‘A story of first loves’

Lights, camera, action: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on stage at the Arden Theatre through April 13. This is the latest project for local director Matt Pfeiffer, whose extensive Shakespeare experience includes 17 seasons with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. PHOTO: ARDEN THEATRE

Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is currently on stage at the Arden Theatre in Old City.

And although it was written in 1595, director Matt Pfeiffer feels it has much to offer 21st-century audiences.

“This is a story of first loves,” says the award-winning director, a Northeast Philly native.  “The characters find common ground through love and magic. In a time of great divisiveness, I think it’s the kind of magic and celebration we need.”

As director, his role begins with auditions to choose the  cast.

“My approach to Shakespeare is to put the power of this play into the hands of the best creative talent in our theater community “ said Pfeiffer.

The casting began almost a year ago. Since this is a play filled with youthful exuberance, Pfeiffer was especially looking for young talent.

“I wanted to approach this production with a cast of the best young actors in our theater community,” said Pfeiffer. “And they all have wide-ranging talents.”

Moreover, in the cast of 10, all but one of these versatile actors take on dual roles.

During rehearsals, Pfeiffer’s approach is to give the actors wide latitude in developing their roles.

“For me, the rehearsal process is all about discovery — to see what these actors would do,” he said.

Besides his role guiding rehearsals, Pfeiffer worked with the design team, which includes designers for lighting, costume, scenery and sound.

For instance, he and sound designer Alex Bechtel planned music for the production.  Music is used throughout the play, often with pieces Bechtel composed.

“Music is a great way to welcome audiences into Shakespeare’s plays,” said Pfeiffer. “A  piece of music can be a helpful way to bring audiences into the world of the play.”

Sometimes, an actor plays the piano or strums a guitar or plucks a violin.

“Sometimes, we use a song to comment on the action, and other times we use it to illuminate the heart of the text,” said Pfeiffer.

After hours of rehearsals, previews are the first time the actors present the play for an audience. For each preview, Pfeiffer sits in the audience, taking notes as needed.

“Until you have an audience, you can’t really know how a story resonates,” he said. “During previews, I’m trying to watch and listen through the eyes and ears of the audience.”

He does fine-tuning as needed. But sometimes, even if an audience does not respond as he had hoped, he makes no changes.

“Sometimes, a detail is important enough to keep it in, no matter what. It’s all about what you believe this experience should be.”

On opening night, which was March 8, Pfeiffer was again in the audience, sharing the experience with his wife, Kim Carson, an actress and photographer. This time, he took no notes.

“When the opening comes, it’s time to let it go,” he said.

This is hardly the first time Pfeiffer has directed a major Shakespeare play. His extensive Shakespeare experience includes 17 seasons with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Then, too, he directed the Arden’s Romeo and Juliet in 2010, and has directed productions of the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre.

As for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his memorable experiences was in 2004, when he was involved in a student production that toured Italy. He was one of two professional actors in this production, playing the character Thisbe.

“It was a great thrill to have the audience laugh when I was speaking a language that I don’t usually speak,” he said. “And it shows why I love Shakespeare. Things that were funny 400 years ago are still funny. There are fundamentals that transcend culture and even language.”

Of course, this in-demand director has worked on many productions besides those of Shakespeare. He’s racked up 12 Barrymore nominations for best director, and has won twice, in 2015 and again last year. And in 2008, he was the recipient of the prestigious Otto Haas Award for Emerging Theater Artist.

His love of theater began in the Northeast. Attending Archbishop Ryan High School, he was in every school play during his four years – a total of eight plays. After graduating, he earned a B.A degree in theater from DeSales University.

He’s been committed to theater ever since. And directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been an especially gratifying experience.

“Shakespeare’s language and humor are found in a story that we can all relate to,” he said. "The themes and ideas in his plays have lasted this long because they are universal. 

“So I’m always excited to have the opportunity to explore a Shakespeare play and bring it to an audience in a way that’s special to me.” ••

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, presented by Arden Theatre Company, continues through April 13 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St.  For tickets, call 215-922-1122 or visit ardentheatre.org