Joe Workshops Balls-to-the-Wall Shakespeare at Theater Emory

Forget demure, “theater in the park” Shakespeare. Theater Emory is reimagining the Bard.

Love. Disgusting. Incredible. Disastrous. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Armageddon



by Jackie Pray

The play is Ravished, an irreverent and aggressive reimagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, conceived and directed by Ariel Fristoe and Maia Knispel. It will be produced in March by Theater Emory at Emory University. This fall, Joe Sykes is helping Emory students workshop the new production. They’re doing the hard work of figuring out how to translate ideas into movement, gesture, attitude and inflection.

Students need time to learn the fragile connections between gesture and meaning, Joe says. “A stray thought can interfere with the timbre of an actor’s voice. A carefully remembered image can alter posture—the line of your back. The way characters move, breathe—all of it—help an audience see things that can’t be conveyed by words alone. And in Ravished events are disorienting; betrayal and truth get lost in the woods and mayhem devolves into catastrophe. In this production, gesture and attitude can mean the difference between slapstick and innovation, between farce and fantastic.”

In an early workshop session, students started with a classic exercise: moving together, they created a bat flying across the stage. “Sounds simple,” Joe says. “But getting five people to move with the menacing grace of a bat in flight is a challenge. Workshop is a stepping-stone to visual execution. What begins as a physical exercise in workshop may end as a visual motif, or maybe just a telling tick in the final production. At this point, nobody knows what will emerge.”

In another exercise, Joe and acting partner Stephanie Friedman challenged students to physically express the meaning behind dialogue. “The assignment was to take a line, or a part of a line, and add violence. Learning to use your whole instrument—your whole body —and the space around you to express an idea or emotion is a tough concept for new actors,” Joe says. “They have to get beyond the notion, for example, that they can ratchet up anger or passion just by getting loud. Anger—a particular flavor of anger—often demands off-the-wall expression. Why not a hammerlock, if that’s what you’re doing verbally? At first, students are pretty restrained but gradually they break through and they show what’s behind the words. It’s a major job getting everybody out of their shells. But it’s all good.”

Joe and student Beth Smedley interpret Demetrius and Hermia during Ravished workshop.

Ravished is yet to be cast but producers expect many of the students who are helping to workshop the play will audition.

“Over the coming months these students will be thinking about the play,” Joe says. “They’ll be living campus life—for better or for worse—and maturing. (Now there’s a wild card in a production—how a 19-year-old is experiencing relationships!)  But, that said, the texture and the edge that the student actors will bring to the final production is extraordinary. I’m a catalyst in that process and, for me, that’s even more challenging.”

Theater Emory is planning a ‘balls to the wall’ production.” Joe grins, “And I really like finding new ways to visualize dangerous ideas.”

We’re interested in Love as destructive magic in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, magic that has the power to screw up the whole world, including the weather and relationships, and make people (and fairies) act crazy.”         Ariel Fristoe and Maia Knispel