Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Genuine performance art is less than common in Virginia, so when a public happening receives official city support, let alone one patterned after Burning Man infused with a heavy dose of the Bard, culture lovers are apt to take notice. That’s exactly what’s going on in Norfolk this July at the Mid-Summer Fantasy Festival sponsored by Norfolk Festevents. From its humble beginnings four years ago as a public park performance of The Tempest, the event has evolved into something of a three-day long tone poem in honor of Shakespeare, celebrating his works through a multitude of interpretive mediums including puppetry, choreographed dancing, and site-specific art installations.
This year’s theme, “Sailors, Sonnets, and Sprites,” suggests a focus on the city’s rich nautical history, a lineage that stretches back to the pre-colonial era. Norfolk is the cradle of our country’s shipyard industry and well-known as a major military outpost, but given the Elizabethan bent of the festivities, it’s more likely that nods to pirates and scalawags will be the norm. Mayhap a performer will enact the role of Lewis Guittar, a terror for Virginian merchants a mere fifty years after Shakespeare’s death. If we’re lucky, we might even glimpse the ghost of Edward Teach—also known as Blackbeard—whose severed head was last spied hung aloft the bowsprit of his executor’s warship while cruising to port through the Chesapeake Bay.
Unlike other edgy cultural gatherings, there’s a pronounced family-friendly vibe here. Strategically placed hula hoops are coupled with spontaneous dances, encouraging the crowd to interact directly with performers. Art installations built with children in mind are juxtaposed with free-roaming actors directing activities that will engage even the youngest festival goers. The entire weekend feels as though it’s specifically designed to provide magic for kids under the age of ten while still enticing adults to get in on the fun.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again:
Of course, music is a key ingredient for such an ambitious event and the festival runs full tilt on that front. This year’s lineup is still being finalized, but previous performers have included stalwarts of the local scene like one-man band Daniel Neale, New Orleans-infused 1930s jazz interpreters The Janks, and Hampton Roads folk music royalty, Skye Zentz.
Electropop alchemists DJP & MrT have performed at the last three incarnations of the festival to rousing applause and are slated to be involved again this year. Lauded by critics for updating 80s synth sensibilities through the deft use of storytelling frameworks, the band’s Tyler Warnalis offered his own perspective on why Mid-Summer is so unique: “As performers, it makes us unimaginably giddy to watch a director and their team bring our music to life. Every time we do this, it feels exciting and new—ever-so-gently nudging the masses into experiencing the loftier concepts that art and music and theater are all capable of reaching. The stuff that makes us human, that makes us feel alive.”
and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
No matter how much it wears the trappings of high-concept performance art, the Mid-Summer Fantasy Festival is a theatrical production at heart. Ringleader Patrick Mullins is a stage veteran who currently helms the Virginia Stage Company as its Interim Director. Mullins has brought in partners like the CORE Theater Ensemble and elements of the Virginia Stage Company to participate. Devoted patrons will note that he was responsible for last year’s musical reinvention of The Taming of Shrew, a smartly constructed synthpop showcase lauded by critics as innovative and unconventional. Incidentally, that production utilized the talents of the aforementioned DJP & MrT, ultimately culminating in a companion LP release.
When asked about his overall goal for the festival, Mullins stated, “What I love about Shakespeare was that he used his popular resonance and mainstream appeal to speak in all forms of art: high and low, broad and political. Accessible, yet life altering. This sounds kind of crazy, but when producing the festival, our goal is to use visual and performing arts to take people out of their mundane day-to-day and allow them to appreciate the time and place in which we live—in this beautiful city on a river surrounded by industry and nature and a lot of amazingly talented people.”
Last year’s shindig, titled “Light Seeking Light,” showcased the work of over fifty artists, puppeteers, performers, and musicians. So how will this year be different? “It will be more centrally focused this year and less installation based,” answered Mullins. “Last year was more wandering. This year is a little more traditional: lay out your blanket and watch the show move around you, then see the main stage.” That main stage show, by the way, will be a piece on the drowning of Ophelia produced by the CORE Theater Ensemble. “This isn’t based on a specific Shakespearean play, but is instead a meditation on writing focused on water, love, and connection.”
With so many aspects to the festival, it can be difficult to sum up the experience succinctly, but that’s exactly what Mullins is going for. With each passing year, he and his team dream up new projects and expand the scope of their wonderland. All that begs the question, though, what is his favorite part of the weekend? “Every year the show culminates in a bit of a dance party, which is kind of fantastic. I’m just hoping the dance party gets bigger and bigger.”
The Mid-Summer Fantasy Festival takes place from July 29–31 at Town Point Park in downtown Norfolk. Park opens each evening at 7 PM, pre-concert performances at 7:30 PM, main stage events at 8:30 PM. Admission is free.