~ by Emily Marquet
The Objective: To mount a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Louverture Cleary School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In four days.
The Obstacle: We (the directors as well as the script bearers/ costumers) had just missed our flight.
Sitting at the bar of an airport restaurant armed with a free lunch voucher from American Airlines, Elle Thoni and I were distraught. If we didn’t make it to Haiti today, we would only have three days to rehearse Shakespeare’s comedy with our actors. Not to mention we’d never met our actors. Not to mention this was the student-actor’s first time performing Shakespeare. Not to mention it was, in most of the actors’ cases, their first time performing at all.
The idea to bring Shakespeare to Haiti, specifically to the Louverture Cleary School; a Catholic co-ed high school providing free education to over 350 students from Port-au-Prince, started in January 2010. I met Elle in Johannesburg, South Africa. We were both studying acting and Applied Theatre at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Elle had a great deal of Applied Theatre, or Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), training prior to her studying at Wits; I had a great deal of knowledge on Shakespeare as a classically trained actor and someone who grew up in and around the Folger Shakespeare Library. We decided that our complementary skills would make a very effective partnership if we were to facilitate a drama workshop at LCS.
Shakespeare seemed like the best choice for LCS. Elle and I wanted to pick a play that would have universal themes celebrating our humanity. We wanted a play that would translate into Haitian culture but also represent a part of the theatre heritage we were coming from. Additionally, studying English and English literature is a large part of the LCS student’s curriculum and the school was highly in favor of performing a Shakespeare play for the entire school and engaging the students with his work.
Therefore, we chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As theatre educators, we are aware of the numerous charms of this play and its genuine ease and near perfection as a workshop or ensemble-based piece. Additionally, and more importantly to our mission, it is a riotous comedy. One of the goals of our workshop was to provide an escape for the students and actors- an avenue where they could just laugh and enjoy themselves and live vicariously through the magic of the play. As a community who was just discovering the joys of live theatre, this felt like a very important aspect to keep in mind towards the work.
Back to the airport. My cell phone rings. It is Patrick Moynihan, the President of The Haitian Project, the non-profit that runs LCS. He was onboard the flight we had allegedly missed and reported that he had stopped the plane and we were to return to our gate. We had not missed our flight. We were going to Haiti as scheduled.
And we were off!
Day 1: NOW FAIR HIPPOLYTA
Our rehearsal process reflected two beautiful lines from the play:
“Now fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace,”
“There we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously,”
As Theseus says in the first line of the play, the action is happening RIGHT NOW! Theseus instructed us to embrace the immediacy and jump into rehearsal without any hesistations. As Peter Quince instructs his mechanicals-turned-actors a little later on, we rehearsed as obscenely and courageously as we could. Every minute of rehearsal was filled with work. Our actors were powerhouses of energy who seemed to thrive and live for action and drama and movement and storytelling.
Rehearsals took place on a basketball court in the back courtyard of the school. We were constantly battling a soccer practice and kids playing on the playground. The constant buzz of activity was occasionally a deterrant, but mostly it just fueled us to work harder.
We spent the first rehearsal up on our feet as much as possible. After playing a name game, we discussed the Who, What, Where, When and Why of the play.
The actors had been cast before we arrived (thanks to the amazing work of one of the volunteer teachers) and had been working on their lines very diligently. However, in order to cut down the impact on the ink and paper supply, each actor was only given their cues and their lines—just like Shakespeare’s actors! Because our actors spanned grades 7th-12th, they had not met as one cast before our first rehearsal and we were all discovering the play’s plot for the first time together.
We came up with one sentence to describe the beginning, middle and end of the play. Then, the actors broke up into three groups– one for the beginning, one for the middle and one for the end– and sculptured a still image that represented their sentence. This was, in every one of the actor’s cases except for one, the first time these students had played theatre games, been in a play, or performed in front of others so we spent time discussing what parts of the images told the story most effectively.
We played a couple more ensemble building exercises and theatre-games to create a play space and build the community of the cast.
In addition to our 2.5 hour afternoon rehearsal, we were able to grab a portion of time in the evening devoted to study hour. Every night we worked individually with one of the three main groups of characters in the play- the lovers, the mechanicals, and the fairies- in order to tackle larger scenes and do more specific character work.
Monday night we worked with the fairies. We spent half the time doing movement exercises and characterizing our fairies. How much power do Titania and Oberon yield? What are Puck and the fairies relationship to the King and Queen? What kind of superpowers do our fairies have?
Our fairies exemplified what I would call a Haitian’s innate understanding of theatricality. Watching our actress playing Titania transform into a queen was nothing short of breathtaking. As a culture, Haitians highly value oral storytelling and have a rich dramatic tradition. Issues are resolved through conversation and dialogue which means the LCS students were a lot more natural with Shakespeare’s text than American teens. The Haitians understood the concept of suit the action to the word, the word to the action with no acting training whatsoever.
But we only had 3 more days…
Emily Marquet is currently an intern with Folger’s Education and Public Programs divisions. She has worked with the American Shakespeare Center as a Camp Counselor and Assistant Director, and is a recent graduate of NYU with a Fine Arts major in Drama and minor in Social and Cultural Analysis. For the next part of her experiences in Haiti, check back to this blog on March 15 and 22!