Remembering Midsummer Night’s Dream: Rory Donald ‘00

Having graduated from Sun Valley Community School in 2000, I had my 20-year class reunion last summer. It being 2020, our “reunion” was all of six people around one outdoor table at Grumpy’s wearing face masks. After a 20-year interval, thinking back on my time at the school, I remember enjoying the classes, admiring the teachers, bonding on outdoor trips, and evening caravanning in school vans all over southern Idaho to basketball games in the 1A athletic conference, the state division for the smallest schools in the smallest towns.

A highly memorable, impactful, and joyful activity in my time at the school came during my sophomore year: the 1998 Upper School production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was more than a ‘high school play.’ It was a marvelous collaboration of talented people, something I was proud to be a part of, a performance which, by all accounts, left the audience enthralled. In addition, the play was an important vehicle for personal growth, for me and several others. It brought the light.

The play itself is pure fun. In a Q&A session at the Ashland Oregon Shakespeare festival, to which the sophomore class traveled every year, I remember that the professional actors were asked which Shakespeare play was their favorite to perform, and that the majority responded with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play features illuminating contrasts: nobility versus 'common' folk, real people versus fairy spirits, mortals versus immortals, capital city versus overgrown forest, reality versus dreams, arranged marriages versus true love, and lovers versus unrequited lovers. In an absurd sequence, the plot features a man who is transformed into a donkey by a magical trickster. (“...Bless thee, Bottom… Thou art translated!”) That donkey seduces the previously dignified fairy Queen Titania, who has fallen under the spell of some sort of aphrodisiac. (“What angel wakes me from my flow’ry bed?” That flow’ry bed and the rest of the wonderful sets were designed by Linda Staum, mother of cast member Matt Staum ‘01.) The play’s climax is a play-within-a-play, which is intended to be a tragedy of dual lover suicides who mistakenly thought the other one was dead. That play is performed by such hacks, one in ill-fitting drag, and with an absurdly long over-acted death scene, that it’s comedic gold. (“Thus die I, thus, thus, thus. Now am I dead, Now am I fled; My soul is in the sky: Tongue, lose thy light! Moon, take thy flight!  Now die, die, die, die, die.")

The cast and crew involved worked well together. The seniors that year, the Class of 1998, set the tone. They were one of those classes that inspires their peers and the faculty because they were very involved in the life of the school, fun people outside of school, and supportive of each other. Looking at a photo of the cast, I think about how much has happened in 23 years to those involved, and the different paths their lives took. Some moved to Barcelona, and some settled in the Wood River Valley. Some took traditional career paths—I became a lawyer, another is in medicine. One became a writer/publisher. One is a real estate developer. Two ended up taking performance art to the professional level—one in live theater and one in television, very successfully. There have been triumphs. There have been tragedies. Some now have kids at Community School. Two are no longer with us.

The cast and crew joined the play for a variety of reasons—extracurricular involvement, college applications, interest in acting as a career, wanting to spend time after school with their friends, or other motivations. Some, like me, were “roped in,” not an uncommon occurrence at a small school. I, an introverted quiet type, was sensibly asked to play a minor background role, the servant to a more prominent character. It was a role without a lot of lines that fell reasonably within my comfort zone.

Unexpectedly, midway through rehearsal season, the upperclass student playing that prominent character (whom my character served) dropped out of the production. To my great anxiety, because I knew all of that character's lines, I was elevated into the more prominent role: Theseus, Duke of Athens—the “just and beloved ruler” around whose wedding the whole play revolves. This new character had a throne room that included a statue bust of his head (of MY head, made by then art teacher Toni Whittington) as a prop. This new character strutted around stage in a magnificent costume that could only be described as a matador’s uniform with a golden cape. (The costumes were designed on a volunteer basis by Gloria “Winkie” McCray, a professional costume designer, and were described in one review at the time as “sartorial splendor.”) This new character not only had many lines in the play, but also said the first lines when the curtain opens in Act I, Scene 1: “Now fair Hippolyta [the intimidating Queen of the Amazons], our nuptial hour draws on apace.” 

