The Magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title alone informs the audience that they are entering a world quite unlike their own, one in which conventional rules do not apply. Fleeting and whimsical, dreams are a happy respite from the stultifying order of everyday existence. Similarly, the play creates a realm in which different laws are at work. Laws that are predicated around the reality of magic and the existence of fairies.

Gentle and humorous, A Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves its spell so subtly that an audience can believe fairy interference to be the most natural thing in the world. We all, of course, suspend disbelief when viewing a work of fiction, but my experience of watching the play goes beyond that: I feel myself fully inhabiting a world in which a magical worldview is the norm and the mild, teasing uncertainty of what is and is not real pokes, like tendrils, into my life engagement at large. Just like the play itself, what is ultimately “reality” is in question. One lesson I take away from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that, in some cases, if we can never know for sure what is real and what is not, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the possibilities to be explored, the ideas to be considered and the creative and intellectual stimulation provided from an open approach.

Some have noted the disparity between the use of magic in the play and societal attitudes at the time of its writing. Since the decimation of the witchcraft-practicing communities of Pagan Britain and the establishment of the Church as the single spiritual authority, attitudes towards the practice of magic had typically been hostile: it was regarded as innately sinister and performed only for evil intent. Shakespeare’s use of magic, however, is much more benevolent; Puck is pure mischief, with no real malice, and the spells used, while creating confusion and chaos, ultimately cause no real harm. Any potential disaster – such as the suggested duel between Lysander and Demetrius – is averted by the fairies, and all is restored to rights in the end. Shakespeare even has the fairies use magic explicitly for good; in the final stage of the play, they perform a blessing for the human characters. This reflects a more nuanced view of magic than is commonly accredited to the time period – that magic is morally neutral and can be used for both good and bad. It can cause harm but also repair harm. Or it can simply be light-hearted and fun.

This perspective may seem incongruous when looked at in the context of the prevailing views of the time, but exceptions existed even within that narrow way of thinking. Cunning folk, or folk healers, who essentially practiced spells and other forms of witchcraft, were common throughout Britain, and it was not unusual for people to turn to them for their health needs or for positive magical acts such as protection spells. John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I and therefore one of the most powerful individuals of his age, was heavily involved in the practice of occultism, including attempts to contact and channel disembodied entities – his famous scrying equipment can still be seen on display in the British Museum. It has also been suggested that The Tempest’s Prospero may have been inspired directly by Dee.  If you searched hard enough, you could find pockets of society that not only tolerated magic but actually celebrated and practiced it – was this what Shakespeare was drawing upon when he penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Ultimately, I believe that the magic is a large part of what makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream so popular and enduring – its prodding and twisting and bending of what is possible, its acting as instrument for delivery from the impersonally structured sequences of everyday living. The ambiguous nature of the tale is a reflection of some of the deepest philosophical questions – some things, people can never know for sure, and that is perfectly all right. 

Auditions! Some advice…

Over two and a bit days I’ve auditioned 40 people for next year’s Shakespeare at The George production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On every other amateur production I’ve directed I’ve held ‘group’ auditions. Fairly informal, everyone has a chance to read several parts over the space of a couple of hours, sat in a semi-circle. You know the drill. This time, as I believe is the norm for SaTG, we held individual auditions, one actor at a time, 20 minutes each.

Auditioning is an unavoidable part of the process. In the professional world of acting it’s far, far worse. For the majority of the time you don’t even get a reply, let alone any feedback on how your audition went. This is changing slowly – the National Theatre have made a commitment to give every actor it auditions at least a yes or no reply. During my very limited experience as a professional actor the rule of thumb was “if you don’t hear anything, assume you haven’t got it”.

The actor Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) writes about auditions in his book A Life In Parts; “… focus on process rather than outcome. I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete with the other guys. I was going to give something. I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. Simple as that… Of course I didn’t always get the job, but that wasn’t my intent any more. What was important was I always left that room knowing I did everything I could do.”

Auditions for our Spring 2017 production ‘Alfie’

Auditioning all those actors and thinking of Mr Cranston’s wise words I started to think about some tips of my own for auditioning actors. And before you read on – please let me be clear that this is not some “follow my advice for success every time” mantra. I don’t know enough about the business to do that and anyway, there are no hard & fast rules. And this advice is for amateur theatre, which I have far more experience of than the professional world. What I can tell you is what I, as an auditioning director, would expect and if that helps with your auditions in the future – great. So, here’s a few pointers (in no particular order)…

You’re auditioning before you enter the room

I had instructed each actor to prepare (preferably learn!) one of a choice of pieces from the play and to bring along their audition form containing all their vital information. Roughly one third forgot to bring their form. My immediate thoughts? They can’t follow instructions. A bit harsh, you might think, but you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage before you’ve uttered a word of the speech you’ve learned. What’s that? You haven’t learned it? Okay…

Reputation goes a long way

Every production I’m involved with – I’m quietly auditioning people. “He’s good”, “She’d make a great (insert character name here)”, “he’s fun to work with”, “she’s a very generous actor”. On the other hand, there’s also “he’s never on time”, “she misses lots of rehearsals”, “he never learns his lines until the last minute”, “she’s selfish & very high maintenance”. You’re auditioning ALL THE TIME.

