By John Moore
Today, we continue “Summit Soliloquies,” a week-long video series leading up to the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit. Here, playwrights past and present talk to you about writing, the Denver Center, the Summit and more.
Part 7: Eric Schmiedl, whose “Plainsong Trilogy” culminates with his adaptation of acclaimed novelist Kent Haruf’s “Benediction,” which will be read at the 2014 Summit at noon on Sunday, Feb. 9 in the Space Theatre.
By John Moore
Today, we continue “Summit Soliloquies,” a week-long video series leading up to the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit. Here, playwrights past and present talk to you about writing, the Denver Center, the Summit and more.
Part 6: Matthew Lopez, whose “The Legend of Georgia McBride” was read at the 2013 Summit and is now being fully produced through Feb. 23. “It’s a model that should be replicated around the country,” Lopez tells us.
In this new YouTube series, we briefly introduce you to the actors performing in our plays in a fun way. Episode 37: Kristen Adele, who plays Rachel Robinson and other roles in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s family friendly baseball play “Jackie & Me” through Dec. 22, 2013, in the Space Theatre. Kristen’s mentors include late Denver theatre icons Israel Hicks and Jeffrey Nickelson. Call 303-893-4100 or go to www.denvercenter.org. Video by John Moore. Run time: 2 minutes, 10 seconds.
Coming next: Meet Aaron M. Davidson, who plays 12-year-old Joey in “Jackie & Me.”
In this new YouTube series, we briefly introduce you to the actors performing in our plays in a fun way. Episode 21: Meet the multinational Liza Fernandez, who plays three roles in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere staging of “Just Like Us” through Nov. 3, 2013, in The Space Theatre. Call 303-893-4100 or go to www.denvercenter.org. Video by John Moore. Run time: 2 minutes.
Coming next: Meet Kyra Lindsay of “Death of a Salesman.”
In this new YouTube series, we briefly introduce you to the actors performing in our plays in a fun way. Episode 18: Adrian Egolf, who plays Miss Forsythe in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s “Death of a Salesman” through Oct. 20, 2013, in The Space Theatre. Call 303-893-4100 or go to www.denvercenter.org. Video by John Moore. Run time: 2 minutes, 20 seconds.
Coming next: Meet Allison Watrous of “Just Like Us.”
In this new YouTube series, we briefly introduce you to the actors performing in our plays in a more fun way than ever before. Episode 5: Alma Martinez (“Zoot Suit,” “Under Fire,” “The Bridge”), who will be playing an undocumented mother named Josefa in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere staging of “Just Like Us” from Oct. 10-Nov. 3, 2013, in The Stage Theatre. Call 303-893-4100 or go to www.denvercenter.org. Video by John Moore. Run time: 2 minutes.
Coming tomorrow: Meet John Hutton of “Death of a Salesman”
Kim Staunton, a 13-year veteran of the Denver Center Theatre Company, is currently playing Linda Loman opposite Charlie Robinson for the South Coast Repertory Theatre in California. Staunton soon will return to Denver to perform in “Sylvia” at the Lone Tree Arts Center, and then in the Denver Center’s world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s “black odyssey.’ Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.
By John Moore
Kim Staunton is being celebrated in Costa Mesa Calif., for her portrayal of Linda Loman in the American theatre classic “Death of a Salesman” for the South Coast Repertory Theatre. And she credits, in part, her 13 years as a guest artist with the Denver Center Theatre Company.
“I think all the work I have been allowed to do at the Denver Center really prepared me to play Linda Loman,” Staunton said Monday. “I am so proud of my time with the Denver Center that it makes me cry.”
A Prologue exchange with Romeo & Juliet set designer Michael Ganio and costume designer Christina Poddubiuk
MICHAEL GANIO (MG) is a longtime set and costume designer with Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), having designed everything from Shakespearean productions to contemporary plays on OSF’s varied performing spaces. This time he is designing for Denver Center Theatre Company, in collaboration with director Scott Wentworth.
CHRISTINA PODDUBIUK (CP) is a Canadian designer currently based in Stratford, Ontario. She studied at the National Theatre School of Canada, and worked many theatre jobs before becoming a designer at the Stratford Festival.
Prologue: Michael, Christina: Can you tell me first what period the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) production of Romeo & Juliet is set in?
MG: Director Scott Wentworth’s concept is to keep the play in the Elizabethan era, probably around 1590 and up. It’s a very elegant, lush, and stylish period to re-create onstage.
P: Let’s start with the set. You’re designing for DCTC’s Stage Theatre, which has a thrust stage rather than a proscenium. Is that a challenge?
