The American Shakespeare Center blazed into the Winyah Auditorium Thursday, January 30, and completely enchanted us with their rollicking performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. About 300 area students from GMS, MBMS, and Coastal Carolina took their seats as the actors warmed up the house with live music featuring bass fiddle, guitar, saxophone, percussion, and voice. Eight lucky students got to sit on stage with the actors, a convention from Shakespeare’s day. With all the lights on, we enjoyed a far-fetched scenario of nobles, fairies, and laborers by actors who were not afraid to get physical. Puck (Maddie Calais) and Bottom (Topher Embrey) particularly surprised and delighted the crowd with their antics. “You guys laughed at all the right places,” Maddie told us later. “You are a great audience.”
At the end of the performance, the whole house stood and gave the ASC a standing ovation. “I like how they made Shakespeare appealing to kids,” said Stone, who was not expecting the play to be “so modern.”
After the play, students ate pizza on the front lawn with their new friends from GMS and MBMS. Later, we watched as they all boarded a long line of yellow buses to get back to their schools. Then we went back into the Auditorium for a talk by Dr. Tripthi Pillai, professor of Early Modern Literature at CCU. The actors joined us.
Dr. Pillai focused on audience engagement—how the original spectators would have received A Midsummer Night’s Dream and how it continues to engage modern audiences by focusing on urgent issues of class, gender, and the nature of humor. “As a Shakespearean, I am told every day that my work is irrelevant,” she said. “It is an honor to see all of you relating to Shakespeare.” She discussed several themes and kept the floor open for student comments. “It was more like a conversation than a lecture,” said Camper. Camper had raised her hand to answer Dr. Pillai’s question about which marriage in the play was the creepiest.
Dr. Pillai and the actors themselves were very impressed with our students’ familiarity with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, thanks to summer reading for the high school and graphic novels for middle school. Some students were able to shout out lines during the interactive portions of the performance. Our students all were well-informed about the plot and names of characters. They asked intelligent questions and gave thoughtful answers when questions were posed. Dr. Pillau encouraged us at the end. “You are vibrant with imagination,” she said. “You should embrace it—make it big!”
After the talk, we sang Happy Birthday to Dr. Pillai and settled down for one of the ASC’s most important workshops: “Embedded Stage Directions in Shakespeare.” Maddie Calais (Puck/Philostrate) and Alexis Baigue (Peaseblossom/Thisbe) taught us that in Shakespeare’s day, actors had different tasks in preparing for a performance than they would today. There was no such thing as a director and no such thing as stage directions. Playwrights would make it clear through dialogue what props, actions and tone were necessary. Actors interpreted the lines and decided how to stage the play. Our job was to identify embedded stage directions in a passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and act them out.
We are so privileged to be able to work each year with the actors of the ASC. Though the troupe changes from year to year, there are always familiar and welcome faces. Their energy, creativity, and professionalism are amazing. We are also honored to have gotten to know Dr. Pillai, who has promised that next year her CCU students will read the same Shakespeare play as our students so that our English classes can do something fun with hers in 2021.