Two Households – Love by the numbers in “Romeo and Juliet”

I imagine you’ve heard of Romeo and Juliet. Even if you’ve never seen it, it’s impossible to avoid references to it in popular culture. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t a part of our cultural fabric and riffed on in every type of imaginable media, from children’s cartoons to action movies to popular musicals to chart-topping love songs.

Arthur_Brooke_Tragicall_His

Now try to imagine a time, back in the 1590’s, when those two names weren’t household words. They may have been vaguely familiar to some. Although it was originally an Italian story, English readers might have read Arthur Brooke’s 1592 verse adaptation, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet:

Love hath inflamed twayne by sodayn sight.
And both do graunt the thing that both desyre.
They wed in shrift by counsell of a frier.
Yong Romeus clymes fayre Juliets bower by night.
Three monthes he doth enjoy his cheefe delight.
By Tybalts rage, provoked unto yre,
He payeth death to Tybalt for his hyre.
A banisht man he scapes by secret flight.
New mariage is offred to his wyfe:
She drinkes a drinke that seemes to reve her breath.
They bury her, that sleeping yet hath lyfe.
Her husband heares the tydinges of her death.
He drinkes his bane. And she with Romeus knife,
When she awakes, her selfe (alas) she sleath.

At about the time Brooke’s poem was published, a young poet had just arrived in London and was making a name for himself as the author of Venus and Adonis, which was pretty much the 50 Shades of Grey of its time. Every housewife had to have a copy of this sexy little volume.

Venus_and_Adonis_by_Titian

Fondling, she saith, since I have hem’d thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I’ll be a parke, and thou shalt be my deare:
Feed where thou wilt, on mountaine, or in dale;
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountaines lie.
Witin this limit is reliefe enough,
Sweet bottome grasse, and high delightfull plaine,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure, and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest, and from raine:
Then be my deare, since I am such a parke,
No dog shall rowze thee, though a thousand bark.

Everyone was waiting to see what this young man would come up with next. Rumor had it that he’d been writing some new poems in the sonnet form popularized by Sir Philip Sidney in his Astrophel and Stella, written in 1591. These new sonnets were different from the Petrarchan ones of Italy. Instead of a 14-line poem that started with an octet of eight lines with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA, followed by a sestet of six lines that went CDDECE, Sidney popularized a new rhyme scheme with four quatrains followed by a couplet, that went ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. While Petrarch introduced a problem in the octet and solved it in the sestet, Sidney introduced the problem in the first quatrain, expanded on it, then solved it neatly in the final couplet.

The Petrarchan scheme was very well suited for the Italian language, while this new scheme suited the English language. With its simple construction and its final couplet, the scheme was easy to remember and mathematically satisfying. Soon Sidney’s form had taken off among the young lovers of the city, and we can imagine them slaving away to compose odes for their mistresses.

Peachum drawing

A scene from Titus Andronicus, also known as “the Peachum drawing”

Around that time, Shakespeare seems to have become a hired gun for some of the city’s theatre companies, and eventually joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was for them that he began to write a few popular plays, such as The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, the Henry VI cycle, and Titus Andronicus. But nothing he’d written yet had shaken the theatrical firmament. He was still more successful as a poet.

His sonnets weren’t published until 1609, but a few may have already been circulating among his “private friends” in 1594 when he began to work on a unique play that would capitalize on the new sonnet trend.

romeo___juliet_act_i_prologue_by_elainethemain-d33g7zl

First of all, he began it with a sonnet:

Two households both alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona where we lay our Scene)
From ancient grudge, break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross’d lovers, take their life:
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their Parents strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their Parents rage:
Which but their childrens end nought could remove:
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Not only was it unheard of to use a sonnet as a prologue, he also cleverly embedded the “twos” that were so much part of the scheme into it. Two households. Two foes. A pair of star-crossed lovers. Two hours traffic of our Stage.

