Tag Archives: Savvy Scopelleti
Dropping in on the Mechanicals during the early days of rehearsal is not unlike dropping into a cocktail party with old friends – minus the cocktails. And minus any actual history of friendship, for that matter.
It’s true. The five actors who will portray the working class players in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical, which previews this week, have bonded so quickly, one would think that they had known each other for years, when in fact they all met at the show’s first rehearsal.
“It is the first time we’ve worked as a group, but not the last,” says Phil Johnson, who will be portraying Bottom. “We’re getting a van.”
To be a Mechanical in A Midsummer Night’s Dream means that you get to be responsible for most of the humor in the play, as the band of hopeful actors gathers and rehearses in the forest, falling prey to the machinations of the Fairies.
“It was really fun for me to be a part of the group that everyone remembers as just the clowns,” says Gerilyn Brault, who will be portraying Peter Quince, the troupe’s director. “It’s been really freeing to work with this amazing group.”
This sentiment is a common one, even to Savvy Scopelleti, who will be reprising the role of Snug, which she portrayed in last summer’s production.
“It’s a different show this year,” she says. “It’s a new cast with new energy…and it really did gel so instantly.”
Thankfully this insta-bonding has created a safe environment of play and experimentation, relieving some of the stress that learning both the Shakespearean text as well as the 60s tunes which will be infused into the show can bring. Brian Imoto, who will be playing Snout and who is also fairly new to Shakespeare, takes solace in the fact that the Mechanicals are supposed to be “amateur actors.”
“It was a relief to me,” he says. “We’re off the hook!”
The group immediately dissolves into laughter, something that happens every thirty seconds or so. After spending more than five minutes with this crowd, you bring to wonder how they actually get anything done in rehearsals, with all of the gut-busting going on.
But no one seems to be worried. For now, this group of talented actors and singers are indulging themselves in their off-stage repartee. It can only come in handy once the curtains open this week. Nathan Riley, who will be playing Flute and ultimately the lovelorn Thisby, barely contains his enthusiasm for his tribe.
“If you’re going to see Midsummer this summer, which I’m pretty sure you will,” he says, “this is the one to see.” — T.T.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical runs July 11-August 18 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas, CA.
Purchase tickets now.
If you ever wondered what life might have been like as an actor in Shakespeare’s time – with the company performing one show while rehearsing another while building sets for yet another – you need look no further than the rigorous morning schedule of Intrepid Shakespeare Company’s Education Tour.
This particular Tuesday tour day begins at 8:30 am on the campus of La Jolla Country Day. This particular company of actors includes Education Director and Intrepid Co-Founder Sean Cox, and Education Artists Scott Farrell, Brian Mackey, Erin Petersen, and Savvy Scopelleti. They assemble quickly, coffee in hand, and begin the well-practiced routine of unloading cars, assembling sets, organizing costumes, and running lines. The first performance on the docket: A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the 5th and 6th grade classes at 9:30 am.
Most may not realize the level of production value that arrives with the Intrepid Education Tour. For each performance, three flats are constructed onsite, which, once overlaid with a canvas backdrop hand-painted by artist George Weinberg Harter, set the stage for the action that will unfold. Each show is fully costumed. In fact, the actors will change three or four times in this production of Midsummer – a daunting feat given the 50-minute runtime.
This first hour of the day is spent in this set construction and costume preparation, accompanied by familiar banter and line rehearsals while the actors each carry out their individual component of this well-oiled machine. This is probably one of the most requested performances, and each company member understands his or her place in the choreographed dance of the school tour load-in.