MG: Yes and no. I’ve designed for every theatre at Oregon Shakespeare—thrust stages, proscenium, three-quarter round. Each theatre makes its own design demands—DCTC’s Stage Theatre is a thrust, which allows the action to move downstage more. The Stage was originally designed by OSF’s Richard L. Hay, so I’m very well acquainted with it. Sightlines are one of the first issues for The Stage or any other theatre—I don’t want my sets to be aimed just at the expensive seats, I want the entire audience to have a clear view of the set and the action.
P: Will we see a classic Shakespearean set à la the Globe Theatre?
MG: No, indeed. My set will be very streamlined, almost a neutral space for the action to take place on. In a sense, the set will work as a frame to set off Christina’s gorgeous, detailed Elizabethan costumes—as well as the swift action of the play. Having a beautiful neutral surrounding will highlight the costumes and free up Christina to use whatever palette she decides on. We’re also designing all the props—the detail, color, size and style of the props works with the costumes to create the world of the play. Our goal is to enable the audience to actually hear the play, to engage their imaginations, without a lot of visual distraction. We want them to follow the story, to be entertained, but also to fall in love with Shakespeare’s language.
P: You used a great metaphor involving dinner plates—
MG: Yes! I like to think of the set as a plate—and the action of the play as the meal that goes on that plate. The plate by itself means nothing, but it is crucial to serving the meal.
P: There’s so much more to set design than many people realize—not only research and sketches and building a scale model, and turning sketches into blueprints. Do you have an assistant?
MG: I don’t have an assistant. In a way, DCTC’s amazing design studio manager, Lisa Orzolek, acts as my assistant here. I do send a quarter-inch model of the set to Lisa, then she and her staff make a larger half-inch model and also create all the technical renderings that the scene shop needs to budget and build the sets accurately. Unfortunately not all theatres I design for have a Lisa Orzolek on staff. In some cases I have to take on a more technical role in addition to the designs.
P: Christina, this production will be set in the Elizabethan era, a time when wealthy families such as the Capulets and Montagues wore beautifully elaborate clothes. What can you tell us about the nuts and bolts of costume design—what must you consider when creating costumes?
CP: I started out doing hands-on work with costumes. My first jobs in theatre were wardrobe work: sewing, building, dressing actors. I did an opera tour as wardrobe assistant, doing everything from loading costumes into the theatre and maintaining them after every performance. Within two years I had my first job at the Stratford Festival as a dyer and that was probably my first real creative experience in which I learned how beautiful clothes can be when you actually have the time and budget to really pay attention to detail in every step of the process. I loved that work and soon afterward I started to design at Stratford.
P: It sounds as though you have a very practical understanding of how clothing needs to work for the actor.
CP: Yes, true. In a period piece such as Romeo & Juliet, which is physically very active, we want clothes that look wonderful, evoke the period, but also are easy to move in and won’t damage easily. And more: I want the costumes to have the rich period hand-work and detail that a firstclass shop like DCTC’s can create.
P: Can you tell me some secrets of the costume design process?
CP: I like to be well prepared for the first meeting with the director, because often his or her time is limited. At that meeting, I will have read the play several times—
MG: Me too! And I listen to recordings of the play when I can, as I’m working—
CP: Yes! To see how many costume changes there are, to make a prop list, to analyze where the entrances and exits are.
P: So, you really know the text inside out by then.
CP: Next I start to do visual research. I look at photography of the period or paintings or history books, and I look for thematic influences.
P: To both of you, who are your most important collaborators?
CP: I need to be in touch with the set designer as soon as possible so we’re not going off in two entirely different directions.
MG: Ditto for me—the director, the costume designer.
CP: It can be very rewarding to work with set designers on a show. If they have different ideas, it really influences my process, so we need to stay in close communication. Whereas a lighting designer might normally come into the process a little later on.
MG: BUT. That lighting designer is crucial to our work as well. He not only lights the action, but the costumes and sets as well—the lighting man is really the fourth piece of the design equation, along with the director, sets and costumes. Not to mention the actors.
CP: It’s all about teamwork. We act together to serve the director’s vision, and contribute our own individual aesthetic, experience and imagination to make the play wonderful for the audience, the actors, the director—and the theatre itself.
P: Thanks to you both. Lots to look forward to.
This article was first published in Prologue, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s subscriber newsletter.