Shakespeare didn’t stop there. He surpassed himself by actually including a sonnet spoken by two people – the very first moment Juliet and Romeo meet, they speak a perfect poem together, a brilliant demonstration that the two are destined to love each other. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact this must have had on his audience – it would be like us watching a very clever hip-hop musical like In the Heights, in which one popular art form is combined with another.

Zeffirelli hand to hand

Rom. If I profane with my unworthiest hand,
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips two blushing Pilgrims ready stand,
To smooth that rough touch, with a tender kiss.

Jul. Good Pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much.
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For Saints have hands, that Pilgrims hands do touch,
And palm to palm, is holy Palmers kiss.

Rom. Have not Saints lips, and holy Palmers too?

Jul. Ay Pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Rom. O then dear Saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray (grant thou) least faith turn to despair.

Jul. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers sake.

Rom. Then move not while my prayers effect I take:

(They kiss!)

Well, the audience went nuts for this new play. We know this because an unauthorized quarto of the play was published for the mass market, with an introduction stating “it hath been often (and with great applause) plaid publiquely.” It probably made Shakespeare’s reputation and paved the way for his other great tragedies.

Why do audiences respond to R&J with such enthusiasm? Well, sonnets aren’t the only things about Romeo and Juliet that are mathematically satisfying. Dualities come up over and over again as we consider Romeo and Juliet – starting with its title. Not only does it include two names, its lesser-know subtitle includes an antithesis – the most excellent and lamentable tragedy. It also straddles two genres. In the first half, the play is clearly a comedy, full of rhyming couplets, until its mid-point and the death of Mercutio, at which point it becomes a tragedy, and the couplets all but disappear.

Family symbols

The characters themselves exist in pairs. We have, of course, the two rival families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Shakespeare also gives Romeo two close friends, Benvolio and Mercutio. Benvolio is non-violent and in favor of a measured approach to life:

Ben. I do but keep the peace, put up thy Sword,
Or manage it to part these men with me.

While Mercutio is reckless and chaotic:

Mer. O calme, dishonourable, vile submission:
Alla stucatho carries it away.
Tybalt, you Rat-catcher, will you walk?

Mercutio

Each lover has an older advisor who is not their parent – Juliet the Nurse and Romeo the Friar. Paris is presented as a looking-glass Romeo, the lover who might have been. Romeo also has two loves, the unseen Rosalind of the first act, and ultimately Juliet. Even the servants appear in pairs in the very first scene, Sampson & Gregory vs. Abram & an unnamed Montague servant.

The language itself is full of dualities and dichotomies. Scholars have made much of the light vs dark and day vs night imagery in the play. Consider this speech of Juliet’s:

Jul. Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus lodging, such a Wagoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west,
And bring in Cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close Curtain Love-performing night,
That run-aways eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen,
Lovers can see to do their Amorous rights,
And by their own Beauties: or if Love be blind,
It best agrees with night: come civil night,
Thou sober suited Matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Plaid for a pair of stainless Maidenhoods,
Hood my unman’d blood bating in my Cheeks,
With thy Black mantle, till strange Love grow bold,
Think true Love acted simple modesty:
Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night,
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter then new Snow upon a Ravens back:
Come gentle night, come loving blackbrow’d night.
Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the Face of heaven so fine,
That all the world will be in Love with night,
And pay no worship to the Garish Sun.

Farewell scene

Or the farewell scene:

Jul. Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:
It was the Nightingale, and not the Lark,
That pierc’t the fearful hollow of thine ear,
Nightly she sings on yond Pomegranate tree,
Believe me Love, it was the Nightingale.

