Learning Programs Manager Jessica Hutchinson and Director of Education Marilyn Halperin spoke with Amanda Dehnert on her visit to CST in late November as she prepared for her upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet.
CST: As the adapter as well as the director, your task of making this four-hour play into an abridged 75-minute production must be daunting at first. How did you begin that process?
AMANDA DEHNERT: I think that in order to direct a play you have to have a personal response to it—that's just a fact about directing: you just look at a story and you say, "What do I care about?" Romeo and Juliet was actually very easy to cut down because what I care about is Romeo and Juliet—specifically, the chain of events that leads to their death. This story is like a speeding train: choices are made hastily, people react, and then they act right away. The characters are always confronting these forks in the road, and very quickly someone says, "Whoa, go left!" and nobody stops to think what's happening. Understanding the play as that kind of story helped me understand how to shape the language so that could be the main thing we're focusing on.
CST: You say in your introductory notes to the adapted script that you will focus on the "uncontrollable nature of events"—that speeding train you just mentioned. What led you to focus your vision on that idea?
AD: It's what I think happens in the script. They all make these decisions really quickly. You see these brief moments where somebody will stop and think. I think Romeo has the first one—"Methinks too early"—when he stops right before he goes into the party and says (and I'm paraphrasing here … ), "I think this isn't going to be a good idea, but I'm going to go anyway." Or Juliet, watching him climb out from her bedchamber window, says, "I think you look like you're going to be dead soon." Those few, brief moments told me that everything else in the script is the opposite of them—everything else is unconsidered and very fast. They're looking for solutions, they're looking for answers. And it's everybody in the play too; everybody jumps too fast. Lord Capulet with the hastening of the marriage; the Friar, with all his ridiculous schemes; the Nurse, a person who is actually pretty bright, who just decides "Sure, let's make this marriage [to Romeo] happen!" and then can decide, "No, I think you need to marry the other guy now." This jumping to conclusions way too fast is where the very first fight comes from. That fight comes out of nothing, nothing at all.
CST: Also in your introduction, you refer to Romeo and Juliet as a "morality play." What do you mean in this case by a "morality play," and what about this play leads you to say this?
AD: At the end of Romeo and Juliet, the audience is left with the question: how did that happen? How did it get there? It's written into the final speech, "Go hence and have more talk of these sad things." You can feel that the purpose is to now engage you with what you just saw; to ask yourself, why did it have to happen this way? How did all of those dominoes lead us here? Clearly what happened is wrong—that's what I mean by a morality play. Clearly what happened shouldn't have happened. How could all this have been prevented? Why didn't these kids have anybody they could really talk to? Why wasn't there an influence that slowed them down? So that's what I mean by "morality play" rather than the classical definition where you might have "The moral of the story is don't fall in love," or "The moral of the story is don't lose you're head." This play investigates something very basic about human nature, about the capacity in each of us to tumble, about all the moments in our lives when we do tumble and when we see those around us tumbling, about how we might change our behavior when we feel that we're tumbling.
That's what I think is also very relevant for a young audience. They live with uncontrollable urges of all kinds: romantic, social, political. They know how to react, and that's one of the beautiful things about being young, you know how to react without bounds. But you need to start to understand how to project the result of your actions forward two beats, or how to just know when you're jumping.
CST: That getting to the end and wondering why this all had to happen—isn't that in a sense true of tragedy in general?
AD: I think that it is particularly true here. In Othello, for example, everything that happens at the end of that play is really, really horrible but, you've been watching it happen; you've been watching exactly how it gets to that point all evening long. So you're seeing how human nature perverts itself and subverts itself, and you end up with awfulness, but I don't think you leave that play wondering how that happened. In Romeo and Juliet the characters' motivations are so pure. They go into this with nothing but the best of intentions, and their feelings are nothing but honest, and you are meant to believe that Romeo and Juliet are in love—their version of love. It is real; this is real for them. They then don't know how to navigate all that in this world in which they live. They can't do it, and they try and it ultimately fails—but it shouldn't. So I don't think it's true of all tragedies, but maybe it's true of all tragedies with central characters whose motives are pure, and with whom we can empathize.
CST: It's interesting, you mention the purity of intentions. Would you say that even the Nurse and the Friar in their way have those pure intentions?
AD: Yes, I think until Act III, everybody is operating for the best. And after the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, everybody starts just trying to survive. After that they just never get on top of it again. They still do, as human beings do, think they're doing what they do for the best. But the Friar's suggestion to Juliet to take the potion, for example, is really out of him wanting to be the hero. What rational adult could possibly think that this is the solution to this problem? And the Nurse, who actually says to Juliet, "Paris is really good looking, Romeo is a dishcloth to him"-that's simply not true. That can't be true. So while she may be trying to operate for the best, she's not operating well. Or Capulet saying that he'll cast Juliet out … The sheer repetition in that scene allows it to be what it is: an extreme, extreme reaction. He's got no business behaving that way.
