A hearty thank you to Steven Stanley at Stage Scene LA for attending the show and the very kind words. Hope to see you at the next one!
Our revels now are ended: R&J’s run has finished. It feels bizarre. Hayley and Mary Ellen and I first started discussing the idea of doing a gender-reversed Romeo and Juliet while we were still working on Twelfth Night back in January. This production lived in our heads for so long, and I don’t think we ever quite got over our amazement at hearing this fantastic cast take our concept and create a world filled with living, breathing, real people.
One of the things we were most excited for throughout the months of planning and then rehearsing R&J was to see how audiences would respond to such a different take on a classic play. A fascinating reaction, and one we’re still pondering, is how many people told us that this was the first time they didn’t hate Romeo as a character. Mary Ellen will blush when she reads this, but I’m saying it anyway: some of that is certainly due to her enormous skill as an actor. But it seems like the gender-reversal also allowed some audience members to see facets of Romeo that surprised them. We had wondered, during rehearsals, if Romeo would be less sympathetic Romea—if the openness of her pursuit of Julian and the volatility of her emotions would strike some people as more off-putting in a young woman than in a young man. So we’re very intrigued by the fact that, to many people, the exact opposite happened: Romea became more sympathetic. The production may be over, but we hope our conversations with people who saw the show aren’t. We’re still investigating our own and other people’s reactions to R&J, and we’re eager to hear more of your thoughts about aspects of this production that interested or surprised you.
I’m definitely still parsing through my own reactions to and insights gleaned from this production. For me personally, one of the moments in R&J that landed most intensely was the scene in which Juliet refuses to marry Paris. That scene is frequently staged with a lot of physical violence between an intimidating grown man and young, vulnerable girl. That’s often very effective, and the presence of at least a serious threat of physical violence is definitely there in the text (“my fingers itch”)—and our ferocious Capulet did indeed slap a stunned Julian. But for the first time, I completely understood that the most serious threat in this scene came when Capulet told Julian, “Graze where you will, you shall not house with me… An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend/An you be not, hang, bed, starve, die in the streets”. As played by the fantastic Katherine James, it was clear that Capulet was deadly serious. The physical threat to Julian was less prominent when Capulet was a woman and Julian was a six-foot-tall man. What came to the forefront was the reality that Julian would be kicked out of the house and left to fend for himself if he refused to marry Paris. In the dangerous Verona of Romeo and Juliet, that meant death or entering religious orders. The stark reality of how few options Julian/Juliet has at that point in the play—the fact that the character is treated as a possession, to be given away at the will of someone else—landed with me for the first time.
I’ve also had several fascinating conversations about why we kept the famous last couplet: “For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” To be honest, while we looked at ways of making it “Julian” and “Romea”, there was no way to do so without severely altering the text or sounding like Billy Crystal as the priest in The Princess Bride (“For never was a story of more WAH/Than this of Julian and his RomeAH.”). But even if we’d eventually managed to find a way to rework that couplet, we would have kept it as is. There was some initial concern that it might take audiences out of the story to remind them in the final moments of the production, “Hey, remember, you’re seeing a gender-reversed version of the real story.” But I think that reminding audiences of the original text was actually the perfect way to end our show. This whole process has been about Shakespeare’s text: we wanted to engage with it, and explore it, but it wasn’t ours—it was Shakespeare’s. Or it was ours and Shakespeare’s. So in the end, bringing Romea and Julian back to Romeo and Juliet felt exactly right.
We did [a live read] recently of American Pie, but we reversed the gender roles. All the women played men; all the men played women. And it was so fascinating to be a part of this because, as the women took on these central roles — they had all the good lines, they had all the good laughs, all the great moments — the men who joined us to sit on stage started squirming rather uncomfortably and got really bored because they weren't used to being the supporting cast… It was fascinating to feel their discomfort [and] to discuss it with them afterward, when they said, ‘It's boring to play the girl role!’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. You think? Welcome to our world!’” -- Olivia Wilde
I always look for a great arc. Men get great arcs all the time, especially in movies, but it's very rare for a woman to get an arc. –- Jessica Chastain
"No one has ever asked an actor, 'You're playing a strong-minded man…' We assume that men are strong-minded, or have opinions. But a strong-minded woman is a different animal." -- Meryl Streep
This is the reality of life as an actress. There are far fewer roles for women than for men, and even fewer roles for actresses that are equal in scale and complexity to those regularly offered to actors. Often, female characters are there merely to facilitate a male character’s journey. Women are slightly more than 50% of the population, but according to a study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 31% of speaking roles in movies are occupied by women, and only 23% of films feature a female protagonist. This disparity extends to the classical theatre world, where at auditions for any production, you often see dozens of women competing for the two or three parts open to them. Onstage and onscreen, “neutral” or “normal” is a male majority and a male perspective.