Rom. It was the Lark the Herald of the Morn:
No Nightingale: look Love what envious streaks
Do lace the severing Clouds in yonder East:
Nights Candles are burnt out, and Jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty Mountains tops,
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

Jul. Yond light is not daylight, I know it I:
It is some Meteor that the Sun exhales,
To be to thee this night a Torch-bearer,
And light thee on thy way to Mantua.
Therefore stay yet, thou need’st not to be gone –

Rom. Let me be tane, let me be put to death,
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.
I’ll say yon gray is not the mornings eye,
‘Tis but the pale reflex of Cinthias brow.
Nor that is not Lark whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads,
I have more care to stay, then will to go:
Come death and welcome, Juliet wills it so.
How is’t my soul, lets talk, it is not day.

Juli. It is, it is, hie hence be gone away:
It is the Lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh Discords, and unpleasing Sharps.
Some say the Lark makes sweet Division;
This doth not so: for she divideth us.
Some say, the Lark and loathed Toad change eyes,
O now I would they had chang’d voices too:
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence, with Hunts-up to the day,
O now be gone, more light and light it grows.

Rom. More light & light, more dark & dark our woes.

It’s interesting to note that most of the scenes in the play take place either during the night or at dawn. One of the dawn scenes is the Friar’s first encounter with Romeo after he meets Juliet. the Friar’s first speech is a feast of antithetical structure, with each couplet providing two contrasting ideas about the same thing:

Fri. The gray ey’d morn smiles on the frowning night,
Check’ring the Eastern Clouds with streaks of light:
And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels,
From forth days path, and Titans burning wheels:
Now ere the Sun advance his burning eye,
The day to cheer, and nights dank dew to dry,
I must upfill this Osier Cage of ours,
With baleful weeds, and precious Juiced flowers,
The earth that’s Natures mother, is her Tomb,
What is her burying grave that is her womb:
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find:
Many for many virtues excellent:
None but for some, and yet all different.
O mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In Plants, Herbs, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile, that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give.
Nor ought so good, but strain’d from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue it self turns vice being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified.
Within the infant rin’d of this weak flower,
Poison hath residence, and medicine power:
For this being smelt, with that part cheers each part,
Being tasted slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed Kings encamp them still,
In man as well as Herbs, grace and rude will:
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the Canker death eats up that Plant.

Friar Laurence

In this speech, often cut, Shakespeare subtly buries his theme – as the reverse of comedy is tragedy, the reverse of passionate love is violent hate. It is part of the human condition for one to lead to the other. The Friar preaches moderation:

Rom. O let us hence, I stand on sudden haste.

Friar. Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.

And later:

Friar. These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness,
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

Note again the use of couplets, antitheses, and parallel construction.

When the Friar’s fears prove true, and Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished, Juliet responds with a shower of antitheses:

Jul. O Serpent heart, hid with a flow’ring face.
Did ever Dragon keep so fair a Cave?
Beautiful Tyrant, fiend Angelical:
Ravenous Dove-feather’d Raven,
Wolvish-ravening Lamb,
Despised substance of Divinest show:
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st,
A damned Saint, an Honorable Villain:
O Nature! what had’st thou to do in hell,
When thou did’st bower the spirit of a fiend
In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous Palace.

The poetry and the rhetoric of Romeo and Juliet, which utilize these dualities, are part of what makes the play so satisfying. Just as the human heart is drawn to the paired beat of the iambic foot – da-DUM – our minds respond to sets of two, as if our paired genetic material needs to understand everything through couplings.

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In our upcoming production, I am interested in exploring another set of two in the play – the two generations. On the one hand, we have the older folks, the middle-aged parents and advisors – Lord and Lady Capulet and Montague, the Nurse and the Friar. The Prince could also be of this generation, it isn’t stated. As Juliet says:

Had she affections and warm youthful blood,
She would be as swift in motion as a ball,
My words would bandy her to my sweet Love,
And his to me, but old folks,
Many fain as they were dead,
Unwieldy, slow, heavy, and pale as lead.

The parents’ generation is perceived as slow – hopelessly out of touch with their children. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths are brought on by the tardiness of the older generation – the Friar’s message to Romeo of his plan to reunite them is delayed by his brother Friar John and arrives too late.

