Shakespeare in the Arb at 10
A one-time show became an institution
Originally conceived as a one-time event, the outdoor theater debuted in June 2001, after Ford Motor Company gave the U-M Arboretum funds for three years of outdoor arts programming, one each devoted to theater, music, and dance. Residential College lecturer Kate Mendeloff recalls that she initially hesitated to go with the obvious choice--Shakespeare's woodsy romp A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Everybody does Midsummer, it's such a cliche," she explains. "But the reality is that it's a play about people transformed by nature, and that's what you hope the audience will be."
Mendeloff hadn't spent a lot of time in the 123-acre park, so at the first rehearsal "I said to the actors, 'go wherever you want to go, find a place to be as a Fairie.' They just ran all over. There was a man and woman picnicking down at the bottom of the Heathdale, and they got very upset when we started galloping around all over the place. Turned out they were workers for the Arb and were very upset because we were stepping on plants. So I learned very early that we had to respect the environment."
The first weekend was cold and rainy, and very few people came. "But it kind of worked," says Mendeloff, "because right in the first scene Titania and Oberon are fighting, and they talk about how the weather is screwed up because they can't make peace with each other. The audience was in ponchos, very soggy, very cold, but they felt like, 'Yes, indeed, that's very true.'"
Word of mouth soon spread. For the last performance, more than 300 people turned out, and Mendeloff was invited to bring the event back the following summer. It quickly became an institution, so popular that the audience is now capped at the first 150 people to show up so as to limit the number of people tromping through the Arb. (See 3 Thursday Events listing.)
In ten years and more than a hundred performances, there
have been many memorable, serendipitous, and even magical moments. In an early production, right after Puck said, "I'll lead then about, around, sometimes a horse I'll be, sometimes a hound," three dogs came running into the East Valley, barking madly. Another year, the show was As You Like It; as the duke and his lords hunted deer in the forest of Arden, a whole family of deer walked by the scene. "I couldn't hire them to do it every night," Mendeloff laughs.
To fill the expansive stage, she multiplies her players. "The first year, there were three people who wanted to be Puck, and I said to them, "Work it out. You're all Puck, so figure out how you're going to do it. And I found it wonderful to have this tri-parted Puck. Titania has four fairies, then she has many other little fairies, at least in my version (since every little girl in Ann Arbor wants to be a fairy, and sometimes the boys too)...the idea of multiple spirits means that you can have a sense that Puck or Ariel [in The Tempest] is everywhere all the time. You can have that sense that they're in control of the whole environment--which Shakespeare wants you to do."
This year's show will feature several cast members reprising roles they played in the first Midsummer in 2001. Rehearsals began in late April when it was still occasionally cold and wet. "With Midsummer it's kind of, 'suck it up,'" Mendeloff says. "You're a creature who lives in the woods, or you've escaped to the woods, and so you're gonna get wet."
[Originally published in June, 2010.]