At the end of July 2012, the creative team for Grace, or The Art of Climbing had a design conference to discuss the usual aspects of planning, designing and assembling a production—plus one more. Lauren Feldman’s exquisite metaphorical play rests on the central idea of climbing one’s way out of a deep depression. That’s climbing as in rock climbing. Our protagonist Emm has suffered two major losses in as many days. This double whammy has knocked her out. The play is about climbing out of that pit and into the light— literally and figuratively. How to put this event on a stage, let alone the stage of a theatre in the round such as The Space?
Among the artists assembled to figure this out were the playwright, Lauren Feldman (LF), director Mike Donahue (MD), scenic designer Dane Laffrey (DL), Director of Production Ed Lapine (EL) and a less predictable but in this case pivotal person: climbing consultant Kynan Waggoner (KW).
Feldman, who is a climber, contributed this to the conversation: “We’re all journeying in our way in our lives and we are supported by all of our loved ones. [The play] is a visual and physical manifestation of a solo sport with partners. Even though it’s the story of one person in this group of seven, I feel it’s part of the fabric—seeing how everyone is supporting each other and letting each other down, and failing each other and then apologizing. Seeing an actor climbing and another belaying [is] seeing that literalized.”
Below is part of the exchange at the July meeting plus some updated comments from designer Laffrey as plans for the production took more concrete shape.
MD: There is a lot of rock climbing in the show. The big question: how literal is the climbing? The language is Shakespearean, in that [Emm] tells you a lot of what you’re meant to see and where you are. We don’t always need to show that, we don’t need a fully realized climbing gym onstage. But it’s also an athletic, muscular piece of theatre about the body going through something real, and we need to create an evocative space where all of that physical work can actually happen.
Rock climbing is a solo sport with partners—the way you tackle yourself and work with others. The cast needs to understand the climbing: the kind of movements required, the way your body moves, the grace of it. It takes real work and that work wants to be somehow real in the show. It’s not about hiding the strings or creating an illusion.
Kynan will need to be an active part of the process, collaborating on the design and structures we must have; and we will have to train as a company throughout rehearsals.
KW: I see it more as about the emotions brought out via climbing than the climbing itself. The main focus needs to be about what’s happening internally.
LF: The muscularity and effort are more important than the technicality of the climbing. We’ll respond to seeing someone work hard, not to whether they’re extraordinary climbers. The other side of that would be finding physical moments of grace or beauty that are theatrical… Climbing is about the poetry or the beauty of something, the opportunities to create art out of that.
MD: The Space is perfect for us because it offers both intimacy and verticality—we can really get up high in that theatre—and she will still feel close to us. But the fundamental spatial relationship in climbing is you against a flat surface, so how do you open that up in the round so everyone can see the body through the wall? Climbing requires a structure to climb on. How do you create a structure substantial enough to allow the actors to go up high in the space, but minimal enough to not block the audience from being able to see them? That is the real challenge of the design.
There’s an idea in the play that everything is porous, that nothing is totally solid, not the walls, the ground or the climbing. It’s about the body in free-fall. This somehow feels key.
EL: What would you say drives a person to rock climb?
KW: My first experience was in a gym. Something clicked with climbing physically first, emotionally as well to some degree, but I knew I wanted to do this. For me it’s always been about getting to an emotional state facilitated by a physical response.
In climbing there is kind of an unwritten code of ethics. You want to walk up to something and say I’m going to climb this right now, not knowing the grade, what’s up there. Some climbers excel in very choreographed routines of climbing, from their breathing to their hand placements. I never identified with that, and there are people who don’t like the outside climbing that I do.
LF: There’s something that gets triggered in the human brain when you are physically ascending something. You have this incredibly literal tracking of what you’ve just accomplished. It’s very specific. There’s something lovely about the fact that the challenge is equally internal and external; it’s in your head, and also it’s between you and that hold.
The other lovely thing is that as the climber, you have a belayer who is supporting you by holding your rope and offering feedback. Once you have that support, you can feel free to explore and move and take risks. Some folks discover that their bodies really take to the movement and rhythm of climbing.
Scenic designer Laffrey, who mostly listened in silence, contributed these final words after the fact:
We never discussed the idea of a climbing wall, even a transparent one. We needed something kinetic, but also visible from all sides of the hexagonal space. We ended up with something where we can start with a completely empty stage, then a person and then stuff falling into the space: a pair of climbing shoes, small objects, all important to creating that world, as opposed to having any kind of construction in the space.
The only scenic elements on which the climbing takes place [in the theatre] are five 40-foot steel I-beams, woven together, that stack on top of each other and can move independently to the full height of the space. They exist along axes—three along one axis, two along another—because vertical climbing is really only one part of the sport. There is also horizontal climbing, bouldering as it’s called, and there is a lot of this sideways action in Grace.
