STC Literary Manager Akiva Fox interviewed director David Muse about his production of Romeo and Juliet.
Akiva Fox: You just finished Julius Caesar, and now you’re on to Romeo and Juliet; these are the first two plays most people read in high school. So this is a very familiar play to a lot of people. Do you have a memory of the first time you read it or saw it, or subsequent times you read or saw it?
David Muse: Sure. I read it in tenth grade, and then we watched the Zeffirelli film (but we fast-forwarded past the sexy part). As for subsequent productions, I’ve seen maybe ten—all of them memorable in different ways, but in a way, the images from films and productions of Romeo and Juliet we’ve seen are lodged so deeply in our consciousnesses. And I don’t think that’s just for me. Often I feel like as directors, there are certain plays that you feel like you want to reinvent because you know them and have spent time with them. In a way, sometimes that feels selfish to me, because the audience isn’t always going to see our plays in the same position as we are, as artists. But with this one, of all the plays in the canon it seems to me the one that’s most stuck in our heads. It’s the most lodged there; it’s the one that we think we know. It’s the one we can quote the most lines from. It’s been done in stunning fashion in film versions that a lot of us have seen; they’re iconic, and very, very good. So I feel like it’s a play that I want to figure out how we see it fresh, how we make it new, and how we find in it a play that can still surprise us.
AF: So that’s what led you to your particular take on it—the all-male cast?
DM: It’s one of the big things that led me to my particular take on it—trying to figure out a way into the play that didn’t feel put on. When I thought about setting it in different periods, and what that might look like, nothing stuck in a way that felt like it was true to the heart of the play. So, it was in large part an attempt to figure out how to make the play fresh for me, and for our audiences. But there were other things too, that led me to it. One is that over the course of the last five years, a lot of the most influential productions of Shakespeare I have seen have been all-male: Propeller Company, and productions that have been originated by the Globe Theatre in London, and Cheek by Jowl.
AF: And those are all British companies. Do you get a sense of that innovation as being a specifically British one that has started to find its way to us? What’s been your reaction to those productions you’ve seen?
DM: Well, it helps that they’ve been terrific productions. And, some of that has to do with the fact that they were all-male casts, and some of it was just the fact that they were great. But it’s been a more British movement, if you will, then it’s been for us in America. And in part that makes sense, because they’re a little closer to the theatrical history, being where that theatre was originally. They did the reconstruction of the Globe, which led to a lot of those reconsiderations. There is, in Britain, a bit of a tradition of all-boy productions and all-boy grammar schools, that doesn’t exist so much in this country. Laurence Olivier, you know, distinguished himself at age 15 for his portrayal of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.So, in a way it’s in the cultural fabric a little more for them than it is for us.
AF: What struck you about the all-male-ness of those all-male productions that you’ve seen, as opposed to their just being very good productions with very good actors and directors?
DM: Well the first thing is that it immediately becomes an event that has something to do with pretense and theatricality, and the acknowledgment on the part of the actors and the audience that this is a play that we’re watching. And in that way, it feels a bit in line with the verse nature of the drama. These people are speaking in very artificial language, highly constructed, very theatrical, and so in a way it unlocks this world of imaginative collaboration between the audience and the actors. And especially because the performances have been so good in my experience, it also is a really powerful force that can unite the audience and the performers. Because what they’re doing is so clearly a performance, and because it’s a big risk that they’re taking out there, it makes for a profound relationship in which the audience really gets behind the performers that they’re watching. The audience has to believe in them, to buy into it, and also, like you do in any play, has to suspend disbelief. So there’s just something in the air that’s fascinating, and of course, you feel like this convention reveals layers of meaning that are often hidden in the productions we’re used to seeing with mixed casts.
AF: Can you give me an example of an individual performance of all-male Shakespeare that revealed something to you that you didn’t know was there?
DM: I saw a production of Twelfth Night that came out of the Globe, with Mark Rylance playing Olivia. And for that he used the performance of gender as a way to exhibit Olivia’s control over herself. This was a woman who walked in a very particular way, very controlled, and it was an athletic physical performance, and then you saw her lose control. In Propeller’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the most interesting thing was the extent to which the actors didn’t try to play femininity. But they were playing human beings, and not playing women.
