Romeo and Juliet

October 31

December 22, 2019

CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

A Conversation with the Director

Artistic Director Barbara Gaines spoke with her cast and CST staff on the first day of rehearsal about her vision for Romeo and Juliet.

Though I’ve been directing Shakespeare for more than three decades now, this is the first time that I’ve directed Romeo and Juliet. I simply hadn’t yet found my way into it. But when I reread it a couple of years ago, I was overwhelmed. This time, I didn’t read it as a story primarily about young love. Instead, their relationship became a metaphor—a metaphor for the larger pain of an entire community, uprooted by conflict. A metaphor for lost innocence, for the dream of romance and true love. Romeo and Juliet are souls with extraordinary capacity for love. And when they die, we grieve, as I think we will grieve for everyone in this story who becomes a victim of violence. All that is good is savagely fragmented by the hatred between these two families. This is a play about violence destroying everything of value, everything that matters.

Shakespeare’s message in this play is one that is profoundly anti-violence. This story could take place here or in any town torn apart insensibly by all that divides us from one another. Any city suffering from too many young deaths sprung from hatred—hatreds of decades and centuries ago. Shakespeare calls these “ancient grudges.”

We’re not making a Romeo and Juliet about gangs, racial, or ethnic differences. I didn’t want the conflict to be rooted in the color of people’s skin. We cast both families to reflect the rich diversity we see in the world around us. But there are no real differences between them—only their “ancient grudge.” The parents hate, and they teach their children to hate—and they don’t even remember why.

We start out in the opening scene giving the servants' lines to the parents instead. Having the patriarchs of the Capulets and the Montagues start the fight, they are not only part of that fight, they are its instigators. Right from the first moments of this production, I want to establish this generational, truly tribal hatred. The stage erupts in flash violence—action that happens so fast you can’t think. An action that happens without any attention paid to what will happen if I do this. We’re all too familiar at this moment in history with the incendiary possibility of flash violence and the shock it leaves behind.

Young people senselessly die for their parents’ and their grandparents’ hatred. There is nothing romantic about these deaths, perpetuated across borders and decades. Ultimately, our hatreds will destroy even the most beautiful of hearts. We all have to fight against violence in our own ways. The thing that I can do in my life is to hopefully shift people’s perspective through art-making.

When I reread Romeo and Juliet, I kept picturing the work of Chicago painter Kerry James Marshall. Marshall changed the art world with his painting. What he paints is authentic and magnificent. Visually, it cuts right through your heart and goes right to the truth. The design of our production is very much inspired by Marshall’s use of color, heat, dynamic, and humanity.

Shakespeare places his story in Verona. It could be Verona, Illinois, it could be Verona, Italy. We open this production in early November and we close just before the New Year. But our story is set in August of 2020, nine months into the future. I placed it in the future for only one reason: because none of these deaths need to have happened. Individually, we all have to be responsible for them not happening, for ending violence in our own neighborhoods and our worlds. For me, there's possibility for change and, therefore, for hope.

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