A Conversation with Noah Golden, Production Designer and Editor
How did you become involved in this project?
I met Lara several years ago when I joined a singing group she had formed. I found an ad on Facebook, cold-called her and ended up joining her group. We've stayed in touch over the years, and in 2020, she asked me to join Fuse. I loved Fuse's mission and was looking for new theater opportunities, so I jumped at the chance. In terms of "Midsummer," I was part of the process since Lara suggested the show around August of 2020. I was a little reluctant to jump in at first - I've never really been a Shakespeare fan and I've avoided working on Shakespeare plays in the past - but I decided to do something that intimidated me and quarantine was the perfect time for that. I'm so happy I did. While I'm still not the biggest Bard fan, I can say that working on "Midsummer" was the most challenging, rewarding, collaborative and creative process I've ever had working on a theater piece.
What was your specific contribution to the conceptual aspect of the show as a whole?
I brought the idea to the team to set the show in quarantine and on digital devices. At our first production meeting, the first question someone asked was, "why this play now?" There's been ten million "Midsummers" before us and will be ten million after us. My answer was to literally pitch the idea of setting it now. The play is a pretty silly comedy, but there are themes of feeling isolated and feeling disconnected that I think we all resonated with. After that, it was an incredibly collaborative process of figuring out what this world would look like.
What inspirations/influences did you focus on in the early stages of your process of creation/design/writing/conceptualizing your contribution to this project?
In terms of the adaptation, it came from trying to turn our limitations into creative solutions. Even with in-person theater, I find restrictions force us as directors to be more creative and original. When we were first developing this show, it was around August of 2020 and I had seen a lot of theater companies do play readings and Zoom productions where the actors would put on costumes, use digital backgrounds and pretend to pass props back and forth. There's nothing wrong with that - anyone who takes the time to make art, especially in such hard times, is to be applauded - but that style wasn't something that the other creative team members or I were very interested in. So, the next logical question was, how do we stick to COVID guidelines and stay distant but do so without pretending we weren't? It was a natural step to think, "well, our show will just be set in quarantine and the characters will communicate the way we are all communicating - Zoom, texts, FaceTime, etc." The Pyramus and Thisbe section was a perfect fit for parodying all the bad Zoom etiquette and Zoom theater we've seen this year. Thankfully, "Midsummer" is a very flexible show. You can mess with the structure quite a lot without changing one word of text. I also watched "Searching," "Unfriended," and "Social Distance," which are all movies or TV shows that take place entirely within a computer screen. While our show is very, very different from them thematically, they helped see how far you can push the concept and how to help create rhythm and momentum without traditional editing techniques.
What was your creative process? Please give examples.
Once we had a basic concept, the next step was spending many hours with Lara pouring over the script in a Google doc. We went over every scene, every line, first to make sure we really understood the play and then to make some cuts. I think in the end, we cut about 45 minutes out of the runtime. We only cut one whole scene. Most of it was streamlining and cutting long poetic passages that were hard to understand and didn't really have a purpose plot-wise. We wanted this show to be very approachable and that meant making it as efficient and understandable as possible. We also figured out where each scene would take place and how our characters would be represented. Some of that was easy. We knew the Mechanicals would rehearse on Zoom. We knew we wanted Helena to use YouTube and IG Live. There's a scene where Demetrius is yelling at Helena for following him into the woods. I really wanted Demetrius to be streaming some video game set in the woods and have Helena show up in the game. Same language, different context. The hardest part was figuring out the fairies and how not to break the rules we set up. If everything we see is on a computer screen, how do we show people sleeping? No one goes on Zoom and heads to bed. Having four people vlog at the same time felt messy. So Lara came up with the concept that our version of The Woods wasn't a forest but Lysander's aunt's summer cabin. The cabin had security cameras so we could show the whole Act 3 sequence without breaking our conceptual rules. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out who the fairies were. The decision to make them computerized beings that lived inside our tech and ran our digital life came from a group-think meeting. After that, everything fell into place pretty easily. Oh, the fairies can turn on the security cameras. Oh, they can watch the Twitch stream. Not to give away too much, but having the fairies be non-human and digital was a blessing because it allowed for some misdirection and sleight-of-hand in terms of pulling off the tricks needed.
