Eight actors enter a theater rehearsal studio in Montgomery, Alabama. The leader is Peter Howard, a guest artist at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF), who has been invited to facilitate the development of a community-outreach play that focuses on issues of youth violence.
“What are your goals for this project?” Peter asks. Robert Barry Fleming, an African-American actor who recently moved from New York City to Montgomery to study classical acting at the Shakespeare Festival, is the first to answer. “I want to know if the youth of Montgomery have an awareness of their community’s history. I want to know about racial relationships.” Others responded, “Do high school students feel safe in school? Do they feel safe at home? How often do they feel threatened? Is living with violence a ‘given’ for them? How do they resolve conflicts?”
As the director of the University of Alabama/Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s MFA Professional Actor Training Program, I feel it is important that these professionals-in-training examine the role theater plays in their community. I wanted the project to inspire contemporary youth to make personal connections between the physical conflicts of Shakespeare’s plays and their own experience.
Peter’s background is extensive. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Conference for Community and Justice and has worked with young people in arts programs that address issues of bias, bigotry and racism. He is also a founding member of Cornerstone Theatre—a multi-racial ensemble of artists in Los Angeles who have collaborated in the adaptation and performance of classic plays within urban and rural communities. The collaboration we are entering with the young people of Montgomery will be a first-time experience for us all—Peter included.
We named the project “Will and Reason,” and selected scenes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to explore the roots of conflict and the consequences of violent behavior. The student actors would adapt these scenes to reflect contemporary issues and perspectives and perform them at area schools.
We chose four diverse Montgomery-area high schools as collaborators on this project: Booker T. Washington (a public arts magnet school), St. James Academy (a private college-preparatory school), Mt. Meigs (a correctional facility for young people) and Tallassee (a public rural community school). ASF students visited these schools over several weeks to lead creative dramatic exercises. Some exercises were verbal, some written and some physically interactive, but all focused on exploring aspects of Romeo and Juliet. Through juxtaposing Shakespeare’s words with the ideas, opinions, stories, physical images, music and poetry of these high school students, we developed a 45-minute text to be performed by the actors. “Will and Reason” was a true collaboration—a mixing of Shakespearean dialogue with modern language, a blending of centuries-old characters with the voices of contemporary youth.
Throughout the process, Peter often reminded us of the guidelines for community-based theater: to provide a safe, nonjudging environment that encourages dialogue through focusing on a creative task. The voicing of diverse perspectives was an essential component of the workshops; the opportunity to ask questions and creatively explore options opened doors to a better understanding between the participants.
One of the first exercises we conducted with the high school students was to examine the genesis of the tension between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet.
The prologue of the play begins with the reference to the ancient grudge:
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.
Because Shakespeare gives no details about the nature of the grudge between the Capulet and Montague families, we first asked students to speculate on the source of such feelings. We asked the students at Mt. Meigs, for example, who were members of a creative writing class, to create a possible scenario for Shakespeare’s ancient grudge. The stories they composed included tales of disloyalty, theft, abduction and rape.
Students developed their own list of social factors that can create tension and division: fashion, personal looks, sports teams, musical preferences, cliques, dialect/language differences, jealousy, religion, race and sexual orientation. Then, after listing the ways Shakespeare created scenes of dramatic conflict, students created a list of conditions that might set the scene for real-life violence: hot day, nothing better to do, close proximity, absence of adults or authority figures, codes of honor, peer pressure, ego/reputation and access to weapons.
To help students understand how and why Shakespeare used poetic rhythms to create characters that moved toward violent acts, we discussed music and other poetic verse. For example, the stirring quality of military marches and school fight songs and the unsettling nature of film soundtracks such as Jaws and Friday the 13th can produce various emotional states in the listener. As one student from St. James observed, “There are warning signs. You can feel it coming or see it coming. Something clicks.” These moments of warning, these critical places of decision-making that led to violence in Romeo and Juliet, were the very moments that “Will and Reason” explored in the following five scenes created by our workshops.
Scene 1: “Why, how now, kinsman? Wherefore storm you so?” (Romeo and Juliet 1.5)
“Will and Reason” began with a traditional presentation of Shakespeare’s play with one exception—the party at the Capulet home was staged with contemporary entertainment. While local DJ Joey Adams scratched his way through a variety of rap and club records, ASF graduate actors portrayed invited guests.
The party is suddenly interrupted when the character Tybalt witnesses the meeting of Romeo and Juliet. After recognizing Romeo as an enemy and an intruder in the home, Tybalt attempts to confront Romeo. Tybalt’s uncle, old Capulet (Robert Barry Fleming), tells him to control his temper and reminds him of the penalty for violating the prince’s Zero-Tolerance Anti-Violence Act: death. Tybalt continues on his mission to confront Romeo, and old Capulet slaps him for being disobedient. A student from Booker T. Washington identified with Tybalt’s fate, “I get lectured all the time about violence from my parents ... well, my dad. You get threats from your parents about violence.”
Scene 2: “For now these hot days is the mad blood stirring.”(Romeo and Juliet 3.1)
Tybalt finally confronts Romeo in the street and challenges him to a sword fight. Students at three of the four schools perceived Romeo’s crashing of the Capulet party as the first in a series of events that led to a violent conclusion. No single event was perceived as being more important than another, and each event presented a range of choices that could have changed the outcome. Mt. Meigs students, however, felt the outcome was determined by fate and kept returning to the first offense as the reason for the violence. “Romeo never should have gone to that party,” one student said. “Now Tybalt’s got to take care of business.”
