When she was young, Chautauqua Theater Company Artistic Producer Sarah Elizabeth Wansley used to force her younger cousins to act in her plays at family reunions.
“They absolutely did not have a choice,” Wansley said.
Now, after directing shows for years and finishing her undergraduate and graduate studies, the actors in Wansley’s shows tend to be more willing participants.
Wansley is taking the helm as director of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for CTC’s 2019 season. The production is a traveling show, visiting locations like Riverwalk in Jamestown, and Lakeside Park in Mayville throughout the summer, and at 4 p.m. today on Bestor Plaza.
Ever since casting her cousins in her family reunion shows, Wansley said she’s loved the communal aspect of theater.
“There’s something about theater that embodies humans,” Wansley said. “It brings people together. It asks us, even as complete strangers, to come together and put ourselves inside the shoes of the characters. It’s a very empathetic experience.”
To that end, Wansley is fully supportive of taking Shakespeare on the road and bringing the performances to those who might not otherwise be able to see them on Institution grounds.
“I absolutely loved the idea of taking Shakespeare outside the gates,” Wansley said. “I think it’s a dream way of bringing (Institution President) Michael Hill’s ‘turning gates into gateways’ to life, and letting as many people experience these shows as possible.”
Last year, Wansley was the producer for As You Like It, CTC’s first run at a traveling Shakespeare show. Now that the program is in its second year, Wansley said she’s excited to keep it moving forward.
“I feel like, in a great way, since the program was so successful last year, we’re building on everything that we did already,” Wansley said. “This show has a little more design support, and we’ve had the full support of the design shops. This year it feels a little elevated.”
Wansley said directing and producing classic shows like Shakespeare’s is valuable, even centuries after the plays were written.
“I love finding ways that these stories live today,” Wansley said. “We can take stories that we’ve studied in places like school or that live in our cultural memory — and especially in Midsummer — be surprised at how modern they are.”
Wansley said Midsummer remains relevant because it deals with themes of indecision and love — themes people of any age can relate to. The story of the young lovers struggling to overcome the oppressive Athenian law has kernels of relatability to this day.
Wansley said there were some challenges that came with getting this particular show on its feet.
“The main challenge was time,” Wansley said.
Most of Midsummer’s cast, made up of CTC conservatory members, arrived at the Institution on June 10. Midsummer’s opening night was June 25, which meant Wansley had just short of two weeks to get the performance up and running.
“It was a very quick and dirty process,” Wansley said. “But actors of all levels were able to help each other out throughout.”
In addition to the rapid rehearsal schedule, Wansley said that figuring out how to effectively take the show on the road was a challenge. The entire set — the forest of Athens, the workplace of the rude mechanicals and the grand palace of Duke Theseus of Athens — needed to pack into the back of a single pickup truck.
But despite the hurdles, Wansley said she was never concerned about the cast’s ability to pull it off.
“They’re so capable, in every sense of the word,” Wansley said. “They’re incredibly physical and willing to commit themselves to their roles, and they bring so much of themselves to these characters.”
Despite the handful of stressors and challenges, Wansley hopes the product they have created will go a long way toward providing an escape for the audience.