Romeo & Juliet
- By gentleguide
- On Sat 09 Jun 2018
One of the highlights of the summer theatre season is the annual Shakespeare on the Lawn presentation from Iowa Stage at the Salisbury House and Gardens. This year’s production (running June 13 - 17) is the classic love story of Romeo and Juliet. Such iconic characters in such a classic venue means much work and dedication from those two lovers, and Taylor Millar and Benjamin Sheridan can’t wait for their opportunity at these roles.
As Juliet, Taylor Millar brings to life the most tragic ingenue in English theatre. Knowing the challenge ahead, she’s ready to dive in deep. “Most of my Shakespeare work has been either in class or behind the scenes. I assistant stage managed King Lear with RTI two years ago, I assistant directed and choreographed The Tempest at Iowa State last year, and the rest has been either class study or my own study.”
“Shakespeare in general requires a lot more preparation than anything else. As far as thinking about presentation it's hard not to get caught up in all the language when you act Shakespeare. There are some simple things that I think you should think about when performing Shakespeare like driving to the verbs and obeying the intentions of the punctuation because it helps to decipher what the text is trying to get at, but you have to remember under all that are human beings who are expressing universal wants and needs. When I walk into a rehearsal I try to focus solely on what the character wants and hope that all the language work that I've done before rehearsal comes through without having to think about it.”
Playing opposite Millar’s Juliet is Benjamin Sheridan as Romeo. Although it’s been almost a decade since his last experience onstage with Shakespeare (also at Salisbury House, playing Lucentio in Taming of the Shrew), he is well aware of the expectations of the role, and of what he has to do to rise to that level.
“Generally speaking, I have a similar approach to Shakespeare as I would any other work,” says Sheridan. “The difference is primarily in the technical preparation that Shakespeare requires. Taking the time to examine the meter and to be aware of how it impacts the color of lines is an essential added step. We're performing from the first folio version of the play so there have been the added challenges of working around 400-year-old spellings and antiquated words.”
“Something that I love about working on Shakespeare is that he gives you everything you need to know within the text (often including blocking and gestures). You don't need to worry about determining how to justify choices like you might need to in contemporary plays. In many ways, Shakespeare allows you to step into the words and let them do their magic.”
Since the play is being presented outdoors at the Salisbury House and Gardens, the actors have a few challenges that aren’t typical of your average stage show. Typically, you don’t have an acting area that’s potentially the size of a football field, and yet that’s one of the challenges facing the cast. Add in seating on the grounds (and on the “stage” area itself), plus utilizing the unique setting of the Salisbury mansion (and you KNOW they’re going to use the balcony for at least one scene!) and you get a one of a kind experience for both audience and performers.
Sheridan is enthusiastic about his chance in this venue. “Something that is both wonderful and challenging about performing in a place like Salisbury House is that there is nowhere to 'hide'. Unlike a proscenium stage where you can duck in and out of curtains or drops around entrances, the lawn forces you to be present all the time. What's more, the 'stage' is not your typical proscenium, thrust, tennis court, or round formation. Rather, it's a variation on each of those at any given moment. That puts a lot of pressure on the director and the actors to ensure strong images that serve many audience viewpoints.”
“Despite the various challenges, I am greatly looking forward to performing Romeo & Juliet outdoors at Salisbury House. One particular reason is the many references in the script to the natural world (stars, moon, and clouds). By being in a space where we can not only reference those elements, but explore them firsthand in concert with the ornate detail of the house and gardens, the world of the play may come alive in an uncommon way.”
For Millar (who gets to emote from that classic balcony), it’s also about relying on others to help her get her performance right, and the rest is simply doing justice to the material. “Luckily, I don't feel like I have to worry about the difficulties of the house too much. I have a little different preparation for these kinds of shows like sunscreen and hydration and bug spray, but luckily in the show I'm focusing pretty hard on the action and the story so I don't think the elements will phase me during the show. We also have to think about the audience being so close and not stepping on them. In general, you have to act to the space so everything will have to be bigger than it is in our tiny rehearsal space, but those are not things that worry me.”
