Student collaborators: Lauren Farrell ‘22, Makenzie Mettler ‘22, Libni Rivera ‘24, Katsuto Sakogashira ‘21, Austin Shapiro ‘22, Andrew Svarczkopf ‘21, Aly Tu, Kyle Zayas ‘23
We opened the session up with a recap of what we discussed at last week’s Listening Party, and our new folks shared their impressions of Act 1 so we could all begin Act 2 together.
We considered the relationship between Benvolio and Romeo last week. This week we looked back on the interactions between Mercutio, Romeo, and Benvolio both in Act 1 and Act 2. The students were struck by the wildly different attitudes of the three boys towards the opposite sex, and by Mercutio’s dizzying rhetoric and the verbal sparring between the three young men. Aly wondered if Mercutio’s tempestuousness might indicate that he is younger than the more level-headed Benvolio, while Austin took Mercutio’s confidence as evidence that he is the oldest of the trio. Mercutio is a captivating yet enigmatic character whose fatal showdown with Tybalt “becomes the tipping point that turns this tale of two star-crossed lovers from a romantic comedy to a tragedy.”
Act 2 is still, however, very much in the realm of romantic comedy in the famous balcony scene. The students pointed out several indications of both Romeo’s naivete and Juliet’s youth: Romeo’s proposed solution to the problem presented by his family name is to change it, and Juliet does not have the “cunning” to play coy or be anything but completely honest. Sako pointed to Juliet’s confessed blushing as particularly charming and evocative. While the guileless passion of the young lovers is alternately charming, funny, and worrying, we noted how Romeo’s language for Juliet differs dramatically from how he describes Rosaline earlier in the play.
We go on to learn in Act 2, Scene 3 that Friar Laurence is the only person in the play who Romeo has previously told about his feelings for Rosaline. Although he visits the Friar because he needs a clergyman to marry him and Juliet, Romeo also seems to confide in Friar Laurence more than with his young friends or family. Why doesn’t Romeo tell either Benvolio or Mercutio about his pending marriage in the following scene? What might this omission tell us?
Furthermore, why do the Nurse and Friar Laurence agree to help the two adolescents marry in secret? While the Friar says he hopes the union will put the Montague-Capulet feud to rest, and the Nurse is keen to save Juliet from a marriage to Paris, neither adults acknowledge the possible fallout of the union. Libni was particularly struck by the Nurse readily agreeing to prepare a rope ladder for Romeo to be able to sneak into the Capulet home and consummate his marriage to Juliet; that is also quite some foresight and planning on Romeo’s part!
The students were tickled by Juliet’s childish impatience with the Nurse in Scene 4, but were divided on whether the Nurse is purposefully teasing Juliet or truly heedless of the urgency. We discussed how the choice we make between these two interpretations is surprisingly impactful, because our perceptions of Juliet and Romeo are deeply informed by the characterization of the two adults who are their closest confidantes.
The students largely found the young lovers’ behavior foolish. Many of them first encountered the play as adolescents and feel much less inclined to buy into the concept of “love at first sight” now as young adults. Sako, however, countered that our contemporary, interconnected world is very different to the world that Juliet and Romeo encounter each other in. How many young men has Juliet ever interacted with prior to Romeo? What is behind Romeo’s declaration that "(it) is enough that I may call her mine"? Perhaps, Aly went on to muse, Romeo is looking for a sense of family, of belonging, as much as he is looking for a lover.
Student Collaborators: Makenzie Mettler ’22, Kadeem Preston ‘23, Bence Veres ‘21, Kyle Zayas ‘23
We opened the session by going around the group and sharing goals and perspectives. All of the students expressed the desire to actively participate in the production process of Romeo and Juliet either onstage or off. Kyle, a musician, finds the musicality of Shakespeare’s language appealing; it is not a stretch to imagine the script as a musical score, with the meaning and intent of each utterance determined by pitch, tempo, rhythm… Meanwhile, Kadeem claimed to be less than enthused by the language of the play, which he described as “whack” towards the beginning of the session. However, Kadeem was also the one to point out the significance of the structure of Juliet and Romeo’s first interaction; their dialogue creates as single sonnet- they literally complete each others’ thoughts. Methinks Kadeem doth protest too much.
After listening to and reading along with Act 1, we spoke about the significance of the Prologue and the reasons why Shakespeare might have included it. Film aficionado Bence shared his frustration with predictability in storytelling, and how disappointing it can be to feel to end up steps ahead of the story being told. On the other hand, Marvel fan Kadeem pointed out how although the outcome of the Avengers films is canon, how the films arrive at the outcome is what made them exciting. Professor Emma Smiths speaks eloquently about this distinction between the What Happens and the Why of Shakespeare’s plays in this short podcast episode.