Last November, I had the tremendous good fortune to see Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar (starring Harriet Walter as Brutus and Frances Barber as Caesar) when it came to New York. Watching women take on this most masculine of plays was awe-inspiring. I stood up to applaud at the end, vibrating with the longing to do that, to be as great as these actors were, to do something that affected an audience so powerfully—that made them both think and feel that much. Outside the theater, Cush Jumbo (the absolutely magnificent actress who played the most electrifying Mark Antony I’ve ever seen) listened patiently as I babbled about how much I loved the production and then returned an extraordinary insight. She said that doing Julius Caesar was liberating because, before this production, she hadn’t fully realized how often actresses are pressured not to explore their full emotional range—how often they are discouraged from being emotionally raw and ugly, from taking up all the space in the room, from not being at all ornamental: essentially, how often, even in great roles, women are pushed not to play real people, but more attractive, less complex versions of people.
I think a lot of actors become actors because they are fascinated by people, by human nature, and that is as true for women as it is for men. I want to play fully realized people, and I want to do it without feeling pressure to be likeable or pretty or deferential.
As anyone familiar with the plot of Shakespeare In Love will know, in Elizabethan England, it was illegal for women to appear onstage, so young male actors played most female roles. Shakespeare was restricted in how many roles he could write for women because he needed boys (probably no older than about 21) who were skilled enough to take on large and complex parts. (Fascinating sidebar: scholars such as the brilliant James Shapiro believe that around the turn of the 17th century, Shakespeare had two extremely talented boy actors in his company, because during that period he wrote multiple plays—As You Like It and Twelfth Night among them—that featured two fantastic roles for young women).
Even with those obstacles, Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest roles for women in existence: Rosalind, Beatrice, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Margaret, Cleopatra, Portia… It’s dangerous to assume anything about Shakespeare as a person based on his plays...but I think it’s safe to say that Shakespeare was FASCINATED by women. He understood them as so much more than just objects of desire. His female characters are often the most brilliant, complex people in their respective plays: they can be deeply loving and wise, witty and wounded, and stunningly callous and vicious. In short, Shakespeare wrote women who were fully realized people. He didn't need the female characters to be weaker, or less complicated, or more appealing than the male ones. They could just be human.
Mine is Yours was created in part because we, its founders, were tired of waiting for opportunities to come to us, so we decided to create our own. A major goal of our company is to provide more opportunities for women in all areas of theatre: as actors, directors, writers, producers, etc. As actors, we have a ferocious desire to play those meaty, once-in-a-lifetime roles, the roles with the great arcs. We want to play not only the incredible roles that Shakespeare wrote for women, but also the equally incredible and far more numerous roles he wrote for men. This company gives us the freedom to create productions like R&J—a production directed by a woman, featuring a cast of nine women and three men, in which actresses have the chance to play roles like Romeo, Mercutio, Tybalt, Capulet, and Friar Laurence.
We don’t have any delusions about one production suddenly shifting the views of our society and our industry and ushering in a new age of total gender equality. But every effort to illuminate and combat gender-based injustice matters. As David Mitchell says in his astounding book Cloud Atlas, “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
This production is our drop in that ocean, and every drop has an impact.
Almost everyone knows Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet may have the most famous line in all of Shakespeare—“To be, or not to be”—but Romeo and Juliet has the most familiar story. It’s the first of his plays that many of us encounter in middle school, and it’s one of the most frequently performed and adapted plays in the world.
So, when Mine is Yours first started to discuss doing Romeo and Juliet, the questions we had to answer for ourselves were: why this play? And why gender-reverse it?
Why this play?
It’s very easy to consider Romeo and Juliet to be, for lack of a better word, ninnies. Reckless, immature teenagers who kill themselves over an adolescent infatuation. There are artists and scholars whom I greatly respect who think of them that way.
But that description does not match the person who says this:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
That, to me, is perhaps the wisest encapsulation of love that exists in the English language. That love, in its truest form, is about what you give to the other person, not what you get, and that the depth and limitlessness of that love is stunning to the person experiencing it. So I think this play is (among other things, because Shakespeare’s plays are never just one thing) the story of how Juliet’s discovery of love brings her to life, and of how Romeo grows from a boy into a man who is worthy of her (Fascinatingly, I think that’s also the story of Much Ado About Nothing, told through mature lovers—but that’s for another post). And that’s a story worth exploring. The process of growing and maturing into love is a pretty relevant subject at any age, and particularly for people (like us) in their 20s and 30s. We were also fascinated by this play’s flip from comedy to tragedy. Dramatic conventions of Shakespeare’s time said that comedies ended in weddings, tragedies ended in death. Shakespeare, as ever, chose to experiment with and subvert those conventions. In this play, we get a wedding—and in the next scene, death (Love’s Labour’s Lost has a similar subversion, since a death at the very end of the play halts the imminent weddings). The first half of the play is a comedy—set in a world teetering on the edge of explosive violence, sure, but violence that seems like it could be abated by the pure love of these two scions of rival families. Mercutio is bawdily hilarious, the Nurse is a torrent of amusing words, and Romeo and Juliet are by turns charming and deeply poignant in their discovery of each other. There are fascinating hints of darkness, especially in Mercutio, but the play seems on a trajectory towards the triumph of love over hatred. And then, in a split second, all of that is destroyed, and we’re set on a path towards inexorable doom. One enticing challenge of this play, to us, was to tell the story while inhabiting each moment fully—i.e., to not know at the beginning of the play that we were in a tragedy.
