A Shakespearean story performed in an apocalyptic setting would seem as sweet…or would it?
Elizabethtown College’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” features all of the elements one would expect from the classic tale – star-crossed lovers, epic combat, and a cautionary tale for the ages. The text remains unchanged, but many factors set it apart from the typical college Shakespeare production, including its devastated future world setting.
Notably, the production features a gender-blind cast, a convention often adopted by contemporary theaters presenting Shakespeare. This comes as a result of the college’s population being “roughly sixty percent to two-thirds female”, according to director Dr. Michael Swanson, making it a necessity for certain male roles to be played by females, else the production staff be faced with a lack of actors.
“You could say not having enough men would be a lemon,” said Swanson. “We decided, let’s make lemonade out of that and make the best we can of it. And it’s really kind of fascinating to see the classic Romeo and Juliet scenes with two women.”
This non-traditional casting gives the actors room to experiment with their characters, and has allowed them to bring different interpretations to the table than in traditionally gendered casting. Grace Gibson, a senior English Literature major playing Romeo, sees it as an opportunity to reinterpret her character’s head-over-heels moments as something deeper than simply teenage love.
“Initially I didn’t know whether I was going to be playing Romeo as male and just being a woman playing the male role, or if I could play a female Romeo,” Gibson said. “I got my wish, I get to play female Romeo…and I think that’s just really amazing that I get to portray a queer character in a story that’s very traditional and old, and usually very much heterosexual. And it…adds things to the way I’m playing my character, because I’m playing a sixteen year old queer girl, who is just realizing that she is allowed to like other girls, and that there are other girls who will reciprocate, and so…that is really part of the idolatry of Juliet, and the fact that she is so head over heels immediately.”
Aside from the upside of gender-blind casting, the show also offers students other perks – like the chance to unwind and have fun.
“We actually went around…at our first rehearsal [and] had to say our favorite thing about theater,” said Gibson, “And everyone had these deep reasons like, ