By STEVE KELLEY
The first time Romeo leans in to kiss Juliet the ooohs, aaahs and whoops tumble from the Franklin High School audience onto the stage. Teachers, wanting their students to be respectful, hiss soft “shhshes,” but the truth is, the actors encourage these responses. They feed off that buzz and, they believe the audience’s involvement makes the performance feel even more authentic.
They like it when students at the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s touring productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew yell “Don’t do it,” when Romeo begins to drink the poison and when audiences cheer when he kills Tybalt and groan when Mercutio dies.
When Lady Capulet spits at Juliet, the audience gasps and murmurs. At one performance an audience member yelled out, “No!” when Mercutio was stabbed.
“This is how it was for Shakespeare,” said Arjun Pande, who plays Mercutio. “Actors toured around the countryside and performed for the masses. The audiences were part of the productions. They yelled things like, ‘Kill him!’ to the actors.
“We look at our audiences like they are our 12th man. I understand when teachers are shhshing the students, but we like the energy. We play off that, even. And if they start talking, we feel like it’s our job to win them back.”
Pande, Tom Dewey, Maya Burton, Lexi Chapman, Rafael Molina and Sophie Franco are the six actors in this year’s touring company. Erin Murray directs and education associate Casey Brown coordinates the tour.
This cast not only does the heavy acting, it also does the heavy lifting. The company’s van is packed with sets that need to be arranged every day in a difference theater. The actors unload and set up their props. They do sound checks and practice their fight scenes to get a feel for how they should navigate the stage.
They apply their own makeup, get into costumes and into character. And, at the end of the 90-minutes performances, they conduct a question-and-answer session (talkback) before reloading the van and leaving for the tour’s next stop.
These are serious, accomplished actors, who are willing to work at their crafts no matter what the staging obstacles. They rehearsed for two months before taking these shows on the road. Watching them in the van, backstage and on stage, their affection for each other is obvious and they are grateful for this opportunity.
This is love’s labor found.
“Working with Seattle Shakes means so many things to me,” Franco said. “It means exercising every muscle in my body in pursuit of the stories.”
At certain stops they perform a bilingual production of The Taming of the Shrew, which means something especially important to Franco.
“This tour sits close to my heart,” she said, “because I get to perform Shakespeare in Spanish and I get to perform it for Latino children all across Washington. I get to show them that Latino actors exist and we’re present and we’re forces to be reckoned with.”
For the company, every day is another opening, another show. And no two days ever are the same.
Students from Royal City High School left their school at 6 a.m., traveling more 150 miles to see Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the show, the students stood and recited the prologue to the play to the actors, who were sitting on stage.
This spring, the touring company is crisscrossing the state for some 4700 miles, by the end of the tour they will have performed in front of about 17,000 students and faculty. For many in these audiences this will be their introduction to Shakespeare and, for some, it will be the first chapter in an enduring love affair with his works.
“Last year’s tour was the most rewarding opportunity of my career. There are few things more rewarding than watching a first-time audience member get carried away by the story,” said Dewey, who plays Tybalt, Peter and Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet. “The tour has afforded me that experience time and time again.”
At one talkback session, Pande asked the young audience if it would like to see more Shakespearean plays.
“Oh hell yeah!” a student shouted out.
And that enthusiasm from a new-found fan is exactly why they tour.