t a Slipstream Theatre Company rehearsal for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” earlier last week – following emotional conversations about Sunday morning’s massacre inside an Orlando gay nightclub – a cast member pointed out that seeing actors lying on the floor with their eyes closed might be too resonant and disturbing.
Why? Because the Ferndale-based Slipstream, about a year ago, had planned to set their all-male production of Shakespeare’s comedy in a gay nightclub.
“There’s this moment when all the lovers are sleeping on the ground,” said Slipstream artistic director/actor Bailey Boudreau. ” … And it was pointed out to us by this kid in the cast – he’d pulled someone aside and said, ‘It kind of looks like they’re dead when they’re on the ground.’ It was the scariest thing.”
That moment ended up being one of a handful of staging choices that needed to be carefully re-evaluated, discussed and tweaked by Boudreau, director Luna Alexander and the cast in the week leading up to “Midsummer”‘s opening.
“In the play, of course, our characters are fortunate enough to get up, with a fairy’s blessing,” said Alexander. “Remembering what’s happened, we hope that maybe we can help with the healing.”
Shakespeare’s comedy tells the story of four lovers who get lost during the course of a midsummer night. While trying to find their way, a spirit enchants the young people so that their affections get confused, and a traveling band of actors gets mixed up in the supernatural chaos too.
Slipstream’s press release for the show reads, “set in the only place where fairies become bartenders, elvish monarchs turn into drag queens, a shot boy named Puck serves elderflower cocktails, and the butt of the joke is everyone’s favorite Bottom! Follow two sets of hapless lovers as they enter Wood’s – the only gay bar around Athens, Ohio.”
Whether the production would (or should) go forward at all was a question raised by Slipstream’s executive director, Jennifer Jolliffe.
“She’d mentioned that if we wanted to cancel the show, that was understandable, and she’d be more than willing to do that, and that we’d figure something out, financially,” said Alexander. “But neither of us (Boudreau and Alexander) really thought of doing that. … It just reminded us, ‘Oh, yeah. This is why we do this. We find solutions to problems instead of giving up on them.'”
They didn’t have much time to chew on the problem, though. Slipstream had closed its production of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” on Sunday, June 12, and “Midsummer” was scheduled to open on Saturday, June 18.
“We had to market it, and market it quick, but any marketing felt wrong,” said Boudreau. “So we were thinking of every iteration possible regarding how to market it without being tacky.”
Yet this isn’t the first time that current events have intersected with what’s on Slipstream’s stage.
“That whole life imitating art imitating life line has been getting blurry,” said Alexander. “Even when we did ‘Ubu (Rex,’ an absurdist classic about a vulgar, dim-witted fool who aims to seize the crown) – we decided to do that play a year ago, and we both thought that Trump would be out of the running months in advance. So doing it at the time when he was gaining more and more momentum was bizarre. With this incident, it was more of a weird shock.”
Originally, Slipstream’s “Midsummer” had been planned as a silly, campy romp, “to mock what gay bars had become,” said Boudreau. “It’d been fun, but we decided if that was really the intent, we clearly couldn’t do that anymore. …We took out references to how ludicrously sexualized gay bars are – we toned that down, and we added a moment of solidarity. There’s a perfect time for it, and with the structure of the show, it makes sense. When the drag queen is crowned, she didn’t have a solo number, where the whole cast could join in. … So literally a musical number decided (the show not being canceled).”
What’s the song? “I Am What I Am,” from the musical “La Cage aux Folles.”
But even with this added moment of acknowledgment, Alexander and Boudreau, throughout the final week of “Midsummer” rehearsals, knew they had to somehow thread the needle of keeping the show fun while also being sensitive, but not getting too preachy.
“That was my first concern. … What I was seeing and hearing from my friends around the country was that people wanted to celebrate our community and feel strong and feel like we’re together,” said Boudreau. “People are mourning, but they also want to feel pride during Pride Month.”
“On Monday, we talked about how the show now has a serious undertone, but we still need to give the audience an opportunity to breathe and laugh and remember,” said Alexander.
Another “Midsummer” adjustment involved toning down its stereotypes and on-stage nudity; and replacing the opening song, which was originally an Ethel Merman tune. “It was sort of ushering in a night full of absurdity and ridiculousness,” said Boudreau. “But after talking about it, we changed it to ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,’ because that’s less about saying, ‘We’re making fun of something,’ and more about saying, ‘We’re all welcome, we’re all wanderers.’ And, you know, it’s Cher.”
On Sunday, Alexander spoke by phone to a friend who lives across from the Stonewall Inn in New York, “and he said, ‘This is like a jolt. It’s like a reminder that you have to have community, and the community has to come together,'” said Alexander. “We thought, ‘That’s the direction we take the show in. We want to remind the community that we can stand together, and that there are safe places, and refuse to bow down to hate. There’s something incredibly powerful about refusing to stop dancing, and refusing to cancel a show, and keeping on with our lives.”
Indeed. But doing so still takes a lot of courage.
“One of the most heartbreaking things in the cast discussion was when one of the straight actors, who has been an advocate for gay rights, … asked if we would have a security detail,” said Boudreau. “He was worried about a copycat. …I cry when I talk about it, because it hurts that an ally now feels in danger for being an ally.”
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Slipstream Theatre Initiative
460 Hilton Rd., Ferndale
$12 in advance only
8 p.m. Saturday, June 25, July 2, 9
7 p.m. Sunday, June 19, 26, July 3, 10
7 p.m. Monday, June 27
8 p.m. Thursday, July 7
8 p.m. Friday, July 8