AF: Is that something that you feel is important to bring to your production? Not trying to be feminine?
DM: That is one of the questions I’m most interested to investigate as we go into rehearsal. Because, I have to say, while there has been a movement toward trying to do some productions with all-male casts, directors and companies have gravitated towards certain plays for obvious reasons—like the ones that involve cross-dressing, where women are disguised as men; the convention suits itself very naturally to Twelfth Night, or As You Like It, and those are the ones that most people try. This may be the play in the canon that is hardest to do with an all-male cast!
AF: So what were you thinking?
DM: Part of it is when I sat there and watched those productions, I became deeply curious about what this would be like in a play that’s very centered on love, when gender matters so much. And I remain deeply curious about that. And of course it’s scary, because it may just be too much to ask. This may be a play that breaks the back of the convention! On the other hand, it may be one of the plays that we learn the most about through this convention.
AF: So what are you hoping this convention does to illuminate Romeo and Juliet, which is a play about a relationship between a teenage boy and girl?
DM: Oddly, I hope that with an all-male cast, some issues in the play that have to do with gender will actually be emphasized rather than de-emphasized. That they’ll sort of bubble up to the surface. Because I do think Shakespeare’s doing some really provocative things with gender—not with sexuality, per se; I’m not doing this because I’m interested in having a gay male relationship on the stage. But I do think that Shakespeare was pushing some interesting boundaries when it came to gender in Elizabethan England. This play is set in a very consciously constructed masculine world, and you feel like a lot of what propels the grudge between these two families and certainly the violence of the play is a kind of masculine bravado. And juxtaposed against that are these two characters who behave in ways that are atypical for what you would expect in that world, and for people of that gender to perform: Juliet is willful, and she makes her own choices, and she is active, and she is bold, and she is not willing to just accept what her family and her society wants her to do. And Romeo is a peacemaker and a lover. In fact, there was a period of theatrical history during which Romeo was very frequently played by a woman. So I think that when you have an all-male cast, you start to pay a lot of attention to the performance of gender. And in a play that’s so much about gender norms and gender performance, I think we may even pay more attention to that.
AF: How much of this feud is just machismo?
DM: We have so little sense in the play of where it comes from in the first place. I think that if you read really carefully, we do get some sense that the Capulets as a family seem to be a new money household, as it were. They are very eager to show off wealth, and they’re very keen to raise their social position by marriage. By contrast, you get a very tantalizing glimpse of the Montagues, you really don’t get to see much, but there’s something old money about them. There’s something that feels a little more aristocratic. They are different kinds of parents than the Capulet parents. They’re interested in poetry. But that’s really all you get. And it’s very tantalizing. And so, rather than foreground the grudge, and figure out what it is specifically and put that on stage, I’ve decided that it actually might be interesting if it’s just ancient, like they describe it, and taken for granted. So that what we see motivate it is, number one, older generations passing on grudges to younger generations, and number two, a need to strut around and show your peacock feathers. So that there is a sort of masculine energy that propels it. And I hope that leaving it unspecific makes it more universal, and more tied into the ways in which human hate exists and is fundamental to who we are, and gets propagated.
AF: One of the big decisions you have to make in this play is how much the adults are responsible for the tragedy, and how much the teenagers are. Do you have a strong opinion one way or the other?
DM: It’s interesting that you ask. I’ve seen two productions lately that really foregrounded the disconnect between the generations, and the ways in which the generations were not talking to each other, failing to communicate. And those were both very revealing, but it did leave me hungry to see a production that actually focused on the “successful” ways in which the generations communicate —successful only in the sense that the older generation is able to instill in the younger generation the same prejudice they felt.
AF: Do you think they’re consciously teaching them to hate the other side? Or that it’s just caused by habits?
DM: I don’t necessarily see it as active as that. But it happens, and Romeo and Juliet, in a strange way, feel like the exceptions in this world. Even the servants in the household are ready to fight, so it seems pretty deeply built into the fabric of this place. There’s a certain strain of criticism that wants to place a lot of the responsibility for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet on the younger generation, in that they were careless, or that they failed to be in touch with reality, or that they loved too fast, or that they mistook passion or sexual attraction for true love. And at least lately, I feel like that places too much of the blame at their feet, and ignores the social world in which the play is set. Because it seems to me that, if those things are true, if they loved too quickly, and the world is okay, then the worst result of this relationship is that the relationship doesn’t work out. That would be the tragedy. But that’s not the story; it ends in death. And so to me that tragedy has to be tied up in something that’s going on in the world.