The look and feel of a real gym is not particularly well matched with the piece. A gym is hot, lots of people and stuff everywhere; the sound is dull; it’s stuffy and smelly. If there is any iconography about rock climbing, it is something that transcends the environment. It’s the language of the body. The way it moves. Like dance. That visual vocabulary.
So we want to provide something simple and sparse, where the body can accomplish the many scenarios of the climbing task, where the physical can evolve and devolve and shift and create an illusion of climbing. But it’s always more interesting if the structure on which it happens does not look like something you can trust. That idea of porousness. Not only do the pieces move around Emm, but she can move on and with the pieces. Even the most basic ways in which we understand space hopefully will be shifted slightly in our interpretation of it.
We’re trying to do the climbing very faithfully, using harnesses and belays where appropriate. Audiences will see the action from different angles. They’ll see backs, they’ll see fronts. Climbing is rigorous. What surprised me is that it is not so much goal-oriented as in climbing to the top of something. It’s a much bigger thing, much more cerebral. It’s about mastery.
When the literary staff at The Denver Center commissioned playwright Michael Mitnick to write something, the deal came with a twist: the play should incorporate visual technology in a way that was integral to the storytelling. So often video is used in the theatre to augment or even replace set design: an image of a New York street or a leafy park can come and go with the flick of a switch. But what we were curious about was could today’s state-of-the-art visual technology be used narratively instead of decoratively? Could videos and projections, like those songs in musicals that carry the action forward, advance the story in exciting and unexpected ways, perhaps even forging new types of hybrid playwriting?
Intrigued by the challenge, Mitnick dreamed up Ed, Downloaded, a story set in a future world only slightly more advanced than our own. Ed, who is terminally ill, has decided to have his brain downloaded upon his death, taking ten memories with him into the great beyond. His girlfriend Selene works at a “forevertery” (a repository of digitized brains) and facilitates this cutting-edge procedure. When curiosity gets the better of her, she peeks at Ed’s memories, only to find that instead of herself, most of his memories are of Ruby, a vital young street performer Ed met shortly before his demise. And so Selene, who is not amused, decides to do something about it.
Mitnick takes pains to present the human story first. In fact, the whole notion of the forevertery doesn’t appear until the third scene.
“I wanted to establish the play firmly in terms of plot and character and drama onstage before bringing in the technological world. But once it was introduced, I wanted the two to coexist in a way that made each dependent on the other.”
That they do. In fact, the entire second act is a thrilling display of the interaction between the live actor playing Selene and the projected memories she is so unhappy about.
“If you were to look at a physical copy of the script,” Mitnick points out, “once the video is introduced, the page is rotated, it’s in landscape mode, in three columns. The character of Selene appears in all three columns talking with herself, stopping and starting, editing memories.”
Which makes Ed, Downloaded fiendishly difficult to present in standard play reading format. In fact, in the two workshop readings that this play has had, the videos were presented, whether in a rough, or “scratch,” version or more fleshed out with actual location shots. Charlie Miller, who is designing the video for the production and has been attached to the project since day one, felt the workshops with projections were invaluable: “It helped us hear how it sounds when you have layer upon layer of sound and video, especially in the second act. It also allowed us to develop a visual vocabulary for the show. Because we have the same director [as we had for the reading], we can start up our work on the production at 30 rather than at 0.”
That director is Tony-nominee Sam Buntrock, who made a splash with his 2008 New York revival of Sunday in the Park with George that was designed entirely with projections. “I was thrilled when Sam joined the project,” Miller continued. “I knew that he had a real eye for video and how video can successfully integrate with live performance.”
Mitnick appreciates Buntrock’s dramaturgical skills as well: “Sam is certainly someone who not only realizes the potential of a piece on the page, but he’s someone who can elevate the material. I’m very fortunate to have found him, and I’m glad he’ll be by my side in a piece that’s as ambitious and daunting and perhaps foolish as this.”
The production will be staged in The Ricketson Theatre, which seems ideally suited for a play with so much filmic material, given that it started out its life as a movie theatre. And the human scale of the theatre will work especially well for this three-character play.
Except for a film of the Grand Canyon that Ed shows on an old school pull-down screen in Act One (he works in a natural history museum), all of the video will be projected on state of the art screens.
“We have this really cool new screen technology,” waxes Miller, “SpyeGrey, made by SpyeGlass, is a semitransparent film that when affixed to plexi-glass becomes an amazing projection surface that glows like a TV monitor, so it will look very futuristic.”
The memories will be projected on two large screens made of this material and suspended in the air over set designer Jim Kronzer’s minimalistic forevertery with its downloaded brain boxes perched atop pedestals like so many terra cotta soldiers.
