The story behind the set design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Set designers and builders for the theatre department’s most recent and arguably most loved play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, worked long, tedious hours to create beautiful and meaningful visual elements that would reinforce the message of the play.

Contrast and counter-balance heavily influenced the design, as various characters are opposite extremes from one another. This is also evident in the tension between the play’s two themes of nature and artificiality. Surprisingly, though, the opposite extremes of characters and themes point to the underlying commonality between them and enable the audience to see that everything is pointing to one common message about love and how everyone in the play keeps getting it wrong.

Because of this symmetry and balance presented in the play, John Klonowski, visiting assistant professor of theatre and director of the play, wanted the stage design to represent that as well. So he and his team designed the costumes and set in such a way that they represent a timeless blend between the ancient Greek culture and the fantastical, untamed woods. This blend still accurately depicted the opposite extremes while allowing for transition between the two as the play was being performed.

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“We came up with a concept. . .and we spent a lot of time researching it,” Klonowski said. “The idea is that [the play] takes place in multiple locations. I wanted it to be very symmetrical and didn’t want to set it in a particular time period. In Shakespeare’s days, they didn’t have scene changes. We didn’t want to mess with that. There’s a reason for that rhythm.”

The interesting thing about the set design for Shakespeare’s plays is that it’s not really necessary.

“Everything with Shakespeare was designed to be played upon a set that had no set,” said Sam Edgren, junior theatre and English double-major and scene shop captain. “All his plays are meant and written in such a way that you don’t have to actually have those things. You could play Shakespeare under a tree, in a closet — so long as you can get the words out, then the play can essentially be played. It’s all about how we’re supporting that.”

While the set design isn’t vital for the play to work, it’s vital for the audience to be able to connect with the message of the play. The purpose of the somewhat-unnecessary aesthetic contributions is to represent reality in a more interesting and entertaining way. People experience real-life every day. When they come see a play, they want to experience something that relates to the ordinary lives they lead, but they want it to be presented in a way that stirs their imagination and emotion, in a way that adds vibrance to the ordinary.

“The general theory of theatre, at least the theory that we ascribe to, is that it is supposed to be heightened reality,” Edgren said. “Everything has reality as its base and is brought to a heightened level.”

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This concept of heightened reality also appears in the costumes that Matthew Wallace, junior theatre and psychology double-major, designed in less than three weeks. For example, Crista Wilhite, sophomore theatre major, played the role of the tinker and wore chains on her corset.

“Obviously, no tinker would do something like that, but it’s something that gets the point across while still creating a fantasy-feel to it — because I can also speak from experience that no tailor would wear pins across their vest,” Wallace said.

Creating the vision for the set and constructing it took a significant time commitment and required much skill and hard work. The team agrees that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the most fun productions to work on and they enjoyed having professors from the English department, such as Gavin Richardson, Jason Crawford, and Scott Huelin, to contribute to the play.

The passion the set designers and builders have for theater is unmatched, because they do it out of pure joy, not for the fame and recognition. Wilhite, who was responsible for painting the entire set, said that there are rewarding yet unfortunate things about her job. With the satisfaction and pride that the end product is bold and beautiful, comes the knowledge that it is also somewhat obscure.

“The [audience] is supposed to be watching the actors; we’re just creating the world for the actors to live in,” Wilhite said. “If you do your job right, they won’t notice it.”

Images courtesy of Kristi Woody

Image courtesy of Mattanah DeWitt|Cardinal & Cream
About Mattanah DeWitt 24 Articles
Mattanah, journalism major and class of 2020, is the Assistant Editor for Cardinal & Cream. She often misunderstands sarcasm and eats chocolate.