How I learned to love “Romeo and Juliet”

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When Parker first told me we were doing “Romeo and Juliet,” I’ll admit, I wasn’t too excited.  It had been my first Shakespeare play with him in high school, I had studied it in English class, seen countless film adaptations, and several live performances.  All of these were, at best, bearable learning experiences and, at worst, completely intolerable.    Suffice it to say, this was my least-favorite Shakespeare play, and, in my opinion, the most overrated, over-produced, and cliché of the Bard’s works.

Huzzah, I thought, the “greatest love story ever:” a boy who is constantly in and out of unrequited lust with various girls like a stereotypical Elizabethan sonneteer, and then falls in love at first sight with a thirteen year old.  They meet, they marry, and they die, all within the context of a textbook Mimetic crisis.  Not only is that bad enough, but then modern pop culture makes Romeo and Juliet’s five-day love story out to be the most perfect in history.  Why must my last Summer Shakespeare production be this one?! 

Yeah, I wasn’t excited.  In fact, there was definitely some self-pitying going on.

Then Parker told me we were going to set it in the Victorian Era.  I was surprised and intrigued by the challenge–could we make it work? We’d never tried this before!–but, I still remained skeptical about the choice of play.

Nevertheless, I trust Parker, so I knew that whatever he was planning, it would probably be better than what I was currently imagining.

So when I walked into his office on the Sunday evening before class began, the last thing I expected was to leave believing in our production.

You see, Parker told me about something that American Players Theatre actor David Daniel said to him: “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t a love story–it’s a hate story.

As Parker explained to me how this had changed his own perspective on the play, I realized that I had never truly thought about the famous tale in those terms.  I had only ever taken popular culture’s opinion.  I had disliked the story with this interpretation, but I had assumed that it was the only option.

Parker gave me a whole new way to see the play.  It was alright to reject Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate couple because Shakespeare meant for their relationship to be problematic; it isn’t the focus of the story.  The point is the poisonous power of enmity to destroy love, rather than the other way around.  It is a cautionary tale, rather than a celebration of “love conquers all.”  The latter interpretation–the popular one–fails because it does not take into account that human sacrifice was the thing that brought reconciliation (which the play hints will not last).  Young love is not the winner here, but instead the blood price of their families’ hatred.

I used to think “Romeo and Juliet” was a tragedy because of the simple, idiotic mistakes of miscommunication which brought about their deaths–that the catastrophe could have easily been avoided.  It is, in fact, a tragedy because it shows how hatred inevitably erodes all good things until innocent blood is the only thing that will break the destructive cycle.

Once again, Parker has convinced me that William Shakespeare is the best storyteller in English history.

Of course, none of that would matter if the cast did not embrace the idea.

But, thankfully, they did.

By reexamining these legendary characters–and sometimes even openly rejecting common interpretations–our students made the play honest again.

I know this because, after every performance, the overwhelming opinion of the audience (whether they were familiar with the play or not) was:

“I’ve never understood this play–or even Shakespeare–before!  I’ve never cared about these characters!  Thank you!”

We hear similar sentiments from a few audience members every summer, but this came from nearly everyone who I talked to.  Considering that we had a nearly full house for four of our five performances (most years, we average half of the house per performance), this was not just the family and friends of students who attended, but members of the community as well.

Hearing the pleased surprise in people’s remarks fully convinced me.  Because of the vision for the play that Parker had instilled into the cast from the very first day, our students comprehended the play and its complex characters more deeply than they had when reading it in their freshman CA classes.

And because the actors understood the story they were telling, so did the audience.

Opening Night

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At 4:45 pm I stand in the theatre.  The lights are up, but the auditorium is empty.  I step onto a cobblestone street in Verona, between two imposing buildings, and breathe in the silence and the musty scent of old curtains.

Anticipation fills the uninhabited stage.  All is quiet, but not tranquil.

In the green room–where actors have their makeup and hair done–the excitement manifests into nervous energy and good humor, as all of the girls in the cast have their hair braided, curled, and pinned into period styles.

Over the next hour, students drift in, the stage is swept, and everything is made ready in  what is called “pre-set.”  Tina, our costumer, makes jokes with some of the actors as she and her assistants transform their age, and sometimes gender, with facial hair and old-age makeup.  Like me, Tina wears a black dress, in accordance with one of the many traditions–even superstitions–which our theatre practices.

Then it is 5:15.  Time for notes–when the directoral team gives corrections to the actors and makes changes for the next performance.

