Actor Athena McElrath plays Petra Quince and a Fairy in Portland Actors Ensemble’s 2014 summer Shakespeare in the Parks A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Hello, and welcome back for another Quince’s Queries! This is a series of interviews with the cast and crew of Portland Actors Ensemble’s 2014 summer Shakespeare in the Parks touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The run of our show is almost done, and it’s a bittersweet time for all of us involved.
The show plays this weekend at Washington Park, with Saturday and Sunday performances beginning at 3pm. You can find more about upcoming show dates, times and locations at our show schedule, or check out the great study guide that was prepared for us by our director, Douglas Lay.
Today I’ll be interviewing myself! (How did that happen??) I have the good fortune of playing Petra Quince and an Adult Fairy in our production. So here goes!
Who is your character in the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and tell us a little bit about the character?
I play Petra Quince, who is one of the Mechanicals. In our version, she is a mechanic, and she totes around a gas can that she plays on with big lag screws as a drum in the opening of the show. She’s a tough broad, but she definitely has a creative, artistic side, because she writes a play that she gets her Mechanical friends to perform for the big upcoming wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. The other mechanicals are not all the brightest lights on the Christmas tree, but they are all savvy in their own unique rights, and they, after much prevailing and whipping into shape on my part, undertake to put on this play for the royals. I love the fact that all of the female charactres in this play are portrayed as strong women, and Petra is definitely that! I then get to really shift gears and I also play an Adult Fairy. The Adult Fairies have, in stark contrast to our young, happy fairies, bad attitudes. They are from the wrong side of the tracks, and they are the kind of fairies that if you saw them walking down the sidewalk toward you, you would cross to the other side of the street–they are a little scary. We pick fights with the young fairies and Puck, and generally have a blast causing trouble!
Athena McElrath as Petra Quince (Photo credit: The Dalles Chronicle)
How did you prepare for your role?
I, of course, studied the text itself, and looked for all the clues that I could find as to how I could play these characters. In our version of this play, the Mechanicals do a rap song for the opening of the show, so I had to spend a lot of time watching You Tube videos of rappers, to learn some of the moves, and how they phrase their songs. I also watched Joan Jett videos, to prepare for singing our rocked-out version of Spotted Snakes. I watched Jackie Gleason, who has perfect comic timing, and that helped me with making some of the switches that Petra Quince goes through from the beginning to the end of the play. I also watched Judy Garland—no one is better than she for the sheer honesty she brings to every role she undertook, and she is superb at comedy. I also thought about Viewpoints, and the kinds of shapes, tempos and duration that each of my characters use. I’m a very visual and kinesthetic learner, and I have to get up on my feet and play around with different ideas, and I’m really inspired by images that I see—it helps give me ideas for my own characters. In rehearsals, I watched my fellow scene partners closely, and tuned in to what I was feeling and receiving from them, which in turn shaped what I did. I also studied flies, which helped me a lot getting into the body and mind of my Adult Fairy!
Athena McElrath as an Adult Fairy (Photo by Tim Young)
What sorts of changes does your character undergo throughout the course of the play?
Petra starts the play as a take-charge, no-nonsense kind of gal. She is pushing around the other Mechanicals, and tries by every means possible to get them to do what she wants, which is to get her play cast and rehearsed in time for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. She’s tough in the beginning, but she pretty much falls apart when the time comes that they actually have to get up in front of the royals and perform the play. It’s a fun transformation to undergo, and she tries valiantly, even under such duress, to see to it that her play is performed well on the big day.
What is your favorite moment in the play and why?
I love the scene in Act Four where the mechanicals are all together, and it looks like all is lost because their star actor, Nick Bottom, can’t be in their play because he’s been transformed into an ass, but then . . . he returns before all is lost. It is such a moment of sheer joy and happiness and hope returned when we all see him—so much fun to play that! One of my lines even sums it up: “O, most happy hour!” I also love to follow Pyramus around with the mostly out-of-control paper moon during Pyramus and Thisbe—it’s just a fun, goof-ball thing to do. And it’s always fun when I get to play opposite my husband, K. J. McElrath! He plays one of the other mechanicals–Flute, the bellows mender, plus Thisbe and Egeus.
What was your favorite experience working on this show?
Working with the student fairies! They brought such wonderful energy, enthusiasm and joy to their roles, and it just rubbed off on the adult actors as well. And working with all the other actors and the fabulous crew and director for our show—we’ve been together since May, so we’ve gotten pretty close over the last few months.
What do you hope the audience takes away from this production?
I hope that we provide them with a great afternoon of entertainment, that they are surprised by and laugh at what they see, and that they leave wanting to see more Shakespeare in the future.
What and when was your first encounter in your life with Shakespeare?
I vaguely remember seeing Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet in high school, but other than that, I don’t recall really studying Shakespeare as a child. For some reason, it just wasn’t taught or I don’t remember it being taught at school. I was around 19 years old, and a friend and I decided that we’d read The Tempest together, (mostly because there was a cute picture of Ferdinand on the cover!), so we checked out copies at the library, took them home and read them, then got together to talk about it. We enjoyed it a lot, and eventually I got to study acting in college, and took Shakespeare acting class and had a wonderful professor, Dr. Wesley Van Tassel, who opened the floodgates, and I just really fell in love with Shakespeare! I’ve never stopped learning from and about Shakespeare since then.
So that’s it! Join us this weekend for all the fun! See the show schedule for Portland Actors Ensemble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and come check it out. Playing now through Labor Day at various parks throughout Portland, Oregon, and free to the public, with donations gratefully and graciously accepted. We also have a brilliant study guide prepared for this show by our wonderful director, Douglas Lay.
More Quince’s Queries for A Midsummer Night’s Dream coming up soon!
Have any questions about A Midsummer Night’s Dream? We’d love to hear about it down in the comments, so feel free to stop by and say hi!
Till next time,
Take pains; be perfect; adieu!Athena McElrath is an actor and singer who is also an Administrative Board member with Portland Actor’s Ensemble. She helps PAE with social media and educational outreach. She often works onstage with her husband, K.J. McElrath, in their cabaret act, called McElrath Cabaret, which features songs from classic Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. For more: http://mcelrathcabaret.com/