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Interviewing MIDSUMMER Director Ed Sobel

The “rude mechanicals” of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, played by Lora Margerum, Anna Sorrentino, Manda Jacobi, Amy Abrigo, and Annalise Settefrati. All photos by Paola Nogueras.

by Jay A. Kimberley

Villanova University Theatre is home to some of the most innovative and passionate theatre makers in the Philadelphia area. From the classroom to the stage, students are challenged to perform as both artists and scholars. Driving this call to excellence are professors like director Ed Sobel, who challenge the student body daily to emulate the spirit of inquiry and to ignite passion in our audiences.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Ed to talk about our production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night‘s Dream. Believed to have been written early on in Shakespeare’s career, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is structured like a comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies follow a relatively simple pattern: take an ordered world, thrust it into chaos, and let the pieces fall where they will, shifting the status quo and leaving a new order in place.

In preparing for our production, Ed wanted to take a closer look at the text. While A Midsummer Night‘s Dream is typically produced as a straightforward comedy in five acts, he felt as if there was something malevolent brewing underneath the surface. In addition to exploring that, I also asked him about his directing process, and how he discovers meaning through the text.

This interview has been edited and abridged for publication. For the full audio recording, click here.

Q: How would you describe the role of the director in the creative process?

A: I think if you were to ask five different directors, you would probably get six different answers to that question. But particularly with respect to a production like A Midsummer Night‘s Dream, my job is to provide the entire team — the actors, the designers, and everybody working on the production — with a clear sense of what the story is that we are telling, and what I think that story means. Then, having provided that, I allow all of the other collaborators involved to make choices and foster an environment in which all of those people are ideally doing their best work in support of that story, and in support of what it means.

So when you get into the specifics of that, it can mean a lot of different things. It can mean working with actors on a scene, saying “here is what I think this scene is doing, here is what I see you doing, here’s the ways in which that scene seems to be telling the story, here’s the ways in which I think it is not telling the story as clearly as we could.” It could mean a conversation with the designers saying “well, this costume choice that you’re making, I understand how this is helping to tell the story in the way that we want, but this choice I’m not clear on. How can we modify that so we’re telling the story more clearly?” Essentially, the job is to organize all of the elements of the production so that the production is speaking in a unified way that allows for an audience to receive it powerfully.

Q: What inspires your vision for Midsummer?

Effie Kemper as Titania. Background: Annalise Settefrati & Anna Sorrentino.

A: There were a couple of things that fed into it. One was reading the play over and over. I taught the play a number of times in various classes, and I had come to some ideas about what I thought Shakespeare was doing in it. Then when we decided to select it for the season, I went back and looked at it again, not with a fresher eye, but with an immediate eye.  So we’re taking it out of the hypothetical in the classroom and putting it into a particular moment. We here at Villanova are doing this play for a particular audience, primarily the Villanova community, and [I had to consider] what did I think the play had to say at this moment to this audience. So I started looking at the play within that context.

There were a couple of things that I had known about or had struck me while I was reviewing it that seemed to signify some important things. One was that I knew from my own graduate work that the Elizabethan conception of the supernatural was very different from the understanding of the supernatural that we now have, which has been deeply informed by the way we see the supernatural treated in the Victorian era. In the Elizabethan era, fairies were much more closely aligned with the demonic than they were with any sort of “Disney-fied” Tinker Bell image that we have. That was inherited from the Victorians.

And I was really struck by the degree to which Helena and Hermia, who are certainly two of the main characters in the play, have absolutely no lines in the fifth act. I started to puzzle over that. It’s entirely possible that those roles were doubled in some way with other characters that are appearing in Act V Scene I, but I felt like I needed to account for that fact in some way. These women, who had been very vocal and very passionate during the course of the play, suddenly had absolutely nothing to say during the last act.

Meghan Dietzler as Helena and Angela Rose Longo as Hermia.