Makenzie was surprised and quite delighted by the audio production’s interpretation of the Nurse, who is a character that can be incredibly humorous and extremely exasperating to varying degrees. Scene 3 gives us limited information about Lady Capulet and Juliet’s reaction to the Nurse’s long-winded reminisces, but the performance we listened to included amusing attempts to interject and much shared laughter among the women. We were reminded that our understanding of character in performance is not only determined by the choices made by the actor playing that part, but by the responses of the other characters.
Speaking of which- the students found themselves rolling their eyes at Romeo’s coy dramatics in response to Benvolio’s patient inquiries. As we explore Romeo’s other relationships in the play- between him and his parents, Benvolio, Mercutio, Friar Laurence, and Juliet- and more deeply consider the world that these characters exist in, the more significance this entertaining scene might take on. I am looking forward to reading the play backwards with the students and returning to examine the choices Shakespeare makes for Romeo early in the play.
It might be easy to judge the perceived naivete of Romeo and the rest of the adolescents in the story, but as Kadeem pointed out, our introduction to the Lords Capulet and Montague is one where they must be broken up like children brawling on the playground by the Prince, who is arguably the only adult in Verona. Given the available role models, the behavior of the adolescents is, perhaps, understandable.
Some questions we were left with at the end of the session were:
How old is Romeo? And, what is the cause of the Capulet-Montague feud?
While it is no secret to the students that I love Shakespeare, it is also not a secret that many of them feel quite the opposite. Their distaste for the Bard is completely justified, as Madeline Sayat says in her recent article for Howlround, “Whenever I hear people preach about the universalism of Shakespeare the way missionaries once wielded the Bible, I think to myself, This is dangerous. And yet it goes unquestioned, even though not everyone interprets his work the same way—and not everyone even likes it.” I agree wholeheartedly with Sayat that “(if) Shakespeare is to be done at all, it should be done in ways that encourage each student, performer, and artist to interpret it for themselves.”
What makes this ideal scenario challenging is that in most cases a director has a longer and deeper relationship with the text of a play than anyone else involved in the production. The director is the first person to arrive at the table, and their early interpretations of the play begin to steer the production in a particular direction before anyone else has even taken a seat. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with this mode of working. However, our Production Values demand that as many people as possible join me at the table right from the beginning of the process so that we can develop a shared understanding of and relationship to the text.
That word, “understanding” is key with a text that feels dense and impenetrable to many of our students. Instead of reading the play together in a single sitting, I and any students that want to are listening to an unabridged audio production of the play together synchronously via Zoom, with the annotated text screen shared as the recording plays. After all, some of us comprehend written words more readily than spoken words, some vice versa, and for some it is ideal to have both modes available simultaneously. Students are encouraged to follow along with the annotated text for explanations of unfamiliar words if helpful, or to take a well-deserved screen break and mute their mic, put in some earbuds, find a comfortable patch of grass, and listen along.
After polling the students to select a time, we settled on Sunday afternoons for our Listening Parties. Each Sunday in September, we will be listening to one section of the play, and then talking about it. Both the text and the recordings are also posted to our Theatre Department Canvas page that all students have access to; students who can not make the Listening Parties are encouraged to engage with the material and to share their responses and questions with me. The outcome of all these conversations and the questions the text prompts- which will be documented in this blog- will steer the course of our adaptation process.
We usually use the phrase “production value” in reference to the perceived quality of the finished product: the production we present to an audience. Here we use the phrase more literally, in reference to the values that will guide the creation of our Spring production of Romeo and Juliet. They include, but are not limited to:
An adaptation process that is driven by student input.
The relentlessness of the academic calendar shrinks conception time down to what can feel like almost nothing, and it is often impossible to coordinate an expansive, inclusive pre-production process. The impact of Covid-19 and the current restructuring of the professional theatre to address racial injustice have dismantled our production models. This time of transition is precisely the moment to slow down and experiment with flattened organizational structures, particularly during pre-production.
A production process that leans fully into the creative, educational, and outreach opportunities of a distanced process.
We keep using language (and I am certainly guilty of this as well!) that presents production possibilities as “best case,”- ie. with full audiences, no mask, no social distancing, and “worst-case,” i.e. completely distanced both in production and in performance. So much of our frustration as theatre makers over the past year has come from dashed hopes of a return to "normal". For all the ways that Covid-19 has severely limited our ability to produce a conventional theatre production for a live audience, it is also an opportunity to reconsider the forms collaborative multi-modal storytelling can take. Form will ultimately serve function, with the artistic choices driven by our intentions as storytellers determining the parameters of production.