All too soon, students begin to enter the auditorium. Some are intrigued by the new set on stage, some are doubtful about what they are about to watch. Teachers say that most students are surprised when they discover that they like Shakespeare. “When they see it come to life, they are like ‘Oh, cool!,’” says Kathy Hirsch, who teaches 7th and 8th grade English. Today, Mrs. Hirsch dons a velvet cape and lines her hair with Titania-inspired flowers, greeting the assembled students with “Isn’t it fun to play dress up?” This line receives a wave of cheers and Sean steps forward to introduce the play. The first questions to the students are always the same: “How many have seen a Shakespeare play before?” and “What do you think ‘Intrepid’ means?” To the first, a smattering of hands rise from the crowd. To the second, responses ranging from “fast” to “happy” and finally “daring, bold, fearless.”
Midsummer begins with Sean crowning a student sitting in the front row, thus casting him as Theseus, the character to whom he and the other actors will address their initial woes. Soon, we are in the forest, and Sean, once suited as Aegeus, now dresses in a neon green elf-suit for his role as Puck. Erin Petersen, as Hermia, also doubles as Peter Quince, the head of the Mechanical acting troupe. Brian Mackey, as Lysander, also has more than a few laughs as Bottom, while Scott Farrell steps into the roles of Demetrius, Francis Flute, and Oberon. Lastly, Savvy Scopelleti dons horn-rimmed glasses for Helena, an eccentric feathered mask for Titania, and lion headgear for Snug the joiner.
“It’s important for the students to see live theatre,” whispers Mrs. Hirsch, barely audible over the giggles Sean is getting with his Puckish antics. “We love building it into the school day because we want them all to be exposed.”
The young audience continues to be delighted by the antics of the actors onstage, especially vocal when Brian, bedecked in a donkey-eared newsboy cap, performs a ‘donkified” rendition of One Directon’s “That’s What Makes You Beautiful.” During the post-show Q&A, he explains his choice: “The actor playing Bottom in Shakespeare’s time would have performed whatever the most popular tune of the day was. So, I get to choose each time whatever song I think would work.” The other actors comment that they actually never know what song he is going to be singing in the middle of the show, although Brian admits, “I usually ask Erin.”
Mere minutes and umpteen quick changes later, the play is complete and the questions start flying. “Where did you get the donkey hat?” “How do you memorize all of those lines?” and “What are the links between Shakespeare and classical Greece?” The cast answers them in stride, each responding according to his or her own knowledge and experience. Scott, who also gives classroom presentations on medieval and Renaissance history through his Chivalry Today educational program, explains how artists of the late 1500s were enamored with the Classical culture of Greece and Rome, and used its themes as inspiration for their painting, poetry, and drama. At the end of the session, a pre-show question is repeated: “How many of you have seen a Shakespeare play?” And at this point, of course, everyone gets to raise their hands.
As the students depart, the cast reassembles, quickly draping luxurious red fabric over the canvas flats and revealing a built in “window” center stage which will play as a balcony. Next on the docket: Romeo and Juliet for the 7th and 8th graders at 11:30 am. Costumes are re-organized and Scott takes the cast through the stage combat sequences – everyone seems to be involved in one, as apparently, when you are doubling and tripling roles in Romeo and Juliet, the chances of being involved in a Verona street brawl are very high. Erin takes a moment to whack a prop knife against her palm in an effort to get the “blood” inside to drain properly. Sean checks to make sure his Mercutio tattoo sleeves can’t be seen under his Lord Capulet suit coat. Lines are run again during this transition period and again, almost too soon, students are filing into the auditorium.
This is an eager bunch, and student Arielle Algaze grabs a front row seat. “I saw Hamlet twice,” she says immediately, referencing Intrepid’s most recent mainstage production. While she admits that Romeo and Juliet is not her favorite play (“that’s King Lear”), she also states emphatically that Mercutio is her favorite character in the canon because of his humor. “He is an interesting and uniquely funny character.” When asked if she and her classmates are looking forward to the performance, she thinks for a moment and then responds. “To put something on stage and to evoke something from an audience takes risk,” she says. “So, I think theatre is something everyone should be exposed to.“
This “one-hour traffic” of the lovers’ tragedy begins and Erin and Brian immediately evoke nervous giggles and calls of “woooo” when they share their first kiss on the dance floor. Swordfights ensue – cautiously, due to the proximity of the audience – and before long, Nurse has wept, Friar has waxed philosophical, Mercutio has fallen, and the Capulet tomb is laden with bodies. Applause erupts and the actors quickly gather their thoughts for another round of questions from the crowd.
