Shakespeare in the Arb
University Record Staff Writer
Mother Nature isn’t listed as a co-producer of the Shakespeare in the Arb performance series. But evidence suggests credit is deserved.
Kate Mendeloff, Residential College lecturer in drama and founder of the series that this month celebrates its 10th anniversary, recalls an early presentation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“As Puck was speaking, ‘Sometimes a horse I’ll be, sometimes a hound,’ three dogs came running though the scene barking furiously right on cue — it was amazing,” she says laughing. “That’s a marvelous moment.”
“Then when we were doing ‘As You Like It,’ there’s a scene where the duke says he ‘hates to kill the deer’ and a family of deer came though. You can’t make that happen. It’s serendipitous; it’s very magical.”
Irony was evident when students, faculty and community members presented the 2007 series. While rain or thunderstorms have canceled several performances through the years, no rain fell during “The Tempest.”
This year, Shakespeare in the Arb returned with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Performances are at 6:30 p.m. June 10-13, 17-20 and 24-27 in the Nichols Arboretum. Four extra performances were added to celebrate the 10th anniversary.
The series was born in 2001. Mendeloff was asked to direct an outdoor production as part of a three-year $30,000 Ford Motor Co. grant for Arts in the Arb. “I was approached because the development director of the Arboretum back then had seen my work staging Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ in an environmental staging in an East Quad courtyard performance,” she says, adding such staging was an emerging trend.
Mendeloff chose “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” because characters are transformed by the natural world. Martin Walsh, also a lecturer in drama at the Residential College, played the part of Peter Quince, the director of the rude mechanicals, while working as co-director. The production drew up to 300 for performances. It returned the following summer.
Elements that make Shakespeare in the Arb unique include Mendeloff’s choice to cast several actors in one particular role, such as the tripartite Puck or the multiple Ariels from “The Tempest.” The approach eliminates a need for one actor to run from one performance site to another, and provides a good learning experience for student actors.
“The performances are very physically demanding. We found it’s best to share them,” Mendeloff says. “The actors have to divide up the language, figure out the physicality of the character, and the playing of creatures from the fairy world. The students learn by watching each other play the roles. I think it works really well.”
The audience typically brings blankets or towels to sit on as the production moves from six to eight locations, starting in the Peony Garden. Mendeloff says the best spots are bowl-like settings where tree stands can reflect the dialogue back to the audience.
While the production seeks settings removed from the outside world, the occasional medical helicopter or airplane will pass overhead. “I tell the actors don’t talk, just stop,” Mendeloff says. “One time the train came through and the actors just shook their swords at the train — the audience loved it. Coincidently, the line they were speaking was ‘These are strange events.’”