A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Interview with Directing MFA James Rutherford, SoA ’11

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a comedy, right? According to Directing MFA James Rutherford (SoA ’11), it’s more complicated than that. In his adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing at The Riverside Theater this January 26-29th, and featuring the work of the performance group Piehole, the “wood near Athens” is home to dark, corrupted fantasies and the star-crossed lovers are victims of violence, struggling to cope with the trauma of destructive relationships. Intrigued? This afternoon, I had the chance to interview Rutherford about his inspiration and vision for this ground-breaking new production. Read on for a taste of Rutherford’s subversive interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies as a tale about facing and forgetting your worst nightmares.

1. Why did you choose to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

I chose to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I am interested in Shakespeare’s comedies, and think they are often wildly misinterpreted. A subset of Shakespeare’s plays have been dubbed problem plays. I would argue that all of Shakespeare’s plays are problem plays, particularly his comedies. Shakespeare’s comedies are deeply sophisticated in the way the comedic and tragic elements interact with each other. Historically, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been presented as a light, exuberant farce, but if you look at the language, it is a deeply disturbing story about fraught romantic relationships – you have Demetrius threatening to beat and rape Helena, and Helena consenting to his abuse. For example, at the beginning of Act II, she says,

“I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.”

Usually, that line gets a laugh. And of course, it is funny, but it also demonstrate the lopsided power dynamics in an abusive relationship. I am very invested in Ionesco, who is a famous master of farce. He once said that tragedy and farce have the same “motor.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream proves that point.

You take the first scene of any farce, and you are set up for a tragedy. In the first scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is a father who cannot control his daughter, and tells her that she must do what he says, or he’ll kill her. She is then forced to flee for fear of death. From that summary, there is no reason why this play couldn’t be a tragedy.

Beyond that, when we get to the ending – magic is at play – spells are cast and spells are released. But if you read it closely, the fact the play has a happy ending is coincidental. A lot is glossed over. Throughout the play, the lovers do terrible things to each other and they engage in active denial in order to put their injuries behind them. This is what is so human and profoundly insightful about the play – humans are able to experience trauma and then forget about it.

2. What was your creative process as for this production?

We began our work with a deep understanding of the text. We wanted to approach the play as if there was no performance history. Listen to the language as if it had never been produced. We discovered that there are many lines you would never know were supposed to be funny if you hadn’t seen the play. We wanted to start with that. If you let the play speak the way it wants to speak, it will lead you into uncharted territory.

3. Have you worked with Piehole before? What role do they play in your production?

I went to undergrad at Brown University with all of the members of Piehole. I’ve seen their work many times, and they’ve seen mine. We’ve known about each other and respected each others work for ten years now. They are playing the mechanicals in this production, and have also constructed puppets to play the fairies and devised an original production of Pyramus and Thisbee, based on Shakespeare’s text and Ovid’s source material.  I gave them carte blanche to come up with a new Pyramus and Thisbee, and then I redirected and shaped their work.

I wanted to bring in a company of actors to play the mechanicals. I thought it would be more rigorous to bring in a living theatre company that actually has administrative meetings, knows each other intimately and knows what it’s like to work together. In the play, the mechanicals are a downtown theatre company rehearsing in the woods because they can’t afford a real rehearsal space. Piehole deals with a similar reality in the modern day. I would be faking a play within a play if I cast total strangers as the mechanicals and asked them to act as a company. In this production, Pyramus and Thisbee truly is a play within a play.

4. What discoveries did you make during your work on this production?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about the way humans deal with trauma. Everything that happens in the woods is some level of rape or other. Shakespeare sets this up in the beginning of the play with Theseus and Hypolita – a relationship that started with violence. Theseus famously says,

“Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;”

The rest of the relationships in this play are also abusive on some level or other. So then, the question is, when trauma occurs in a relationship, what do we do? Forget? And this is the essence of the dream: The dream world is a place your subconscious can go wild – where you can realize stunning things about your life. You can wake up in a cold sweat knowing how to live better but if you don’t act on that knowledge immediately, you’ll forget what you learned. The four young people leave the woods having learned nothing from their trauma. Alternatively, Bottom awakes from his nightmare and has a creative revelation – he experiences trauma and turns it into art.

Shakespeare presents these as your options. After a traumatic experience sometimes you need to forget, but isn’t it more rigorous to confront it, and turn it into art?

James Rutherford
Directing MFA ‘11 School of the Arts

Interviewed by
Rosie duPont, BC ‘10
ArtsLink Associate

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, written by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE and Directed by JAMES RUTHERFORD will be playing January 26–29, 2011 at The Riverside Theatre, 91 Claremont Avenue Between 120th and 122nd Streets. $15 General Admission/$5 Seniors. FREE with Columbia University ID or any other valid student ID.

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