This Friday marks the opening night of an unconventional production of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.”
In an unexpected departure from Yale’s theatrical productions, “Romeo and Juliet” will take place outside, with the cast, crew and audience walking from scene to scene over the course of two and a half hours. The show, which will span roughly half a mile, is produced by Sarah Cohen ’18 and co-directed by Will Viederman ’17 and Aviva Abusch ’18. Viederman and Abusch first conceived of the concept for the show in March 2016, noting that they wanted to take advantage of Yale’s neo-Gothic architecture as a natural setting for the performance.
“There’s a whole lot of skepticism about ‘Romeo and Juliet’ especially with people our age,” Abusch said. “I think there’s something really cool about throwing an audience into this play that has all these preconceived notions and seeing how it changes their perceptions. How does being put in the characters’ shoes change their impression?”
Although the script has been trimmed for the sake of time, the text will remain otherwise unaltered from its original form. The cast was responsible for developing an understanding of the text — its archaic words, allusions and jokes — in order to convey the timeless feeling underneath. In spite of the production’s spring debut, its cast was selected in the first casting cycle, which took place in August. The cast and crew have been involved in rehearsals for the entirety of the 2016–17 academic year.
The architectural layout of Cross Campus was initially identified as an ideal space for the show, with Sterling Memorial Library serving as the church and the two Berkeley courtyards as the houses of the Montague and Capulet families, Abusch said. However, after hosting callbacks in the Watson Center, Abusch said she and Viederman were so taken with the space that they decided to shift the entire production to the area surrounding Hillhouse Avenue.
“I’ve always thought that Yale’s architecture particularly lent itself to ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” said Viederman, who was also inspired by his experience with previous “wandering” Shakespeare plays. Similarly, Abusch wanted to stage a wandering production of Shakespeare since age 13, when she saw “Much Ado About Nothing,” another wandering production that was performed in New York City’s Central Park.
While the show has had some unique aspects, such as natural lighting and pre-existing architecture, it has also faced unique challenges. Abusch and Viederman have met with the Yale police force and fire marshals several times throughout the year in order to ensure the safety of the cast, crew and audience, Viederman said. The show will feature large-scale combat scenes with swords, he said, the logistics of which they discussed at length with police. A police officer will be present at each staging of the show.
The audience will be capped at 40 attendees in order to preserve the intimate feeling of the show and allow each audience member a full experience. Oliver Shoulson ’20, who will play the part of Romeo opposite Isabella Giovannini ’18 as Juliet, said he is excited to see how the audience will interact with each performance.
“I imagine each audience will have its own particular character in an even bigger way than in a traditional theater setting because it can manifest in their physical choices,” Shoulson said. “Will they disperse around the scene? Surround us? We’ll see.”
While the show will feature the original Shakespearean text, its place in time is left to the audience’s interpretation. Abusch and Viederman said they aim to give “Romeo and Juliet” new life by emphasizing its universal themes rather than its temporal place in the theatrical canon.
Aware of the challenges in engaging an audience in such a well-known show, the co-directors said the added physicality of walking with the actors and inhabiting the same space will give viewers new insight into the play.
“Romeo and Juliet” will run from April 21 to 23 at 6:30 p.m., meeting at 17 Hillhouse Ave.