Midsummer reminds us of what makes LJCDS’ drama department so special


Varun Singh, News Editor

It’s been a while since La Jolla Country Day has had a fully free and non-handicapped drama production. Last year’s The Laramie Project had to be performed with masks and had a strict quota on the number of audience members. Although there were still a few COVID-related restrictions in place, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the closest we’ve come to a normal show in over a year. And, boy, did it deliver. Director Robert Wagner curated a show that featured humorous acting choices, spectacular chemistry between the cast, and a heart-warming ending. The set, thanks to Mr. Peveich and the theater tech team, was also fantastic, featuring trees, changing lights, and artificial smoke.

Although most Shakespeare renditions tend to be old-fashioned and dry to younger audiences, I was able to find this production of Midsummer funny and entertaining, even if I’m not an expert on Shakespeare’s work. 

I had the opportunity to speak with some of those involved with producing Midsummer, including Director Wagner, a few members of the star-studded cast, and members from the theater tech crew. Amongst other things, they gave me an inside look at what went into making a production like Midsummer, reflected on their time with LJCD’s drama department this year, and told me what they hoped viewers had taken away from the show. 

Palette: What sets apart your rendition of Midsummer from ones that have been done in the past?

Director Wagner: So, this is my fourth time working on Midsummer and my third time directing it. This year’s production, because we decided to set it in the present moment, was completely put into the hands of the students. They designed and created the look and feel of the show. And, I think that’s what makes this production different from probably any other production of Midsummer you’ve ever seen because it’s set for a Gen Z audience and features a Gen Z cast with their perspective and point of view. 

P: What do you hope viewers will have taken away from Midsummer?

DW: I hope that the fears they have of watching Shakespeare will have melted away after realizing it can just be fun and something enjoyable to partake in. Pretty much, I hope that watching my production of Shakespeare eased the uneasiness others might have about watching Shakespeare.

P: What’s your favorite aspect of directing a highschool production?

DW: I think it’s collaborating with everyone. We only have one large play during the year, and, so everyone has a lot invested into it going well. Getting to try and channel everyone’s thoughts, feelings, hopes, and desires for the play and leading that vision is really exciting and is a dynamic that is always changing. The needs of the production are new every year. Particularly this year, we had put more of the show into the hands of the students than ever before, and so it was fun watching as the ideas developed right in front of me, even if I didn’t know what they were until I saw them for the first time. 

Two of the lead roles in the play went to Sahra Daneshmand (‘22, Helena) and Lucy Jaffee (‘22, Hermia). I had the chance to catch up with both of them and get their input on what it was like to be a part of Midsummer. 

Palette: What was your favorite aspect of your role?

Sahra Daneshmand: Favorite aspect.. Well, Helena’s arc is really interesting and my idea of her has definitely changed a lot. She’s dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil, and is struggling to figure out how to calm it down. She’s in a state of desperation for a lot of the play. I remember the first time I was reading the script, I was just laughing to myself because it was so ridiculous. Some of the things she [Helena] said and did to get attention from people to, kind of, fulfill whatever it was she’s missing inside. But, later I realized that there’s a reason for Helena acting this way, and they’re clues within her lines that gave me information on what happened before the start of the play and that let me better understand the background of Helena. I really liked that aspect of Helena’s character, how there’s always more to learn about her and what she’s going through. It’s something that I can play around with.

P: What’s your pre-show routine before getting ready for a big performance?

SD: My pre-show routine? Before auditions, I do the same things as what I do before shows, because there’s definitely a lot of anxiety before going on stage or in front of an auditioner. So, what I’ve learned to do are mostly breathing exercises, because through breathing slowly I do something called a ‘box breath exercise’ where you breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and then breath out for four seconds, and then hold it for four seconds. And, [this exercise] it forces your heart rate to go down, which is cool. And, also, something I’ve been taught by a coach is to “tap into” different chakras; in acting there are six chakras, and each one is like a different breath you use. There’s an exercise where you go through them, and this has been super helpful [for me]. It takes [my] focus off of why I’m anxious and just grounds me into the present. I’m put into a place where I can go on stage, not because I want to look good for an audience, but because I want to tell a story and do so to the best of my ability, so as to give respect to the character and story.

P: What made you want to join the drama production in the first place?

SD: Theater and acting are things I’ve always loved. At LJCDS, my first production was James and the Giant Peach Jr. in 7th grade. And since then, I’ve been in drama class after drama class with Mr. Wagner. Of course I switched schools for two years in between, but at those schools I also did acting. It’s just something I absolutely love to do. I’m going to college to study acting, I’m going to be a drama major, and I’ll be living in New York. It’s kind of just my life passion, what I love to do. It doesn’t matter what production it is, I’ll do whatever I can to be a part of it.

P: As a senior, what will you miss most about LJCDS’s drama department once Midsummer has concluded?