“It's also nice to remember that the stage is living. The grass and dirt is going to be different every night, and you just have to mentally prepare for the inevitable inconsistencies. Staging in a thrust configuration is not easy. I'm very glad that I do not have to think about sight lines when staging. That's Brad and Kailen's job. [Director Brad Dell and Asst. Director Kailen Fleck] I just get to try things that feel right and if it doesn't look great Brad and Kailen will tell me and we get to try something different that will appeal to all sides of the audience. Above all though, I'm incredibly excited to use the house as our stage. Aside from just being a beautiful space, it's historic and feels just about as grand as Shakespeare's writing does. The space matches the script.”
For both actors, it comes down to the pleasure of playing two of the most well-known parts in theatre history. While some would think there might be pressure to live up to a certain standard, Millar and Sheridan both realize that they need to enjoy the moment most of all.
“Everybody has an opinion on Romeo and Juliet,” says Millar, “so you'll always want to live up to their idea of the show or make them realize how wonderful the show is. To handle that, I try to focus on discovering as much as I can about the show and not what others will think of the show.”
“I hope my stamp is going to be showing how much I love and cherish this character and play. Doing this play has made me fall even more in love with Juliet. Of course she has her faults, but we all do. And, I think her faults are honorable. Who can blame her for wanting to have agency and following the thing that makes her happiest? I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel with my performance. Shakespeare has already crafted an amazing character and I just have to treat her with love.”
“I don't know that I ever thought this prior to rehearsing this show, but I think a common perception is that Juliet is the classic wide-eyed, naive ingenue to everyone except her parents who she's a fourteen year-old brat to. She is so much more than that. She is full of complex layers. She wants control over her life and doesn't want to be a political pawn. She knows she loves Romeo and wants to be with him, but works very hard to resist rushing into their relationship knowing it's smarter to take it slow (even though she ultimately fails, but who can resist a dreamy Romeo?)”
“When Romeo screws up and kills Tybalt (spoiler alert!) she is the one who decides to take action and make a plan. She takes control. Just in general, she is human. She is awkward. She interrupts Romeo. She embarrasses herself. She doubts herself. She matures. And, ultimately, she has to make an incredibly hard decision to follow the treacherous yet more rewarding path. The reason I love her so much is that she can have all these quirks and embarrassing moments and still be beautiful, admirable, powerful, and find the thing that she lives and dies for.”
Sheridan is ready for his performance, and his role in the tradition the play has created. “For me, it's far less important to 'make my mark' on the role of Romeo than it is to be true to it. When an actor is charged with bringing a unique perceptive to a role, often times that is because there is enough ambiguity within the script to allow for that sort of exploration. Shakespeare, however, is very specific about the details he includes and the ones he leaves out. I've found that oftentimes all you truly need is already there in the text and anything outside of that is largely irrelevant. Obviously I hope that my own personal experiences can help bring life to the poetry, joy, and tragedy of the play. However, I see my experiences more as a catalyst for the role rather than the engine behind it.”
“On a personal note, there have been numerous moments during rehearsals where I step back and try to absorb the fact that I have the privilege of working on this pillar of a play. At one point, while rehearsing the famous balcony scene, Director Brad Dell paused us. He commented on the various people walking outside our rehearsal space who would innocently glance in through the large storefront windows, perhaps wondering for a moment what we were working on before continuing on their way. The thought that we were getting to work on one of the most beautiful, poetic scenes ever written struck a chord with all of us. Romeo & Juliet has withstood the test of time, generations, and cultures. The fact that I get to, in my own way, be a part of that tradition leaves me greatly humbled and thankful. I will carry that thankfulness with me at every rehearsal, every performance, and after.”
Romeo and Juliet is presented on June 13 - 17 by Iowa Stage Theatre Company. Performances are outdoors at the historic Salisbury House and Gardens, with doors opening at 6pm and the show starting at 7:30pm each evening. Tickets are available through the Salisbury House website (but I warn you, it’s traditionally a sell-out so grab your tickets NOW if you hope to see this fantastic show!)