The fairy-dusted comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s most produced works and delights audiences with seemingly endless love and laughs. But a closer look at the text exposes a sinister underbelly to the magical farce that often goes unexamined in stage productions.
It is precisely this commonly ignored ugliness that inspires “Ravished,” Theater Emory’s final production of its 2016-2017 Year of Shakespeare. The original work, running March 30 through April 9, takes the nasty bits of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy and sets them in an urban, industrial forest where characters collide and lose themselves.
“‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ is Shakespeare's best-loved play and it's often played sweet and funny; but if you take it literally, it's not okay. It's horrible,” explains “Ravished” co-creator Ariel Fristoe, an Emory College alum and co-founder of Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theater. “The characters threaten each other with rape and murder repeatedly. They all betray each other and then they must get married the next day.”
With Theater Emory’s reputation as an incubator for new work, the announcement that the group would focus its 2016-2017 season on Shakespeare may have seemed out of character. However, the yearlong celebration of the Bard is distinctly Theater Emory — a multi-faceted explosion of creativity that runs the gamut of possible approaches to Shakespeare’s work.
New perspectives on Shakespeare
The celebration began in Spring 2016 with two concurrent productions of “As You Like It,” one with an all-male cast, one all-female. This fall saw two productions: Rodgers and Hart’s classic musical adaptation of “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Boys from Syracuse"; and Theater Emory’s first production of the tragic love story, “Romeo and Juliet.”
This semester kicked off with Aimé Césaire’s searing critique of colonialism, “A Tempest,” featuring guest artist L. Peter Callender, artistic director of the African-American Shakespeare Company, as Prospero.
Eager to explore Shakespeare through as many lenses as possible, Theater Emory also produced staged readings of Barbara and Carlton Molette’s examination of “Othello,” “Fortunes of the Moor"; Lope de Vega’s take on the Romeo and Juliet story (read in Spanish and English), “Castelvines y Monteses"; and renowned playwright and alumna Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will.”
“Ravished” brings two more notable alumnae back to Theater Emory: co-creators and directors Fristoe and Maia Knispel are both 1998 graduates of Emory College who majored in theater studies.
“Theater Emory’s goal during its Year of Shakespeare is to approach Shakespeare’s works from as many perspectives as possible,” says Janice Akers, artistic director of Theater Emory and senior lecturer and resident artist in theater studies. “Inviting two Atlanta-based theater alumni to create a new work seemed like a perfect way to celebrate our exploration.”
Current students, alumni shape new work
Upon graduation, Fristoe and Knispel, along with several other Emory alumni, founded Out of Hand Theater, a company that has won widespread recognition for original shows, interactive games and large-scale, public art performances.
In creating “Ravished,” the duo is sticking to their tried-and-true techniques for creation, employing the student cast and crew as full participants in the process. The ensemble, working off prompts from Fristoe and Knispel, generate ideas that the co-directors then shape, refine and fold into the final product.
'Working with our Emory student actors has been a treat. They have been integral in the creation process for 'Ravished,'” says Knispel. “Our student actors are clearly also scholars — that has been really helpful in the creation of this piece. They think about content, perception and clarity; they come into the workshop or rehearsal room with questions, opinions and creative ideas. They are also fearless and willing to try anything — essential qualities in collaborators.”
Fristoe and Knispel’s uniquely collaborative approach enables the student ensemble to stretch their approach to performance, taking a hands-on role in their character’s staging and physicality.
“We often give our performers assignments that are designed to explore particular moments, relationships, or big spectacle ideas that we want to test out to see if they will work,” explains Knispel.
Jay Brunner, an Emory College sophomore majoring in comparative literature, has taken on a particularly vital role in the process — serving as production assistant, script coordinator and dramaturg.
“I look at the text for 'Ravished' and compare it to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' to make sure that there are consistencies while also maintaining each project's identity,” says Brunner.
As script coordinator, he is the link between the creative genesis in the rehearsal room and what goes on stage. “It’s my job to make the story look like a script through formatting it, adding stage directions and paying attention to logistics such as entrances and exits," he says.
Witnessing the creation of a work of theater first-hand is an experience that Brunner will not soon forget.
“It was fascinating to see the show go from a concept to scenes. During the workshops, actors were given a line of text and then told to make it physical, or to add audible breathing, or some other exercise,” Brunner says. “The actors then performed their moments and that helped the character come to life.
"It was almost like working backwards to discover a character," he explains. "I think that seeing this production through to the end will leave me with the ability to think about characters beyond what they say.”
Making use of their passionate young collaborators’ physical impulses, Fristoe promises that the final product will showcase the exhilaration and pain of immature love: “‘Ravished’ is about the irresistible magic of romantic love and sexual attraction that causes real people, every day, to betray, abandon, harass and assault each other.”