About the Direction
In Conversation with Director Lara Morton
How did you become involved in this project?
The idea of doing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as FUSE Theatre of CT’s second production came to me one night as I was finishing up the editing on the salvaged virtual version of our first production, Disney ‘The Lion King Jr.’, which was supposed to open to five sold-out audiences in March of 2020. “Man plans, God laughs”, right?
It has been a life-long dream of mine to start a theatre company and produce a musical, and “LKJ” was supposed to be that. When COVID hit and everything shut down, we held on to the possibility that we would be able to perform our show live at some point in June or July, but it became pretty clear that we were going to be quarantining for a while, so we decided to complete that show as a film using rehearsal footage, Zoom recordings and live video recordings of individual performers lip syncing their musical numbers in my backyard. When we finally released the show to our cast members and their families, we felt satisfied that we had achieved closure for them and for our project, but disappointed that we could not share the fruits of our labor with a wider audience due to licensing concerns. If we WERE to do a second virtual production, it would have to be something in the public domain, or an original project. We needed the freedom to show it how we wanted, when we wanted, to whomever we wanted, for as long as we wanted.
‘Midsummer’ sort of came to me one night as an option because a) it’s Shakespeare, so it’s in the public domain b) it’s a comedy, because who needs King Lear or Hamlet right now? and c) the show itself is already “cohorted”, with characters grouped into four main categories: The Athenians, The Lovers, The Fairies and the Rude Mechanicals. It seemed like a workable option in the event that we could only rehearse or film in small groups. Since we didn’t know how Covid was going to play out, it felt flexible enough to fit whatever circumstances we ended up being faced with as the colder months set in.
What was your specific contribution to the conceptual aspect of the show as a whole?
I’d love to take credit for all of the brilliant ideas this incredible team has dropped into the ‘Stone Soup’ pot since we first started meeting to discuss the concept, but I can only really lay claim to one— the idea of this show having a soundtrack. A friend and colleague of mine, Lydia Arachne, who had stepped in as Music Director for ‘The Lion King Jr.’, happens to be a virtuosic musician and composer, and I had become a huge fan of her band ‘Semaphora,’ for which she writes, plays, records and engineers all of the (highly complex and catchy) music. I felt like her style, which is hard to describe because it is such an eclectic mix of genres and influences, would really work for Shakespeare. At first, I was just thinking underscoring and a few songs, and I casually posed the idea to Lydia Arachne while she was in my backyard on my MacBook Pro, fixing the sound in ‘The Lion King Jr.’
“So… I’ve been thinking. I want to do Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and I’d like you to compose the underscoring and a few sung songs. Is that something you might be interested in?” Lydia is accustomed to my crazy ideas, and to her credit, she almost never laughs at them (at least not in front of me). She acknowledged that ‘Yes,’ she might be interested, but would need more details before agreeing to anything. I admitted that I didn’t many concrete ideas, because it was little more than a vague concept at that point, but isn’t everything in the beginning? She came back soon after with an ‘I’m definitely interested.,” and I brought the idea to the FUSE Board, who were kind enough to trust the viability of my pipe dream (again), and we were a “Go’!
Neither of us knew at the time that “underscoring and a few sung songs” would ultimately turn into a full musical with more than ten original, fully sung songs using Shakespeare’s text as lyrics.
I suppose the other major conceptual contribution would be the identity of the forest itself as it made sense to our very digitally-oriented production. Because our show is set in summer, and we were filming in winter and early spring, an outdoor locale for the scenes in 'The Wood' didn't make sense. We spent a good amount of time ruminating on what 'The Wood' might be, and it finally came to me that maybe 'The Wood' wasn't an actual forest, but an estate owned by Lysander's dowager aunt, bearing that name. Finding a suitable location for this turned out to be a task and a half, but Jake Egan is phenomenal in a myriad of ways, including convincing people to be awesome and donate use of their gorgeous location to a small non-profit theatre company. They even fed us. Special shout out to our friends at Falls Creek Farm!
Fun fact: our entire concept was sparked by this flower. If you look closely, you will see it incorporated into April Chateauneuf's gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds.
What inspirations/influences did you focus on in the early stages of your process of creation/design/writing/conceptualizing your contribution to this project?
I watched a few versions of ‘Midsummer,’ most notably the 2018 version with Lily Rabe and Finn Wittrock. It’s a present-day interpretation set in Hollywood, though the Hollywood sign says “A T H E N S” and I was impressed by how they really flipped the play on its head and managed to keep the weirdness of it intact. I appreciated the originality of it, and was doubled over with laughter at the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ finale. I won’t give too much away, but if you are a Star Wars fan (or even if you hate it), you must watch this version.
