This is a mandatory hug rehearsal. “Now find someone you haven’t hugged, and hug them!” I redirect. Hugs abound. “Now, Romeo and Juliet, HUG!” They hug. “Finally!” I pronounce, “You guys actually touched each other! Now do that hug in the show! Let’s move on.”
I am directing middle-schoolers in Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET. In addition to the fact that I am returning to theatre work after a long absence, I now have to deal with the fact that middle-school boys get embarrassing hard-ons when they accidentally touch a girl. And since everyone knows that everyone of the opposite sex has COOTIES, every reference to kissing in the script means everyone gags.
And I’m insecure. Can the kids see I’m scared, and I am making this up as I go along? Every day seems to be translating Shakespeare into bite sized digestible chunks to my upper-middle class suburban kids.
I take a deep breath. “Okay, let’s pretend this play takes place at Verona High, the nicest private school in all of the country.” They nod. “And Juliet’s family, the Capulets, are more…” I stumble.
-”Conservative?” one kid quips.
-”YES! Conservative!” I enthuse. “And Romeo’s family is new to the school…”
-”They’re like ‘new-money’,” one girl adds.
Okay, so they got it.
The girl I had cast as the Nurse has the energy of a sloth watching television. Trying to explain to her that she is a servant of the family and needs to do things quickly elicits blank stares. Think, think, think! “Okay, let’s pretend your character is a cousin staying with the family and you’re in charge of Juliet. You’re like the teenage babysitter.” She perks up. “Can I have a cell phone and be talking on it all the time?” She begs. “Sure, as long as you don’t miss saying any of your lines.” Boom, all of a sudden, I have a girl acting out her eldest sister. “JULIET! Come, let’s AWAY. The strangers all are GONE!” She stamps her foot and drawls in a bored teenager voice. Good, that’s one battle down.
Benvolio gives the news to Romeo that Juliet is dead; however, my Benvolio gives the news like he’s telling a joke. “Benvolio,” I quietly direct, “You know when someone gets injured on the football field, what do the other teammates do?” -”They get on one knee,” he announces. -”Okay, you’re giving Romeo the biggest injury of his life. Could you go down on one knee and give him the respect that his injury deserves?” He nods solemnly. Another battle done.
How does one talk about the monumental themes in this play to kids??? “Who here has ever lost someone to death? Or a pet?” Several kids raise their hands. “My boxer died in April,” one of my twin boys quietly admits. “My grandma died,” a girl adds. “My friend has cancer and is going to die soon,” another girl whispers. I nod. “Okay,” I start, “You know when you think about your loved one -let’s take Pete’s pet boxer for instance- you don’t spend your time remembering his death. That’s no fun. But you replay the good times -when he was alive- over and over in your head, right? So when we tell this story about Romeo and Juliet, we’re basically telling the audience about how great their life was, how full of love and hope. And that’s what makes the ending so awful. That’s loss. We lost them. Can we tell the story that way?” Nodding abounds.
The day of the show comes. I can’t sleep. I feel so bad for giving such crappy blocking, I wish I had better costumes, I hope to god the lighting and sound technicians understand what kind of cues I meant. I feel so bad for letting the kids down, for giving them a mediocre production in which to say “Sorry Mom and Dad you wasted your money, because this show is going to suck.”
The theatre fills up. My kids are bouncing off walls backstage. I shimmy my way up to the lighting booth to watch undetected. I am nervous.
The show starts. The beginning lighting cues are off; the music cues never come. I panic for my disoriented kids. But all of a sudden, a fierceness unifies them. They tell the FUCKING story. They fall in love, they hope, they dream on stage. At one point, my Romeo sees me in the lighting booth as he’s crawling to his entrance at the back of the house. He looks up at me, “Well?” he asks with his eyes and shoulders. I give him the thumbs up. He breaks out into a huge smile, and on his cue, he runs to the stage to find out Juliet’s dead and to kill himself. He dies a glorious death, and his body lies limp on top of his Juliet. You know, that girl he couldn’t touch 2 weeks before.
And I tear up. My kids were amazing. Despite my doubts about my own work, I discovered that these children were my biggest teachers. They taught me that if I just believe in them and never think of them as lesser just because they’re young, they will go above and beyond to prove that they are as great as we adults think they are. And for me, it was great to be amongst the living again. Not just living to make ends meet, but those that live on the passion of being alive.