“Understanding Shakespeare is really empowering for the students, especially when it is relevant to their lives,” says fifth grade teacher Angela Lathem-Ballard, who has studied teaching techniques at the Globe in London and introduces Shakespeare into her classes on a regular basis. “Studying these plays and watching these performances gives kids a safe entrance into the arts – kids who would never take a risk normally.” As if on cue, a group of students who are studying Macbeth in class decide they would like to perform the witches’ scene for the actors. The aspiring thespians show off their skills and the actors respond with enthusiastic cheers as the last “fire burn and cauldron bubble!” echoes through the auditorium.
The future Shakespearean starlets disperse, and the actors begin the breakdown of the set – again, a well-rehearsed dance where everyone has a part. Even though the performances are done for the day, the work is not. As the actors gather their sets and props, they rehearse lines for the newest addition to their school tour lineup, Hamlet, which will be performed in Los Angeles in two weeks’ time. A scene perhaps not so dissimilar from Shakespeare’s original company of King’s Men: curtains are folded, flats dismantled, and costumes boxed while strains of “to be or not to be” flow through the now empty theatre. — T.T.
For information on the Intrepid Education Tour or the upcoming Camp Intrepid this summer, click here or email email@example.com.
Sean Fanning doesn’t like scenery.
This may seem strange, considering he is the set designer for Intrepid’s current production of Hamlet, but when you hear Sean’s take on bringing Shakespeare to life, you might understand.
“It’s all about the words,” says Sean, a statement that is music to Intrepid’s ears. “You could do Shakespeare the way it’s written on a bare stage and it’s powerful because it’s so imaginative.”
To that end, Sean has created literal space on the stage at the Clayton E. Liggett for the “rottenness” of Denmark to play out. With the mere suggestion of a finished room, the landscape of the stage serves multiple purposes throughout the production without the necessity of changing sets or disguising scenery. Soaring colonnades meet ceilings which disappear into thin air, both uplifting the regality of the space as well as suggesting the distemper of the action to come.
“I see other plays that are more contemporary that rely so much on having to actually show people in location,” says Sean. “In Shakespeare, yes, it’s episodic, and yes, we’re going from place to place, but we don’t rely on all the typical conventions.”
In other words, Sean lets the audience have a say in each location, projecting their own ideas of the graveyards, the ships, the secret rooms of the palace, and the sites of hauntings onto the canvas of his design.
“Shakespeare demands so much,” he says. “If you really tried to physically transport people from location to location, you would lose some of the magic.” Best to rely on the words to carry the scene, he says. And based on the high praise he has already received (local press has hailed Sean as an unsurprisingly “in-demand designer”), he’s obviously on the mark.
“Shakespeare is one of my favorite things to do,” says Sean, who also designs all of the MFA productions at The Old Globe in Balboa Park. Hamlet is his inaugural show at Intrepid.
Sean’s design for Hamlet also captures the challenge of the thrust stage, where the audience is closer to the action, rather than gathered behind the fourth wall of a typical proscenium stage. This adds to the tension of the play, as actors have the space to move through and around the set’s dimensions without the necessity of facing all of the viewers at all times. Sean has ensured that the actors always have what they need, providing built-in places for them to sit, lie down, and hurdle over. The actors help create the locations, and Sean emphasizes, “that’s what’s so magical about it.”
“There is a sense of barrenness that the actors can fill with the words,” says Sean. “So, to me, some of the most beautiful sets are bare stages.” – T.T.
Catch a quick interview with Sean Fanning and see his path to creating Hamlet:
Hamlet runs through February 17 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas. Tickets can be purchased here.