But back to Ed’s story. Mitnick didn’t invent the idea of brain downloading (or uploading as it sometimes is called). Some scientists predict that within the foreseeable future, we may actually be able to download or digitize the contents of the human brain. According to Mitnick, the main stumbling block is the vast amount of digital storage needed. But the question always arises when science fiction draws nearer to non-fiction: Just because we can, should we?
The playwright is not sure whether he would, but he is curious about what it would be like to recapture a perfect moment: “It’s fascinating to me what it would be like to live that moment again and again and again, to exist within these euphoric moments.”
Ed, Downloaded plays Denver’s Ricketson Theatre January 11-February 17, 2013. Tickets: 303.893.4100.
This article first appeared in Prologue, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s subscriber newsletter.
by Douglas Langworthy
Lauren Feldman loves taking chances. Mastering the sport of rock climbing was a way to challenge herself physically and has led to her newfound interest in acrobatics (she’s currently enrolled in classes at a circus school). In her plays she eschews traditional linear structures, preferring the freedom of fluid or fractured forms. She also has developed a passion for “devised” work, theatrical pieces created collectively in which the playwright’s voice is just one of many. When she teaches playwriting, she encourages her students to explore the territory outside the edges of dramatic convention. I recently caught up with this thoughtful writer to talk about her play, her love of the unconventional and, of course, the art of climbing.
DL: When did you decide you wanted to become a playwright?
LF: In college I knew I was excited by the theatre, particularly as an actor. I was also interested in becoming a writer of fiction or essays. And then I took a playwriting class, and I remember sort of falling in love with it. I took that class and concurrently applied for a really cool program at the Royal Court Theatre in London—a several-month online project called “Crossing the Borders.”
There were around 12 of us in the program from all over the world. We would all log onto The Royal Court’s website at a designated time and have facilitated online conversations about the many kinds of borders that exist between people—gender, race, class, etc. Then each week we would have some kind of playwriting assignment based on whichever sort of borders we’d been talking about, which you’d post on the website for everyone to read and respond to before the next week’s session. At the end of the program, the facilitator took one piece from each of the playwrights and a few segments of our recorded online conversations and created a collage performance piece. Most of us ended up going to London to see the performance. It was the first time I’d seen my work performed and I think that was pretty formative.
DL: You have collaborated on several devised pieces. Can you talk about what your role is in creating with a group?
LF: I’m sure that devised work has had a huge impact on the sort of solo playwriting I do. I love doing it. I’ve been a part of many kinds of processes, and every time it feels different depending on the group of people and the project. Some have had multiple playwrights, sometimes it’s just been me; sometimes the text that emerges is an adaptation of found source material, other times it’s all original material, and sometimes it’s based on some form of preexisting story or myth.
I find devised work feels nourishing and balancing with solo playwriting, partly because of collaboration entering the process much sooner. Also, I find myself stretched and inspired by my collaborators’ creative impulses, and challenged to find a way to weave together everyone’s different inputs into one cohesive or semi-cohesive journey. And when I come out of that and sit down to write my next solo play, I feel cross-pollinated.
DL: Could you talk about your own personal connection to climbing?
LF: The first time I saw a climbing wall I was I think 13, in summer camp, and I remember hating all the athletics they made us do. I was a very non-physical child. One day they took us out to the middle of a field and there was this very old-school climbing wall. Like a giant three-paneled science project display board, but with all these holds screwed on. And two at a time they put us in harnesses, clipped us in, and told us to climb it.
I was really not coordinated or physically agile, but there was something I guess in the inherent metaphor of ascending something, and I remember climbing one of the panels surprisingly easily. On our next turn they put us on a harder panel, and I’d watched everyone before me trying and giving up. So when it was my turn, suddenly there was this young tenacious Lauren who was unprecedentedly driven to reach the top. And she did. I remember it being a profound experience, because I’d never succeeded at something physical before.
When I got to college, there was the option of taking a rock-climbing course, and I fell in love with the act of climbing all over again. Climbing ignites my willpower in a way that no other sport or activity had. And the more I did it, the more I found I had an affinity for it. My body likes the grace of it, likes the rhythm of it, likes the “elementalness” of it—the rock in hand. Also the meditative, solo aspect of it. It doesn’t feel competitive, and it’s not a team sport where everyone is relying on you to be awesome. And it’s supportive, because there’s always someone spotting you or belaying you.
