Meet The Guy Who Turned a 2.5 Hour Play into 1 Delightful Hour!

Since we couldn’t really do a “Meet the Playwright” with Bill Shakespeare, we sat down with Bill Arnold, who adapted Shakespeare’s text for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and gave us the pithy and surprisingly-complete one-hour version that is set to open on July 15 on our Mainstage. We are very excited to close our 2015/16 season with a large-cast, classic comedy — so mark your calendars!

If you’ve been around HITW at all, you’ve definitely met Bill Arnold. Even if you haven’t met him in person, you can be sure you’ve seen his work building/designing sets, writing some of our most successful shows (Night of the Musical Dead, Lint!), or eaten some of his lovely wife Barb’s delicious and homemade concessions. The work he did with Midsummer is, to me, very impressive, as are his responses to the questions I asked him.

Me: Your edit is so concise – just an hour – when you approach a work like this to create an edit. Where do you begin? What do you consider first?

Bill: So, we’ll dive right into theatre geekery! My first consideration was finding the elements of the play that moved the story forward. The “thing of the thing”, as it were. Since I was fortunate to come off a full length production of the show before I started the edit, I was pretty in tune with what Shakespeare was trying to express. With many Shakespeare edits, I look at the characters and see if there are roles that I can either eliminate or combine. In the case of Midsummer, we had a cast already, so I knew that I wasn’t cutting anyone entirely. With three distinct storylines PLUS a play within a play, it became quickly obvious that one storyline would come to prominence over the other two. (Pyramus & Thisbe, even though it’s the Mechanicals’ play, involves the lovers and the royals) If you were to pull the three lines apart fully, the battle of wills between Oberon and Titania makes for the best “theatre”. To me, their conflict is both played out through their surrogates (Puck & the lovers, as well Titania’s posse) in addition to their argument with one another. The changling boy is only a symptom, as Oberon is only interested in him because it involves Titania giving up something to him. In the broader sense, Oberon and Titania have had this battle many times – it is part of their relationship and it could be taken as a microcosm for Shakespeare’s attitudes towards nature and magic (realizing that the two were FAR MORE related in Shakespeare’s time than they are now)

Me: How long did it take you to whittle the script down to an hour?

Bill: The first cutting took about a month of probably 4 or 5 nights a week’s work. Then, we put it into rehearsal. Several actors had suggestions for further cuts and in a few cases, requests for line reinstatements. There was a great deal of give and take, so while my name is on the edit, it was very much a group effort in the refining stages.

Me: It was clever of you to give Peter Quince a prologue, essentially eliminating the first scene in Athens. Did you cull from lines that were cut or did you write that yourself? Or was it a combination?

Bill: Eliminating Act 1 was very important. Great amounts of exposition, but very little action. People are talking about their conflicts, but have yet to do anything. Having Quince present a prologue as he does in Pyramus and Thisbe seemed to be the obvious route to take. Though the concept was a couple of centuries AFTER Shakespeare, I looked at who was considered the “Master of Reality” in the script. There isn’t always one…Sometimes there are several; sharing aspects of perception. For a Rude Mechanical, Quince is the least delusional (maybe that’s not saying much!) Philostrate hates the Mechanicals, so having him introduce them or announce them more than he has to doesn’t jibe. By setting up a play within in a play within a play, we allow Puck his winking relationship with our audience because we’ve been set up for it. (In the full version, Puck’s shift is at the very end of the play) The lines Quince speaks are a combination of Shakespeare and Arnold. By dropping quotes in from the text, but in the rhythm of the Pyramus prologue, I created a speech that SOUNDS familiar and a lot like Shakespeare, but while being completely metatheatrical. (Which aside from the odd aside, doesn’t happen too often in Shakespeare for that length of time.)

Me: Were you surprised when your edit won the AACT-Conn festival?

Bill: When the show won the AACT-Conn festival, it may have had a little to do with our edit, but I really think that mostly, people responded to these well-known and beloved characters communicating their essence, with little or no fluff. Was that the script or the excellent actors? I think it was mostly a group of actors who knew this play backwards and forwards that really made the impression. I was taken to task by one judge (I don’t remember if it was in Torrington or New Hampshire) that I cut some of her favorite lines. My explanation that the lines that didn’t move the story as forward as others were cut didn’t fly that judge. In the AACT-Conn festival, there seemed to be an expectation that everybody was going to do excerpts from their shows. I think that the 59 minute version stands on its own quite well, and while some of the other shows relied on the audience knowing what was supposed to happen during some of the cuts, we had a complete play – following the Aristotelian arc completely.

Me: In our upcoming Meet the Actor series, I asked everyone what the message of the show is. Since you’ve gotten to know the script so intimately, can I ask you to tell me what you feel is the message of the show?

Bill: If we balance the man-made with the natural, I believe that Shakespeare’s message is that we need to trust in the natural (the magical) and that in a foot race with our civilized selves, the magical world can run circles around us. Is Shakespeare advocating a philosophy of “wu wei”? That’s a stretch, but just as Shakespeare often has the most common character be the smartest or most virtuous, and the high-born is tragic or stupid or arrogant, then it’s a short leap to extend this idea to the wider world and universe. Follow your Athenian law (no matter how ill-begotten it is), but understand that the universe will do what it wants, and man has no say in the matter. There is more in Heav’n and Earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. In many of his comedies, Shakespeare takes pains to show that the static either get punished or they get nothing. Transformation is growth. Those that refuse and resist that transformation do not grow – their position is the same from start to finish.

Me: Please add anything else you think is interesting about the process, the competition, or the play!

Bill: I had read Midsummer many times in college. I had even done an edit (I think 90 or 100 minutes) at that time for a class, but had lost that edit when I left school. I had never actually performed in the play until Hole in the Wall. Playing Bottom was a challenge for me – very physical, energetic, and very egotistical. Playing him as a Pantaloon (if I can mix my theatre eras slightly) until he awakes from his dream was extremely satisfying as an actor. His transformation is physical (TWICE!) as well as spiritual. Yes, he’s still egotistical afterward, but we get the feeling that there is much more to him than there was at the beginning of the evening. Had he been one note throughout, there wouldn’t have been the fun. But many characters in this play are transformed through their experience in the wood besides Bottom. They exit with a new view, a new understanding of their world. I was very gratified to compose the score for our production and “Titania’s Lullaby” became a favorite around Hole in the Wall for many years after. But perhaps the most satisfying element of our 59 minute version was the way our troupe banded together. No one coasted and everyone was truly invested in the work. To me, that made all the difference.

Huge thanks to Bill, not only for his insightful answers, but for giving us this wonderful adaptation. Tickets are available by clicking above!