Dr. Gideon Rappaport sits at the end of a long table onstage at the Clayton E. Liggett, head bowed in concentration. On his left, the new Arden Edition of Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins, lies open on the table. On his right, a working draft of the script for Intrepid’s upcoming production of Hamlet is stacked neatly. Pencil in hand, he glances repeatedly from one to the other, flipping pages, making small notations, and nodding his head. But most of all, he’s listening.
On the other end of the table sits the cast, who have come together for the first read through of the play that will be mounted at the end of January. Even though this is technically their first rehearsal together, relationships and intentions have already begun to develop. The actors spend the evening trying out the words, pronouncing them trippingly on the tongue, and looking to Gideon, who will act as dramaturge for this production, for any adjustments. By the end of the rehearsal, he has individual notes for each player, as well as a few technical reminders for the whole cast: “Don’t hit the helping verbs. Seek out antithesis. Don’t emphasize pronouns.”
While most of the actors are Shakespearean veterans, Gideon is more than qualified to deliver his instruction. Currently an English teacher at La Jolla Country Day School, he has also taught Shakespeare in hallowed academic halls around the country, including on the campuses of Hamilton College, SUNY Cortland, Concordia University, and the University of New Hampshire. His Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Brandeis University doesn’t hurt his reputation as a Shakespearean guru, either. Neither does the quote from the Bard that serves as the outgoing voicemail greeting on his cell phone.
Gideon’s stint as Intrepid’s dramaturge comes at an auspicious time. He is currently putting together a new annotated edition of Hamlet for students, teachers, actors, and directors which will feature Shakespeare’s text on one side, with his own commentary on the other. This commentary will feature everything from thematic notes to definitions, language insights, contextual analysis, and other relevant information. Needless to say, Gideon is currently fully entrenched in this project, and will therefore quickly and easily impart his readily available Danish prince knowledge upon anyone within earshot. “Just tell me when to stop talking,” he says often, and with a smile.
So, what exactly is it about Hamlet that makes this play so discussion-worthy? Easy. “It’s the single most misunderstood play of Shakespeare’s,” says Gideon. “People over the years have gone wrong about what it is really about.” He attributes this misunderstanding to the shifting priorities of society and the changing relevance of religion and spirituality.
“It’s a deeply spiritual play,” he continues. “It’s Shakespeare’s examination of how to live well in a morally complex universe where the choices seem unclear. How do you do the right thing when there seems to be paradoxical explanations of what that is? Hamlet’s story is a test case which generalizes to universal significance.”
Of course, that is a lot for a new cast to take in on the first rehearsal, and after some lengthy discourse on wood carving metaphors, the nature of evil, and revenge play traditions, Gideon finally takes a breath. “Of course, we have plenty of time to talk more about all that,” he says.
Aside from the questions of spirituality and universal significance, Gideon acknowledges that there is always one question on everyone’s mind when they are trying to unravel the tangled layers of Shakespeare’s longest play: Is Hamlet mad?
Well, Dr. Rappaport?
Gideon smiles the cryptic smile of a teacher who knows the answer but doesn’t want to give his students too much information.
“He definitely flies into passions,” he says carefully. “But, he also has moments of reason…” We get it, Professor. We’ll talk after the show. — T.T.
Hamlet previews on January 26 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas.
Audiences leapt to their feet night after night throughout this past closing weekend of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical. It was just the kind of reception that the company had been hoping for from their very first rehearsals – and one that was often repeated throughout the run of the show. Apparently, there was much magic in the music, and many of those who entered the theater new to Shakespeare left wondering what took everyone so long to infuse it with catchy tunes.
“It really makes it so accessible,” one theater-goer said, grinning from ear to ear as she left the theater humming “So Happy Together.” Another patron noted that he had been to the show three times. “I never saw the same play twice,” he said, referring to the energy and acrobatics of the actors and the music. “It was different each time.” Another audience member was regretful that she waited until closing to see the show because it was something she would have liked to share with others and to see again. “Oh, well,” she said. “I’m sad it’s over.”