Lord Montague

A historical Lord Montague.

The younger generation, including Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris, and perhaps many of the servants, with the exception of Benvolio tend to act rashly and quickly. They have a secret life unknown to their parents, described by Lord Montague:

Mont. Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh mornings dew,
Adding to clouds, more clouds with his deep sighs,
But all so soon as the all-cheering Sun,
Should in the farthest East begin to draw
The shady Curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy Son,
And private in his Chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair day-light out,
And makes himself an artificial night:
Black and portentous must this humor prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove.

Ben. My Noble Uncle, do you know the cause?

Mon. I neither know it, nor can learn of him.

Ben. Have you importun’d him by any means?

Moun. Both by myself and many others Friends,
But he his own affections counselor,
Is to himself (I will not say how true)
But to himself so secret and so close,
So far from sounding and discovery,
As is the bud bit with an envious worm,
Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air,
Or dedicate his beauty to the same.
Could we but learn from whence his sorrows grow,
We would as willingly give cure, as know.

Juliet and Romeo do not tell their parents about their love, having been poisoned by the ancient feud. Ironically, the generations are divided by the very thing that they have in common. Romeo and Juliet were doomed to die, coming as they did “from forth the fatal loins of these two foes” – in both sense of the word, “fatal.”

The play ends not with the scene you remember, of the two lovers committing suicide. That happens by line 169 of the scene. Almost 150 lines later, the play ends. It’s important not to cut all of those last 150 lines, in which the older members of the community struggle to come to terms with what has happened completely without their knowledge. Of the six young people I mentioned above, only the temperate Benvolio is still alive – and not even in that final scene unless the director decides to include him. This is a massive community crisis, and Shakespeare does not end the play until the families are on the path to recovery.

Cap. O Brother Montague, give me thy hand,
This is my Daughters jointure, for no more
Can I demand.

Mon. But I can give thee more:
For I will raise her Statue in pure Gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at that Rate be set,
As that of True and Faithful Juliet.

Cap. As rich shall Romeo by his Lady lie,
Poor sacrifices of our enmity.

R&J statue

The Romeo and Juliet statue in Central Park, NYC.

One final note – I believe that the structure of the play itself subtly conforms to the sonnet structure. Once again, let’s hear the prologue. The first quatrain sets up the problem:

Two households both alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona where we lay our Scene)
From ancient grudge, break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean:

In these lines, we have the first scene of the play, and the older generation’s dilemma – what is to be done about the warring families? In this quatrain we have the Capulets’ attempt to create good relations with the Prince through the Ball and the engagement of Juliet to Romeo. We also have the families’ reaction to the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio and Romeo’s ensuing punishment. The older generation has a high-stakes play of its own going on, and knows nothing about the secret romance.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross’d lovers, take their life:
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their Parents strife.

In this quatrain we have the main plot of the play – Romeo and Juliet’s doomed love. Although they aren’t mentioned, we also have the Friar and the Nurse’s involvement in the affairs of the younger generation.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their Parents rage:
Which but their childrens end nought could remove:
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.

In this quatrain, we have both threads, the older and younger generations’ stories, woven together and brought to a climax and resolution, all tidily in two hours.

The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Traditionally, the final couplet of a sonnet brings with it some twist. At first glance, this one is the humble request for the audience’s attention that prologues of the time often include. It also brings together the two halves of any theatrical experience – the performers and the audience. Read more closely, it’s also an argument for two essential things in human relationships – patience on one side, and hard work on the other. In order for two pairings of people to get along – two households, two lovers, two generations, actors and audience – patience and toil are both necessary.

I hope, when you come to see Romeo and Juliet, this essay will enhance your enjoyment of the production and let you in on some subtleties that you might not have noticed. And until then:

Jul. Good night, good night.

Rom. Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say goodnight, till it be morrow.

