Working with Suzuki Master Teacher Ellen Lauren on A “California” Midsummer Night’s Dream

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photos by Michael Lamont

The cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photos by Michael Lamont

A very special production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on stage right now at UCLA, presented by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. It features second- and third- year M.F.A. students from UCLA TFT’s Department of Theater and is unique because it is being directed by Ellen Lauren, co-artistic director of New York’s SITI Company and UCLA Visiting Associate Professor.

For the past 30 years, Lauren has been an associate artist with the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) based in Japan under the direction of Tadashi Suzuki. A faculty member at The Juilliard School of Drama at Lincoln Center since 1995, she is also a recipient of the TCG Fox Fellowship for Distinguished Achievement, and founding member of the International Symposium on the Suzuki Method of Actor Training.

Now, her students are putting into practice the techniques they have been studying with her in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in California in the early 1930s. It was a time when thousands migrated from the Dust Bowl states to find a new life and it was also a time of innovation and experimentation in Hollywood. For so many, hardship was alleviated by escaping into the dreamlike world of the darkened movie theaters. 

Daniel Stephens as Lysander and Lea Madda as Helena

Daniel Stephens as Lysander and Lea Madda as Helena

“It’s a complex play,” says Lauren, “one that deals with the profane and the divine, order and disorder, the romantic and the erotic. It is a play that is always relevant, always needed however many times it is performed, for it continually reminds us of the transformative and restorative power of theater.”

Drawing on her Viewpoints and Suzuki background, Lauren adds that this production demands deep concentration and control on the students’ parts. “Young artists don’t often get the opportunity to embody a scale to their acting outside of their daily lives, to create a fiction in their acting without becoming cartoonish,” she says. “To understand the art of acting is to be able to practice this.”

Two of the students in her cast offered their thoughts on what it has been like working with Lauren and bringing this Midsummer to life. Roshni Shukla (Hermia/Starveling/Fairy), a third-year M.F.A acting student, describes how intimidating, yet exciting, the process can be.

“I have had the incredible honor of being able to see Ellen Lauren perform on stage playing Queen Atossa in The Persians at the Getty Villa and then later playing Clytemnestra in Electra at the Suzuki Company of Toga in Japan. She was fierce, strong, full and exact in both performances. Seeing her on stage was one of the most memorable experiences I have had attending the theater.”

“When I found out we would be not only training with Ellen in Suzuki but also working with her on A Midsummer Night’s Dream I was overjoyed, but also slightly terrified. Ellen was someone I deeply admired and was incredibly nervous around during the first few rehearsals. Despite having worked with her and Professor J. Ed Araiza (head of MFA Acting at UCLA TFT) before in Suzuki training, I was intimidated by Ellen’s ferocity and strength. These feelings quickly dissipated as I began working with her.”

“What was most refreshing was her humanity. She treated me as an artistic equal and allowed me to build my own version of Hermia. Ellen showed me that by creating a strong physical score it would allow me to show the audience what was happening with character through the use of my body. A strong physical score allows an actor to free the language and speak from the changes in the body. A keen awareness of the body is just as important to building a character, especially on stage and when speaking a language that is elevated and complex.”

“Ellen has opened a whole new world of exploration for me with body and text. Not only did rehearsal feel like a master class in acting but also a master class in directing. When I wasn’t on stage rehearsing with her I was sitting on the sidelines observing her direct my cast mates. I will never forget the time I spent with Ellen in the rehearsal space. It is very sacred to me.”

Israel López Reyes (Theseus/Fairy) is also a third-year M.F.A. acting student and says working with Lauren has been one of the most gratifying experiences of his career.

“The process has exercised every muscle and tool I have acquired during my training at UCLA TFT. Ellen taught us that ‘great art is structure.’ It is filled with rigor and discipline, and within that structure comes freedom and a transcendence of all types of barriers. Through the use of our voice and bodies, the company of actors at UCLA has been able to facilitate Shakespeare’s text to their advantage and use our invisible technique to create a communion with the audience.”

“Ellen gifted us with precious time and moments that I know will carry me into the rest of my career. During rehearsal, I watched everyone work. I took everyone’s notes and when I wasn’t in a particular scene I became the foley artist just so that I could stay involved and listen to my ensemble and my teacher.”

Israel adds that their training in Suzuki and Viewpoints ultimately allows them to inhabit a grand situation in life.

“We are able to hold onto the intense focus and energy it takes to have enough charisma and sharpness to carry a classical production like this. Ellen brought the rigor of our Suzuki and Viewpoints training into the room every day without fail. I greatly appreciated our director doing this since for me the theater is sacred space. It is a space where the work is crucial and the craft of acting is something people practice in order to build a life, put food on their table and help one another. Yes, acting is fun but it is not to be taken lightly. Acting is difficult. Great acting is even more difficult. She reminded us of the enormous courage it takes to even begin a project like A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“I think we are succeeding. My father, whose first language is not English sat in the audience on Saturday night and had a great time at the theater. He’s an immigrant, and identified entirely with the Rude Mechanicals. The breaking of cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic barriers with Shakespeare is one of my personal mantras, and I really think it was because of the technique that Ellen Lauren and J. Ed Araiza have instilled in us that someone like my father was able to follow the story and read our bodies on stage like Braille. He understood the piece on a level he’s never understood any other theatre, and like our theme of the Dust Bowl and California water crisis, understood that there was something much larger happening in Shakespeare’s text, something more than just crude jokes and funny bits.”

“The text is a beautiful piece of music, and having Ellen Lauren in the room was like having a master conductor guide us to create the best piece possible. This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at UCLA TFT is full of joy, rigor, flight and magic. It is truly wonderful.”

Makes you want to see what they have created, yes?

Performances continue this week, nightly at 8pm through March 12, with an additional 2pm performance on March 12.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
Through March 12, 2016
UCLA TFT at Macgowan Hall Little Theater
UCLA Campus, Los Angeles, CA 90095
Tickets: www.tft.ucla.edu/theatertickets
Parking is $12
Enter the east side of campus from the intersection of Hilgard Avenue and Wyton and look for Parking Structure 3.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Working with Suzuki Master Teacher Ellen Lauren on A “California” Midsummer Night’s Dream | The Shakespeare Standard

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