Everyone gathers giddily on the risers in the choir room, waiting for the director to appear.  Parker comes in and calls for order, ready to make his speech.

“You only have one opening night,” he tells us, stressing the importance of enjoying the experience, as well as being in top form for the performance.

Finally, with fifteen minutes before curtain, Parker begins warmups–a mix of stretches and vocal exercises which are steeped in tradition.  First-timers look slightly confused as Parker explains each movement and tongue-twister, but veterans have done this countless times, and shout phrases along with their director.

“These are called ‘isolations,’” he says, describing to the students how to shake their hands without moving any other part of their bodies. “Now your arms, up to the shoulder, without moving your upper body, like–”

“Two tubes of flabby meat!” they shout back.

Each tongue twister has motions, which the initiates attempt to copy–by the end of the run, they too are experts.  Warmups then usually culminate in an energy-builder which Parker makes a show of protesting–the ‘shake down.’  As the name suggests, each limb is shaken in succession for a count of ten seconds, then nine, eight, and so on.  With each increasingly excited and shortened cycle, the students take a step towards Parker.  As they get closer, he cringes, knowing what will come.  On the last few counts, the hand-shakes turn into rubbing Parker’s head for good luck.  After it’s over, he carefully smooths his spiked hair and begins to leave, wishing them all a good show.

The oldest veterans then lead everyone in a few nonsensical cheers that make references to films and internet videos.  After a Mighty Ducks-inspired “quacka” huddle, our Tybalt–played by recently graduated Duncan Schneider–roars the last part of the ritual.  It means something like “here goes nothing” and is bellowed as the students leave the choir room.  Using his deepest voice, he cries: “Let’s do this!”

Everyone answers in a raucous shout–”LEEEEEEEEERRROOOOOOOOYYYYY JEEEENKIIIIIINS!” (it’s an obscure gaming reference from here)

It is now nearly 7:00, and I follow the sea of actors towards the theatre, giving small, personal encouragements as we part.  Then I take my seat in the sold-out house just before the lights begin to dim.

I take a deep breath.

Our “Theatre Spotlight”

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The Post Crescent, our local newspaper, has a part of their arts section dedicated to showcasing a local theatre production.  Parker had me put it together this year, so I thought it would be fun to post it here.  It gives an overview of the program and sums up our production.

I’ll also post the interview that Catherine Backer and David Fisher (our Romeo and Juliet) gave me for it!

 

What: Summer Shakespeare Theatre presents William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

When: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Appleton North High School, 5000 N. Ballard Road, Appleton

Admission: General admission tickets are $8, Seating is limited to 120

Contact: facebook.com/summershakespearetheatre, Ron Parker at 920-832-4300, or parkerronaldc@aasd.k12.wi.us

Box office hours: July 21-23 from 3-5 p.m, and at the door from an hour before the performance

Background: Shakespeare’s most popular and most often produced play tells the story of two teenagers from the warring Capulet and Montague factions who fall in love at first sight. Caught between feuding families, Romeo and Juliet desperately struggle to build a world insulated from the violence and hate, but their love is thwarted and forced toward a final confrontation with their tragic destiny.

This production of “Romeo and Juliet” marks the first time in the program’s 27 years that director Ron Parker has set a play in a time period other than the Renaissance. He chose the mid-1800s due to the era’s social and ideological tensions and constrictions, which highlight the themes of rivalry and hatred in the story. Removing the play from its original setting allows the audience to experience the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work and to reexamine the characters in a new light.

The production features original music by London composer Jay Chakravorty and a “studio theater” set that divides the audience on two sides of the stage — simulating the rivalry between the two houses.

What they’re saying: “‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the show to end all shows,” said Appleton North senior David Fisher, who plays Romeo, “but everyone here, who’s working on it everyday, realizes that there is so much more to it than we had thought. This production is striving to remind you why this play is so well-known and so powerful.”

The production’s Juliet, played by recently graduated Appleton North senior Catherine Backer, hopes the performance will take the lovers off their pedestals.

“We’re moving past preconceived notions of the classic love story where the lovers die in the end,” she said. “It’s much more than that. It’s about experiencing the human emotion of the characters and their evolutions.”

Assistant director Rebecca Fox said the show is not a story about the power of love overcoming prejudice, but instead of hate destroying love. “The tragedy of the lovers’ deaths cannot just be blamed on miscommunication, but is, instead, the fault of the feuding that surrounds them,” she said.