AF: In theory, this is “the play about love.” How much do you trust this love? Is it very typical teenage love in your eyes? Is it something that could really go somewhere? And how do you think that’s re-envisioned by casting men play both parts?
DM: Let me answer in the reverse direction. By having both of those roles played by men, what happens on stage is that a lot of the performance of that love needs to live in the language that they speak. And Shakespeare was a writer of gorgeous poetry, but the reason I believe that the love poetry in this play is so glorious is in part because Shakespeare knew that two young men would be performing this play. And that you couldn’t just count on two actors up there, looking at each other and realistically being in love in a way that the audience was going to buy. And so the actors need to jump into the language and make its power convince us of the power of this love, as much as any realistic acting that they’re doing. Which is another thing about the other all-male productions that excites me: there is something about it that can make you jump behind the language in ways that are athletic and electrifying. And the other thing is this notion that an all-male production makes you see a play like this as a play, as a story. The questions we often tend to ask realistically about these plays—do I buy this love? does it happen too quickly?—with a production like this you can say that this is a story and the story is asking me to accept that these two people are in love with each other, and the poetry is telling me that they are in love with each other, so there we go. But it is the example in all of Shakespeare’s plays of young love, of first love, and you believe it’s that, and so it is quick, and it is passionate, young…now, is it over-hasty?
AF: The play seems to say that it probably is. Everyone expresses some reservations about the speed of things.
DM: I think it’s nestled in a play that goes too fast. And that’s on purpose. I mean, the number of times people talk about haste in this play is not to be believed. And part of the tragedy of it is that no one can slow down enough to prevent this from happening. Because a little bit of time could have solved a lot of these problems. So, in a way it’s part of the device that Shakespeare’s constructed; it’s part of the machine, whose default position is fast. It’s a play that tumbles forward, and that rushes headlong toward its conclusion. And interestingly, I feel like I’ve never seen a production that’s really captured the speed of it and the out-of-control-ness of it. Especially in the second half. So, it’s a world that goes too fast, and the relationship matches it.
AF: What audience assumptions do you feel you have to either work against or play into when you’re doing this play? It has so many famous scenes.
DM: First, when you start to think about this play with all men, it becomes very clear why those famous scenes are there. Romeo and Juliet actually spend very little stage time together. They have only a few scenes. And when they do, their physical contact is limited. Either they’re in the balcony scene and they cannot communicate physically, they’re at a ball with people all around, or they’re in situations where they need to come together quickly and do something because there’s some major pressure of time, and they don’t have an extended amount of time to just be together and express a physical affection. You know, when everyone designs this play, they talk about the scene in the bedroom—the morning-after scene. And that has become so lodged in our notion of how we do the play that we think there’s a bed in the play. And you have to go back and look at it and be surprised to learn that there isn’t. In fact, that brief scene in the morning is written to be performed again up on the balcony. And Juliet isn’t necessarily in a realistic bedroom when she dies. She’s just up on stage. So when we design we’re dealing with some of those conventions. I should say in general, when these plays were originally written, they required an enormous amount of imagination from the audience. Of course, they had to imagine that the men were women, but there’s similar imagination required for the scenery. There wasn’t any. You’re asked to imagine it. It happens in the storytelling.
You know, there’s a great example of the sort of odd Elizabethan conventions that Shakespeare was writing for: in that scene in which Romeo and Juliet appear up on the balcony and he’s leaving, he climbs down into some outdoor location, and he runs away. And then Juliet’s mother walks into that same space with no scene break and Juliet comes down, and they start to play a scene, and now we’re indoors. And there’s been no break in the scene. It was a highly flexible, highly imaginative way to stage and perform plays. And over the course of the intervening centuries, we’ve lost some of that, we’ve become accustomed to realistic scenery, we’ve become accustomed to stage lighting, we’ve become accustomed to watching men play men and women play women.