I did not transition into the new role with aplomb. I struggled. I had neither average self-confidence nor the regal bearing of the character. On stage, I looked at the floor, nervously shifted from foot to foot instead of standing still, and could not figure out what to do with my hands. My performance was not assuring to the rest of the cast. In fact, very late in the game, in the last few weeks of rehearsals, the director, Tom Keelan, tactfully gave me the opportunity to withdraw from the play. So much work by so many great people was riding on the person who started off the play.

Unpredictably, that not-so-subtle hint—that I was awful, that everyone was depending on me, and that maybe the play was better off without me—did the trick. It ‘flipped the switch.’  I realized I had no option other than to improve. I needed to speak up, stand up straight, enunciate, walk with purpose, gesticulate, and look the room in the eye. Own the stage. And so I did. In that evening’s rehearsal, I dove in. And it worked. At our nightly post-rehearsal feedback session among the cast and crew, I was singled out for my rising to the occasion. We were ready for opening night. After the play, Ben Bass ’99 (Demetrius) signed my playbill with the note, “It was a pleasure to watch you become so… HUGE.” Another castmate wrote, “If I ever need someone to laugh with while being god-like, I’ll know where to go.” The director wrote, “Watching you grow has been one of the great joys of doing this.” I was asked to be the lead in a later play, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Importantly, the personal changes I made to my demeanor in the play didn’t only affect the play. Those fixes changed me and my demeanor in real life, outside of the play. The experience was like a metamorphosis.

The months of rehearsal were a collaborative, creative process. Unorthodox ideas were encouraged and expanded upon. Noah Levin (’98) played one of the “Mechanicals,” an actor in the play-within-the-play, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. He remembers, “How much fun I had with the other Mechanicals, getting encouraged to be silly and then sillier, to get over your teenage embarrassment and just try to relax into the comfort of the group foolishness. And trust that the experience will be better for you, your castmates, and the audience enjoying the show.” Levin later made a career out of improv comedy.

Speaking of improvisation, the cast was creative in how it took 400-year-old script and set it to live action. Callie deFabry ’98 (Helena), recalls how she and Gen Cortese (m. Padelecki) ’99, (Hermia) acted out a dialogue between them. While the words on the script only indicate an argument between the two characters over a shared love interest, the two actors transformed it into a physical brawl, wrestling, hair-pulling, rolling on the floor, and strangling. Recalls deFabry on developing the scene, Cortese told her, “We’re gonna go for it,” and deFabry replied, “I’ll go for it if you will!” deFabry lives and works in Boise, and remembers the play being “So wonderful. I absolutely loved the script. I loved everything that we did with it.”

Adam Marvel ’98 (Bottom/Pyramus), played the lead Mechanical. “What an excellent experience to have in high school,” he remembers. “I was particularly struck by the camaraderie it fostered in the cast. Members of our band of Mechanicals are lifelong friends (one even a godfather to one of my children—Joe Littenberg ’98, Flute). I still have clear, warm, thoughts for the entire cast and thinking of those up on stage makes me wish the best for them in their whole lives, as though our shared endeavor might help propel them to positive experiences.” Marvel, who has been working in London for the past few years, is relocating this spring back to the Wood River Valley to run the nonprofit, Wild Gift.

Casey Mott ’99 (Oberon, Fairy King) also took the play with him into his professional life, as a filmmaker. He reflects that, “The school’s 1998 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a moving and memorable experience. It was a gorgeous show thanks to the many teachers and parents who worked hard to make the actors on stage look good. I’m very grateful I got to be part of this production and remember it very fondly." In 2017, Mott adapted the play into a film. The film, after a run on the festival circuit and being acquired for distribution, was exhibited nationwide at the prestigious arthouse venue Landmark Theatres, and on opening weekend garnered a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%. Mott is now Executive Director of the Argyros Performing Arts Center in Ketchum.

Rocky Bates played the changeling boy, and as a 3rd grader was the only Elementary School student in the play. His mother Vicky recalls that he loved “show business” and couldn’t wait to go to rehearsal. “He took it so seriously” that it was as though “He had a lead role in a Broadway show.” She remembers Rocky's brother Jackson, being “sick of Rocky saying he had to get to rehearsal,” and would point out, “You don’t even talk in the play.” This was “no problem for Rocky… he felt his part was key to the play and felt very honored.” Tragically, Rocky died in 2000 of an allergic reaction, at age 10. It was the other way around—WE were honored having him there.