Romeo-Juliet-about-to-kiss-on-Balcony-1968-romeo-and-juliet-by-franco-zeffirelli-32614017-640-480

HOLDING THE MIRROR UP TO NATURE: Casting Shakespeare for Today’s Audiences

A few weeks ago, in our weekly intern company meeting, I did a session about casting. After we went over the basics of headshots, resumes, cover letters, and interview etiquette, I set them a task – cast the 9 major roles of Romeo and Juliet (Romeo, Juliet, Nurse, Friar, Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio) from a large pile of headshots and resumes. The only parameters were that 5 of the actors had to be Equity, 4 non-Equity. I had carefully selected a stack of about 50 of the Bay Area’s top actors. Half were actors of color, and there were equal numbers of men and women.

The 15 students were divided into three groups of 5. Each had to present their choices, then explain them to the rest of the group.

The first group consisted of 5 bright, talented young people – 4 female, one male, all white. The cast they chose was also all white. They cast men in every role except Juliet, Lady Capulet, and the Nurse. When I questioned them why they didn’t think about more racial diversity, or about casting women in some of the men’s roles, they looked startled, then a little sheepish. The young man said, “Oh. Well, we didn’t have much time, so we just did the easy thing.”

Aha.

I understand where these kids were coming from. As a member of the privileged white upper-middle-class, I know it is all too easy not to examine my choices. It’s way easier to go with my culturally programmed, default mental image of a character than cast someone whose face may not immediately come to mind when I think “Romeo.” But those of us in that privileged position have to stop doing the easy thing. We must pause and reflect. We must say “what if.” We must do this about race, about gender, about body type, about sexual orientation – about everything that makes us different from one another. There’s nowhere that I go in my community where all the people are white, or male, or slender, or straight.  But we all know how many films, TV shows, and plays feature mostly people of that description. This homogenization has affected how we all think – Juliet is forever white and lithe with long flowing hair in many of our minds, regardless of our cultural background. But only a very small number of real 14-year-old girls fit that description. How much more fresh and illuminating can it be to see her portrayed differently?

romeo-juliette

Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad in the new Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet.

At SF Shakes, we feel incredibly lucky to have the audiences we do. Most theatres are dying to attract the kind of age, economic, and racial diversity that we get in our “theatre” every night at Free Shakespeare in the Park. But the diversity of our audience makes it even more critical, and even more urgent, that we start doing a better job of reflecting that audience on stage.

I’ve heard several arguments over the years to explain why theatre companies in general, and Shakespeare companies specifically, don’t cast more diversely. Here are some of the most common:

1. Shakespeare didn’t write enough roles for women/actors of color/deaf actors/you name it. You’re right. He wrote roles for able-bodied white men only, because those were the people allowed to perform on stage while he was alive. At that time, scores of people also died from the plague and thought everyone in the Southern Hemisphere walked upside down. We’ve learned some useful things since then. Besides, I believe Shakespeare wrote great CHARACTERS, to be played by the best actors at his disposal, and if we were alive today, he’d cast differently.

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B. Chico Purdiman as Benedick and Rebecca Kemper as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2012.

There is a core challenge to running a classical theatre – no matter how diversely we cast, at the end of the day, Shakespeare is a dead white guy. As much as I believe that his stories and characters have universal significance and appeal, I know the word “universal” itself is problematic, because it’s usually the white cultural elite who decide what that means.

Let’s be real, there’s some horrible racism in Shakespeare, and some heinous sexism, and we can’t do the plays without tackling that. But here’s the thing – Shakespeare’s dead, but his plays are living texts. There’s a reason they weren’t published at the time they were first performed – they were constantly changing even then. So I feel just as great about casting a female Hamlet as I do about cutting the line “liver of blaspheming Jew” out of Macbeth.

Sarah B

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in 1899. You go, girl.