She’s not the only one. After months of time spent in these characters, it takes a minute sometimes for the actors to step away – not only from the show, but from each other. “I’ll miss everyone,” says Sandy Campbell with a bittersweet smile, as the actors gathered in the lobby to greet family and friends after the final performance. “This show has really grown and we’ve grown together.”
Savvy Scopelleti agrees. “It’s really blossomed,” she says.
Eddie Yaroch weighs in. “The best stage entrance in any play I’ve ever done,” he says, referencing his cruising “Life Could Be a Dream” basketed bicycle ride.
Taylor Peckham admits that he now considers himself a Shakespeare veteran. Remarkably, this stint as Puck (as well as being the musical director of the entire show), was Taylor’s first experience performing the Bard. “And I’m not the only one,” he says, puckishly, looking across the lobby at David McBean, Sandy Campbell, and Lauren King.
Tom Stephenson ponders the nomadic nature of theatre as he glances around the bustling lobby. “It’s always like this,” he says. “You develop camaraderie for such a short, intense time. Then you may not see someone for three years, until you do another show together. But, we’ll always have this – this show will always connect us.”
It is certainly hard to let go of something that has been such an investment of time, talent, and energy. But it has to happen. And in the theatre world, it happens quickly. The company is already looking forward to beginning rehearsals for the next production, Hamlet, which opens in January. And no, Hamlet will not be a musical, even though the question has been posed by at least one audience member at almost every performance.
But there is one more step to complete before this next journey can begin.
Silently observing the festivities in the lobby, electric drill in hand, Michael McKeon, set designer, waits patiently for his cue. “Strike,” as it’s known in the theatre world, is usually a group effort, taking place immediately after the last show, when everyone comes together to dismantle the set. Already some actors have changed into sweats and sneakers to help with the impending task. There is no room for sentimentality about holding onto things in this place. Once the last bow is taken, it is time to move on.
Spotting Sean Cox, co-artistic director of the company, Michael calls out over the crowd, “Is it time?”
A few hours later – sets broken, curtains packed, rope swings untied – it’s as if nothing has happened here. The stage is once again bare, awaiting its next adventure. — T.T.
“…Swift as a shadow, short as any dream; brief as the lightning in the collied night…” (I.i)
Closing weekend descends upon us, and we are stunned that we are preparing to sing our last “So Happy Together!” Even though this production has moved swiftly though performance phase, we are so thrilled to have pulled off our Shakespearean musical motif with flair and sh’boom. But before we start patting ourselves on our own creative backs, we thought it might be a good idea to take a journey down a Shakespeare-inspired lane. Maybe these previous concoctions of Midsummer and music need a nod from our 60s set list as well.
Shakespeare penned MND in the 1590s and included some fairy lyrics for his flighty characters. But how long would it be before the idea of a full-fledged musical would enter the picture?
Meet Henry Purcell and his 1692 semi-opera, The Fairy Queen, which kept most of Bill’s original text but infused the play with masques to illuminate its themes of love and marriage, including one featuring the Greek goddess Hymen. Shockingly, it was widely misunderstood by Restoration Era audiences.
Unshockingly, David Garrick also had to have his operatic Midsummer say. His opera, entitled The Fairies, premiered in 1755 and featured only the storylines of the forest (sorry, Mechanicals!). All singing, all the time, there were 28 added airs, duets, and choruses in addition to the recitatively-crooned dialogue. Reception was mixed, but a publication called The Tuner deemed it “a laudable attempt to encourage native musical Productions.” (Future musical productions thank you for the vote of confidence!)
Moving forward…some midsummer trivia! Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn’s famous “Wedding March” was written in 1842 as incidental music for a German production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Writing the music to accompany this play actually spanned the composer’s entire lifetime, as he was 17 years old when he penned the overture and then completed the score a few years before his death.
Over the years, Mendelssohn’s music has also been choreographed into ballet by masters like Marius Petipa, George Balanchine, and Frederick Ashton.