I was already in a Shakespeare mode because 1) The Lion King is based on 'Hamlet' and 2) I had just completed two consecutive free virtual Shakespeare acting classes with many of the young performers who later auditioned for this show. That was convenient, in the end, because I didn't have to teach them the remedial stuff at the beginning of our rehearsal process.
Aside from that, my main inspirations came from the creative team. When you have truly EXCELLENT, experienced and passionate people in a room together (even a Zoom room), magic happens.
I’ve always wanted to work in a fully collaborative, “stone soup” kind of way. I’ve been trying to find that for decades now through involvement with other companies, but it has been elusive. In the end, I realized that if it was to happen, I needed to set that in motion myself, and invite folks I’ve worked with in the past who get me and can vibe with my way of working. I’m VERY driven and focused when it comes to theatre-making, especially educational theatre. Passion is not in short supply here, and that can be a lot for people to take sometimes, so the only way around it is to find others who have the same level of passion and be good to them, look out for them, make space for them, and accept them for who they are and help them to maximize their effectiveness by making them feel truly wanted and important. Because they ARE.
We honestly had no idea what our concept was at the outset, because it was difficult to visualize a project that may or may not be filmed fully live, partially live, or entirely over Zoom. We were at the mercy of the pandemic and though we were fairly certain there would be a third wave in the colder season, we didn’t know when it would start or when it would end. We knew we had to be open to whatever the benevolent universe had in store, so we tried to be patient with ourselves, each other, and the project itself. This was a one foot in front of the other kind of experience, and we gave ourselves plenty of time (October to May) to develop our show.
First Production Meeting/Read-Thru of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream- The Rewired Musical'
Early Zoom rehearsal with Harper Hellerman (Puck), Lara Morton (Director), Norah Stotz (Titania), Sylvia Sonenstein (Helena), Emma Blanchette (Hermia) and Noah Golden (Production Designer/Editor)
Noah & Lara taking their work very seriously.
What was your creative process? Please give examples.
As the Director of this particular show, a big part of my creative process was being 100% in tune with every aspect of what was happening, and channel the energies and efforts in a forward, unified direction, focused on the art we were making together. It’s alchemy. It’s something I do well, even though most of it is invisible to the naked eye and I’m kind of terrible at explaining it (in case you couldn't tell).
For me, the first step was securing a great cast and making sure they knew they would be respected and honored as co-creators of a new work, and that their ideas and contributions would be openly welcomed. It took a little convincing, honestly, because most of the youth performers I had worked with in previous projects, including my improv company FOCUS Teen Improv and FUSE’ first show, The Lion King Jr., were dealing with a lot with Covid and many if not most of them were fully virtual at school, for music lessons, driver’s ed, dance classes, etc., and they didn’t want to spend their weekends on Zoom. Totally understandable. In the end, they talked one another into auditioning, so we had enough talented youth to fill most of the roles. Our Costume Designer/board member Jake Egan O’Hara, teaches Theatre classes at a school in Massachusetts, and he asked me if his students could audition. Since we would be rehearsing virtually, I said “Absolutely, yes,” and two fantastic young women came to us that way. After casting the youth, we decided to have adult actors play the adult Athenians, and serve as mentors to the youth cast.
From November to the end of February, our cast rehearsed on Zoom every Saturday and Sunday for three hours, and while Lydia was writing the music based on video and audio clips of the cast members’ voices, the creative team was meeting on weeknights to figure out what the concept and look for the show would be, I was working with the cast on Zoom to get them solid with their text, characterization, plot, rhythm, etc. We knew we had to have everyone and everything ready by the first weekend in March, because we would need a full two months of filming dates on weekends to get our show finished in time for our May 21st, 2021 premiere.
In early January, we started getting the demos, sheet music and rehearsal tracks for the songs, and Lydia would work cast members individually on Zoom to teach them their parts, while I, Noah and our Executive Producer Elizabeth Santaus supported her efforts by sharing audio tracks and helping the kids with their pitches. We recorded every rehearsal on Zoom and uploaded it to our Vimeo and sent the links to the cast so they could practice during the week. At least, that was what we hoped would happen.
The first time Lydia would actually get work with cast members in person would be when she recorded their vocals in my home studio and on location in Massachusetts where we recorded Puck and Starveling/Moonshine’s vocal tracks (an endeavor very nearly thwarted by a three hour power outage!).
Once the writing process of the music was finished, we brought on new board member Lyndsey Chance Simmons, who conceived of the choreography and somehow managed to teach it entirely on Zoom from her home in New Jersey, sometimes from her car because her house was being shown. I have no idea how she managed it, but she did. Because she’s Lyndsey, and she gets.the.job.done.every.time.
