Inside Dorchester’s Strand Theater on a recent Saturday morning, an audience of about 60 curious people arrives for a sneak peek at Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s upcoming production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which kicks off the company’s 10th anniversary season. This rare view into a work-in-progress offers an opportunity to see how this production, which runs Oct. 2-Nov. 3, will provide new insight to the oft-told story of Shakespeare’s “star-cross’d lovers.”
“Everyone has so much ownership of this play,” says Allyn Burrows, Actors’ Shakespeare
Project’s artistic director, who is codirecting with longtime company member Bobbie Steinbach. “There are all those iconic lines that people know, but the really juicy stuff is underneath.”
To help get people to the “juicy stuff,” Burrows tries an experiment at the rehearsal, dividing the audience into the Capulets and Montagues, handing everyone a selection of Shakespearean insults, and then encouraging the crowd to shout them out.
ROMEO AND JULIET
Amid the cries of “foot-licker!,” “saucy!,” and “canker-blossom!,” cast members from “Romeo and Juliet” surge onto the stage, and the noise from the audience creates a sense of urgency for the fight scene that unfolds from the play.
At the end of the scene, as the actors take a break, Burrows tells the audience, “When words break down, violence erupts. In the play, Shakespeare never really tells us what the feud between the Capulets and Montagues is all about. What we’re left with is the result.”
While Burrows isn’t planning on having the audience shout insults during performances, he’s eager to get to the strong emotional extremes that fuel the story.
“Our job as directors is to take advantage of how personal this story is, and how connected people feel to it,” Burrows says.
Those extremes were exactly what appealed to Steinbach, who originally proposed that she and another company member, Jason Bowen, direct the play. “We’re different in so many ways,” she says. “Generation, background, sensibility. I thought that tension would make a potent mix.”
Actors’ Shakespeare Project is a unique theater company in that members are involved in shaping each season, meeting several times a year to suggest ideas for upcoming productions.
“The company meetings are wonderful brainstorming sessions where actors think like writers and producers,” says Burrows. “Passion is the engine that drives people in the theater, but we ask people to remove themselves from the project and think about what would work best for the company. It’s a kind of manufactured selflessness that works surprisingly well.”
Scheduling conflicts prevented Bowen from committing to directing, so Burrows stepped in to partner with Steinbach, but when another actor had to bow out as Romeo right before rehearsals started, Bowen moved into the leading role.
“I’m happy to be able to focus on taking on Romeo and making him mine,” says Bowen, who says he had a slight advantage because he’d been thinking so much about the production as a whole. “I think the question for me is: What is it about the electricity between these two people – Romeo and Juliet – that leads to the healing process between these two feuding families?”
The play requires the friction of people coming together and being torn apart, which made having two directors seem both exactly right and also challenging.
“We worried a little about the cast getting information from two different people,” Burrows says, “but when we were thinking about dividing up the scenes, I got the comical mechanics and Bobbie got the emotionally profound stuff.”
Steinbach laughs at Burrows’s description, but says the two directors reinforce each other. “Because we respect each other, we can let things happen in the rehearsal room, and when we disagree about something, we share it with the cast and it becomes another opportunity to collaborate.”
Back on stage, the actors run through the scene in which Romeo reunites with his friends after falling in love with Juliet. Although this is early in the rehearsal process, and the actors are still trying to remember their lines and their places on stage, the atmosphere is relaxed, with Maurice Parent as Mercutio playfully teasing his pal Romeo and mocking Juliet’s Nurse with unexpected physical comedy.
“This play is filled with gorgeous poetry,” says Steinbach, “but it’s also delightfully funny, which makes these characters familiar and brings the heartbreak that much closer to home.”
Steinbach, who has played Juliet’s Nurse in productions with two other theater companies, says the beauty of “Romeo and Juliet” is the opportunity to find so many nuances and interpret the characters’ responses in so many different ways.
“Once the actors move the words around in their bodies, it’s like a slot machine,” Burrows says. “There are so many ways to read these words; we hope to surprise the audience with what comes out.”