Be courteous

If you can’t make it to an audition, for whatever reason – let the director know. Three no-shows in one day is an hour of wasted time that could’ve been spent seeing other people. And if you can’t let me know that you’re not coming to audition, then how many rehearsals are you also going to miss without notifying anyone?

Enthusiasm

Bring some energy into the room. Smile! Look happy to be there! An audition panel that have spent 2 solid days in a windowless room listening to the same words over and over again will appreciate it.

We want you to be great!

Every actor that walks through the door is potentially an answer to a casting problem. Directors are rooting for you – they want you to be good because they want to put together the best cast possible. A decent director is not there to put you off or catch you out. They are mentally willing you on!

Look the part

Either dress neutral or make some effort to resemble the part you’re going for. It helps to visualise you in that role. If you’re going for the role of the pantomime cow then you may want to discount this piece of advice.

Then of course there’s the actual ‘meat’ of the audition – the prepared speech, the sight reading, etc etc. I deliberately haven’t discussed this because I wanted to emphasise how important all the other stuff is before you’ve even begun your two minutes of Iago/Viola. When I was training at LAMDA, I spent a day helping out at auditions for new students. On this particular day we had four kids from Wales who had all travelled together to try and get a place at drama school. My acting teacher said to me during our lunch break that he’d love to offer them all places, simply because they were so nice. For a director on an amateur production (with all that entails!) things like reliability, dedication, punctuality, enthusiasm, hard work, commitment, team spirit & generosity are all equally important as talent.

Finally – it’s also worth remembering that this is your opportunity to assess the director. Are they someone you want to spend two or three evenings per week with for the next three months? Something to think about!

by Dean Laccohee 

 

 

 

Q&A With Richard James

richard-james_249We caught up with professional actor & playwright Richard James to find out what life is like on the road. Richard is currently touring in the stage adaptation of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny and while at home for a well-earned Christmas break took some time out to talk to us…

How long have you been touring with Gangsta Granny now and how many performances have you done?

Gangsta Granny has been on the road since November 2015. Touring to a different town each week, we’ve played 416 performances in 46 different venues. By the time we finish in the West End next year, we will have performed the show over 650 times.

Have you missed any performances for any reason?

Whilst other cast members hajs78314461ve been off with various illnesses over that time, I’m lucky enough not to have missed a single show so far.

Of all the theatres you’ve played in so far, do you have a favourite? And if so, why?

Touring can be quite monotonous, especially with two shows a day, so any venue or town with something different to offer is always welcome. I particularly enjoy towns with a bit of history to them so I think Canterbury would be a firm favourite. I also enjoy seaside venues and Bournemouth in the summer was fun. Whilst we may not have a great deal of time to explore, it’s sometimes worth the effort to travel a little further afield if possible. With an evening show on our first day in Belfast, a number of us hired a car and drove to the Giant’s Causeway for the afternoon.

Can you give us an idea of what a typical day on Gangsta Granny is like? And how do you fill the time between shows?

A typical day would start with the cast and crew assembling on stage at 9.30am for notes and warm-up. Then it’s into costume for our first show of the day, usually at 10.30. This is typically a school’s matinee so the curtain often rises late as we wait for coaches to arrive. Morning shows often have a very different feel to evening performances as we could find ourselves performing to a thousand lively school children. The curtain comes down at around 12.45, and it’s time to head out to the High Street for some lunch. Following this, I might try and get some writing done (I’ve almost completed my third play this year), catch up on some correspondence, do a little sightseeing or join with some cast members to catch up on some TV together. At 7pm the curtain rises on the second show of the day followed by a bus home to my digs or a quick drink in a local bar.

Do you still have to rehearse at all or does the show look after itself now?

The show looks after itself in the main. We may run a couple of sequences as we arrive at each new venue as the dimensions of the stage or wing space may alter slightly but there is no ‘tech run’ as such. In addition to this, we have understudy rehearsals each week, usually on a Friday. This in effect means we are doing three shows one after the after, making for a very tiring day!

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Of all your professional engagements, which is the most memorable and why?

I’m lucky enough to have worked on a variety of projects, from tv and film to theatre and radio. I’ve worked with some heroes along the way too, whether it be on a Doctor Who adventure with Peter Davison or with Burt Reynolds on a movie. I was lucky enough to have some scenes with Helena Bonham Carter on a film version of Great Expectations and I learned a lot from watching her work. I suppose my most formative experience was spending a year under prosthetic makeup to play an alien police officer in Gerry Anderson’s last live-action sci-fi series, Space Precinct.

You started off in amateur dramatics, would you say that it’s a good starting place for someone interested in theatre as a career?

I have never been as busy as when I was an amateur actor! As a man on the amdram circuit you are always in demand and I remember going from production to production. In one year I might have appeared in productions with SIMADS, Huntingdon Drama Club, Brampton Park Theatre Club and Shakespeare at the George. As a professional actor, work is much harder to come by as the talent pool is so much larger. I found my experiences in amateur theatre to be invaluable. It allowed me to grow as a young actor and improve my stage craft. As a company member it is imperative that you do the work with a professional attitude, that you are disciplined in your approach and do your best to get on with those around you – particularly if you’re on the road with them for the best part of two years!

Find out more about Richard’s work by visiting his website www.richardjamesonline.com  and follow him on Twitter @RichardNJames

Find out more about the Gangsta Granny tour here.