5. THE BALLAD OF ROMEO AND JULIET, PART ONE
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny…
Back in year two of my graduate school journey, I took a class called Shakespeare Collaboration where we were divided into teams comprised of a director and designers and given the assignment to create a paper project of a production. Headed into the first day, we didn’t know which play was to be assigned, but I certainly had my list of hopefuls. Nowhere on that list and frankly nowhere near that list was the one the professors chose—Romeo and Juliet. You see, that play always stuck in my craw. I couldn’t get over how young these lovers are and therefore I couldn’t invest myself in their tragedy. Add to that the ineptitude of the Friar and it all just seemed rather silly. But there I was with an assignment and, if there was one thing I knew to be true in the program, it’s that every time I worked on something I wouldn’t have naturally picked (see: Hedda Gabler), I came out the other side with something of value. So, I dove in.
Instead of focusing on those two silly youngins, I looked to everyone else. What I found was a dirty world of tribalism that lived in a tinderbox of inherited hatred. Now that was interesting. Looking for a way to make the production more relevant to me, I looked for a time period in America’s history that this play could have existed. Warring families led me straight to the Hatfields and McCoys, but I was wary of such an iconic and often-times clichéd idea. But I couldn’t shake it. So, I investigated not only their story, but the seeds of their story. The Reconstruction Era right around the Mason Dixon line became fertile ground for this play and Verona, North Carolina became the setting, deep in the mountains of Appalachia. What began as an eye-roll inducing assignment became one of the most rewarding journeys of my education.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Peter Erickson, a Shakespearean scholar who served as our dramaturgical instructor, was thrown by my irreverent direction. Among other head butts, he balked at my impulse to infuse the piece with modern bluegrass-inspired music. How could Johnny Cash stand next to Shakespeare’s poetry? Quite well, I thought, and kept my head down, determined to see it through. In the end, I had aggressively cut the play, made the Friar into a Pentecostal snake-handling preacher, developed an animalistic pagan-based religion ripe for ritual, and had music strung throughout. I also announced that the poetry would be delivered in a thick Appalachian accent, which was based on the idea that the Elizabethan tongue of Shakespeare was closer to this dialect than standard British (and, to be fair, stolen from Lee Breuer, who did this with his King Lear, but regretted pulling it back). Zeljko Djukic, our directing instructor for the class, encouraged me, saying I had created a true adaption. Then Peter jumped in, saying that I had gone beyond an adaptation. As I braced for admonishment, he then said he believed it was actually an intervention and a worthy addition to the catalogue. Intervention. I like that very much.
I was thrilled and I was frustrated. After all, this was merely a paper project. I had a beautiful design by my colleagues, Lauren Nigri on set, Caitlin McLeod on costumes, and Jessica Krometis on lights. I had a script full of music to be played and an an idea to make the poetry Appalachian. Alas, there was no cast and the class ended. Grad school is a hairy beast and I was left no option but to hold on and keep riding. So, the Ballad was put on the shelf. What I didn’t know then is that I had created my first new American Myth.