Fran Gebhard, Department of Theatre professor and director of the new Phoenix production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, remembers New York City in 1978: the Ramones were rocking CBGB’s nightclub in Greenwich Village and the flower-power generation was on its way out, being pushed into the past by a new punk attitude. New York was changing: the music, the fashion, the underground culture . . . it was one amazing summer to be there.
All these memories turned into inspiration when Gebhard began researching her Dream. “Our students in the Department of Theatre were really looking forward to working on this show,” says Gebhard. “My challenge was to find a way to recontextualize Shakespeare’s centuries-old romantic comedy into an environment that would be fun and challenging for all the actors and designers involved.” And New York circa 1978 fit the bill perfectly.
“When I first started thinking about Hermia [Shakespeare’s feisty and defiant female character, one of the four young lovers in Dream], she seemed like a feminist woman right out of the late ’70s,” says Gebhard. “We had just passed the Charter of Human Rights in Canada, and everywhere there was a new wave of ‘women’s lib.’ I thought of my own adventurous trip with my sister to NYC in 1978 and it was all a great fit with Shakespeare’s story.” Hear more of Gebhard’s insights in this podcast of her pre-show lecture, along with fourth-year student and Dream costume designer Dallas Ashby.
Referencing many prominent areas of NYC, Gebhard’s Dream sees the two pairs of lovers—Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius—as preppie socialites from Park Avenue who elope into the woods of Central Park. Here they find themselves at the mercy of powerful forces . . . and their own ridiculous passions. Where fairies reign in Shakespeare’s original forest, Gebhard’s Titania is now a gypsy queen with a hippie coven and Oberon a rebel king with a punk gang.
“In the late ’70s, the 700 acres of Central Park could be dangerous to some, but enticingly exciting to others,” recalls Gebhard. “I thought, here was an environment where Titania, Oberon and the lovers, fleeing the tyranny of conservative parental rules, could all believably coexist—and collide—throughout one bewitching evening.”
Theatre design professor Allan Stichbury creates an abstract version of the park on the Phoenix’s Chief Dan George Theatre, complete with rolling grass, manhole covers and a graffiti wall which will be tagged with spray paint live during the show. Lighting designs by Theatre students Imogen Wilson and Clare Mathison will light up NYC’s historic skyline and help create the illusion that the audience is dreaming through the night.
Of course, the late ’70s also marked some amazing fashion trends. Fourth-year student Dallas Ashby was excited to research and design the costumes for the many divergent but co-existing styles of the time—especially the hippies and punkers. “The fashion of this time really spoke to me,” says Ashby, both a mature student and mom. “In high school my personal style was an amalgamation of both hippie and punk . . . well, a 1990’s West-coast version. It was a satisfying challenge to research the East coast ’70s approach to a style that I found nostalgic.”
But her vision for Dream encompasses more than just the hippies and punkers. For characters like the four lovers, she drew inspiration from New York’s more conservative, tennis-playing socialites; and for Hippolyta, Theseus’ wife-to-be, Ashby looked towards the high glam fashionistas of Studio 54. Be sure to check out her costume designs on Pintrest.
And then there’s the music. Third-year student Kieran MacNaughton‘s sound design takes us through from the feel-good likes of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” and James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” to disco like the Village People’s “YMCA” and early punk with The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
“It’s been great introducing this music to the students,” says Gebhard. “Many of the songs were previously unknown to this generation, but the rest of us will be singing along!”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs November 6-22 at Phoenix Theatre. Evening performances run 8pm Tuesday to Saturday, with a 2pm matinee on Saturday, November 22. There will be a special Friday Lecture Series at 7pm November 7 featuring director Fran Gebhard and costume designer Dallas Ashby discussing the process of recreating New York in the late 1970s. The Phoenix Box Office is currently open for single ticket sales, and three-play subscription packages are still available for just $36!