Building a World of Violence

a conversation with fight & intimacy director Ian Bond

We took a moment to ask Ian some questions about what it takes to imagine, and then create, the iconic and dangerous world of Montague versus Capulet…

Romeo and Juliet is famous for its feuding families and how they overrun the entire community of Verona with this conflict. How did you approach this from today’s mindset?

While there are certainly feuds today between families, most don’t involve frequent bloodshed or result in the city-wide destabilization that occurs in Romeo and Juliet. A lot of productions (West Side Story, Baz Luhrmann’s R+J) choose to explore the violence through the lens of gang warfare to help audiences understand the level of hatred and violence that exist between these two families and how it impacts the greater community. 

Our director, Sheila Daniels, had already envisioned that this production would be set in something akin to our contemporary world, so a lot of choices were clarified immediately – no swords, no fight training for characters, the possibility of gun violence. More importantly though, I began to consider what violence looks like in our world today. Obviously war, gang violence, and murder are very present globally, but I became more interested in exploring the casualness of violence in America, especially in youth spaces, and the deadliness of guns.

So how do you set up the world to both hold contemporary casual violence AND tell such an old story? 

Sheila came into the first production meeting with an idea to set the play largely on a broken down playground. I LOVE playgrounds and I have always wanted to put a fight on one. We immediately began to look for opportunities to highlight the ways in which this ancient brawl has been passed to a younger generation who don’t really understand the history of the feud, but have inherited the hatred and been told it’s ok to insult, demean, and hurt the people from the other family. 

I think that’s happening in our world as well, but not in a feuding context. American Gen Zers are growing up in an increasingly polarized political space. While Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers might mostly shun violence as an appropriate response, I think the normalization of violence is becoming real for young people. It’s the responsibility of adults to de-escalate that normalization.

Yes, there are so many ways in which that is reflected in Romeo and Juliet. Plus, speaking of normalization, there are several very well-known fights here – the opening “brawl” and the fight between Tybalt/Mercutio – those tend to come with certain expectations. How did you go about imagining those and creating those sequences anew?

I wanted the opening brawl to be big and exciting because it’s the launching piece for the show. It needs to feel like the opening number of a musical. In fact, we have 9 actors playing 11 parts in that fight alone. I really wanted it to evolve from kids on a playground messing around and dissing each other to a full on fight. I love watching clips of movies to generate ideas for movement, moments, or tone. My watch list for this scene included The Outsiders, Warriors, Green Street Hooligans, Anchorman, Police Story 2 (Jackie Chan), Kids, A Clockwork Orange, Hanna, and a great short film by a creator/stuntman named Omar Zaki. 

The fight in the middle of the show is a duel, a fight that derives from an honor/shame culture where fencing can settle the insult. But in the contemporary world of our play that doesn’t make as much sense, so I explored what it would feel like for Tybalt and Mercutio to engage in an aggressive form of one-upping that gets away from them. We had talked early on about if a gun would show up in the play and, if so, how. I felt if we were trying to represent youth culture it was really important to include gun violence. We then decided Mercutio was a veteran and it made sense for him to be a gun owner, so that brought a gun into the scene. Tybalt always felt to me like someone who carried a knife around “just because”. The mix of two armed people who decide to start an ego contest while others try to stop them is deadly.

When it comes to creating violence, I start with the given circumstances of the story to tell me what must happen: Who initiates the fight?  Who wins? Are there reversals within or is one person dominant throughout? Do any specific events need to happen (such as a wounding)? – Then I focus on the flow of movement between bodies and the use of space: Should this fight feel contained and brutal or thrilling and dynamic? I prefer not to plan too much out before I have the actors involved because their instincts and their boundaries are crucial parts of the creation process. I work best in collaboration and when I bring exciting ideas to actors they always reward me with their own brilliance.

Even beyond those specific fights, there is a sense of danger and violence in the world of this play. How do you make sure that is part of the collaborative storytelling onstage?

It’s about highlighting certain language, conveying the stakes of each moment, and emphasizing the moments of love and tenderness that push against the danger and violence.

The core of my process is emphasizing the humanity of the actors involved and building a space of trust and care between them. In order to present violence between characters, we as creators need to do the opposite. That trust results in a dance that looks like violence.