Student Collaborators: Makenzie Mettler ‘21, Libni Rivera ‘24, Katsuto Sakogashira ‘21, Aly Tu ‘22, Alanna & Keela Daniels
As the pace of the story increases and leads inexorably to its tragic conclusion, the pace of our listening increased as well; the audio performance of Acts 4 and 5 were under an hour long taken together. The speed of events and radical tone shifts led the students to realize how important it is to understand how time works in the play, and identify how many days the story takes place over.
Libni was struck by the discordances in tone while listening to Scene 5 of Act 4, when upbeat music played underneath the discovery of Juliet’s body. Alanna interpreted this jarring juxtaposition as intentional. Shakespeare makes a point of showing us the bustling preparations for the wedding. The music, recorded to sound distanced, reminds us that no one outside Juliet’s chamber knows about the tragedy that has just taken place, and that they continue their celebratory preparations unaware.
Makenzie pointed out the entertaining exchanges between the musicians and Peter that end Act 4 as further indication that life goes on for everyone outside the immediate circle of the tragedy, and as a moment of comic relief to break up the heaviness of events. Sako wondered if the juxtaposition of lightheartedness and serious tragedy might have been less jarring for Elizabethan audiences at the Globe than it is for us- especially when we consider that the tragic conclusion to the play is forgone. In any case, what is Shakespeare trying to tell us with this closing exchange?
Another question we pondered was whether Paris’ private mourning at Juliet’s tomb seemed surprising. This sparked an energetic debate over Paris as a character. Sako was taken with a version of Paris he had seen performed that was naively well-intentioned, and how this interpretation of him increased the tragedy of his death. Libni saw Paris as demonstrably more level-headed and mature than Romeo: Paris follows protocol to woo Juliet and treats her courteously by many standards when the two encounter each other at Friar Lawrence’s cell. As Romeo’s rival for Juliet’s hand, establishing Paris’ character is critical to our perception of other characters. Our understanding of Juliet’s desperation to avoid a life with Paris and the soundness of the Nurse’s eventual advice to wed him are both colored by our perception of Paris himself.
Makenzie posed another question regarding Paris: after Romeo fights him and mortally wounds him, why does he agree to lay Paris next to Juliet? Aly pointed out that Romeo does not immediately know that it is Paris he has slain, and when he does finally recognize him he ironically seems to know very little about his rival. Furthermore, how does the presence of not only Paris’ body, but Tybalt's as well, visually impact the final minutes of the play?
Yet another question that came up was: Why the apothecary? This is far from the only example of Shakespeare introducing improbably convenient characters as a plot device (see: pirates rescuing Hamlet) but the character is not as random as it might first seem. Aly made the connection between the poison Romeo drinks and the potion Juliet uses to fake her death. Both the Friar and apothecary use their knowledge of natural medicines, one for good and one for ill. This harkens way back to our first encounter with the Friar Act 2, Scene 3, when expounds on the ability of nature to provide so many virtuous gifts, and that these gifts can also be used for vice.
The Friar is, however, not quite so easily categorized as entirely virtuous. Despite his good intentions throughout the play, he abandons Juliet in her tomb at a critical moment, and provides her with just enough time to take her own life and collapse next to Romeo. Ironically, the Friar’s goal of laying the feud between the houses of Capulet and Montague to rest is fulfilled through Romeo and Juliet’s union... just not the one he intended.
All of this, of course, might have been prevented had Romeo received Friar Lawrence’s letter explaining his plan for Juliet and Romeo to be reunited. It is eerie to read this play in 2020 and contemplate that Friar John can not deliver the letter because he is forcibly quarantined after being potentially exposed to plague. Mercutio’s parting curse- a plague on both your houses! - is made manifest.
Considering this play today, in the United States in September of 2020, there are perhaps two catastrophic plagues we see at work in Romeo and Juliet: a literal disease, and a metaphorical disease of discord and rage running rampant in a society divided into two bitter factions.
Student Collaborators: Libni Rivera ‘24, Katsuto Sakogashira ‘21, Kyle Zayas ‘23, Julia Corrado ‘21, Aly Tu ’22, McKenzie Sullivan ‘22, Andrew Svarczkopf ‘21
Mercutio’s death marks the violent turning point of the story, where we swing from romantic comedy to unstoppable tragedy. As we unpacked Scene 1, we were struck by Mercutio’s pointed references to Tybalt as “The Prince of Cats,” and pondered the significance of the title. Libni proposed that Mercutio was implying Tybalt a coward, and her guess was actually pretty close to correct, though for relatively obscure reasons.
We have noted Mercutio’s rich and varied literary and cultural allusions in earlier scenes, and this play on Tybalt’s name is yet another example of this. Tybalt is the name of a character from medieval folktales; he is often the subject of ridicule in the stories of Reynard the Fox, and fails to live up to the bravery of his royal father. Elizabethan audiences would likely have been familiar with these stories and understand Mercutio’s implicit insults.
Another puzzle to unpack is why Tybalt re-enters the scene after fleeing. Kenzie made the excellent point that, while the answer to this question might seem minor in the grand scheme of everything that happens in this scene, let alone the entire play, it is still a question that the actor playing Tybalt must make a clear choice about. For all the overarching choices a production team or director might make, performers must make decisions about their character and the story beat by beat even if the reasons for those choices aren’t made explicit to the audience.
As Romeo is becoming “fortune’s fool,” Juliet joyfully waits for her love to arrive. We noted how Juliet’s language evolves between Acts 2 and 3. While she reaches for a tellingly youthful way to describe her impatience as akin to the way a child feels waiting for permission to wear new clothes, her opening soliloquy in Scene 2 also echoes and mirrors the more sophisticated celestial imagery of the balcony scene. While Romeo compared Juliet to the moon, here she calls him the sun. Both are each other's light in the dark.
Throughout our conversations about the play, we have framed the conversations around the question of why Shakespeare makes the choices that he does, particularly when it comes to the detours we take along what might otherwise be a straightforward plot. Why does Shakespeare create the terrible misunderstanding between the Nurse and Juliet in Scene 2- that it is Romeo who has been killed? The students all agreed that making the audience privy to critical information that the characters in the play do not have heightens the dramatic tension of the scene.
The misunderstanding also forces Juliet to experience the true emotional consequences of losing both Romeo and Tybalt, and to weigh these losses against each other. The conclusion she reaches is therefore both as honest as it is staggering: she would rather lose anyone and everyone else than Romeo, and gathers the ropes that Romeo would have used to ascend into her bedchamber as the means to hang herself. Faced with such desperate conviction, the Nurse is left with no choice but to seek out Romeo. Meanwhile, Friar Laurence contends with an equally distraught and suicidal adolescent, and likewise must offer an immediate solution to prevent Romeo from stabbing himself.
The final scene of the act gives us further evidence of both Juliet’s conviction as well as her practiced ability to avoid displeasing others. Juliet expounds on her grief for Romeo knowing that her mother believes her to be speaking of Tybalt, in a literal example of a parent hearing their child while failing to understand them. Juliet employs this ability to simultaneously dissemble and speak honestly when she attempts to both refuse and diffuse Lord Capulet’s plans for her marriage to Paris... to no avail. Juliet is faced with the same fate as Romeo should she not obey her father: banishment from the Capulet household.
Abandoned even by her Nurse, Juliet is left with no allies, and her final lines in Act 3 are suitably ominous. However, it is worth noting that the jarring “die” that ends her soliloquy would have, in Elizabethan English, likely rhymed with “remedy” in the previous line. While we will not be employing antiquated pronunciation in our production, an awareness of these different pronunciations can be helpful in deciphering the text.
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.