A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most widely performed and recognizable works. Within it, audiences encounter a supernatural maze of interconnecting plot points, including a play within the play and a character who gets turned into a donkey.
For Chicago theater director Beth Wolf, A Midsummer Night’s Dream holds a special significance: It’s the play that jump started her life-long love of Shakespeare and made her want to confront some of his more antiquated tropes. This summer, for her theater company’s 10th anniversary, Wolf fittingly takes up the play once again.
Free productions will run through Aug. 21 touching down in five Chicago parks — Lake Meadows Park, Lincoln Park, Touhy Park, Gross Park and Chicago Women’s Park & Gardens.
In Wolf’s hands, the play features a diverse cast that knows the play inside and out, communicating its nuances and humor more clearly and vividly than you might have experienced in a high school English class. Sometimes it involves rewriting the Bard; with every show, it involves casting women, Black and brown actors and gender-diverse performers who are invited in rehearsals to question and challenge uncomfortable parts of centuries-old scripts.
“It is our job as the people who are deciding to revive and perform this art form to make it accessible for the people that we’re performing for, instead of just expecting them to jump through all of these hoops,” said actor Ebby Offord, who stars as Puck.
When Wolf attended a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a child — her first-ever Shakespeare play — it brought her to tears. But they were not tears of joy. “I got very upset that there were words I was missing,” Wolf laughs, joking that her inability to grasp Elizabethan English fueled her early interest in the Bard. “I sort of took it upon myself to understand every word of this play, which now I think I do.”
In 2012, Wolf founded the nonprofit theater company Midsommer Flight, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first play that she staged. Key to her vision has been creating productions outside of traditional theaters.
“When we take this work out into parks, and it’s free and we are in people’s communities, we find that we’re able to introduce people to this work sometimes for the first time,” said Wolf, whose production is underwritten by funding from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Driehaus Foundation and the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.
For Wolf, the core vision of Midsommer Flight is “shared joy and flights of fancy” with an emphasis on how to share and most effectively communicate what Shakespeare is actually saying in his Elizabethan English that can feel steeped in academic jargon.
Midsommer Flight works with two coaches, a vocal and text coach, to make certain that Shakespeare’s words can be clearly translated to modern-day audiences. The two coaches work in tandem. The text coach collaborates with the actors to ensure that they understand the meaning of every line, while the vocal coach focuses on their delivery, suggesting an emphasis on certain words to help audiences of all ages follow along.
Offord said the extra time explaining the works to actors pays off in the performance. “That was how I got into Shakespeare — someone took the time to explain to me what was going on, and I’m eternally grateful for that.”
Wolf tells the actors when they’re rehearsing and studying the text that not only do they “have to understand it,” but they have to speak it in a way that “the audience can hear it and understand it as well.”
A lot has changed for Midsommer Flight since its founding 10 years ago. Wolf has secured professional costuming and set designs, rather than using clothing from actors’ closets. During recent years, Wolf has also given the cast the time and community to critically engage with the text, especially the more difficult and uncomfortable parts. To aid in this process, Wolf refers to the first week of rehearsal as the “table work,” when the cast and crew hold discussions about adapting a 400-year-old play to be more inclusive.
For Wolf, some of these dialogues center on giving “the female characters more agency, as well and take into consideration who we’ve cast, how they are treated, not just for their gender identity, but their race or their ethnicity.”
Offord says that she has found a real sense of community and collaboration with Midsommer Flight. Offord said that the cast and crew are “so open and supportive. Anytime that there’s confusion or frustration, we’re able to just call it out into the room.”
Wolf advocates for the actors and characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to have more ownership of the work, especially when the world of the play might feel so far removed from contemporary audiences. “Shakespeare’s not alive to come after us to for changing his words. And so if we have to change a word, we will.”
For Offord, bringing A Midsummer Night’s Dream outside of the traditional theatrical venue and into the parks can also allow audiences to potentially feel more comfortable with Shakespeare. “I think audience members feel a lot more encouraged to just be themselves and be responsive in a way that I don’t think they always feel like they have the permission to do when they’re in a theater,” they said.
The downside of an outdoor performance, however, can be the weather forecast. This summer alone, the crew has had to quickly change rehearsal venues due to a tornado warning.
Despite the occasional challenge of working in fickle weather, for Wolf, Midsommer Flight is ultimately about creating joy. “What we want to do is go out in communities and bring people together to have a shared experience.”
If you go: A Midsummer Night’s Dream will run through Aug. 21. The play will be staged at Lincoln Park (2045 N. Lincoln Park West) through July 31; Lake Meadows Park (3117 S. Rhodes Ave.) on Aug. 5 through 7; Chicago Women’s Park and Garden (1801 S. Indiana Ave.) on Aug. 12 through 14; and Touhy Park (7348 N. Paulina St.) on Aug. 19 through 21. Audience members are encouraged to bring their own chairs and blankets for the show. Reservations are recommended but not required. For full details on the schedule, go to www.midsommerflight.com.