A corollary to the “Why this play?” question might be “Why Shakespeare? Shakespeare is done so frequently—what’s interesting about yet another production?” Well, first off—our company absolutely wants to engage with a huge variety of authors, both classical and contemporary, established and new. But Mine is Yours was created partly because its founders desired more opportunities to work on Shakespeare’s plays, and that’s because there is no playwright who can teach us more about human nature. I may disagree with the critic Harold Bloom on several things, but he was correct when he credited Shakespeare with “The invention of the human.”
Anyone who’s spent time around me when I’m tipsy knows that I’m a Renaissance history nerd (give me alcohol, I start reeling off historical trivia. Why don’t I get invited to more parties? It’s a mystery.), and part of what’s always drawn me to that period is that it feels like the time during which awareness of the individual began to emerge—the idea that we weren’t just part of a town or country or religion, but individual people with unique thoughts and needs and wants—and Shakespeare was the first writer to capture that. He was the first writer to hold up a mirror and show us ourselves in our entirety. Ancient Greek playwrights gave us magnificent embodiments of elemental emotions and desires: rage, grief, lust, etc. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as Marlowe and Middleton, wrote very compelling plays filled with vitally fascinating characters. But Shakespeare wrote people. His plays are still viscerally shocking to me in how much they feel like being a fly on the wall of someone’s brain. Everything that we are as humans, all the dozens of different emotions that lie behind any one action—he captures that. You can never get to the bottom of Shakespeare’s characters because you can never get to the bottom of real people. That’s why his plays can be done a million times in a million different ways, and audiences will find new facets of his characters. As well as I know my parents and my friends, I can’t know everything about them, and all deep relationships are ones of continual discovery. As we get older, our perceptions change, and our relationships to Shakespeare’s characters change too. Reading Romeo and Juliet at thirteen is very different from encountering it at twenty-five. There is always going to be more to know about Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio and the Nurse, and I want to discover as much about them as I can. We—the company of R&J—want to discover more about this play, and we want the audience to discover alongside us.
Why gender-reverse it?
Part of our purpose in founding our company was to create more opportunities for women—both for ourselves and others. But we didn’t want to tack a gender-reversal onto the play if it was just going to be a gimmick that didn’t serve the text. The fascinating thing is that, when we started reading through Romeo and Juliet together, we realized that gender is a theme that sweeps across the whole play. The lovers themselves completely subvert conventional gender roles: Romeo possesses many traditionally feminine characteristics, and Juliet many masculine ones. Juliet, though sometimes dismissed as a flibbertigibbet, the “embodiment of girlishness”, is actually eminently practical. While Romeo is still caught up in the kind of courtly love rituals he engaged in with Rosaline, Juliet gets down to brass tacks: she’s the one who brings up marriage, and in the midst of her supreme ecstasy she thinks to ask Romeo the very pragmatic question of what time she should send him a messenger. Also, she shows no traditionally feminine demureness when it comes to romance: she asks Romeo straight out, “Dost thou love me?” Romeo, on the other hand, demonstrates characteristics that Elizabethans associated with women: moodiness, flightiness, fickleness. Their embodiment of counterintuitive gender qualities is even shown in their respective deaths. Romeo takes the relatively easy path of poison, and that’s after a long speech—he has matured into love, but he’s still fond of drama. Juliet stabs herself—no easy task, and she does it with minimal words and fuss. Shakespeare very clearly wrote these characters this way intentionally: with his line “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”, he is consciously associating Juliet with a normally masculine symbol. Romeo, on the other hand, swears by the moon—a symbol traditionally associated with femininity.
By placing Romeo’s words in a woman’s mouth and placing Juliet’s words in a man’s mouth (so they become Romea and Julian), we hope to highlight these surprising facets of these characters. With Mercutio (Mercutia), Nurse, Capulet, Capulet’s Wife (Now Capulet’s Husband), Tybalt, Sister Laurence, and all the other characters, we are so fascinated to see how the audience hears the language differently through this gender-reversal, and to see if some audience members discover this story anew. We have been stunned and elated in rehearsal at how the gender reversal simultaneously works so well with the text (which we have only changed as necessary to accommodate the gender switches) and constantly reveals new aspects of this play to us. And we are so excited to share these discoveries with our audience.