We were also fortunate to have Bob Doyle, Chair of Upper School History, in the cast, as Egeus, the father who wants to force his daughter into an arranged marriage when she loves another. At that time, if the school had a “father figure,” it was Doyle, and several of the cast members pointed to memories of Doyle when I asked their impressions of the play. Emilie duPont Crist ’01, who played a fairy, notes, “A special memory that I have is standing backstage with Bob Doyle and for the first time it felt like we were on an even playing field. I admired him so much as a teacher in the classroom, filling my mind with so much rich history of our world, and all of a sudden, we were both nervous, teacher and student about to walk out onto the same stage together to see what might transpire. It was such a cool experience.” Doyle died in 2008 of cancer, but his memory is still alive at Sun Valley Community School where he is honored every year with both the Bob Doyle Service Award and an informal Bob Doyle Day, organized by Hannes Thum ’03. duPont currently lives in Ketchum with her husband Zach Crist ’91 and their four children who are also Cutthroats. She teaches Mindful Awareness for the Flourish Foundation. She sent me her thoughts while waiting in the Elementary School “car line for pickup.” 

Casey Lynch ’99 played Lysander, the romantic lead man in a love triangle. Currently the founder of Roundhouse, a real estate development company, Lynch now has two young children attending SVCS.  

Lynch still remembers some of his lines from the play, which he notes is unique among all the productions in which he participated while a student. “It was my first exposure to Shakespearean insults, a few of which I held onto, including ‘minimus of hindering knotgrass’ and still call upon when more contemporary slights don’t suit the occasion,” Lynch recalls. “It was just a very fun environment and an opportunity to spend enough time with Shakespeare to appreciate the humor.” (The full line, for reference, “Get you gone, you dwarf, You minimus of hindering knotgrass made, You bead, you acorn!” is uttered at his until-then love interest Hermia, after he has fallen under a love spell for Helena, another woman, whom he has despised until that point.)

Logan Shepardson ’01 played Puck, a mischievous sprite who did the bidding of the fairy king Oberon, casting love spells on the Athenians and transforming the lead Mechanical (Marvel) into a donkey. His costume consisted of only a loincloth and green body paint. At one point in the play he says to Oberon, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” Here are his reflections: “Playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream was such an impactful experience for me as a young 9th grader in my first production. As a lowly underclassman, I felt so encouraged and mentored by the older students. I was in awe of the powerhouse performances from people like Casey Mott, Callie deFabry, Gen Cortese, Casey Lynch, and Adam Marvel. The whole cast was incredible, and there was such a genuine sense of collaboration and togetherness from the first rehearsal to the last. I remember feeling so strongly supported by my fellow actors, friends, parents, and faculty. Without question, being a part of that production was a big confidence-builder for the young and awkward me at 14 years old. Our director helped me believe in myself, and the rest of the cast made it such a fun memorable experience.” Shepardson lives in Gig Harbor, Washington, with his wife Teagen, and is president of his family business North Star Ice Equipment Corporation.

Finally, Bob Brock, College Counselor and English Teacher Emeritus (Senior Seminar), was the second of the two faculty in the cast. “I had appeared in several Community School plays with the legendary Tom Johnson. I was roped into A Midsummer Night's Dream as a member of the four-man ‘wall,’” Brock recalls. “I remember that the other wall members and I came out at the proper time and that I stared out at the audience but was afraid to establish eye contact with anyone—one of those stares in which your eyes are open and you cannot see. I remember Pyramus delivering the lines ‘O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall, Show me thy chink to blink through with mine eyne’ but that's it.”  

Brock concludes, “I emerged from the experience with awe for the students who could be such good actors. I remember going into my classroom after a weekend of SVCS performances and being so humbled that it would take me a day or two before I could comfortably return to my role as a teacher—which is what my students wanted me to be.”  

And that’s how it was the Monday after. In awe, of ourselves, each other, and the experience. It felt surreal. It felt like, in the play’s concluding words from Puck, that we had “but slumber’d here, while these visions did appear, and this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream.”