And of course I would say that the change that happened, when the all-male convention dropped away from the stage, is an unalloyed social good. No one would ever argue that we need to go back to that place. But I would suggest that something was lost in terms of stage history; something dropped away that has to do with the imagination we asked people to watch a play with. And producing a play in this way asks the audience to go back to that place, and tests a modern audience’s ability to do it.
In the design of the set, interestingly enough, we have chosen not only to ask for that sort of imagination but also in a way to participate in it ourselves. But we are interested in a scenography that’s not completely stripped away. Sort of original practices, you might say, with original Elizabethan stagecraft. But it’s also imaginative and inventive and theatrical and surprising, and it’s a set that’s going to do some tricks, and there will be some representation of realistic stage effects for a couple of parts in the show. Which we hope matches the imagination of the acting in a way that feels right for a modern audience.
AF: You’re the first director to use the thrust stage configuration of Harman Hall. Is that something that enhances that style because it is closer to the design of the Globe Theatre?
DM: Absolutely. In a way, the two largest departures that we tend to make as modern producers of these plays from the ways in which they were originally produced are, number one, that we produce them with women, and number two, that we do them in proscenium stages with scenery. These were, fundamentally, plays that were about a large, central playing space, mostly unencumbered by scenery, thrust out into the audience, and actors who were surrounded by an audience on three sides, and could be in the middle of that energy.
AF: In some ways it’s much more like a modern-day rock concert.
DM: That’s right. So yes, I do feel like this is a return-trip to tradition, in both of these ways at the same time, especially when both are new things for the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
AF: I’d like to talk about two practical questions this raises—one is casting, and the other is costumes—neither of which have been particularly easy. Would you talk a little bit about both processes?
DM: Let’s start with casting. It was very interesting, and very fun, and very difficult. What I found most interesting was that when I went in to auditions for some of these roles in which men would be playing women, I expected two things: I expected to have a lot of conversations with the actors about how to do it, and I expected to not know for sure what worked and what didn’t, to learn about it as I went. And the surprising things were that I had to have almost no conversations about it, that actors would just jump in and try it, and that I knew if it worked or not. It either felt right or it didn’t. I found that it works when actors concentrate first and foremost on playing the character rather than playing the gender. When you see the inner life of the individual in ways that are really compelling, you will believe that’s a woman if you’re told it’s a woman, in large part. People who tried too hard to play womanhood didn’t feel right. And there were some actors who came in who felt that what they were doing tended to campiness and drag, which was also not right. And there were a few actors who came in who had broad shoulders and built-up bodies, and particularly for the role of Juliet, that didn’t feel right either. That there was a limit to how far we could stretch our imagination.
So the hardest role of course to cast was Juliet. Because it was like a perfect storm of casting challenges. We needed, number one, a young person. Number two, a person who had enough control of technique and language that we can put them onstage in Harman Hall in front of 800 people and let them live through the poetry in a production that has to be centrally about the poetry. Number three, they had to be some kind of specific physical type. There had to be a slightness there, and a beauty, in a sort of androgynous way. Number four, they had to be able to live through one of the most complicated and emotional inner lives of any character that Shakespeare wrote. I mean, the emotional journey of that character over the play is not to be believed. Number five, they had to be feminine but not campy. And any one of those things taken alone means that there’s very few people who were going to be qualified to do this role. And I saw a number of actors who were sort of type-perfect, and I saw a couple of actors who could act the part but were a stretch in terms of “are we going to go along with the idea that that’s a woman onstage.” In the end I had to decide that of those five factors, the ones that you needed to prioritize were being able to walk the emotional journey and the inner life in a way that’s fascinating to us, and having the ability to handle the language. Because the truth is, if you don’t have an actor who can walk out there and be so blow-you-away-good that it banishes whatever discomfort you’re feeling with the convention that’s put in front of you, then the whole evening is never going to take off.
AF: So how did you find this person?
DM: Well, through many rounds of auditions. The particular actor we cast sent a videotape from Cincinnati because he wasn’t able to come in to audition, and then took a special flight on his day off to New York to meet with me and to audition for half an hour with the actor who’d been cast as Romeo. But I’m thrilled.
AF: What did he have that put him over the top for you? That combination of qualities you mentioned?
