I think there’s something special in rough theatre. We see this all the time with productions being called brave because they don’t have many tech elements. We often call rough productions refreshing and inventive. Rough theatre exists without a huge budget and often without big names. We often don’t focus critically on this type of theater, passing it off as not worthy. But I think it’s amazing.
I think the inventiveness that it requires to say, “I’m gonna do this show with whatever I can find in my house and I’m gonna do it outdoors wherever they’ll have me” is a brave choice. Relying on nothing but your actors and your audience takes a lot of guts. The results can vary, but when done right, the effects are splendid, even magical. And what better story to tell in this magical way than Shakepeare’s magical story, A Midsummer’s Night Dream?
Free to the People Theater Company (FTTP), a new company in Mankato, MN, just finished their first summer play of the bard’s famous romp this past June. I was very sad to have to miss this event, as one of the founders is one of the faculty of my college. Needless to say, I was so happy when they announced there would be a one-time-only reprise performance this past Sunday, September 22nd. I gleefully put it in my calendar, my mind already racing with expectations.
I arrived at a...park? Washington Park near downtown Mankato. However, I would argue that it was just a plot of land surrounded by houses near Mankato’s downtown. The “park” had a few trees, which is all that FTTP needed in order to mystify their audience. They strung some blankets on clotheslines and spread blankets on the ground for the audience to sit on. As I waited, it was hard not to notice the hustle of this urban (urbanish, it’s Mankato after all) neighborhood and I was interested to see how they would combat this.
The play was a shortened version of Midsummer’s, running only an hour and a half. Instead of combating the urban noise around us,the company didn’t do anything. They pushed through, projecting and ignoring car alarms going off. I admired their spirit.
Their spirit, that was something I loved about the performance. It was truly the roughest (as in bare bones) theatre I’ve ever seen.s. Raw. Real. It was just real theatre. These actors, some of them making their debut in theatre, were just there to have a good time. They didn’t treat it like a Tony-winning performance, they treated it as if to say “I just want to tell this story.”
Some performers did stand out, though. The show’s Hermia and Lysander, played by Maddie Stuart and Ryan Christopherson, respectfully, brought the humor to a whacky comedy such as this. Stuart’s movements almost resembled that of a soap opera--over the top and ridiculous. Most importantly, she didn’t take it too seriously (the theme of this production). She allowed herself to have fun, which translated into fun for the audience. Christopherson’s expressive face showed every emotion you can think of...and then multiplied its extremity! It was quite fun to watch.
One thing I also found interesting were my feelings for the theatre troupe subplot in the play. Truthfully, I hate this subplot. I would rather focus on the story of the lovers and the fairies; I never got the purpose of the troupe except to produce Bottom. However, I found myself charmed by them in this production. And I have a theory of why:
Before this production, I’ve only seen high-budget movie adaptations or performances of Midsummer’s. This always made the ragtag group of performers seem out of place. They are supposed to be broke and have nothing, yet they are surrounded by gorgeous sets and costumes? Here, with everything broken down, I was able to see the troupe fully as they were intended to be. They actually were using what they found in their houses and they cobbled it together, trying to make art. I was able to connect to them as never before.
A Midsummer’s Night Dream by Free to the People Theater was a blast. I was smiling the entire time. Everything was so simple, so electric, so happy. That was my main takeaway--everyone was so happy to be doing it. That happiness was palpable to the audience. So when you hear about some production doing something in a park with whatever they have around them and with nothing to their name, go see it. You may be bewitched by the magic of theatre in the woods.
Free To The People Theater hopes to make this an annual event, choosing a different Shakespeare play different summer. They are just starting out, so there is no website for this company yet. But be sure to check in around summer to see what they do next.