Midsommer Flight presents Shakespeare for free in Chicago parks

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Dream of a summer night is one of Shakespeare’s most performed and recognizable works. Inside, audiences encounter a supernatural maze of interconnected plot points, including a play-in-the-room and a character who transforms into a donkey.

For Chicago theater director Beth Wolf, Dream of a summer night has a special meaning: it was the play that sparked his lifelong love for Shakespeare and made him want to confront some of his more antiquated tropes. This summer, for the 10th anniversary of his theater company, Wolf performs the play with accuracy.

Free productions will run through August 21 at five Chicago parks – Lake Meadows Park, Lincoln Park, Touhy Park, Gross Park and Chicago Women’s Park & ​​Gardens.

In Wolf’s hands, the play features a diverse cast who know the play inside and out, communicating its nuances and humor more clearly and vividly than you might have experienced in an English class at the high school. Sometimes this involves rewriting the Bard; each show is about casting women, black and brown actors, and performers of diverse genres who are invited to rehearsals to question and challenge uncomfortable parts of centuries-old scripts.

“It’s our job as people who decide to revive and interpret this art form to make it accessible to the people we play for, instead of just expecting them to jump through it. all those hoops,” actor Ebby Offord said. , who plays the role of Puck.

Jack Morsovillo (bottom) surrounded by Kat Zheng, Hannah Mary Simpson, Elizabeth Quilter, Travis Shanahan in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Steven Townshend / The Distant Era

When Wolf attended a performance of Dream of a summer night as a child – his very first Shakespeare play – it made him cry. But these were not tears of joy. “I was very upset that there were words I missed,” Wolf laughs, joking that his inability to understand Elizabethan English fueled his early interest in the bard. “I kind of took it upon myself to understand every word of that piece, which I now think I understand.”

In 2012, Wolf founded the non-profit theater company Midsommer Flight, and Dream of a summer night is the first play she directed. Key to his vision has been to create productions outside of traditional theaters.

“When we take this work to the parks, and it’s free and we’re in people’s communities, we find that we’re able to introduce this work to people sometimes for the first time,” said Wolf, whose production is supported by funding from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, the Driehaus Foundation, and the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

For Wolf, the central vision of Midsommer Flight is “shared joy and flights of fancy” with a focus on how to most effectively share and communicate what Shakespeare is actually saying in his Elizabethan English which can seem steeped in academic jargon.

Midsommer Flight works with two coaches, a voice coach and a text coach, to ensure Shakespeare’s words can be clearly translated to today’s audience. The two coaches work in tandem. The text coach works with the actors to make sure they understand the meaning of each line, while the voice coach focuses on their delivery, suggesting emphasis on certain words to help audiences of all ages follow along. .

Offord said the extra time to explain the works to the actors pays off in the performance. “That’s how I got into Shakespeare – someone took the time to explain to me what was going on, and I’ll be forever grateful.”

Ebby Offord (Puck) and Joshua Pennington (Oberon) in
Ebby Offord (Puck) and Joshua Pennington (Oberon) in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Steven Townshend / The Distant Era

Wolf tells the actors, when they rehearse and study the text, not only that they “must understand it”, but that they must speak it in such a way that “the audience can hear and understand it as well”.

A lot has changed for Midsommer Flight since its inception 10 years ago. Wolf got professional costumes and sets, rather than using clothes from the actors’ closets. Over the past few years, Wolf has also given the cast and community the time to critically engage with the text, especially the more difficult and uncomfortable parts. To help with that process, Wolf calls the first week of rehearsal “table work,” when the cast and crew discuss adapting a 400-year-old play to be more inclusive.

For Wolf, some of this dialogue is about giving “the female characters more agency, as well as considering who we cast, how they’re treated, not just for their gender identity, but their race or background. ethnic”.

Offord says she found a real sense of community and collaboration with Midsommer Flight. Offord said the cast and crew were “so open and supportive. Anytime there’s confusion or frustration, we can just call him into the room.

Richard Eisloeffel (Lysander) and Alice Wu (Hermia)
Richard Eisloeffel (Lysandre) and Alice Wu (Hermia) in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Steven Townshend / The Distant Era

Wolf defends the actors and characters of Dream of a summer night to have a greater appropriation of the work, especially when the world of the play can seem so removed from contemporary audiences. “Shakespeare is not alive to sue us for changing his words. And so if we have to change a word, we will.

For Offord, bringing Dream of a summer night outside of the traditional theatrical venue and in parks can also allow audiences to potentially feel more comfortable with Shakespeare. “I think viewers feel a lot more encouraged to be themselves and to be responsive in a way that I don’t think they always feel like they have permission to do when they’re in a theatre,” they said.

The downside to an outdoor performance, however, can be the weather. This summer alone, the team had to quickly change rehearsal locations due to a tornado warning.

Despite the occasional challenge of working in fickle weather, for Wolf, Midsommer Flight is ultimately about creating joy. “What we want to do is go into communities and bring people together to have a common experience.”

If you are going to: Dream of a summer night will run until August 21. The play will be performed at Lincoln Park (2045 N. Lincoln Park West) through July 31; Lake Meadows Park (3117 S. Rhodes Ave.) Aug. 5-7; Chicago Women’s Park and Garden (1801 S. Indiana Ave.) Aug. 12-14; and Touhy Park (7348 N. Paulina St.) Aug. 19-21. Audience members are encouraged to bring their own chairs and blankets for the show. Reservations are recommended but not required. For all the details on the schedule, go to www.midsommerflight.com.

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