K-12 Programs: Production Focus

Romeo & Juliet

Shakespeare in the 21st Century

Why produce one of Shakespeare’s plays in the 21st century? It’s a history lesson, of course, and a master-class in literature. Some love the poetry while some marvel at the enduring popularity and power of the stories. It’s a juicy challenge for actors and an irresistible invitation to creativity in developing the settings, costumes, lighting, movement, music and sound. Unless you’re mounting a hit musical it’s hard to beat the box-office potential of Shakespeare’s best-known plays (can you think of a writer or a group of titles with this kind of name recognition?).

One of my teachers in graduate school said Shakespeare was the greatest of all playwrights because every part of every play is so packed with all of the elements of drama. Skill in the selection of the events depicted and the way they are arranged, the range and vividness of the dramatis personae, the depth and timelessness of the ideas, the beauty and inventiveness of the “words, words, words,” the rhythms and songs that lace the texts, and the spectacular combat, dance, props and fancy dress all abound. What theatre person wouldn’t want in on that?

What makes it really fun for me, though, is a process that starts before the first rehearsal and continues through the final performance: discovering, along with the actors and everyone else working on the play, the authentic humanness of Shakespeare’s characters. We usually read the plays first because a teacher says we have to and, even if we find some funny bits and some lovely lyrical bits and some profoundly deep bits, it all sort of washes over us, and maybe we take it on faith that it’s truly great drama. In rehearsal, though, we can dig in scene by scene, speech by speech, sentence by sentence and line by line. Intellectual honesty and an open heart reveal that every character’s every utterance and action springs from the same wants and needs we know from our own lives. Safety and status, survival and sexuality, the need to make sense of life and the longing to transcend it, the want to be wanted and the drive to make difference: everything that makes us do what we do is also what makes Capulet throw parties, the nurse chatter, Friar Laurence counsel and scheme, and Mercutio banter and brawl. These are the same motivations that make Romeo seek romance and revenge, and make Juliet risk and give all.

As excited as I am about our stunningly original scenery and costumes, moody lighting, electrifying music and swashbuckling sword fights, it’s the intimate and specific human reality that I most hope we convey in this production. If you think our color scheme clashes, our accents are a jumble, and our anachronisms send Shakespeare spinning in his grave, speak right up—I’ll enjoy the debate. But I hope you find that this story is clear and its feelings familiar because you recognize the people as people, with hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations as real as your own.

Sure, Romeo and Juliet is more than 400 years old. But we bring you this new production of it for reasons as fresh and current as the young company that performs it for you.

Director’s Choice

“You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time…”

I hope that everyone will find something to like in our production of Romeo and Juliet, but long experience has taught me that it’s practically impossible to please every audience member with everything in a production, especially of a play as widely read, often-produced and much-loved as this one. Many people come to a play like this one with preconceived preferences, favorite memories of favorite productions or movie versions (the play has been filmed in one way or another more than 60 times) and passionate opinions about what’s right and wrong in performing Shakespeare. Having directed a number of Shakespeare productions I think I can even predict what some of the most controversial aspects of our show will be.

A lot of people have strong opinions about how Shakespeare should be spoken. Some people expect British accents, although on the American stage this practice evokes wide disapproval from experts; some like pronunciations standardized in speech patterns that used to be called “standard American” or “mid-Atlantic” or “trans-Atlantic;” and recently some have developed an enthusiasm for “original pronunciation,” using scholarly research to inform speech patterns based on the sound that Richard Burbage and Will Kempe produced in the first productions of Shakespeare’s plays more than 400 years ago.

My personal preference is “a cacophony,” as I once heard the noted Shakespearean director Kurt Tofteland describe it, with a wide variety of accents and speech patterns emitting from actors of widely varying backgrounds. The first Shakespeare play that I directed at Stephen F. Austin State University approached something like this as it featured many actors from different parts of Texas as well as a couple of British actors and one from Iceland. The downside is that some audience members will inevitably pity us for our inability to get everyone to speak in the same way, but the upside is that we turn fully away from cliché and embrace Shakespeare’s place in the most globalized and pluralistic world that history has yet produced.

