed for an interactive ensemble. Menon responds, “The cast is about the same size as a typical main-stage production — there are 17 youth performers. The sets, backdrops (physical and digital), props, and costumes feature bright, rich colours... There is a lot of music, and dance is present, but there is less of it... since we are unable to produce big dance numbers at this moment.”

Hardy adds, “While we wanted to incorporate parts of the show that would be familiar to our audiences, we also chose to create this production specifically for this moment, using Covid limitations as a prompt than a barrier. We did not want to pretend the actors were in the same room and weren’t trying to create a standard television show or movie; instead, we talked to the teenagers in our community about what they considered successful internet-specific content and took their lead...”

This need to create a new visual identity for theatre — perhaps a new medium that draws from the spatial-temporal aspect of live theatre and the digital imaging made possible by technology — is a universal concern among theatre practitioners. Many bemoan the absence of real space, and some have taken on the challenge as part of a creative continuum.

Some aspects of the new way of rehearsing come with advantages and a whole different set of concerns. Hardy shares their experience. “It was nice to be able to call an actor in for just a few minutes if needed, which would not be possible if we were meeting at the theater! For the show itself, each actor is filmed in the theater one at a time with a static camera and an acoustic microphone. The scenes are then threaded together in the editing process — very quickly! With the static shot being used for all actors, traditional actor blocking was non-existent. The editor makes many of the creative decisions the director would typically make as they move the actors around the screen...”

This is a positive outcome of virtual productions, as it puts the focus on creative people otherwise mostly on the periphery of live performances. Editors, graphic designers and digital experts are all now at the heart of creative decision making. In this period of change, some aspects of theatre-making continue to be honoured.

Menon concludes our email conversation, “Throughout this process, we have learned so much and yet many of our old ways of working still hold true. For instance, making sure that the atmosphere in the room is still very respectful and that we are still listening to each other’s ideas and opinions. Despite all the challenges, I have discovered, listened, learned and grown from this experience.”

My favourite quote of the post-structural era of creativity is by Anne Bogart: “The old hierarchy in the theatre with text at the top, followed by the director has crumbled.” Her pre-Covid words have a prophetic ring to them.

(The NWCTS’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available online till December 6)


Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

Published on November 13, 2020

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