I feel like climbing has been one of the three most formative events of my life. It completely changed my sense of self. I started to live in my body differently. And I’ve noticed my plays over the past decade and a half have gotten increasingly physically aware and muscular. I feel like my plays went from being talking heads to being characters with bodies that interact.
DL: How did you get the idea to write a play about a woman who climbs?
LF: Well I’m a woman and I climb, so I’m sure that’s part of it. But more than that really, I think it sprung from a hunger to see physical quest stories with female protagonists. There’s such a large, old, rich canon of boy questers venturing forth and being strong, brave and tenacious, their physical limits tested as we get to bear witness to (and delight vicariously in) the ardor and muscularity of their trials. They’re stand-ins for the universal quester, but they’re usually male and at some point I started yearning to see myself reflected in the body, the adventures, and the physical rigor of these protagonists. It’s hard to find stories that feature the muscularity of women.
DL: At various moments in Grace, we aren’t sure whether we’re watching memory, fantasy or real life. Are we experiencing the play from the perspective of Emm, your central character?
LF: Yes. Emm is deliberately avoiding things, whether on purpose or not, and so she’s closed the door on things that are closed for us too. And then, either as she starts to open the door or other people demand entrance, that’s when we get to learn things; we are dealing with things at the same rate as she is. The idea of the revelation of information—portioning it out throughout the story—was very important to me. We don’t know everything at the beginning, but that’s OK, it’s going to be a great journey. We’ll learn another little piece here, and we’ll learn another little piece there so that we get to experience a kind of hunger, we want to know, and that is a more fulfilling ride and engaging journey.
DL: Grace, or The Art of Climbing has a very fluid use of time and memory. Are you particularly interested in non-linear dramatic forms?
LF: I am drawn to things that fall outside the mainstream in general. I’m pretty sure if being a playwright were as popular a profession as being a doctor or a lawyer I probably wouldn’t have become one. Linear structures in theatre feel like the dominant form, and certainly historically they’re the canonical form, so I feel drawn toward things that feel wildly theatrical, stories that are told in ways that are uncommon. I don’t feel drawn to creating reality that looks like our reality. I feel drawn to creating other realities that don’t have a one-to-one relationship with ours, that resonate as true but aren’t stand-ins for life as we perceive it. There’s something in that latitude of playfulness and imagination and impossibility that excites me about theatre fundamentally. I love the way that it engages audiences, it causes us to sit up a little, lean forward. It invites an imaginative participation, a leap of faith.
By Sylvie Drake
Perhaps because we’re all in love with love to some degree or because we know the story so well, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is never far from the general consciousness or the pantheon of great plays. If anything, it may suffer from overfamiliarity, but the many versions of this story—in music, opera, ballet, theatre, film and musical comedy—reaffirm a persistent interest.
Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson says “everybody identifies with Romeo and Juliet and in some sense almost everybody wants to be Romeo and Juliet because [they embody] the emotional surge and intensity of the teenage years and the absolute kind of decision [we make] to love another person.
Besides, Shakespeare’s play is a tale of endless dramatic possibilities. It has fights, feuds, parental and societal intolerance, death and suicide—all the euphoric joys and profound problems that still bedevil us today.
So how do you approach staging something as well-worn and yet so vital and endlessly fascinating without retreading other people’s concepts?
“That’s the big challenge,” says director Scott Wentworth who staged the production you’re about so see. “Everyone has a scenario in their head. But Romeo & Juliet is a deceptively rich play. It’s not a closed room; it’s a mansion with many rooms.”
Shakespeare famously was never terribly interested in the process of coming up with a good story. If one existed that met his needs, why reinvent it? The origin of Romeo & Juliet was a novella by the prolific 15th century Italian Matteo Bandello, translated and transformed into a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke as The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) and recycled several times thereafter. It resurfaced in prose in 1582 in William Paynter’scollection of stories The Palace of Pleasure, which included other Bandello novellas and provided Shakespeare with handy additional plots, or partial plots, with which to enlarge his canvas (among them Twelfth Night and parts of Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline).
In spite of this varied provenance, Romeo & Juliet, written sometime between 1591 and 1595, is most readily identified with Shakespeare. And because it is so familiar, directors—Wentworth included—love to mine for fresh aspects of the story.
“One of the things I like to do with a Shakespeare play is to look at the end and ask, ‘what does he want to leave us with?’ With Romeo & Juliet, he wanted to leave us with the sense of a generation that sacrifices its young. That spoke to me. Equally interesting to me (and I think to Shakespeare) is the notion of Verona, of that culture. In many ways Shakespeare was always writing about Elizabethan London—for and about his world. Looking at it that way illuminates parts of the play that are often downplayed: how the society functions, what the economics are, how love and marriage figure into this world.”
