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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: December 2012

Letter from the chalk face: Directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Staunton Blackfriars

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The writings of theatre practitioners are letters from the chalk face rather than ‘theories’. Practitioners practise first, and make their discoveries on the studio or rehearsal-room floor in much the same way as the scientist conducts experiments in a laboratory. However, these are not as readily codifiable as a scientific experiment, where a mathematical equation may offer a solution to the problem. In theatre, experiments constitute a constant search which will never reach a quantifiable conclusion. Experiments may, however, reach a qualitative conclusion: ‘it works or it doesn’t’ is the maxim, where the measuring stick is an informed artistic sensibility.

I find Dymphna Callery’s confidence in the ‘informed artistic sensibility’ encouraging, because I am a theatre practitioner. I direct plays. In my parallel career as an academic working in the UK higher education sector, I have found that ‘letters from the chalk face’ such as Callery describes are included in a wider range of outputs and publications known collectively as ‘practice-as-research’. My own practice-as-research methodology typically takes three forms: firstly, I search for practical solutions to perceived challenges presented by textual, material and logistical elements of plays in production; secondly, I follow my own curiosity and desire to create something genuinely new, in productions that speak directly to their audiences; thirdly, I attempt to record and contextualize some of the discoveries made in the rehearsal room, in print publications. This particular ‘letter from the chalk face’ shares my experience and reflections on practice, rather than labouring with theory, but this is not to suggest that the substance of what follows is purely anecdotal and reflective. Rather, this article considers a range of playable solutions to a set of perceived challenges posed by a Shakespearian text, in this case, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Further, the article suggests ways in which theatre practice can refresh (rather than reject) certain established literary-critical readings of the text, giving them renewed dramatic agency.

Callery, Dymphna, Through the Body: A Practical Guide to Physical Theatre (London, 2007), p. 13.
Astington, John H., Actors and Acting in Shakespeare’s Time: The Art of Stage Playing (Cambridge, 2010), p. 140
Carson, Christie and Karim-Cooper, Farah, eds., Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment (Cambridge, 2008), p. 8
Rylance, Mark, Vazquez, Yolanda and Chahidi, Paul, ‘Discoveries from the Globe Stage’, in Carson and Karim-Cooper, eds., Shakespeare’s Globe, pp. 204–5
Tucker, Patrick, Secrets of Acting Shakespeare (London, 2002)
Worthen, W. B., Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance (Cambridge, 1997)
Weingust, Don, Acting from Shakespeare’s First Folio: Theory, Text and Performance (London, 2006), p. 121
Alfreds, Mike, Different Every Night: Freeing the Actor (London, 2007), p. 23
‘The Actors’ Renaissance Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse’, in Performing Early Modern Drama Today, ed. Pascale Aebischer and Kathryn Prince (Cambridge, forthcoming).
Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page (London, 2004)
I directed the touring productions of Much Ado About Nothing (2005–06)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2006–07)
as well as Love’s Labour’s Lost (2007)
Twelfth Night (2006)
Hamlet (2007) and King Lear (2008)
Barton, John, Playing Shakespeare (London, 1984), p. 23
For more information on Laban’s methodology, see Rudolf Laban, The Mastery of Movement, 4th edition revised and enlarged by Lisa Ullmann (Plymouth, MA, 1998)
Laban, Rudolf and Lawrence, F. C., Effort (Plymouth, MA, 1974)
‘The Early Modern Physical Theatre’, in Speaking Pictures: the Visual/Verbal Nexus of Dramatic Performance, ed. V. M. Vaughan, F. Cioni and J. Bessell (Cranbury, 2010), pp. 181–201
Craig, Nicholas (with Christopher Douglas and Nigel Planer), I, An Actor, 2nd edn (London, 2001), pp. 132–4
Lecoq, Jacques, Theatre of Movement and Gesture, ed. David Bradbury (London, 2006)
Peacock, Louise, Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance (Bristol, 2009)
Johnstone, Keith, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (London, 1981), p. 97