SHIRLEY — Retaining a long-standing tradition while keeping themselves busy and their acting skills sharp over the hot summer months, a group of local thespians plans a pair of performances of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Shirley Center Historic District.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always been one of my personal favorites,” said Emily Olson, who is producing and directing the play under the banner of her own Backyard Productions. “Modern audiences understand and love this piece. It has jokes that everyone enjoys, and actors can present so much with the physical humor,” she said.
Olson and her staff of actors and stage hands have been busily rehearsing the sixteenth century play for the past several weeks with plans to hold performances at 5 p.m. on July 31 and Aug. 1.
“It was my idea to do a Shakespeare in the park,” said Olson, a senior at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School. “I have always enjoyed the format and because many high school students cannot find summer jobs, this allows us to do something we love and keeps us busy during the summer.
“We did need to get permission to work in the park, since there are so many other groups using the space,” said Olson. “But Shirley has been supportive to the arts over the years, and the Shirley Center Historic District is such a beautiful venue. The individuals in charge of the park have been so helpful and supportive that it has been no problem.”
To fill out the many speaking parts of the play, Olson had to recruit help from all over the Nashoba Valley area including 17 actors and another nine people to help out with stage management, costumes and sets.
“The cast and crew are from various towns and high schools,” said Olson, a resident of Shirley. “Most of us have participated in drama clubs at high schools, drama societies or community theater. The one requirement I had to sign up was that it was open to ages 12 to 18. Since I am only 17 myself, I thought it might be odd to be directing any adults that much older than me.”
Olson is president of the Groton-Dunstable Drama Club with prior experience as a director. Her troupe has been holding rehearsals on location at the park, often with curious passersby stopping to find out what was going on.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of William Shakespeare’s most popular and accessible plays, concerns the events surrounding the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyte, the adventures of four young Athenian lovers and a group of six amateur actors whose actions are manipulated by fairies living in the forest. The play is one of Shakespeare’s most popular works for the stage.
“The theater style is open proscenium,” said Olson. “However, the cast members do a lot of work going around, through, and even sitting with audience members. I love that Shakespeare plays lend themselves to an interactive format.”
The outdoor venue being unfriendly to a cluttered stage, Olson has planned for a minimum of props.
“Midsummer is not a prop-heavy show, but it has been fun looking for items to throw in to add a more comedic edge,” said Olson. “It always adds a bit more personality to the show.”
Costumes, however, were a different matter.
“The costumes and set were a challenge,” admitted Olson. “Like the props, they are very simplistic but very efficient. Actors and crew have been contributing to costumes and props and we have swept second hand clothing shops for the remainder.
“The greatest challenge of having a play in the park though, is all the noises,” Olson said. “It will be a greater challenge if it rains the dates of the performance; (if that happens) our show will move indoors to the Shirley Old Town Hall.”
Olson and her troupe of actors could have picked from any number of other more up to date plays avoiding any danger of alienating potential audience members. Is Shakespeare, a man who wrote his plays almost 500 years ago, still relevant to people today?
“If Shakespeare stopped being relevant his work would have stopped being read hundreds of years ago,” insisted Olson. “His themes are still important and understandable today, and the characters struggle with inner and external problems that we all understand. In Midsummer, the character Hermia deals with problems we all understand today. Her mother wants her to marry someone she does not want to, she runs away from home, and her friends start making jokes at her expense. Problems like these are universal.”
That said, it seemed that Olson’s estimation might be on the money, judging by initial reaction to Backyard Productions’ first show.
“There has been quite a bit of buzz around town,” noted Olson. “But I think we can still get the word out to more people. We will be advertising on facebook as well as local papers.”
Although attendance to the performances is free, donations will be collected for Loaves and Fishes.
But leaving the comfortable interior of a modern high school building with its “black box” theater and all the trimmings could not have been easy.
“It was all completely worth it,” said Olson. “It is so much fun getting together with the cast and crew, and seeing how far we have come together. But most of all, it has been an incredible learning experience for all of us. There are no adults helping us on this project, and it is incredible to know that we are capable of accomplishing so much by ourselves.”
So pleased was Olson, that she hopes to make Backyard Productions a familiar sight
“This is Backyard Productions’ first season, and we hope that it can continue to be an outdoor troupe,” declared Olson.