Take-home message: “Shakespeare is showing us through this timeless tragedy what comes of holding hatred and bigotry in our hearts — a lesson which speaks to us today just as strongly as it did to those of his own time,” Parker said.

The Joys and Insanities of Show Week

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Welcome to show week–when long hours, plenty of frustration, mass panic, and lots of hard work hopefully give birth to a production everyone can be proud of.

But for us, right now, we are in limbo.  The set has finally been built, the props are finally in order, our music has been written, our lights hung, and our scenes blocked.  It’s all up to the actors now.

That is a terrifying feeling.

As an assistant director, I know that the outcome is out of my hands.  I have done–and will continue through this week to do–my best to prepare our students for the show, but the actual performances are up to the actors.

I’ve been in their shoes before.  I know what it’s like.

You’ve spent three weeks memorizing your lines and learning how to bring them alive in rehearsal, but now you’re suddenly faced with the set.

And costumes!

AND PROPS!

All of the things that you had previously only imagined and mimed are now a reality.  Timing has to be calculated to match the music, cues for lighting and the movement of furniture props have to be set.  You are now responsible for so much more than just your character.

But, at the same time, the same things that make you panic are the ones that exhilarate you: you are no longer acting in a vacuum.

The costume makes you stand straighter, and feel less like yourself.  The set allows you to melt into the scene, and that prop is the detail that you needed to really become your character.  It isn’t just lines, now, it’s all real.

The organized chaos around you makes you feel that, on the one hand, the show will never be ready, and, on the other, that this just might be the best play you’ve ever been in.  It’s all falling apart, but it is also all coming together.

Then, suddenly, it’s all over.

It’s opening night.

Creating Together

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I love evening rehearsals.  Mind you, I don’t like being exhausted after a long day, and I usually crave sleep by the time I arrive home, but I do enjoy their intimacy.

During class, blocking is often interrupted by questions from the techies, goofing off, or having to seek students that have wandered off, but, are in the next scene.  You know, the general chaos that happens when you have forty students, but only four on stage.

At night, though, it’s just the directing team–Parker, Ian, and I–and the few students in the scene.  Without the stress of the day, tempers calm, creativity blooms, and wonderful things begin to happen.

The darkness of the theatre embraces its occupants, and the quiet is broken only by the action on stage.  Everyone bandies about ideas and suggestions, finding new energy after the long day.

Our most recent evening blocking session focussed on the characters that have affectionately come to be known as “the boys:”  Romeo, his cousin Benvolio, and the Prince’s nephew Mercutio–the witty, saucy, rakehells of Verona.

The three friends have decided to crash the Capulets’ party, partially to convince Romeo to give up his poetry-inducing infatuation with a girl named Rosaline.  Frustrated with Romeo’s lovesick moping, Mercutio (the group’s entertainer and leader who is just too clever for his own good) derails the plot to give what has become one of Shakespeare’s most analyzed monologues:  the Queen Mab speech (If you are unfamiliar with it, it’s worth a read!).

Romeo and Mercutio banter about dreams–with Romeo defending their importance and power, and Mercutio insisting that they are nonsense.  This induces Mercutio to instruct his comrades on the ways of Queen Mab–”the fairies‘ midwife” who aids mankind in birthing their dreams.  The speech begins as a fanciful description of Mab’s tiny coach, which is made from an odd assortment of infinitesimal objects, such as spider’s web and grasshopper’s wings.  Mercutio’s whimsical account then turns to all of the types of people that Mab visits and what they dream of when she does.  As per usual, Mercutio’s conversation quickly turns to sexual innuendo.

But–many have wondered–is the Queen Mab speech darker than Meructio’s usual fare?

The answer has been overwhelmingly “yes” for many years, especially due to Sigmund Freud’s influence.  The monologue is often played as clever Mercutio’s momentary and fevered (and even drug-induced) descent into a madness full of rape and horrors, broken only by Romeo’s shouted “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing!” To which a now diminished and exhausted Mercutio answers “True, I talk of dreams.”  (Check out the 1968 Zeffirelli version here)

Parker has directed it this way before.  He’s taken some cues strait from Zeffirelli’s bag, and even surpassed him in darkness.

But, as seems to be the theme this summer, Parker wanted something else for us.

So, as we sat in the dark theatre on a warm summer evening, we began to have our Mercutio try out all sorts of ideas.

The speech is difficult to block.  It is long and repetitive, and can quickly become boring.  Perhaps that is why the darker interpretation is so often used–it most certainly is not boring.

