The news that Jobsite’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is officially the best-selling show in the theater company’s 22-year history was greeted with much reverie and backslapping by those who created it.
“You never know what people are going to think of any given take on a Shakespeare play,” says Katrina Stevenson, whose androgynous, seemingly weightless Puck is a welcome omnipresence. “Or when they walk in, the first thing they see is a big huge dream ballet with people in the air, and running around …
“But they seem hooked from the beginning. Where they have no choice but to just take it all in. Even those audiences that are quiet, they’re leaning forward in their seats and they’re listening.”
With its starry-eyed lovers lost in a woodland full of mischievous sprites, a quarreling fairy king and queen, and a band of incompetent actors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is wall-to-wall whimsy and laughter.
But it’s still Shakespeare, with languid, flowing verse, and it’s one of the most beloved, and oft-performed, pieces in the canon.
“People know this play,” explains Stevenson, who distinctly recalls watching a woman in the front row mouthing the dialogue as the show played out. “And they’ve seen it a million times, and they’ll see it a million more.”
All those Dream-lovers probably haven’t seen it done like this – Puck, and the four fairies, spend much of their time suspended from aerial fabrics and lyra (hoops).
The look, sound and pacing of the show – it is constantly in motion – were developed by director David M. Jenkins – Jobsite’s co-founder and artistic director – in tandem with composer Jeremy Douglass and Stevenson, whose involvement also included choreography and costume design.
Jenkins had suggested that Stevenson include aerial choreography, which is one of her many talents.
“I was like ‘If I’m going to have fairies up in the air, being fantastical, the whole thing needs to be a visual extravaganza,’” she says. “It needs to be over the top.’ It was a no-brainer for me, but I didn’t know if David would go along with it.”
He did, and so she pushed for the rest of her vision: “‘If we’re going to take this show vertical, we need to us it as much as possible. Not just have it be an ancillary thing. It needs to be integral to the plots.’”
Jenkins gave Stevenson, a longtime, treasured member of Jobsite’s informal company of performers, her choice of roles. “I would never ask anybody else to learn all of Puck’s lines, with that much of a character, while doing air acrobatics,” she replied. “I’m the only one crazy enough, that I can think of, to do that.”
Stevenson’s bizarre, balletic Puck seems to owe nothing to gravity. Incredibly, the actor’s introduction to aerial work came just three years ago, in preparation for Jenkins’ re-imagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (she was cast as, well, Ariel). She is, admittedly, a quick learner. And a dedicated student.
“I learned this from The Tempest, but it was much easier this time around,” she explains. “You not only have to know the words and the intentions – everything Shakespeare acting-wise – backwards and forwards – but you have to know what each of your hands is doing, what your foot is doing, what your weight is doing, and things will still go wrong! Fabric is notoriously willful. So there are times when I don’t break stride with my words, but I am trying to get this piece of fabric off my foot so I can get into the next thing.”
One of the reasons A Midsummer Night’s Dream works so well, from her perspective, is this: “I was really able to focus on making the movements suit the words, instead of ‘Look at me, I’m doing fancy things’ and nobody’s listening to the words. I wanted to make sure that I was amplifying everything that I was saying.”
At St. Pete College’s Clearwater campus, Stevenson teaches Acting, Costume Construction and – this semester – Play Script Analysis. She’s worked in the theater department for three years.
“I had a day job for a long time,” she says. “And I’ve chosen a life of poverty and independent contractor work to do costuming and teaching here … because dammit, life is short and I want it to mean something.”
She loves working with young, eager students (“They’re here by choice”). Sometimes, she recognizes her own fiery passion for creative exploration in them.
Stevenson grew up in California and Colorado. “I liked being a performer. I was never comfortable as a human being, but I was really, really comfortable onstage. From like 4 years old.”
Her ballerina dreams, she says with a laugh, went out the window when she stopped growing (she stands just under five-foot-three). At the University of Northern Colorado, she majored in theater. “I was an actor and a dancer who could sing, so I was funneled into musicals.”
This led her to the University of Florida, where she received an MFA in Acting in 2000.
“While I was at UF,” Stevenson says, “I met this weirdo named David Jenkins. He was a third-year my first year. And then he left, came down to Tampa and started this theater company. So I’d come and see these productions. They were done on a shoestring, but the pieces that they were choosing, and the actors that they were working with, I was like ‘This is powerful, amazing stuff.’
“And I didn’t know what to do after my Master’s – New York? Chicago? Maybe. I don’t know.”
Her involvement with Tampa Bay theater began with costume work, and then acting … “more importantly, I found a group of artists who’ve become a family. And sometimes I don’t get to work with them all the time, but a group of people who are more interested in the art. The craft of making amazing theater. That sometimes sells, and sometimes doesn’t sell, but they support each other.”
At Jobsite, she’s appeared in a wide spectrum of roles, from Dancing at Lughnasa to Othello to The Maids to Edgar and Emily, in which she appeared as a fantasy version of poet Emily Dickinson.
“I found people who’ve allowed me to go beyond my type,” she says. “Usually I would be kind of the whacked-out tart in comedies, usually period comedies, or maybe Evil Witchy Woman.
“But to be able to play roles like Emily Dickinson – I’ve been doing this for decades, but I found things in me that I didn’t know were possible.”
Indeed, when Jenkins suggested she take up aerial work for The Tempest, she suggested he might be, well, pushing her envelope a little too far.
“I was a hardcore runner, and I kept in shape, but that kind of upper body strength is just bananas,” she believed.
Risk-taking, however, is paramount in theater. “I gave it the old college try, and all the summer and fall I was like ‘If this doesn’t work, there’s always Plan B.’ And he knew that.
“But I absolutely fell in love with it. It’s gymnastics athleticism combined with dance. And I spent many years studying classical ballet and modern. And when you look at some of the major performances, Cirque du Soleil, there’s so much performance art – acting, and character … a lot of the default is ‘pretty ballerinas in the air.’
“But I love it when you can get down and dirty and make weird, strange characters. And A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the perfect opportunity to do that.”
Tickets and info here.