In the play, we have a bunch of powerful characters: the fairy king and queen, the duke Theseus. These are people of power and in the play, their investment in that power and their ability to exercise that power is initially challenged. Titania is rebelling against what she sees as Oberon’s construction of the world. She has a changeling boy that she wants to keep, but he wants possession of the boy. So clearly there’s a power conflict, or struggle going on there. And the play begins with Theseus essentially promising to marry Hippolyta whom he’s just conquered in war, and then facing this internal rebellion against the rule of law that Hermia wants to marry someone other than the person her father wants her to marry. So looking at the play and seeing the way in which there is a power structure being challenged, and then trying to understand through the course of the play how that changes, led me to looking really carefully at how the end of the play in many ways is a reestablishing of the power structure that those men, Theseus and Oberon, wanted to have at the beginning. So between the women being silenced and the men regaining their power, I started to think about the play in a more specific way. 

Q: Do you have a personal method for approaching a play?

Effie Kemper as Titania and Jay A. Kimberley as Oberon.

A: I believe in reading the play really carefully, and that’s true when I’m working on a new play or something like Shakespeare. I feel like your first path in has to be what is actually being given to you. What are the givens? The givens are: you have this text, [but] you can make changes to the text, especially [since] Shakespeare’s not around to object. In this particular case I tried to make as few changes as possible. There was some cutting we did mostly because of ability to understand some of the language. I think we’ve only cut less than 10% of the whole play.

So I believe in starting with what the play gives you and paying real attention to that. Not what you think it is, but what is actually there. This goes back to the fairy conversation. We have an idea of Titania and Oberon or even about the lovers, but when you look at it, what Oberon does in the play is not nice, and kind of twisted. His idea of exacting revenge for his wife not giving him something that he wants is to cause her to sleep with something ugly — that is the action of the play. So for me, reading that and actually trying to understand that, and not having some other idea about what’s happening in that relationship is certainly part of my approach. Being careful about what the text and what the play is actually doing. 

Q: Why is theatre important today?

A: In many ways it’s not. Theatre is a marginal art form in a culture that in general doesn’t value art very highly. So I think you have to take that as a given.

But that’s not to say theatre can’t do something. This isn’t something you can order up on your laptop. There are a lot of inconveniences to coming to and participating in the theatre. Less so at Villanova, but we have a few of those kinds of obstacles. So, if people are willing to do that, then we have an obligation to say something meaningful to them and important to them.

So in that sense I feel theatre is important. In present culture, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for communal engagement, for us to be in direct physical contact with other human beings. It’s amazing to me how people can be sitting in the same room texting each other and not talking to each other; I’m old enough to think that’s odd. I think the opportunity to be with other people and to experience something together, aside from sporting events or rock concerts… we don’t have that many opportunities. So just the act of coming together and being together in the same room with people is important. It’s one of the ways for us to acknowledge our differences and commonalities and to be reminded of the basic human qualities that we share.

One of the other things I’ll say… just because I think theatre is important, doesn’t mean I think I’m important. For me in doing the work, yes, it’s my job to help provide the leadership for a production, but it’s always about how is this thing communicating the thing we’re trying to communicate. I try to create some distinction between what we’re making and what we’re communicating as being important and not necessarily my voice in that. 

Q: What is your favorite part about being a director?

A: Well, there are a couple of things. One is when it happens — and it doesn’t always happen — but when it happens that you find yourself in a room with people who are really good at their jobs and who like each other, then directing is the best job in the world. And I have to say, more and more that’s what’s become important to me. In doing work, am I in a room where I respect the people and like the people, and how is my relationship with those people continuing to grow and how are we continuing to challenge each other? Part of that is my having spent a lot of time in an ensemble theatre where that is the basic principle.

The other part of directing that I really love is the discovery. The best moments for me as a director are when something in the rehearsal room takes me completely by surprise and is better than anything I would have imagined. So when an actor or a designer shows me something I hadn’t thought about the play, or solves a problem in a way that I never would have thought of, or shows me that the play means something other than what I thought it meant — those are the most exciting moments as a director. That’s specifically dealing with Shakespeare.

When I’m dealing with a new play, which is a lot of what I do, then it’s just the thrill of helping to birth something new. No one has ever seen this play before; no one knows how it works. So you’re in that constant discovery of “who knows.” This beauty of being able to discover something new is definitely one of my favorite moments as a director.