DM: Yes. He’s young, he’s an actor who you are compelled to watch. He vibrates with a certain sort of presence and energy and interest. And he has the emotional resources to go to the places that that role requires you to go. And very interestingly, this is not the first time he’s played a woman in a Shakespeare play. I believe it’s actually the third or fourth time he’s done it in his young career. So, I’m not the first one to have noticed the qualities he brings that makes him appropriate to the role.
As for the costumes, we went back and forth on this. Before I even decided to do an all-male production, because I was coming off Julius Caesar, which was so scrupulous in presenting period Rome, I had impulses toward contemporary dress, especially because one of the things you want to do with Romeo and Juliet is to make this pack of boys feel sexy and rebellious, and you want to capture that sort of swagger and that bravado. And that’s hard to do in pumpkin pants and tights. So some of our original impulses were in that direction. But when the designer and I really got behind the idea of all-male-ness, we decided that for the actors and for the audience, we were going to want some help from the costumes of the period, and specifically the costumes of the Elizabethan period, not necessarily the Italian Renaissance. You know, the costumes that the actors who originally performed these roles might have been in. So as a departure point, we started there. And from there we’re contemporizing to a slight degree. We did decide that in terms of the performance of these roles, it was hard for us to imagine it in contemporary clothes in a way that didn’t feel like a drag show, which is not what we wanted to do.
AF: You’re also doing a lot of double-casting, but it’s very targeted double-casting. Can you talk a little about why and how?
DM: Well, part of the fun of watching a production like this, is that it’s a chance for displays of actorly skill. And you know, along those lines I just thought it might be most fun for us as an audience to see the actors who are playing women also play men, when possible. So in large part the actors who are most conspicuously doubled are the actors who are playing women in this play.
Now, that notion, and the idea that we’re doing it in period, are butting up against each other in some degree, because wearing a period costume and wearing any kind of make-up to make yourself a woman, is a project. And it makes some of it definitely difficult. So we’re trying to figure out the logistics of how to make that work. But if we can pull it off, we could see, for example, Lady Capulet, who talks about wanting to poison Romeo, coming back at the end of the play to make a cameo as the apothecary who sells the poison to Romeo. If it works, Lady Montague, the first woman you meet at the very beginning of the play, will appear in a successive scene as Peter the Servant. So you see right on the heels of one actor playing a woman, that same actor playing a man. There’s another one that I’m not gonna reveal because, if we can pull it off, it’s gonna be shocking and out-of-nowhere and kind of unbelievable.
AF: Do you feel you have to give any disclaimer to the audience, so that they won’t dismiss the all-male concept before they even see the show?
DM: In general, of course, the idea of doing a production this way raises a lot of eyebrows and makes people very curious and very nervous, and there are lots and lots of questions out there. And to that I have a few things to say: one is (and I just have some confidence about this from having seen a number of very successful all-male productions) that it’s less of a big deal than you think it is. It works more immediately and with less effort than you think it might. You sit down in the theater, those actors are in front of you, it’s great fun to watch, and you give over to it.
It’s also odd to me that this feels to people like such an innovative and risky decision, because in a way it’s the most traditional of all ways to do this play. And it’s because those two things link up that it’s so exciting to do this for me. That it is, at the same time, something that we’ve never seen before, but it’s also returning the play to the conditions under which it was created.
The final thing I wanted to say is that I am as curious as most people who are reading this article about how this is going to turn out, and it does require a great deal of faith for me, and it’s put me in a place as an artist where I am definitely out of my comfort zone. But I have to take the word of all of those artists who have mentored me and are older and wiser, that without risk-taking and without a great amount of fear, you’re not going to challenge yourself and ultimately produce the best work. So I have to just take a deep breath and believe that that’s true.
AF: So if people buy tickets and take the jump with you, what do you think they’re going to take out of this production that they haven’t seen in this play before?DM: What I hope is that they’ll go away with an image of this play in their heads that is different from the romanticized, stereotypical image of Romeo and Juliet that’s very easy to have lodged in our performative consciousness. So I hope that they enter the theatre with some skepticism and leave with enthusiasm and surprise at the effectiveness of what they’ve seen. I hope it’s a play that feels fresh and dangerous and transgressive, which is a way that we don’t usually think of this play.