EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series about the making of a world-premiere adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. University of North Texas dance, theater, jazz and composition students have joined a pair of professional guest artists to build the production.
“If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear, and this weak and idle theme no more yielding but a dream.”
— Puck, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Maggie L. Harrer is a veteran director of Shakespeare’s plays, and she’s married to a musician.
She’d often wondered about hitching the uber-English art of Shakespeare to the hyper-American form that is jazz.
“You know, Shakespeare’s verse is exactly like jazz,” Harrer said, sifting through computer files on her laptop. “Like jazz, iambic pentameter stresses the second beat — the second syllable. It’s also the same rhythm as the heartbeat — ba BUM, ba BUM. It fits together so naturally. And when we started working on a project together here, when I saw how big the jazz department is here at UNT, I knew I had to seize the opportunity.”
Harrer has set up camp at the University of North Texas to lead the world premiere of A Jazz Dream, The Musical, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She has spent weeks translating her ideas to students in UNT’s dance, theater, music and composing programs.
Scenic designer Bob Lavallee was recruited to take Harrer’s fantasies and turn them into a physical space that communicates the themes of the play in a single glance from the audience’s eyes. Both Lavallee and Harrer are freelance theater artists; Harrer from New York and Lavallee from Fort Worth.
Harrer came to Denton after a mutual acquaintance connected her with Marjorie Hayes, UNT’s managing director of theater. Harrer will be in Denton for about seven weeks, working with the production team and leading rehearsals.
Harrer has set the comedy in New York City. The barons of America’s financial and political world are attending “A Midsummer Masque” party in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its classical Grecian architecture. That’s where Theseus, the duke of Athens, is enjoying a gala with his fiance, Hippolyta.
Outside the museum is Central Park, where young street artists — the “fairies” of Shakespeare’s comedy who believe in and use magic — are outdoors in nature, alongside Occupy Wall Street protesters challenging the titans of industry. The “mechanicals,” the traveling performers who have been hired to entertain the wealthy elite, represent a portal between order and passion — or at least a chink in the armor of order.
“The themes of the play are timeless, and they’re universal,” Harrer said. “The Met represents the Apollonian world, and the park represents the Dionysian world. The Met stands for order, and structure and the establishment. The park stands for passion, rebellion and creativity.”
Harrer said what makes the story timeless is the tension between each generation. The adults — politicians, the CEOs, the courts and the law — teach their children that order makes for safety. As the younger generation comes into its own, it resists the rules and dogmas of its elders, insisting that too many rules extinguish creativity.
Lavallee has the job of making these ideas come alive.
“I jump, in my mind, from the imagined space to the real world,” he said. “I can sit here and dream up a blue sky, but if the resources aren’t there to get that sky, then I have to change my plan.”
Lavallee has designed painted backdrops to create the Met’s Egyptian Temple of Dendur, adding mobile set pieces that will be stairs, big stone temple doorways and such. Transparent inflatable beach balls will become floating orbs of light.
To create the unpredictable world of Central Park, Lavallee has created sheer drapes embellished with leaves.
“The actors will be able to touch them, and they’ll move,” he said. “That will suggest the forest, which is the opposite of the forced-perspective I’ve used to create the height of the ceiling and the hard angles of the Met.
“You can use a lot of different language to frame this idea. You can say we’re moving from Apollonian to the Dionysian. I think of it as moving from the masculine to the feminine. From the world of logic to the world of feeling. From the city to nature, from hard to soft. The important thing is for the audience to see the change, and go with it.”
Lighting design will fill in the stage pictures.
The students in the show are watching the two worlds built from the stage floor up, and Harrer said the performers’ biggest job is to bring the language to life.
“You learn Shakespeare like you learn jazz,” Harrer said. “You look at the verse and figure out ‘this is the whole note, and this is where the quarter note goes.’”
Should the pieces fall into place — the songs, dances, verse and the setting — Harrer said the company will have pioneered a show that could end up running in New York City.
“This is a developmental project,” she said. “I hope we get to take it to at least two other places and maybe make it to New York. If that happens, it will be a different show than it is now.”
Lavallee said if the pieces fall together, the company will have created the magic that only theater can create — a magic the ancient Greeks felt was so essential to human life that they built their theaters near their hospitals, and prescribed a performance to their patients for catharsis.
“A lot of actors say that they never really feel like they’re in character until they are in their costumes and makeup,” he said. “The set is another layer of that verite. A lot of what we carry with us is an extrapolation of something that has really happened. But it carries just as much truth in it.
“I love this notion that as I’m coming out of the parking garage with all of these people — some of them performers who will go backstage and become characters and some of us the audience — a pact has been made,” he said. “You have passed into this place where you are going to sit there, and you are letting go and taking all of this in.
“Metaphor drops in and you experience something that is true and real. That’s the magic of theater.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
A JAZZ DREAM, THE MUSICAL
What: World premiere of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 1-3 and Nov. 8-10; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4 and 11
Where: University Theatre, in the UNT Radio, TV, Film and Performing Arts Building, at Welch and Chestnut streets
Details: Tickets cost $10 for adults, $7.50 for students, seniors and UNT staff. For reservations, call 940-565-2428 or visit www.danceandtheatre.unt.edu.
Parking: Lots are available near the building on Welch Street, and a parking garage is located at Welch and Union Circle.