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A former Auckland hospital ward for the mentally ill is the setting for an unconventional twist on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, staged by Unitec's year three performing arts students.

The theatre is the former women's ward in what used to be Carrington Hospital in Mt Albert. The ward has inspired both the styling and the mainly female casting of the play, straying from Shakespeare's historically male dominated plays.

Director and part-time Unitec tutor John Callen says he has never been a fan of outdoor theatre, where the play has traditionally been performed.

He is setting the play indoors and incorporating the building's history.

"Let's take what we understand to be the real world and just turn the whole thing upside down," he says, adding that A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of his favourites because of its "heart and warmth".

"There are characters in it like Bottom, for instance, who are classic characters. They really are some of literature's best people - best people to play too, I'd imagine."

Callen is working with a class of 14 female and four male students, making casting difficult, as most Shakespeare plays have the opposite gender mix.

He says he has grown tired of actors playing the reverse gender roles commonly found in the plays he was brought up with in Britain.

"All that English men dressing up as women stuff, it's very peculiar. So rather than have all these women play men as we have seen done so many times, we won't apologise for it. We will have women playing women."

Callen, who has worked in the performing arts for all his adult life, says he was drawn to teaching students because of their passion to learn.

"What I found was rather than working with people who are tired and fed up with the whole business, here were young people who were eager, keen and wanted to know. So it was very satisfying for me."

The production is a chance for third year arts students to showcase their skills, with agents and casting directors expected to attend. Bachelor of Performing Arts student Fern Sutherland, who plays Bottom, says Unitec arts staff still work in the industry and try to connect students with the right people.

"In the first and second year it is more friends and family attending the plays, but I think this year [Unitec] are making more of an effort to ensure that key people come along."

Fellow arts student Helen Corry, playing Helena, says the workload has been intense, with rehearsals four days a week since February. She says Callen expects students to come to class with ideas to contribute.

"Third year study is all about not being babysat, you have got to start taking the initiative."

What: A Midsummer Night's Dream
Where and when: Unitec Theatre, April 11-19; tickets via