Apparently, over the past 30 years, Shakespeare productions at Beloit College have been few and far between. There was a time, however, when students staged a play by the Bard of Avon every year. During the early period of coeducation, men excluded the women from their literary and debating societies. Hoping to encourage literary work and have something of their own, Beloit College women founded the Shakespeare Society in 1899. At first they simply held dramatic readings, but by 1901 they’d discovered a natural amphitheater on the wooded hill behind and to the side of where the Wright Museum of Art stands today. Towering oak trees, untamed shrubbery and gentle, grassy slopes provided the perfect setting for As You Like It, the first of over 40 years of Shakespeare plays staged by the theater troupe. That first performance also provided inspiration for a nickname. Henceforth, students referred to the amphitheater as “As-You-Like-It-Hill.”
A huge, overstuffed scrapbook in the Beloit College Archives reveals several beautiful still photographs and informal snapshots of one such production from 1921, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The scrapbooker, Sue Lowrey, played Titania, queen of the fairies. Newspaper articles, both anticipating and reviewing the production, provide ample context.
In late February, a committee of the Shakespeare Society met to discuss the year’s choice of play. During its two decades, the company had produced As You Like It and Twelfth Night four times each and The Tempest, three times. The committee dickered over some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays and studied lists of past productions, suddenly realizing that they’d staged the Bard’s delightful comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, only once before, back in 1906. The play offered the opportunity for a huge cast, including dancers and musicians. Among other things, the choice meant that they could take advantage of recently hired May Ross Conwell of the Department of Public Speaking, a veteran director of amateur theatrics, as well as Women’s Physical Education Director Mable Lee, who had a strong background in interpretive and aesthetic dance.
In March, senior members of the Shakespeare Society held competitive tryouts. Mabel Lee scouted out members of advanced dancing classes and Kenneth Rayer of the Department of Music assembled a small orchestra and set them to learning pieces by Mendelsohn. Rehearsals began in early April, held at first in the auditorium at Pearsons Hall of Science, and then, as the fickle Wisconsin weather permitted, on As-You-Like-It-Hill. The society announced dates in June for their most elaborate production ever. By the end of May over 70 cast members rehearsed two or three times a day on the hill or at nearby Smith Gymnasium. The Round Table reported the preparation of gorgeous costumes by “Mistress of Wardrobe,” Katherine Fisher and the purchase of “special properties” from Chicago. On June 1 the paper announced: “If ye rain poureth, come ye next fair night.” Ye rain, however, did not poureth and the weather cooperated. All’s well that ends well.
At 8 p.m. on June 3, as dusk lengthened shadows and a misty gloom settled among the trees, a herald dressed in colorful medieval garb stepped into a pool of light and announced the first scene. Hours passed quickly as a captivated audience of town and gown sat spellbound by the rich tapestry of Shakespearean language, dancing fairies and soaring melodies. Artfully arranged lighting heightened the appearance and movements of actors, dancers and revelers. The Round Table headlined it, “The Most Spectacular Of All Productions.” A Beloit Daily News reporter penned fulsome praise:
The quintessence of fantasy and love magic was revealed last night on As You Like It Hill when “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was presented by the Shakespeare society of Beloit college. What appeared to be the largest audience ever gathered there graced the occasion. In the size and general excellence of the cast, the beauty of the dance divertissements and the outstanding quality of the music furnished, there is cause for reflection whether the players have ever presented anything measuring up to its standard. It crystallized beauty, the ethereal fairy grace and romance that intrigues tired mortal minds. Framed in a perfect natural setting, its stage business an art concealing art, what wonder that work-a-day folk forgot chill and sat entranced throughout the evening.
A record crowd of visiting parents and alumni witnessed the second performance on Saturday, June 18, during the college’s Commencement weekend, as described by the Beloit Alumnus:
A touch of the quaint old fashioned garden with the freshness of summer evening, wisteria twined banks from which ancient characters appeared gave atmosphere to the setting…with the college buildings looming in great grey heaps in the background.
Today, some seventy-odd years after it last served as a setting for Shakespeare, As-You-Like-It-Hill resounds with the chatter of campus squirrels pleased with last fall’s acorn crop. A sharp-shinned hawk chases a crow through the trees above blooming wildflowers. Traffic on Pleasant Street drowns out the roar of water spilling over the dam on the Rock River. If you will, take a few minutes sometime. On a midsummer’s night, climb that gentle, grassy slope and then pause. Perhaps those long-ago players aren’t so far away. Is that Titania cradling Nick Bottom's donkey head on her lap? Lysander pursuing Helena? Or Puck, that “shrewd and knavish sprite,” setting wrongs to right at last?