SD: Definitely the community. You know, I’ve been in plays with these people multiple times, Wagner has been my director multiple times, and so it’s really become a family. That’ll be the hardest thing to leave for sure. I’d also say the Country Day process; we’re doing tech rehearsal right now, where us, the highschool photography class and the theater tech class all come together to contribute each of our expertise to this project. And I think that’s the coolest thing, because I get to learn about things like making lighting cues or sound cues. So we all benefit from each other even though we’re in different classes and grades, and this is something I’ll miss. 

Palette: Did you feel a sense of pressure with this role that’s different from what you’ve felt from past roles?

Lucy Jaffee: I would say yes, because this was the first lead I’ve had since middle school. My last time being a lead was “Jill”, in The Stinky Cheese Man, although that production wasn’t taken as seriously. Obviously, with a high school production, a lot more people watched it, so that’s why I felt more pressure. And, also, we had this with Laramie Project last year, in times of COVID, seeing live theater has been a specialty, since people haven’t been going out to watch live theater as of late. So, I think our community enjoying that [a live show] on campus was really important. And, it’s also my last year, so, as a senior, I wanted to go out with a bang.

P: What was the most challenging part of getting the character (Hermia) down? 

LJ: I would say for me, personally, the most challenging part was probably the fact that I’m used to playing roles as male characters who are usually the side comedic relief. I mean, I played a woman last year, but it wasn’t someone that was very feminine. I’m just not used to playing female characters who are in love. And I think what made it difficult is that I had to think about how what she’s [Hermia] doing is really emotional. You weren’t really thinking with your head while acting the scenes, but rather from the heart. And that was different from my personal self and how I’ve thought about life, so it was hard to channel that energy during my scenes. Also, Hermia didn’t have a lot of traits aside from being very strong willed and persistent with what she wanted. So I had to make up some “fun” character choices myself.

P: What was your favorite aspect of your role?

LJ: I liked working with my scene partners a lot. I worked a lot with Logan (Sanders ‘22, Lysander), and she was really fun to work with. We’ve never acted in scenes together in the past, but her acting style really complemented mine. I also really liked working with Sahra (Danesmand ‘22, Helena) and Abed (Burni ‘22, Demetrius). There was this really funny scene where I’m yelling at Abed and getting all in his face, and I really love that scene because, let’s face it, no one ever yells at Abed in real life. He’s such a nice person and here I was screaming at him, and I think that was really funny. 

P: Any advice for underclassmen that aspire to have a role like yours in the future?

LJ: In general, take lots of risks. If you have an idea for something, and you don’t really know if it’s going to crash and burn, just go ahead and do it. Because, worst comes to worst, Mr. Wagner will go, “That was weird. Don’t ever do that again.” But you never know until you try, and I feel like some risks end up being the funniest scenes that end up sticking with the audience. Also, memorize your lines ahead of time, because it’s easier to act if there’s not a script in your hands. 

P: As a senior, what will you miss most about LJCDS’s drama department once Midsummer has concluded?

LJ: Well, we’re not going to stop doing productions once Midsummer is done. We have another fun idea up our sleeves. But, I think what I’ll probably miss the most is working with Mr. Wagner and Mr. Peveich. They’re both very kind and honest as directors and stage managers. Sometimes you’ll see movies where the drama teacher is a total diva and it’s their way or the highway, whereas Mr. Wagner and Mr. Peveich make it [the production] a cohesive process and they allow us to do a lot of things ourselves, creating a very collaborative environment. And also I’ll miss the kids. I’ve acted with Luke (Albert ‘22, Oberon) and Abed (Burni ’22 Demetrius)since 7th grade, and I’m really going to miss them, and all the other cast members for that matter. 

I also had the brief opportunity to get a few words from Matthew Davis ‘22, who played Cobweb in Midsummer

Palette: What was your favorite aspect of your role?

Matthew Davis: I think the coolest aspect that I provided to the play was just a sense of humor, as one of the fairies. I found it very interesting how we could just make the crowd laugh. It [Our show] was very silly and even countercultural, especially when compared with the original show which was made centuries ago. So, I think overall it [my role] was just different and really funny.

P: What was the most challenging part of getting the character of Cobweb down?

MD: The most challenging part of getting Cobweb down was just some of the dancing and other stunts we had to do on stage; We actually had to carry someone across stage and there were some violent scenes that we had to act out. 

P: As a senior, what will you miss most about LJCDS’s drama department once Midsummer has concluded?

MD: I’ll just miss the community and comradery. The enthusiasm, fun, and family atmosphere we had started with Mr. Wagner and just trickled down to the rest of the cast. Even if our rehearsals were really long, I’ve appreciated every moment I’ve had with everyone.

It’s been a while since LJCDS had a drama production that hasn’t been handicapped by COVID restrictions. And although we’re not completely back to normal circumstances yet, this was the most freedom we’ve had for a play in the last year and Director Wagner certainly capitalized on it. From the highly talented cast list to the beautiful set, all the tools that were necessary for an unforgettable show were present. Evidently, Country Day’s drama department started off 2022 with a bang, and we, the students and faculty, had the pleasure of bearing witness to it.

Cover photo credit: LJCDS Vimeo