Of course, in modern times, there have been a slew of looser adaptations which have woven music through the storyline of this play. Recently, the off-Broadway hit, The Donkey Show, featured the basic storyline set to 70s-era disco music, dance club style.
Which brings us to our own little corner of the Shakespearean musical anthology – an intermingling of nostalgia and poetry that has been tugging heartstrings and garnering smiles of familiarity since our opening two weekends ago. And it’s no wonder – when the cast sings about fairy tale love on summer nights in between their soliloquies and witty banter, the flow is so seamless, it’s hard to believe that infusing Midsummer with music isn’t what Shakespeare had intended all along. After all, wasn’t he the first to point out that “life could be a dream”? – T.T.
The opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical is at last upon us.
Despite months of casting and development, weeks of rehearsal, and days of previews, it is tonight’s performance has been circled on everyone’s calendar from the very beginning. That’s definitely enough to make theatre people a little nervous. But, it might make them a little superstitious as well.
Well-known are the traditional superstitions of the theatre that date back to Shakespeare’s day and before. For instance, it is bad luck to whistle in the theatre, mostly because in the past whistling was used to communicate between the sailors who were hired to run the ropes and flies from the catwalks during a show. A misplaced whistle could be a dangerous thing. And of course, most people know never to say the real name of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” in a theatre; however, if you ask any actors what the “cure” for this misstep is, you will get a different answer each time: “Turn in a circle three times, throw salt over your shoulder, go outside and curse. Or is it run around the theatre three times? Wait, do you throw the salt over your right or left shoulder?” And, yes, it’s true that everyone says “break a leg” instead of “good luck” before a show.
Given the superstitious nature of this environment, we thought it might be fun to see how some of our actors approach opening night, or any of the regularly superstitious habits they practice to through the run of the show. As we are also doing a play about magic and mystery, it seemed only fitting that we find out about the magic that takes place offstage as well.
At first glance, most of the company denied having any opening night traditions or habits at all. However, eventually some ritualistic practices did emerge. And, one thing is very clear – every actor has very specific feelings about opening night.
“It’s like a roller coaster,” says Eddie Yaroch (Peter Quince). “There is this terrific tension, like you are clacking up the metal chain that leads to your first line on stage. Once that first line is said, everything lets go and the show runs itself.” Traditionally, Eddie will repeat his first line to himself over and over again as he’s getting ready to go on, anticipating that moment.
Tom Stephenson (Bottom) agrees. “It’s like being the groom at a wedding. Excitement and terror before you go on, then lots of fun after you’re on stage.”
They both decided that opening night audiences were the best: “It’s opening night – the crowd cheers for you.”
Other actors focus more on their preparation for their roles to shake the performance nerves. Rin Ehlers (Helena) takes a walk through her blocking upon arrival at the theatre to solidify her character’s journey in her mind. Savvy Scopelleti (Snout) tunes into the perspective of her character – an immigrant needing to belong – by repeating a handful of key phrases to herself in her Russian accent during the hours before going onstage.
There is also something to be said for camaraderie among cast members. Especially on opening or closing night, Lauren King (Hermia) feels it’s important to acknowledge the company’s journey and usually tries to make little gifts or write little notes for her castmates. “The first professional show I ever did, someone did that for me,” Lauren says. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
Brian Mackey (Demetrius) and Kevin Koppman-Gue (Lysander) share similar approaches to dealing with their opening night nerves. “I like to be social and joke around with everyone until the second before I step onstage,” says Kevin. “The more I’m in my head about the show, the more chance there is for me to flub up.” Brian also tries to avoid the nervousness that infiltrates the dressing rooms as showtime nears. “People are pacing,” he says. “I read Sports Illustrated.”
“There’ s something special about opening night,” says Taylor Peckham (Puck/Musical Director). “I like to get dressed up and celebrate it.”