A production process that furthers broader goals students have expressed for the Theatre program.
In weekly meetings with all the faculty, staff, and students in the Theatre department, the students expressed a commitment to building outreach and collaboration with other departments and student groups on campus. They also aspire to provide a model for not just student perseverance but excellence in the time of Covid-19.
A process and production that practices and embodies equity and anti-racism.
The typical university canon of dramatic literature is based in racist theatrical pedagogy, and Shakespeare is a large and intractable part of that racist canon. Both the theory and praxis of theatre production in the United States are rooted in white supremacy, and we must actively identify, eradicate, and replace these practices and the dangerous assumptions behind them. This is work that takes time, and that time must be built into the production process.
As is typical for many of us, my first exposure to Shakespeare was in a literature class. However, my relationship to Shakespeare’s works was shaped by the larger cultural context I encountered them in. In the United Arab Emirates where I was raised, books weren’t initially all that easy to either find or afford, and censorship limited the options even further. Moreover, the official stance of the school I attended was that fiction was a dangerous distraction from “real” educational pursuits. Despite this- or perhaps because of it- I was a voracious reader. As I got older I became increasingly frustrated by the limitations of our library, and in a world that hadn’t yet gone digital I was also irked by the censorship that made so many books and therefore knowledge inaccessible. Then came Shakespeare.
While it might shock my students in 2020 that sixteenth and seventeenth century writing could ever seem provocatively cutting edge, that was exactly how it felt to me. The plays addressed topics- particularly government and sex- in ways that should have incensed censors, yet the texts were being taught in schools. The language was beautiful to me the same way the Qur’an is beautiful; I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I was aware of profound truths masterfully and musically told. But unlike Arabic, which I was never fluent in, my English was strong enough to uncover textual secrets that felt like they were meant just for me.
Loving Shakespeare felt anarchic, even moreso when I began performing in a historically all-female troupe in college. Performing Shakespeare emancipated me from cultural and gender identities I found restrictive. The possibility of auditioning for any of the roles, and that any of Shakespeare’s words could be mine, was thrilling. When I was elected to direct, the compulsion to frame the story in ways that felt personal and honest to my lived experience was the barometer I measured my artistic integrity by. These assumptions were naive and self-centered. More than that, they were harmful.
I have several favorite Shakespearean characters, but the character I have most I longed to play is Iago. We did not produce Othello in my senior year of college, but we did produce Titus Andronicus. After reading this little-produced play for the first time, I realized that there was a compelling character that would be as close to Iago as I might ever have the chance to play. That character is Aaron.
If you don’t know the play- and it’s okay if you don’t, few people do- the key thing to know is that Aaron is Black. He is a character whose Blackness defines him. In my ignorance, I justified my relative not-whiteness as qualifying me for the role in a troupe that had almost no people of color. It took me almost a decade to look back and acknowledge that, even in the context of an intentionally ridiculous production, my decision to audition for and accept the role was not just ridiculous but deeply offensive and profoundly harmful. I can not apologize enough for that harm.
Barely out of my teens and new to the United States, my understanding of the implications of cultural appropriation were just as scant as my understanding of the history of racial discrimination in the American theatre and in higher education. When I was twenty, I directed a production of Romeo and Juliet set in medieval Spain, presenting the feud between the Capulets and Montagues in the context of religious tension between the historic populations of Christians and Muslims in Cordoba. It is still difficult not to be extraordinarily proud of the work that my peers made. The performances were deeply moving. The lighting and costuming were gorgeous… and the actors wearing those costumes, which included turbans and veils, were almost all white. The suspension of disbelief already at play given our cast of young actors made this leap seem minor by comparison, and the characters I saw populating the stage spurned a recognition in me that felt honest to the story. I thought I had done my homework, that I was making the story fresh and relatable. But what I was working towards was a production that spoke to me, and not the audiences that came to see it or to the students that were producing it.
In the fifteen years since then, I have gone on to have a career in theatre as a scenic designer, and a few years ago began a parallel career as an educator. This year, I have been given the opportunity to lead a fantastic group of students into the world of Romeo and Juliet once again. To lead, teach, and make theatre with integrity in 2020 requires that I accept accountability for my past mistakes, and hold myself publicly accountable to do far, far better this time. This blog documenting our production process is part of that accountability. Primarily, however, this is a space to celebrate the students, who will be guiding the adaptation process for our production. I can not wait to share their work with you all.
Albright College Theatre