So, if Mercutio is not going mad, why is he giving this long monologue?

Parker decided it was as a sort of punishment for Romeo, to show him how silly it is to fear dreams.  Then, inspired by Danny Kaye’s Symphony for the Unstrung Tongue, I suggested Mercutio take on the persona of a boring professor.  Parker was unconvinced, but we experimented.  After many suggestions and failed attempts, we struck upon the idea of giving Mercutio some spectacles to use as a prop.

Mercutio put the borrowed pair of glasses on the end of his nose and began to lecture, treating his friends as if they were naughty students whose attention was wandering.  He leapt onto the table in the center of the stage and paced its length, gesturing with the glasses for effect.

Instead of trying to distract the audience from the repetition of the speech, this seemed instead to use it to advantage–the more that Mercutio could add to the description, the funnier the persona became.

I love these times of collaboration because they remind us that theatre is a communal art.  What happens on stage does not just belong to the director or to the actor.

Good theatre is born from creativity in concert.

The performance arts–theatre, dance, and music–are all like this.  They can happen in a vacuum, but they are most fulfilling when they are the products of team work.

From experience, I’d even say that making art together is a basic human need.  For example, making music in groups–whether through singing, drumming, or instruments–seems to be a part of every culture.

I believe that making communal art is something we all long for, but are unable to do very much these days.  In America, we do not have a strong folksong tradition–we just don’t get together to sing or play as a community–so unless you are a part of a band, orchestra, choir, or organized religion, you probably don’t have much opportunity to make music with other people.  Public dance has also become less of a group creation, and is now left up to individuals or couples.  And in theatre, which is already a more elitist art form, stress and deadlines can hamper group participation.

And that’s why I love evening rehearsals.  When the auditorium is quiet and only a few of us are left, we can take the time to appreciate creating together.

Images of Summers Past

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Click images for detail.

This is the front cover of a booklet that Parker brings out every year to be passed around.  It is a collection of photographs, newspaper clippings, and students’ reflections on their times at Summer Shakes.  It has pictures from the very first production of Macbeth in 1987 in Kenosha and ends with 2006’s Hamlet at Appleton North.

In its pages can be found three different Romeo and Juliets.

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To give some perspective, I wasn’t born until five years after these photos were taken.

 

 

 

These are from 1998.

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I’ll be honest, I am amazed by this set.  I can see in it echoes of a few of the ideas we are using in our own design, but I can also see what Parker is doing differently.  I’m floored every year by what Summer Shakes can create with no real budget to speak of.

scan0010Many of the students in the play are just above ten years scan0011older than I am, but it looks as if nothing has really changed.  I feel a connection to them as I read their names and wonder what high school was like for them.

They are there, in a few of the same costumes, doing exactly scan0012what my friends and I did, and what my students do now.  They stood under the hot lights, they raised their swords in affected fury, they memorized their lines, built their set, begged for money, and shared the frustrations, ecstasies, comradery, triumphs, and heartbreaks that every student in this program has experienced.

 

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Like us, they goofed off, and then worked harder than they ever had before.  I don’t recognize their names, but I know that they loved Parker and this program as much as this cast does now.  So much has changed since then, and yet Summer Shakespeare endures.

scan0014scan0018It is funny how no cast really thinks about previous years.  Sure, the vets of the program may reminisce about three years ago, but no one really tries to imagine what it would have been like twenty years ago.

When Parker talks about some of the first productions, it seems unreal, as if it were just a story. It is hard to image the high school experiences of  someone now in their forties.

But then you see the behind-the-scenes photographs.  Those faces, frozen in time, remind you that the program, and Parker, don’t belong just to you and your experiences.  He has invested his energy, creativity, and love in the lives of over one thousand students over the years, and yet he still treats each production as if it were the most important he has ever done.

It never feels worn out or tired (even though Parker must feel that way sometimes), each student feels that Summer Shakespeare is theirs, and so gives their time and love to it, just as Parker does.

Perhaps that is one reason that the program has succeeded for twenty-seven years–every cast is inspired with a sense of ownership for their production.  They learn to find a part of their academic identity in understanding Shakespeare’s plays intimately, in a way that few high schoolers have the opportunity to discover.

scan0024This summer is not Parker’s first cast.  It isn’t even the first time that Parker has directed this play. But that will not stop Parker or this cast from treating this story–which has been told countless times–as if it were new.

Just as, I am sure, the casts pictured here did.