When the script was done, I was a part of auditions and rehearsals. Then, around my winter break, I edited a version of the film using audio from a read-through, still images of the cast and stick figures. It looked a little crazy, but was very, very helpful. It acted as a storyboard, so the rest of the creative team could better contribute to the process and, when filming came, we knew exactly how what we needed. Eventually, we filmed both in-person and over Zoom. Because we wanted to keep numbers at a minimum, I did all the filming over Zoom. Lara would be in-studio with an actor and I'd be on Zoom reading lines and giving direction. Out of the 25+ people that worked on this show, I think I've only met four in person. After filming, I got to work editing it all together which is a fun but terribly unglamorous job that mostly involved me muttering and swearing at my laptop. As of writing this, the editing is about 90% done.
What were your greatest challenges throughout the process?
The biggest challenge was probably the most obvious one - COVID. We couldn't film with a crew. We couldn't meet in person. All of us on the team are theater people, not filmmakers. I'm a professional video producer/editor, but my training and experience are in journalism and non-fiction. Editing a news package is very, very different than a full-length musical film with green screens, visual effects, etc. So that was a challenge, personally. But as a group, we had minimal filming experience and our crew was often one person with an iPhone, ring light and tripod. For the Mechanicals scenes and a few others, we filmed them totally on Zoom. So we had to work with whatever their background was, their lighting, their WiFi, their dogs barking in the background. In some scenes, the actors read together, but sometimes it was them talking to me over Zoom and building the scenes later in editing. It was also a challenge because we made a game plan but then retreated to our corners to work, so making sure we all had a unified vision was tricky at times. Luckily, the team is very collaborative and flexible.
Has any aspect of this project surprised you? If so, what was it and why?
That we have a finished, polished show at the end. I don't say that to doubt our work, but we spent many months brainstorming this amorphous thing. It went from a show with one song to an entire musical. There were many times I just had to trust that it would come together…and it did. We didn't play it safe. We didn't go the easy way. This is a go big or go home project. It's now up to the viewers whether that gamble paid off and our choices resonate with the individual audience members. I hope it does. I think it will. But I'm so proud that we went big and that we made something unique.
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?
I love the transition out of "Philomel" and into The Woods sequence. It's was a bit of exposition we needed to cover without any dialogue. Through texts and visuals, we're able to set up a lot. I also love moments like that (or the scene where Puck turns Bottom into a donkey) where the real people and the fairies mix. One of my first visual ideas was Titania sitting on the edge of a Zoom box talking to Bottom. I think my favorite scene is Pyramus and Thisbe. It's just so funny to watch and I loved adding all the "bad" elements: poorly functioning green screens, WiFi interruptions, April's terrible Microsoft Paint backgrounds, stock iMovie effects. That scene was a beast of a puzzle with a thousand pieces, but I love the way it came out.
What has it been like working with the FUSE Team on 'A Midsummer Night's Dream- The Rewired Musical'?
I've loved working on this show. The team is so kind, smart, dedicated and, above all, incredibly talented. None of us thought, "oh, a show with teenagers over Zoom, let's take the easy way out." Everyone put in the same level of thought and creativity they would if our show premiered at Long Wharf or Goodspeed. That's really rare. It was also so collaborative. We were given the freedom to pitch ideas for any aspect of the production. April, our set designer and painter, contributed ideas for music. Our treasurer Elizabeth came up with comedy bits. I gave ideas to Lyndsey, our choreographer. It was so fluid and collaborative. The cast is also so fun, friendly and helped us shape the piece. There were no egos, no tantrums. Everyone was trying to work together for the best possible show. I've loved this process and am totally on board with whatever is next. Unless that thing is Shakespeare. I might need a little Shakespeare-cation.