Wentworth chose to set the play around 1600. In his view, the Montagues and the Capulets are venture capitalists. “Like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice,” he says, “they’re making money in business.” This aristocracy is cash poor, but owns land it sells off to the new money so it can continue to rule, while the new money loves to brush up to the aristocracy for snatches of reflected glory.
Exploring a love story in that context becomes more interesting, because it is not just about two individuals. It becomes political and cultural,” says Wentworth. “The sexual politics are important, which is part of the reason why I was not very interested in doing a modern production where the restrictions wouldn’t be as profound. To fully experience the play it’s helpful to understand the world it was written to represent.
“Shakespeare’s plays exist on two story-telling planes: narrative or horizontal and vertical or mythological. In the 21st century, we tend to be more comfortable with narrative or realism, and less interested in the vertical or mythological story that Shakespeare was interested in. At the end of King Lear, when Lear walks on with the body of the dead Cordelia, it’s an action in a narrative; but it’s also an image of tragedy with a capital T.”
Design may be one way to encompass the mythological: “I’ve asked the designer to abstract the space so it’s epic and not solely realistic,” he continued. “I wanted to have a realistic costume world but a scenic world that would provide access to the mythological story. You can do realistic acting on it—and we will when the text takes us there—but when the text seems to be saying that this language, this moment, is more mythic or psychological, we’ll have access to it in a way that a realistic setting might not give us.”
This marriage of realism and abstraction—opening up the play to engage more universal or bigger ideas and invite the audience to join the actors in that exercise—is the goal. Romeo & Juliet may be about the tragic love affair of two children, but it is also about the difficulty of achieving deep love in any world that puts up obstacles at every turn.
“With a play this rich,” adds Wentworth, “anything we can do to stretch an audience’s ability to listen by giving it the tools with which to do it, will broaden the experience for that audience. It’s in how we costume the actors, how we light and stage the scenes, how we use the music. It’s not about me telling them what I think the play’s about.
“My job in coordinating these many elements is to help people actively create the play they see—in collaboration with the actors, in the moment that they watch the play—so that they might totally engage with the production.”
But how, may you ask, does the interrelationship of fate and character move the play? How much does the one interfere with or influence the other?
“Interesting question,” Wentworth muses. “There’s an intricate and delicate relationship between fate or whatever you want to call it, and character. In the early stories on which the play is based, fate played a bigger role than in the Shakespeare. Wagner said that Romeo & Juliet is the exemplar of the Liebestod, the deathlove or lovedeath.
“It’s one of those German words that doesn’t translate well, but the connection between love and death is at the center of these kinds of stories. Fate in a way is the cumulative energy that a whole society creates. Romeo and Juliet just happen to bump into each other; the letter does not get delivered because of an accident; Romeo’s arrival before Juliet wakens at the end is terrible timing. If Juliet had had the imagination and maturity to be Rosalind [the feisty heroine of As You Like It], wear trousers and join Romeo in Mantua, she wouldn’t have died.
Because fate plays so heavy a hand, a lot of scholars think of Romeo & Juliet as a lesser tragedy than the so-called great later tragedies—the Hamlets, Macbeths and Lears—but Shakespeare was true to the genre. The individual character writing is incredibly astute. The creation of Juliet is a miracle. The nurse is a full portrait of a person. In this type of story, Time and Fate, with a capital T and a capital F, play an active role.”
It is also possible love itself was the driver. Could Shakespeare have been in love at the time?
“He may well have been. Whatever it was, it ignited that thing that he does and engaged his genius. He was able to create the greatest love story in the English language. That’s why to this day his plays always feel so real. They’re not always realistic, but they always feel real.”
This article was originally published in Applause program magazine.
By Dan Sullivan
Such a sweet title. For years I thought that Priestley’s 1938 comedy concerned a moony young couple looking forward to a blissful 50 years together, like the kids in the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” How did that work out?
And what ever happened to Priestley? Once a literary titan, he’s almost forgotten today: an old master whose name still rings a faint bell but whose 60 books tend to be in storage when you hunt for them at the library.
Plays, novels, short stories, biographies, literary criticism, political tracts, journalism, radio talks, TV documentaries—Priestley did them all and did them well. Too well, probably. Critics distrusted his facility.
He also stayed around too long—more than 50 years. When the angry young hero of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) throws down his Sunday Times in disgust, it’s because he refuses to read one more J.B. Priestley disquisition on anything. (As Jack Benny used to say, “eventually they resent you.”)