We couldn’t agree more, Taylor. Here’s to an auspiciously amazing opening night. Break a leg!!
Dateline: Rehearsal. Wednesday, August 29, 745 pm
‘Twas the night before previews
And in the Clayton E. Liggett
Were just the sounds of fine-tuning
And a director shouting, “I dig it!”
The rope swings were hung
From the stage grid with care
In hopes that “knot spacing”
Was finally secure.
Patrick was tucked
In the sound booth and gave
Life to the piano
When Taylor would wave.
And what was there left
on the list to complete?
Sharon just smiles and says,
“I can’t feel my feet.”
The actors run round
In costumes and curls
Rehearsing their harmonic
It was nigh around eight
When the last rehearsal began
The bower finally hung
As the actors filed in.
The company’s final attempt
To make everything right
Knowing tomorrow’s first preview
Would be a memorable night.
As Intrepid embarks on its first musical spectacular, and we find ourselves analyzing the text of the Bard against a backdrop of doo-wop and dance steps, we also find ourselves again in amazement at one of the things we love most about WS – that is, the unique ability of this playwright’s anthology to be interpreted in a variety of time periods, settings, and, apparently, musical scores. The fact that we spent this week rehearsing “Sh’Boom” with the Mechanicals in a way that totally makes sense, is really kind of cool.
So, if the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be told in a variety of ways, we were also curious as to how the actual idea of “midsummer” came to be in the first place, and why does it work so well in three-part harmony? We decided to do a little digging.
First, the Online Entymology Dictionary tells us that the word is derived from “midsumor,” meaning, well, the middle of summer. So, yeah, that was a shocker. We decided to dig a little deeper.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac:
June 21 marks the Summer Solstice, the day of the year when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, its highest point in the Northern Hemisphere. The summer solstice is also the longest day of the year for those of us living north of the Equator.
Modern calendars refer to this day as the first day of summer, though ancient reckoning actually viewed May 1 as the beginning of summer, and the Solstice as “Midsummer,” the halfway point of the season. Because the Solstice marks not only the Sun’s greatest potency, but also the turning point at which the length of days begins to wane, this older viewpoint does make sense.
So, the “beginning” of summer on our modern calendars is actually the middle of the season. Well, whaddya know? Fortunately, modern Scandinavians are well aware of this fact, holding days-long midsummer celebrations to honor the eternal sunlight of their northern locale.
The Summer Solstice itself has always held significance for ancient religions and cultures, and can be tied historically to earth-related occurrences, such as the possible meaning behind the creation of Stonehenge and the Egyptian calendars which begin by marking the annual rising of the Nile. In fact, celebrations of the solstice are still held throughout the world that stem from these types of events and traditions.
Historically, the church recognized these pagan celebrations of the Summer Solstice by choosing June 24 as the feast day of St. John the Baptist. In Ireland, this midsummer feast day is also known as a bonfire night (not to be confused with Guy Fawkes Day – also “Bonfire Night” in the UK), which pre-Christianity, was actually celebrated to honor Aine, the Celtic goddess of love and fertility with feasting, singing, and dancing around – you guessed it – bonfires.
In the old days, the ashes of the fires were then mixed with the seeds that would be soon be planted in order to bring good luck to the harvest. At this time, young couples would also perform what was called a “handfast,” where they would wind a ribbon around their wrists as a sign of binding, and then hope to be expecting their own, er, seedling, come the fall. The woman would then wear the ribbon as a symbol of their union.
Interestingly enough, midsummer celebrations in Ireland are still greatly associated with…fairy activity! (Hmm, we are sensing a connection here!) In short, it’s no wonder that Shakespeare chose this historic and celebratory time of year to give his tale of love and dreaming a little magical color. Oh, and if you are in the mood to celebrate and find yourself dancing around a midsummer bonfire one day, here’s a tip: Wishes will be granted when you whisper them into a small stone and cast it into the fire…whether or not the fairies are involved, though, is anyone’s guess. – T.T.