CST: Is the Prince the only adult who actually chooses a course of moderation in banishing Romeo rather than sentencing him to death?
AD: It's interesting you ask that because at that time in Europe, banishment was extreme punishment because you would lose the entire protection of the law. You actually don't have a place to live. You are not safe. You have no way of making money unless you become a thief, and you're really kind of out there, wandering. So I need to make sure in this production that banishment is actually understood as a kind of death sentence. When Romeo says "Banishéd is banished from the world and world's exile is death," actually, he's right. Because you also didn't have permission to enter into another town. He goes to Mantua, which I believe in comparison to Verona, is the equivalent of a gas station. He wouldn't be able to get into an organized city without a letter of introduction. That letter is how you get in the door, how you get through the wall.
CST: Talk about Homeland Security!
AD: Exactly. We could follow this same notion all the way back to the Greek plays. There's no safety at all, you have no protection, you have no means. There's just nothing there. It takes the meaning of homelessness to a whole new level.
CST: Can you talk to us about your choices regarding the roles of the Friar and Lord Montague?
AD: I have essentially eliminated Lord Montague. Some of his lines are still in the play but Romeo doesn't have a dad. I'm using the Friar as that person in Romeo's life, which is really where the father-son relationship is anyway. It's a struggle I've always had with the play because the Montagues are actually so unrepresented in the script. Lord Montague basically abdicates his job as a father early on. There's the scene with Benevolio where he says (and I'm paraphrasing again), "Have you seen my son? What's up with him? He's all upset." Benevolio says "Yeah, I've seen him, he's upset. I don't know why, but I'll go find out for you." Exit Lord and Lady Montague, not to be seen again until the big fight in the square where they say barely anything and then go away again. Lord Montague comes on at the end and basically says: "My wife has died because Romeo is banished. Oh look, my son is dead." He doesn't really exist as a father. That always bugged me. And then when you cut the script down, it becomes even more apparent that he doesn't exist, so I wanted to explore a different way to focus of the characters and the relationships based on the words Shakespeare gives us.
CST: You're planning to use two musicians in non-speaking roles. Could you talk a bit about how music is a presence in the production?
AD: It's something I work with a lot. I like to work with live music because I think the theater is live, and I think that's what we do well. I do see this as a story. Music will allow it to be a story in a way that I think is helpful to the play. I'm not really working in a strict period, but I am working in a once-upon-a-time kind of land; it has a sense of ancientness but is still accessible to a modern audience. The device of a storyteller, someone who can look at the audience and say, "This is what's happening now" makes that all possible. You have to create mood and tone. Normally lights do that, but you don't need them. I actually think music does it better. It speaks a slightly different language.
CST: You have spent a healthy amount of your professional life with Shakespeare. What is it about these plays that still holds us? And why is important to introduce young people to these plays?
AD: The people in these plays are interesting. They do interesting things that are fundamental to the human experience. Couple that with some great ways of saying things that sometimes hit your ear just right and it doesn't feel antiquated, especially when it's spoken in a way that allows it to make sense. That's what I think Shakespeare's plays have as an edge over his contemporaries.
I think it's important to introduce these plays to young audiences because of that. I want people to want to go to the theater, and I want them to understand it as part of their world, not a rarefied world, not for other people. Fiction is important to the way you live your life, and theater is one of the ways that we deal with fiction. When you're dealing with people's early introductions to theater, it's really important that the play be good. Then you couple that with the fact that the characters really do behave in appropriately human ways; they do the things that people are supposed to do. Sometimes the things they do are extreme and sometimes they're unexpected, but they do what people do. That's important, because that's what keeps it honest. They speak about things in a way that opens your brain up, lets you perceive events in a deeper or more enlivening way than the way you talk in your everyday life.
CST: It sounds as if you had a formative experience with theater early in your life?
AD: Yes, A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theatre. I don't know how old I was, I was pretty young—and I got the life scared out of me by the Ghost of Christmas Future. I was apparently terrified and crying horribly and my mother didn't know what to do with me. But it was very exciting and obviously it really stuck with me. And then when I was probably 12 or 13, I saw a production of the "Scottish Play" [Macbeth] done by Chicago Shakespeare Theater back in its old home, which I don't remember a lot about except I was really worried about the Scottish guy [Macbeth] the whole time. I was just worried about this guy, this poor character. It really stuck with me how worried I was for him. Once I hit a certain point in my life, everything I've seen is a formative experience because it just all goes into the big stew of what it is that matters to you.