Alisha Huber on Directing Romeo and Juliet.
As I was getting ready to direct Romeo and Juliet, one concern kept running through my head: What do you do with a play that everyone knows? If you didn’t read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, you are in the extreme minority. If you can’t come up with a couple of lines from it off the top of your head, you are officially not drinking the same cultural groundwater as the rest of us. It’s probably the most frequently produced play in the English-speaking world. On a sitcom, if the high-school-aged characters need to be in a play, it’s going to be Romeo and Juliet (no pesky royalties, no need to waste valuable space in your twenty-two minutes helping the audience figure out the plot of the play-within-the-episode). There’s even an episode of Hey, Arnold! where the kids act out the play.
I asked people what they remembered about Romeo and Juliet, and what they thought they knew about it before they got into high school and read it. Everyone, even small children, knew that the title characters were famously in love with each other. Those who had been through high school remembered the feuding families and the fact that they both died at the end. About the rest of the play, people’s memories were fuzzier. They knew that Romeo and Juliet both died, but couldn’t remember how or why. Very few people remembered the key detail that they actually got married. Almost no one remembered anything about any of the play’s other characters.
This gave me somewhere to start. Many cuts of the play that I’ve seen in performance remove the scenes that humanize Lord Capulet and pull the focus entirely to the young lovers. My cut tries to spread the attention and stage time around to many characters, often by leaving in lines or scenes that I literally have never seen performed. I was able to work with the actors who played the various supporting roles to clarify what their characters wanted and needed from this situation. Sometimes, this ended up being funny things that the audience will probably never really see—for example, we decided that Benvolio loves to dance, and a lot of his actions early in the play have to do with convincing his friends to help him crash a dance party. Others, I know will be clear to the audience. Katherine Mayberry and I worked a lot with Lady Capulet’s clear discomfort with her daughter, her longing for closeness with her, and the oddity of her relationship with the nurse—the woman who bore Juliet, and the woman who raised her.
The problem that was hardest to tackle was certainly that of Romeo and Juliet themselves. Audience members come in with expectations of what the lovers will look like, how they will talk, what kind of personalities they will have. Most of my work was to throw out those preconceptions and dig in to the text. “Trust the text,” I tell actors all the time, but in Romeo and Juliet, I was the one who needed that reminder. Here’s one fun fact that I bet you didn’t know: Romeo totally says funny things all the time, especially in the balcony scene. One of my favorite moments in the entire production is where Sean Kelley, as Romeo, says, “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” It’s a line everyone knows (I bet you even know the next one). He delivers it in an unexpected way—as a command to the audience, telling them to SHUT UP—and it always gets a laugh. Kat Hermes, as Juliet, found that Shakespeare’s Juliet is not the pale, doe-eyed, simpering girl popular culture would have us believe. She is smart, funny, and very much in control. Remember, Juliet proposes to Romeo, not the other way around. She’s also young and inexperienced. May of her best lines come out of the fact that she’s used to knowing exactly how things are going to go, and the depth of her own emotions surprises her.