Choice versus fate became an important theme in the project. Shakespeare carefully crafted Romeo and Juliet so the characters move toward theatrical acts of violence. For the hundreds of years that the play has been performed, the same characters follow the same disastrous paths. After a series of violent acts occur in the play, the character Benvolio asks of Romeo, “Why dost thou stay?” In “Will and Reason” we decided to answer that question with, “Because it is what Shakespeare wrote.” Romeo is unable to make other choices because he is a character trapped in a play. People, however, are not characters in plays and are able to make other choices—this is a difference between theater and life.
Scene 3: “O, the blood is spilled of my dear kinsman.” (Romeo and Juliet 3.1)
Students at Booker T. Washington were asked to pick a moment from the play and create a group pose that would tell the story of that moment. One tableau depicted a young woman kneeling over a dead body, face contorted in a scream and a hand extended upward. Some adults in the room were eerily reminded of the famous newspaper photo taken during the shootings at Kent State in 1970. Other tableaux revealed moments of chaos, confusion, celebration, finger-pointing, loss, anger and blame. Some poses were of communities coming together and others of communities being torn apart.
It seemed important to the students that Romeo be and remain “pictured” as a hero. “Sometimes good people can do bad things if it’s for a good cause—like Robin Hood,” said one student at St. James Academy. The students at Tallassee High School were asked to act as witnesses to what happened on the street in Verona. Their testimonies were given in the voices of various characters and bystanders. One student spoke for the dead Mercutio:
“As a friend of Romeo and the Montagues, I hold their pride and name also. I did not show or feel afraid or scared, just angry. I knew Romeo wouldn’t take up for himself or fight. So, I took the glory of fighting for him. As I remember, Romeo tried to come between us two. Tybalt drew his sword and penetrated my skin as I was behind Romeo. Romeo didn’t mean to get me hurt. My stomach was cut wide open and bleeding. Then I said a few words and died in Romeo’s arms.”
Scene 4: “This shall determine that.” (Romeo and Juliet 3.1)
In this scene we presented the events of the play through the format of a contemporary television talk show called “Viewpoints” in which the high school students translated Shakespeare’s crime scene into modern language. We later compiled their interpretations into a re-enactment that included dialogue between Romeo and Tybalt:
ROMEO: Tybalt, I don’t like how you in my grill, but I won’t fight you. I ain’t no punk. You don’t know nothin’ about me. So I’m leavin’ fool. Hollar at ya.
TYBALT: Romeo, you dissin’ me? I’m fixin’ to open up a can of whoop ...
ROMEO: Tybalt, I’m not frontin’ on you. You my boy and you don’t even know why you my boy. So, Capulet, until you do know, just chill.
The re-enacted crime was scrutinized by an imaginary talk show host and her two guests, a boot camp director and a child psychologist. The two guests took turns addressing the problem of youth violence. Their advice, written by the high school students, reflected the radical differences between a punitive disciplinarian and a nurturer:
THE MAJOR: The law is the law. Justice demands Romeo’s death.
THE PSYCHOLOGIST: We have to remember these are children. We are quick to make rules but negligent in giving them the tools to do the right thing.
Scene 5: “O, I am fortune’s fool.” (Romeo and Juliet 3.1)
During the performance, the actors interrupted the above talk-show scene with the breaking news of the prince’s sentence for Romeo: banishment rather than death. Preparing the scene, we asked students what Romeo might be thinking at this time. Shakespeare writes that “banishment” to Romeo was the same as death because he will never see Juliet again. A student from St. James wrote about Romeo’s thoughts:
“Pray, why am I caught between family honor and love. How will fair Juliet ever love me when I have just slain her cousin? I am now a murderer, a villain. I have acted on impulse and it will be my downfall. I have blood on my hands, blood that is the same that runs through my beloved Juliet. What shall she think of me?”
The students at Mt. Meigs spoke and wrote of banishment and remorse from their own experience of incarceration. We chose to end “Will and Reason” with the performance of short poems written by the young men at Mt. Meigs (these poems were written through a separate series of workshops sponsored by the Alabama Writers’ Forum). Excerpts from two of the poems follow:
I am locked up in the cell in my head.
I can feel the filth in my thoughts.
I want to be on the outside,
but I cannot find the key. ...
(from “Locked Up,” by J.E.L.)
... I know the bloodshed that left many dead,
and the mothers who shed unpleasant tears.
I want them to know, as I speak, I weep.
(from “Many Nights,” by T.C.)
Sharing “Will and Reason” with an audience completed the communication circle. Through the question and answer sessions that followed the performances, mixed audiences of adults and high school students asked questions and offered additional perspectives about the nature of human violence.
“Will and Reason” provided an opportunity for ASF graduate actors, Montgomery-area high school students, and audience members to consider the similarities and differences between violence in Elizabethan England and violence in the modern world and, more importantly, the similarities and differences between theatrical violence and real-life violence.
“Will and Reason” also allowed the youth in this community to consider their life choices as the living connection between humanity’s past and future. In the words of a student from Booker T. Washington, “I don’t feel so alone. I didn’t know people hundreds of years ago were going through the same thing.”
Colleen Kelly is the director of the University of Alabama/Alabama Shakespeare Festival MFA/Professional Acting Program.