Some directors tackling a Shakespeare play for stage or screen decide to update the language or setting to make it more familiar: giving Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo a gun instead of a sword. But Carmen Khan, director of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, which she founded almost 20 years ago, prefers to stick with as strict an interpretation as possible.
We spoke with her while she was preparing a production of the comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” running next month — after a year of Khan and cast figuring out just what Shakespeare was trying to say.
When you’re approaching a play that’s been done so many times, is it important to give it your own spin?
Our theater has a specific way of approaching Shakespeare. We spend about a year analyzing the text line by line, to try to find out what Shakespeare is saying. Each of his plays is a meditation on something, and he takes that and looks at it from many angles, and our production evolves out of that. We don’t try to take the text and make it a personal statement or a social commentary. We think that Shakespeare knew best. The richest source of inspiration is his text — I’m the humble servant trying to bring it forth. [Laughs]
So what is “Midsummer” a meditation on?
Erotic fascination. All these different plots and subplots, all the characters — it’s looking at that in many ways: backwards, turned around. By the time you get to the end, it’s created this rich tapestry. It’s like a symphony.
You also work with high schools to bring students to the productions. How do you make the plays accessible to them — and the rest of us who sometimes find Shakespeare difficult to follow?
That’s something we work really hard on. If you come to the play, after a couple of seconds you’ll be acclimated to the language. My goal is for you to understand every single word and action of the play. It takes a lot of detail work, a lot of time studying the text and in rehearsal. It takes time to gain that technical prowess. People often think that Shakespeare is Old English, but it’s modern English. It’s just the way he uses words that jolts your brain.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a mistaken-identity comedy about four Athenians who wander into an enchanted forest: Demetrius loves Hermia, Hermia loves Lysander, Lysander loves her back, and Helena loves Demetrius. They cross paths with a band of fairies, including the fairy king and queen and a servant with an ill-advised love potion, and a group of bumbling craftsmen rehearsing a play.
Famous line: “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
If you go: Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs April 3 to May 17 (opening night is April 8) at 2111 Sansom St. Tickets are $20 to $35 at www.phillyshakespeare.org.