This spring I went to the land of the free, the home of the brave and country of the cars, America. I was directing a production of Romeo and Juliet, which was to be the first performance by new company Stone Soup Shakespeare and the whole thing went grandly well.
We were based in Carbondale, IL, where we stayed at the beautiful home of the company’s artistic director, Julia Stemper. Julia was at the RSAMD with me, both of us studying for acting postgraduate degrees in ‘Classical and Contemporary Text’. Julia was able to come over to study after getting a Scotland Scholarship from the Saltire Society. In a side note, it’s great that Julia was so well supported by the society as I am going to be doing my next show at their AGM. But I digress. I hardly ever gress, though, to be honest.
The rehearsal period was intense and wonderful, all living together and working sometimes for 12 hours a day (18 hours a day if you were Julia, who was acting as Romeo, teaching us yoga every morning (I say ‘us’, I mean Jared) and producing the whole event). It was a wonderful experience for me as a director, not only because the whole thing was a labour of love from everyone (Lady Capulet and the Nurse were acting as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth respectively for the first week of rehearsals, and neither lost a beat in our rehearsal room) but also because the first time I directed R&J I was nineteen, and the shifts and sticks since then were fascinating to me.
I was still interested in the youth of the piece. When I did it as part of the Edinburgh University Theatre Company in my second year of my undergrad I focussed utterly on the youth. I wanted to play to our strengths as a company, making the most of the fact that some of the cast were teenagers and most of the others were about five minutes out of their parent-rejecting, useless-fight-having, generally-embarrassing-love-prompted-mooning days. This time the cast mostly ranged between mid-twenties and thirty-years-old, but it was the extreme youth of the characters that fascinated me again. I strongly feel that it is a play about youth versus age more than it is about Capulet versus Montague, as I stated in a message to the cast that ended up on the company website. Awkward. World-beating photo of me, though.
The shift from Elizabethan dress for the 2006 production, which was in the glorious surroundings of Greyfriars Kirk, to a contemporary, hoodie-based costume style was always going to make for a big change in the general feel. Though, the immature-manly banter is immature-manly banter in hoodies or hose. One big thing that I wanted to get from our modern Juliet, however, was a youthful tomboyish quality. We kept adapting her costume throughout the rehearsals, a pretty dress as a base, but also a sloppy hoodie, leggings and trainers so that she could ‘run, lolling up and down’ as much as any of the boys. She is thirteen and has no friends her own age that we know of. I’m positive that practical Juliet is a tree-climber more than a daisy-chain maker.
The performances took place in various towns in the Midwest, often with a population of only 5,000. The exception was St Louis, Missouri, which was the spot furthest from Carbondale (and which was totally worth the trip because the whole cast got to spend the day in the mind-boggling City Museum). A lot of these places are, in the current parlance, ‘culturally under-served’. While it is very hard to get people to donate to a charity who want to take theatre to America, presuming that it has quite enough all of its own, that is a thought based on a UK, or even just European model. Cliché alert: America is big. The nearest big city, somewhere of a size to have any professional theatre might be three hours drive away, compounded with the fact that there aren’t that many more train stations in the US than there are in the UK, even though the UK is 1/40th the size. This is a problem if you think that it is important for people to have access to theatre as a world-expanding, side-splitting, eye-filling life enhancer.
Stone Soup Shakespeare has the solution: take theatre to the people.
Now, I am well aware that this doth not equal a new thought. But it felt new as we were doing it. It felt brand-spanking new as we packed our eight cast and one director, our speakers and iPod, our brooms we used as swords and our ridiculous ‘I’m acting’ hats and off we went. We’d arrive somewhere, work out where we should perform in the park or public space where we had organised to appear, work out what the non-balcony would be, and off we went. The actors should be commended to high heaven for their flexibility and willingness to accept whatever each new space threw at them (luckily no audience members threw anything though, so that was a bonus).
One of the best moments of the tour was meeting a young eighteen-year-old guy in Marion, Illinois. This young man was pretty cool, standing throughout the performance, bantering with the actors in the pre-show as they tried to rile up the audience in a Capulet/Montague frenzy. He came to speak to us after the show, told us that he had never seen a play before in his life and that he had loved ours and thought we were really good.
The level of joy and pride I felt after speaking to him was worthy of the climax of some little league baseball film. I am so pleased with how the production went and I feel very pleased that kinda similar things are happening in Scotland.