Neither Lyndsey nor Noah ever worked in person with any of our cast members. Noah attended every single rehearsal, sometimes two at once, and was present via Zoom for every filming session. It was a surprisingly effective way to work, as Noah had a controlled, organized environment with excellent notes and outlines at his fingertips, while I was up to my ears in make up, costumes, green screens, ring lights, tripods, face masks, Lysol, hand sanitizer and teenagers most of the time, making it impossible to carry out our filming plan without forgetting half of what we needed to do. We somehow managed to make it all work, and I usually had help on hand between April (Scenic/Makeup), Nightwing (Costumes) and Jake (Costumes). However crazy it was, it was a ton of fun and I wouldn’t change a thing.
What were your greatest challenges throughout the process?
COVID- This project was a beast, and we were always operating a little bit in the dark because we didn’t know what the Covid Monster had in store. We knew we needed to keep everyone safe, so we put a lot of thought and effort into figuring out how best to do that while also creating an excellent show. Also, a lot of our kids have been a bit fragile through this really awful time, so I was a lot less strict with them than I normally would be. This resulted in a lot of issues with lines memorization. It's easy to fake it on Zoom. Not so much on filming day. We managed to make it work, because that is what we do in the theatre.
COMMUNICATION- For the most part, I think we handled this well, all-considering, but it was hard to stay on the same page sometimes because the 30 people involved all have different personalities and communication habits. I am a director who takes great care in crafting thorough communications and staying on top of details. I struggle when the recipients don’t read emails, answer texts, or respond punctually with at least a “Got it!” so I don’t have to wait two weeks to find out that a critical piece of info was sitting in a spam folder. Timing is everything! Handle your business.
SCHEDULING-- I have a love-hate relationship with scheduling when I'm directing. I spend an insane amount of time on it, and it can be maddening. This show was particularly crazy to schedule, for reasons I'm sure you can well imagine. Taking safety into consideration, we had to think everything through to the smallest detail, and I give a lot of credit to the parents of our youth cast who rolled with the constant changes, sometimes last minute, for nearly six months.
Has any aspect of this project surprised you? If so, what was it and why?
So much has surprised me, in the best way. I admit I had a much smaller idea of what this show could be when I first conceived of it- I had seen other virtual Shakespeare productions and knew we could elevate the game a bit, especially with the original music angle, but I had no idea just how much. Noah Golden’s beastly production design, video editing and eye for continuity has been the biggest surprise. I had worked with him before (in a singing group) and knew he was incredibly pleasant to work with and quite multi-talented (acting, writing, journalism, directing, singing, piano, percussion and video editing), but I had no idea that what he did with our iPhone and Zoom video work was even possible until I saw it. Even the very remedial storyboard video he made for the team using mostly stick figures and audio from cast read-throughs and demo music was mind-blowing, but it pales in comparison to the final product. I really cannot wait to hear what people have to say about this show, especially Noah and Lydia’s extraordinary artistic contributions. It’s like chocolate and peanut butter.
If you could choose one aspect of your contribution (one design, one song, one costume, one scene) that you are most satisfied with/proud of, what would it be and why?
The casting was spot on. Every actor brought their character to life in the most interesting, compelling and hilarious way. I’m super proud of the level of work this cast of mostly youth actors (ages 12-17) has reached, because no matter how beautiful the costumes and settings are, how well-written the songs are, how imaginative the editing is, if the acting falls flat, the audience cannot fully connect and invest in the story, and the story is literally “what it’s all about.”
What has it been like working with the FUSE Team on 'A Midsummer Night's Dream- The Rewired Musical’?
I feel like I’ve said this already, but it’s been a Dream. We had our moments and misfires here and there, but we have persevered through what others may have dismissed as impossible and we were only able to do that because we all truly cared about what we were creating together. We could have sat this one out, licked our wounds after Lion King and let the pandemic end before attempting another show, but we tackled it like the bosses we are. I absolutely love them all and want them with me for every project. Noah, April, Elizabeth, Jake, Nightwing, Lyndsey and Lydia, you are all so dear to me and I will never forget all that you did to make this crazy pipe dream of mine into a beautiful work of art.
Your own words- is there something you want to talk about or share that we haven't covered in our general questions?
Thank you for supporting the arts! Please keep doing that. We NEED you. If you enjoyed this show, TELL people about it. If you are an educator who might like to utilize our show to turn your students on to Shakespeare, reach out to us. We WANT that to happen. We also want for our songs and our script edit to be licensable by schools, community and regional theater companies in the future, so if you have some advice for us on that count, please do share it. It takes a village to raise a theatre company, and we want to make that village proud.