When I was in high school, I read Hamlet, and something happened. I didn’t relate to Gertrude. I sure as heck didn’t relate to Ophelia. I GOT Hamlet, and if you’d said to me, “but you can’t understand Hamlet, you’re not a guy,” I would have said “yeah, and I’m not Danish either, nor did my uncle kill my dad and marry my mom.” My 16-year-old soul was Hamlet, and that was the role I wanted to play. I think Shakespeare’s words belong to me, and to anyone else who wants to claim them.

2. The audience won’t follow the story if you cast women/actors of color/etc. We have been casting non-traditionally for SF Shakes’ Shakespeare On Tour school and library touring program for 25 years. The kids in the audience, many of whom have never seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare, don’t have any problem figuring out who’s who. I recently saw Beli Sullivan, a female actor of color, play Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Company, utterly convincingly. Audiences want to see well-performed, well-told stories. Directors and producers should not project their own biases on the audience, or assign them prejudices they may not possess. And if they do possess these prejudices, the play becomes a forum in which to confront them.

Beli Sullivan

Safiya Fredericks, Beli Sullivan, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Festival.

3. There aren’t any well-trained classical actors of color/women/etc. I’ve heard this one a lot from white directors – “I’d cast diversely if there were any actors of color with Shakespeare experience.” Where do people get experience? From being cast. Besides, who is judging the talent in this situation? Usually a white director or producer, with that cultural bias I mentioned earlier. “Good classical acting” is in the eye of the privileged. Diversity must be embraced on all levels of the organization – if we’re really going to fight bias, the decision-makers can’t be all from the dominant culture either.

There’s an unspoken, insidious feeling in the Shakespeare community that if you have to cast a woman, it’s because you weren’t able to get a man to play the role- and therefore the show won’t be as good. The fact is, there are dozens of talented, well-trained female actors available for work at any given time in the Bay Area – 50% of the casting pool (see the Counting Actors Project for some statistics of how many are working every month). All creative directors have to do is what players in Shakespeare’s time did in reverse – assume that women can play men’s roles, as much as men can play women’s.

Lisa Wolpe Iago

Lisa Wolpe as Iago in Othello at LA Women’s Shakespeare Company.

4. There just aren’t enough actors of color in the Bay Area. I’ve often heard “I want to cast diversely, so why don’t actors of color come to our auditions?” I’ve felt this often myself. According to the 2011-12 annual report, Actors’ Equity Association’s national membership is approximately 85% white – pretty discouraging if you’re a casting director.

There are a lot of class-related reasons for this disparity – whites are still at the top of the income bracket, and when upper- and upper-middle-class kids go to college, their parents can house and feed them while they take unpaid internships at non-profit arts organizations, or support them through the early desperate years as young performers. The result is an artistic elite – largely white, largely college-educated, often subsidized by mom and dad – and fewer actors of color in the casting pool. There are cultural reasons as well – if there are no actors of color on stage, non-white audience members don’t see themselves represented, and it may never occur to talented young people that this is something they can really do.

Hi-Rez-postcard photo

Armando McClain as Prospero in The Tempest, Shakespeare on Tour 2010.

Does that let producers off the hook? No. I spoke to a few Bay Area actors of color who feel discouraged to audition for many companies, ours included, based on what they’ve seen us produce. As one actor said, many actors of color feel they can work more if they head to LA or New York, instead of waiting around for the obligatory August Wilson or David Henry Hwang piece.

We have a responsibility as cultural leaders to make sure our stages represent the population of the Bay Area – not only to reflect our audience, but to demonstrate that artistic expression is a basic human right, and that careers in the arts are open to all.

Olivia&Feste

Mia Tagano as Olivia, Stephen Klum as Feste in Twelfth Night, Free Shakespeare in the Park 2004.