In our current production we have about a score of actors from Texas and three from the United Kingdom. I’m asking them all to speak in the way they are comfortable doing offstage—with one exception. Tybalt is a close relation (a nephew) to Lady Capulet, and the actor playing him is from the north of England. The actor’s accent is unusually difficult for Amerian audiences to understand and I worried that his near-nuclear family relationship to the Capulets might be obscured, so I have asked this one actor to attempt an American accent (a bit of his accent may still come through, which is fine with me—after all, his other parent may be British even if Lady Capulet’s brother or sister is not). What I think will drive some audience members to distraction is that the other two Britons in our cast will speak with their native accents, even though one is a “cousin” of Romeo (played by an American actor) and the other is related to the Prince (also played by a Texas native). After all, some Americans have British cousins and, perhaps more to the point, the SFA stage features both American and British actors (thanks to our exchange student relationship with London’s Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance).

But wait! How many sixteenth-century Britons, Shakespeare’s countrymen, had cousins from other lands? And how many sixteenth-century Veronese people had American cousins? Practically none—but none at all spoke in twenty-first-century American accents, as most of our actors will (in keeping with widely accepted current theatrical practice), and who’s to say that the play is set in a literal Verona, let alone Verona of a particular time? None of the actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s men (Shakespeare’s acting company) performed the play in Italian, and little if any of the characters’ behavior in the play is as Italian as it is English—or, better yet, universal.

Which brings us to another main bone of contention. Our production is set in a world that has never existed until we invented it for our audience’s enjoyment. “Why have you updated the play?!” I am frequently asked, but I am always genuinely confused by the question. “Is that what I have done?” Don’t all modern productions of all classical plays speak from a contemporary point-of-view in various ways? We could attempt what the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company in London has called an “original practices” production, but that involves eliminating women from our cast, which is not an approach to theatre production that interests us. It involves performing the play in Elizabethan (English) dress even though that style has nothing to do with Verona (where the play is set) and communicates a completely different range of available meanings to a twenty-first-century American audience than it did to playgoers in sixteenth-century London. So we’re going our own way and we hope that our historically-influenced, sometimes futuristic, post-apocalyptic fiction/film/video-game-inspired setting intrigues, excites and spurs lively conversation in our audience. How much more could we hope for, even if we pursued an approach that might annoy fewer purists? (And who decides who is a “purist?”)

Do I sound defensive? Well, maybe I am. I’ve survived the “slings and arrows” of more than a few critics, so forgive me if I’ve forged myself a shield.

All I’d really like to say is that many of the things that a given audience member may not like or agree with are not matters of incompetence or ignorance in our production, but choices made with awareness of a wide range of available choices in the production of Shakespeare in our particular place and time. You needn’t feign acquiescence to them, but please don’t dismiss them. Instead, let’s use them as springboards for vital, lively, passionate conversation about the vital, passionate, lively role that literature and performance can play in our shared lives today.

Concepts to Start

This site has the full text of Romeo and Juliet from which we prepared our script (from which some lines have been cut).

The action of Romeo and Juliet unfolds over the course of just a few days. [url=robertspage.com/romeo.html]Here’s a link[/url] to a timeline of events in the play that we’ve enjoyed using.

We’re setting our Romeo and Juliet in a time and place that has never existed until we imagined it, incorporating some traditional antique elements, a little cross-cultural flavor, and some contemporary and even futuristic elements. Our director, with tongue in cheek, calls it “Ye Olde Dystopian Post-Apolcalyptic Future.” [url=http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/09/25/theater/to-renovate-or-not-to-renovate.html]Here’s an article[/url] from The New York Times, triggered by the current Broadway production of R & J, that ponders the plusses-and-minuses of traditional vs. non-traditional settings for Shakespearean productions in our time.

Speaking of Broadway’s current Romeo, here’s Orlando Bloom doing a monologue from the play (also on The New York Times web site).

No sooner had we decided to produce Romeo and Juliet than we started noticing it popping up everywhere. In addition to the current Broadway production, there’s a new film version with a traditional Italian Renaissance setting. [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTGWNHa1wIQ]Here’s the trailer[/url] for the movie.

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