By Jim Sullivan
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Director Stephanie Williams knows that Shakespeare can be a challenge to modern-day actors and audiences alike, so when it came to staging this week’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the Newburyport High School Theater Department’s spring show, she had a novel idea on how to make it work for everyone. Suspend her actors in mid-air.
“We wanted to do Shakespeare again and one of the main groupings of characters in the show are a bunch of fairies,” says Williams. “So, it made sense that fairies will fly.”
To make those fairies take flight, the production is employing the use of aerial fabrics to send some of the players over 10 feet into the rafters.
“They’ve been very well trained and very well prepared,” Williams says of her high-flying players, who spent 20 hours with circus performers to prepare. “And they know that the ultimate concern is their safety and they are to do whatever they need to do to maintain that safety.”
Junior Bryn Willingham plays a fairy and spends most of her time about 6 feet above the rest of the cast.
“We’ve been working a lot in the aerial fabrics,” says Willingham. “Which has been a really, really interesting experience. We went for a day of training, then we had one of the trainers come here for three days of intense training, learning how to do all the different moves. Now we feel really confident in what we are doing. It’s still pretty high up and a lot of people would find that nerve-wracking. But it’s more fun than anything and it makes the show really unique.”
The genesis of the aerial work goes back to when the theater department put on a production of “Eurydice” in 2009, which required employing some aerial fabrics that, other than being used in a production of “Pinocchio,” have lain dormant since.
Once the idea struck, Williams looked to her dance class where several students, including sophomore Renee Vartabedian, had experience in modern and lyrical dance. Williams thought it would be exciting to incorporate aerial work with modern dance and asked Vartabedian to choreograph it to popular modern music.
But Williams wasn’t done there. She tinkered with the script a bit, moving Act II, Scene I up front.
“I really wanted the play to open in the forest,” explains Williams. “I wanted the audience to come in and I wanted to immerse them in this fantasy world. We open the show with a dance and aerial number in the forest. I think it works — we’ll see what the audience thinks. There are probably some Shakespeare purists out there who are not going to like it so much, but I think it is going to be interesting.”
Annie-Kate Gross, a freshman who plays Puck, spends a lot of her time monologing on a trapeze but says it was the Shakespearian dialogue that gave her pause in the beginning.
“Shakespeare is very frightening to people,” admits Gross. “The first time I started to learn the monologues, it’s like (Williams) said, we would memorize them till the end of the line, then to the end of the line, then to the end of the line. But we wanted to really understand what we were saying (and) we do (now), we understand what the show is about.”
This is no stuffy Shakespeare, says freshman Sophie Korpics, who stays stage-bound playing Robin Starveling/Moonshine.
“We’ve definitely made it a little more modern,” says Korpics. “And we don’t miss a beat on modern visual effects.”
The aerobatics will begin at Newburyport High School with shows Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m. Saturday will feature a matinee at 2 p.m. and the final performance will be at 7.
“These students have done an amazing job,” says Williams. “You’re not going to be bored here. It’s an exciting show. It’s so fun to watch and the athleticism, never mind the commitment of the students, is going to blow people’s minds.”