So enough excuses –  besides reflecting our audience and pursuing social justice, here’s the most important reason to cast diversely:

1. It’s better for the art. As Hamlet says, “holding the mirror up to nature” is the right thing to do. It’s also essential to the work itself. Actors with varied life experiences bring different perspectives on the text, stories and characters. We’ve been performing Shakespeare’s plays for over 400 years. Would we still be performing them if we insisted on all-male casts, if they were only allowed to be performed on London’s South Bank with a permit from the Queen, or if they were never translated into other languages? I doubt it. Constantly looking at the plays from new angles has kept them alive and flexible.

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Top: Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar. Bottom: The RSC’s African Julius Caesar.

When I consider an actor for a role, I’m looking at so many things – the timbre of their voice, the way they move, the way their face expresses emotion, the way the atmosphere changes when they make a choice, the way they engage with the other actors on stage. Race, gender, size, and physical ability are all a part of this. There is no such thing as “race and gender-blind” casting. ALL casting means something, and one must always be mindful of what it means. Actors, as soon as they get up on stage, acquire a set of quotation marks – they are symbols. Their physicalities, their voices, their mannerisms all become a set of signals that the audience responds to, as each member of that audience projects his or her experience onto that actor. It is “easier” to identify with someone who looks, sounds, and acts like you. But it expands your humanity and deepens your empathy to identify with someone who looks nothing like you. (Bitter Gertrude has a great blog post on this topic.)

Can a person of color identify with a white actor? Of course. Can a woman identify with a man? Sure. They do it all the time. But let’s ALL try doing it, say 50% of the time.

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Alex Lenarsky as Celia and Maria Giere Marquis as Rosalind in Impact Theatre’s As You Like It.

Here’s the thing – if we really believe that Shakespeare is for everyone (and at SF Shakes we do, passionately), white directors and producers like myself can’t stand up on stage as privileged arbiters of taste, passing down wisdom from our enlightened perch like beneficial medicine. This will only contribute to the perception of Shakespeare as elite and difficult to understand – a problem that certainly didn’t exist 150 years ago, when even the most illiterate prospector in the West knew a bit of Shakespeare by heart. If we want a better world with more equality for all, we must show women in positions of power. We must show people of color as fully developed, multi-faceted humans instead of stereotypes. We must hire actors of all shapes, sizes, and physical abilities, representing all the great diversity we see around us in the real world. Staging Shakespeare as living texts, constantly evolving over 400 years of history, gives us that opportunity.

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Radhika Rao as Brakenbury, Ryan Tasker as Clarence in Richard III, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

We’re practicing some mindful casting with the Free Shakespeare in the Parklet program this summer. We have 50% men and 50% women in the Parklet shows, and 40% actors of color – up from 30% last year. Our upcoming Shakespeare On Tour production of “Julius Caesar” has a rotating cast of 12, 58% women and 42% actors of color. And we’re making a commitment to build on this for all our productions to come. We will strive to improve gender parity and diversity on stage in future seasons, with the goal of 50% men, 50% women, and 50% actors of color in our casts. And we’ll embrace diversity offstage as well – I’ll get off this soapbox regularly to make way for our Resident Artists, who have varied backgrounds and nuanced ideas of their own about Shakespeare, social justice, and theatre.

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Maryssa Wanlass as Casca and Melissa Keith as Cassius in Julius Caesar, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

Remember that casting exercise I did with the intern company? The next two groups took a good look at their “Romeo and Juliet” casts. When they presented their nine actors, they had women playing roles like Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and Mercutio and actors of color playing Romeo and Lord Capulet. They explained their casting in thoughtful ways – instead of “She just looks like a Juliet. She’s so pretty,” or “He was the only old guy we could find, so he has to be the Friar,” they said things like “I had a class with her and she’s so wise. She’d be a great Friar Laurence,” and “His cover letter is so passionate about Shakespeare and he’s done stage combat – he’d be a perfect Romeo.” They were looking harder, thinking creatively, and moving past what was “easy.”

“Put not yourself into amazement how these things should be: all difficulties are but easy when they are known.” – Measure for Measure

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Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest.