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CHICAGO PREMIERE

Shakespeare
in Love

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at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

based on the screenplay by Marc Norman + Tom Stoppard
adapted for the stage by Lee Hall
directed by Rachel Rockwell

Q&A with the Director

Director Rachel Rockwell spoke with the Chicago Shakespeare staff about her thoughts on Shakespeare in Love.

Rachel, as you've worked on this production, what have you discovered about this play that has surprised you?

When I started my work, I was setting out to do a romantic comedy. I so loved the film and have watched it countless times through that lens. But now what I also see is a play that is making an imperative, compelling statement about the importance of art, the power of art, in a society. Of course this is historical fiction, but the story it tells is true: art has the power to transform people—and communities, and cultures. Art inspires people to rise up against oppression, against prejudices, and bigotry. That's what art does.

What do these characters—and perhaps by extension, all of us—find in the theater?

I love the pretend nature of it, the Salieri / Mozart feel of it all, because none of this happened, but we want to believe that it could have. We want to believe that Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and other work came from this deep and abiding love. It's wonderful to watch Will's journey from a petulant braggart to someone we believe could be the writer of these words that we love so much. And Viola, who gets to live out the fantasy of what it would be like to get to be an actor in a troupe of players when it was illegal and forbidden. Fennyman is transformed from a person who sees theater only in terms of profit, to a person with a deep understanding of process and respect for the craft. To see Wabash with his profound stutter transform into eloquence personified as he speaks these beautiful words. In those moments with Fennyman and Wabash, we see someone transcend their own expectations of themselves. This is what I love so much about this story. How art is so transformative, and through process and truth in storytelling these characters become the best version of themselves.

What are your thoughts about the ways that the parallel plot lines—Will/Viola and Romeo/Juliet—work to tell this story?

Will and Viola are Romeo and Juliet—but with more common sense. Therefore they understand that suicide isn't an option; you have to fulfill your obligations in the world. There's sadness to the course they choose to take, but they remain alive. And they'll remain alive for one another in their mind's eye forever. She was able to live her dream, and will always have it to sustain her in her life in Virginia. And he will continue to be inspired by their love throughout the rest of his life. The pathos and wistfulness of their story doesn't overwhelm the hope. To me, it's a very hopeful ending.

What can you tell us about the music?

We're composing a new score for our production. The music of the time is useful as jumping off point, but it's also repetitive and lacking in romance. I want it to be heartbreakingly romantic. We're working with composer Neil Bartram, whose musical sense is so perfect for this. Neil is composing an entirely original score, for both underscoring and some vocal music, as well, based on Shakespeare's text. The cinematic quality of this script demands that we move from scene to scene fluidly, and so the music in the transitions has to keep the emotional ball in the air. Shakespeare's plays are structured like musicals, so underscoring the text with music only serves to enhance the emotional take-away for the audience. I was so fortunate early in my career to learn about the importance of this; listening to [Music Director] Roger Cantrell explain why every single instrument was used in underscoring in Hal Prince's Show Boat. The musical motif does so much work, functioning a lot like Shakespeare's language: it's all about dynamics; it's all about tempo, buoying the thought through to the end of the line.

Christopher Marlowe plays an interesting—and significant—role in this story, and particularly in the script adapted for the stage.

I love that Stoppard, Norman and book writer Lee Hall take all the mythology and scandal surrounding Marlowe's life and weave it, lovingly, into their own story. Marlowe is the force that shakes Will out of his writer's block and inspires him to push himself. In a delightful pub scene, Marlowe talks Will out of his ill-fated comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, and gives him the plot for Romeo and Juliet. In the stage production, we watch Marlowe prompt Will from the shadows (like Cyrano) with the words that his tongue-tied friend is searching for in his courtship of Viola. Marlowe's death inspires Will to write this incredibly powerful scene of Romeo's grief following Mercutio's death, written from the point of view of the boy/man who lacks emotional maturity and doesn't yet know how to channel his emotions into anything other than rage and despair. Marlowe returns to the story as a ghost—the same device that Shakespeare will return to time and time again. Shakespeare in Love gives that mythology swirling around Marlowe a purpose in a way that feels not scandalous, but lovely.

What do you hope that young people in particular will take from this experience?

I see this play showing how human emotions are timeless. These are the same feelings and the same struggles that we have now. We hear very contemporary language side by side with Shakespeare's exquisite words. They'll see Shakespeare's struggle in creating his art, and witness how relationships and life experiences inspire an artist to create a work of art, like Romeo and Juliet. In other words, that an Elizabethan playwright, or perhaps a composer of Baroque music, was once inspired by a girl he wanted to date. As the authors imagine his character, Shakespeare is so self-absorbed that, without Viola and their relationship, he would never have left a legacy. Will thought he was writing for himself, but Viola shows him that he is writing for the world. It goes beyond ego and becomes instead about creating a work of art that transcends history.

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in Love

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