Beyond that, Priestley’s private life was scandalously ordinary. No sexual romps, no drug rehabs, no sickening failures, no miraculous comebacks. No tell-all biography drama there. Even his name was flat. “J.B. Priestley” (for John Boynton) sounds like a bank president, an attorney, an assistant principal— honest, reliable, humdrum.
Try staunch, forthright, pugnacious. Hear him in the 60s: “One of our poets told a friend of mine in New York that I had a second-rate mind. I have a second-rate mind. But it is my own; nobody has hired it, and what it chiefly desires, even more than applause, is that English people have a good life.”
He kept on writing until his death at 89 in 1984, a latter-day Shaw, full of energy and opinions. A central one was that “ordinary” people knew more than the experts hired to sell them something. He loathed the Cold War, the “central vacuum” of modern politics, the greasy hustle of public relations.
What Priestley cherished was private relations, as remembered from his Yorkshire boyhood before World War I. When We Are Married looks back on that world—and not in anger.
The title—originally Wedding Group—throws you off. No moony young lovers here. Rather, three 40-plus couples who’ve been married forever. Tonight is their silver wedding anniversary (it was a joint ceremony), so let’s have a toast.
The toastmaster is a bit fuzzy on the history of marriage (“It goes back… right back to… well, it goes back”), but he’s dead certain about its utility as an institution, because what would you women do without marriage? What would us men do?
This brings a hearty laugh, not that anyone’s trying to be risqué (the year is 1912), but these folks have known each other for years, it’s a small town and the bubbly is flowing.
Jollity reigns until our six friends discover, thanks to I won’t say what, that they aren’t the respectable married folks they thought they were. They’re not married at all. Some problem years ago with the marriage license.
This isn’t funny—except to watch. The outcome can’t be revealed, but we are dealing with Priestley the entertainer here, not Priestley the scold, and he brings his tale to a smooth, safe landing. But not before certain characters have learned either to speak up for themselves or to leave off nagging. Priestley’s message (after three marriages of his own): Count your blessings.
This isn’t Strindberg, but it’s as practical a view of marriage as that provided by our better sitcoms (The Middle and Modern Family, especially) and it leaves a more pleasant aftertaste than other fables I could mention, such as We’re Not Married, a mid-50s take on Priestley’s theme (though not credited to him) from 20th Century Fox.
This was an omnibus comedy starring the newly-minted Marilyn Monroe and a clutch of old reliables such as Fred Allen, Ginger Rogers and Eve Arden. Again, a handful of married couples find themselves liberated from their vows by a legal glitch, with various outcomes, which, by the 1950s, included divorce. Though nominally sophisticated, the story provides a rather grim survey of postwar togetherness, sometimes as a mask for actual dislike. Can these marriages be saved? For what?
Where We’re Not Married presents marriage as a somewhat lonely business, When We Are Married sets it in the heart of a community. This gives it a topicality it’s never had before. You can’t see it in an election year without being reminded of our gay marriage debate.
What is marriage? What’s it for? Who’s it for? Just the questions facing our toastmaster. Suddenly, a harmless little “farcical comedy” becomes a conversation-starter. Priestley couldn’t have foreseen this, but he would have approved. Get them talking!
As a dramatist, he also knew the value of an uptight, rule-bound community as a background for a farce-comedy. The first rule in farce is that the characters have to care, and the folks in When We Are Married care desperately about their respectability. Not that they’ll be tarred and feathered if they’re outed—this is Yorkshire, not the Wild West—but people are going to talk and, worse, they’re going to laugh.
All this makes for prime comedy. The husbands haven’t a clue as to how to get out of this mess and the wives are furious about having been dragged into it. As if by a law of nature, the men must now sneak off to their club to lick their wounds, while the women repair to the parlor to elaborate their accusations.
Good strategy Priestley seems to be saying. Stick with your tribe. For all his forward thinking, he had nothing against tribes, clubs, veterans’ posts and sewing circles, and he mourned their loss in the awful “central vacuum.”
That was the real enemy.
“More and more I distrust that bigness before which a man feels helpless and baffled,” he stated. “Once past a sensible size, things get out of hand, acquiring an alien, sinister life of their own.
“If a city is miraculously efficient but is also filled with people who are worrying themselves sick or becoming uglyminded and cruel or turning into dim robots, it is a flop. If the people in a neighboring country are comparatively poor, but contrive to live zestfully, laugh and love, still enjoy poetry and music and talk, then that country has succeeded.”
It’s good to have Priestley out of storage.
Dan Sullivan directs the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute and teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota. He has reviewed theatre and music for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Minneapolis Tribune. This article appeared in Applause magazine.