Ian Tweeddale helms STAG’s first production for 2011 – Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and it couldn’t be in more capable hands.

Tweeddale has a long history with Shakespeare, particularly with the Hartwell Players having recently performed Shylock in Merchant of Venice, a role which earned him a Victorian Drama League nomination for Best Actor. He has also previously directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Malvern Theatre Company as well as having experience with other classics by Chekhov and Sheridan.
I recently spoke with the very busy Tweeddale – who is juggling work, rehearsals and a new family – about his vision, tactics and other pertinent things regarding his upcoming show for STAG.
A Midsummer’s Night Dream is billed as one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies – as a director, can you talk a little about this play and what it is that drew you to it?
‘Dream’ was the first Shakespeare I ever performed in at school. My memory tells me it was cracker of a production and more importantly it helped create my love for Billy Wagglesticks. I went on to direct a production of ‘Dream’ for the Malvern Theatre Workshop which remains one of my most treasured memories ever both personally and theatrically. So the memories are both fond and quite personal. What has made those memories so strong is both the plot and the language of the play. It involves magic, laughter & love. It both honours and mocks our experiences of being in love. I also love the fact that the sub plot of the Rude Mechanicals is Shakespeare poking fun at theatrical practices of his time but yet we can still recognise those comedic characters and aspects in some of our theatrical colleagues of today!
What was the audition process like in terms of what skills you were particularly looking for from the auditioning actors?
I first did an individual audition to see how people dealt with Shakespearean speech and what kind of physicality and ability they would bring. I then did a group call-back in which I mixed and matched people looking for that alchemic blend of ability, enthusiasm and role suitability. To be honest for most roles I was oversubscribed with talent.
I was in that fortunate position of having some difficult decisions to make. Considering that this would be the 4th or 5th production of Dream in Melbourne in the last couple of years, it was interesting to note the enthusiasm shown by people wanting to audition, I had to create extra booking slots. I had nearly 50 people audition for some 21 speaking roles.
A wonderful situation for a Director!
Is your vision for the play a traditional approach and would you consider yourself a traditionalist or experimentalist as far as Shakespeare is concerned and why?
If by ‘Traditionalist’ you mean doing it in Elizabethan dress – not so much, I think presenting Shakespeare in that kind of Traditionalist way is a really good way of developing somnambulism in your audience. However I am a traditionalist in that I really don’t like to modernise the language. By ‘updating’ the language I think it runs the risk of diluting the powerful imagery and themes which make Shakespeare so attractive. Its the 21st Century, Shakespeare is incredibly relevant in his presentations of power, love and relationships. The way he can identifies and creates personalities and themes that still speak to us directly. I have also found him incredibly adaptable for modern audiences, not all of his plays, but with Dream it has so much to offer for a current audience. After all it wouldn’t be one of his most popular plays if it wasn’t the case! 🙂
With this production I am presenting the world of the Faerie using Pictish and Celtic imagery and trying to give the Athenian court a more Regency or ‘Pride and Prejudice’ feel. This (hopefully!) presents the Faerie as ‘Other’ to the human Athenians. I’m not being particularly rigid for either setting, just giving it a flavour to enhance and make more clear the themes that are addressed.
Would you consider that there are any differences in your approach when you are directing a Shakespeare vs. a contemporary play?
The main difference is dealing with the language. At its worst Shakespeare uses florid imagery and words that just do not translate. I mean: "buskin’d"?? Nobody uses that word these days and so when rehearsing I believe you have to allow for time for the actors to dissect the script word by word. I have sat down with several actors and gone thru their lines word by word to ensure they are confident in what they’re talking about to allow them to find their own interpretation of the character. This can take some time so my rehearsal time is extended, whereas for a contemporary play you may audition and then rehearse for 6-8 weeks, for this production I have allowed for 8-10 weeks of rehearsal. Its a long, demanding slog with its own pitfalls (peaking too early for one) but if the enthusiasm is maintained then it seems to work.
Can you talk about the rehearsal process and how you feel this is progressing?
I have about 3 weeks to go at the time of writing, this is now when things have to come together and so when they don’t I generally start chewing the furniture. However, I have some excellent performances already and having seen the growth of the rest of the cast I am very enthusiastic about the finished product in terms of performances.
There are many people who either don’t understand Shakespeare or feel the language is beyond them. Is this something you are considering as you travel through the rehearsal process and if so how does this affect what you do with your actors?
One of the big traps with Shakespeare is once the cast understands the language they don’t clearly communicate the meaning to the audience. Nothing worse than actors spouting lines, making jokes to each other, obviously enjoying themselves and the audience being annoyed that they’re not being let in on the joke. Fortunately with the Dream, one of its successes is that there much physical activity involved which brings the audience along. They can connect the words to actions and get a easier, quicker understanding of what’s going on.
I dislike it when people seriously refer to Shakespeare as ‘The Bard’. One of the mistakes in approaching Shakespeare is treating him with too much respect. We forget that Shakespeare was an actor also, that he wrote not what we now regard as ‘literature’ but he also wrote for the ‘groundlings’ that is, the everyday working folk who would pop along to the Globe for some afternoon fun. All of what he did was not ‘High Art’. It was material meant to be accessible to as many people as possible. Considering this, to keep Shakespeare relevant we must always bear that in mind. He was unashamedly commercial and his genius was that he wrote some brilliant stuff that has lasted the distance.
Can you talk about some of the challenges that directing this type of play brings about?
A large cast (currently 16 and including some first time or inexperienced actors ) play means having to pitch your communication style at a lot of levels, one minute you might be discussing intricacies of the character and the next explaining that stage left and right and prompt side/off prompt are the same thing (btw – I’m a fan of stage left, stage right – prompts during performance? never seen one, never want one!)
 Can you talk about some of the personal rewards that directing this type of play brings to you?
The personal reward is seeing enthusiastic response from both audience and cast to the production. You, as the Director, might see remaining weaknesses but if people new to Shakespeare come away with a positive experience then that’s pretty cool. Seeing cast members grow in confidence and ability, that’s always a plus.
What do you ultimately hope that audiences take with them after having viewed the play?
Sore sides from laughing, fond memories and a lack of fear for Shakespeare.
What, if any, past experiences have you had with STAG?
I’ve done nothing with STAG before however my wife, Kellie Raymond as she was known then, was in Extremities, directed by Drew Mason and she had a very positive experience. Additionally I’ve seen a variety of STAG shows over the last few years and what I’ve enjoyed is their sense of ambition matched with very little resources! I was keen to direct a Shakespeare at STAG as they and Hartwell are the only companies in Melbourne who regularly attempt Shakespeare.
And finally, what is next for you?
Sleep, lots and lots of sleep, then an overseas holiday…and only then will I proceed to co-direct with Kellie, the Eltham Music Hall later on in the year.
STAG presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream By William Shakespeare Directed by Ian Tweeddale at the Strathmore Community Centre, corner of Loeman and Napier Streets, Strathmore (Melway Reference: 16 H 10) Thursday 3 March to Saturday 5 March @ 8pm
Sunday 6 March @ 2pm Wednesday 9 March to Saturday 12 March @ 8pm $20 adult
$15 concession $2 discount off full price tickets for groups of 10 or more