Augie Theater uses Zoom to perform Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Augustana Theatre’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream mixed traditional Shakespeare into a modern online universe set apart by innovative theatrical design.

Curtains closed on Augustana Theatre’s premiere Zoom live stream performance Oct. 4 to an audience of about 50 people.

“When it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to safely gather in our theater and do theater traditionally as we always have, we really began brainstorming other ways that we could potentially make a really meaningful theater experience for our students and for our audiences,” director Jayna Fitzsimmons said.

The shenanigans within “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” take place just before a wedding between nobility Thesius and Hypolyta, played by Maddie McElroy and Kjersti Olson. Hermia (Kat Elgersma), under an ultimatum to choose to marry a man whom she does not love, Demetruis (Nolan Wipf), decides to run away with her true love, Lysander (Kale Hallman). In the forest, Oberon (Olson), the fairy king, and his enthusiastic servant Puck (McElroy) have a magic from a purple flower that makes people fall in love with the first person they see. 

Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, whom Puck was supposed to love-curse.  So, Lysander awakes to love with Helena, who loves Demetrius. Later in the night, Demetrius also wakes and because the magic loves Helena. In the confusion, she is convinced they are mocking her with their words of adoration.

In the meantime, the “mechanicals” are setting up a play for the noble wedding. Titania (Elizabeth Dobbe), Oberon’s fairy queen awakes to love outlandish actor Nick Bottom (Tilly Jagelski)  who Puck cursed with a donkey head. 

In the chaos and fighting caused by the mischievous magic, Puck puts them all to sleep and fixes the love crossing. So, Demetruis and Helena are in love, and Hermia and Lysander are in love. Titania is also released from love with Bottom. They all awaken as if the whole struggle was only a dream. Finally, Thesius and Hyppolita are married, and the mechanicals perform their hilarious play. 

Fitzsimmons’s vision for the show was not a typical Shakespearean setting because 2020 is no typical year. Instead, she imagined what the show would look like with characters living in the online world and interacting as internet personalities.

Fitzsimmons said she and the production team asked themselves, “How do we bring the world of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into this internet world that we are all so heavily living in these days?”

That goal translated to a background, costume and prop design that held onto traditional Shakspearean tropes while embracing the modern touches of a Zoom world.

“The fairy magic that happens in this play and all the magical things, it’s kind of like the magic of the internet,” Fitzsimmons said.

The lighting took inspiration from fiber optics and the forever-lit world of cellphones and computers, Fitzsimmons said.  As for costuming, fairy costumes included flower crowns in blue, pink, purple and lights and elegant black caped costumes. Modern elements included sweatshirts, cell phones, a backwards baseball cap, and a clipboard. 

The backgrounds, too, fell into a tech world. Sophomores Kate Brown and CJ Voorde designed the virtual backgrounds that filled the greenscreens on SIMs and photoshopped the screenshots for color correction. The pair said they took inspiration from theme colors in the Matrix.

“When it shifts into the night, everything is more lit up with different colors —magentas, purples, blues, and the greens,” Brown said. “It’s more colorful, more playful.”

The backdrops included a white stately building, a flower garden, and the forest where all the mischief takes place. When the fairies meet, the trees have a purple hue and a string of twinkly lights. At the end of the show, the mechanical theatre troupe performs in front of a red theater curtain with the other characters displayed as an audience in front of a different background.

Brown and Voorde said the backgrounds took a lot of trial and error between collaboration with Fitzsimmons and the rest of the tech crew as well as testing with the green screen.

During the hilarious play-in-a-play at the end of the show, Jagaleski’s character Bottom forgets to unmute her mic for the monologue. It was  perhaps a jest on their own Zoom rehearsals where she said the same thing often happened as they learned to do theater over Zoom.

“We had a lot of fun with trying to figure out how to perform and work with each other in a way when we’re all in such vastly different places and not able to physically touch or interact,” Jagelski said.

Other notable technical moments included interaction between the characters’ Zoom boxes when they seemed to hand papers out, pass the purple flower back and forth, and exchange pillows. The playbill image often acted as a transition between scenes. 

Since Zoom had the characters boxes labeled with their names, the audience could clearly understand who’s who and remember all the characters.

Setting up a play during the COVID-19 pandemic was not without its challenges.

Tatiana Chance, a sophomore, was cast as Puck and Theseus originally. She played the mischievous fairy and serious duke characters at Zoom practices each week.

But in September, Chance tested positive for COVID-19 and went into isolation. Luckily, remote practicing meant she could still attend practices and learn to set up the technical elements. 

However, a few days before the live stream performances, Chance could no longer continue with the performance. 

That’s when McElroy stepped in during that last week to play the character set during the final production. The understudy had previous experience in the role from a high school production. Although Chance couldn’t be part of the final production, the performance was dedicated to her in the Play Bill.

“I’m really sad that I can’t be in the production, but I’m excited to be able to watch the show,” Chance said in an email.

Even without the stage at Edith Mortenson, the cast appeared together onscreen to take a final bow at the end of the production.

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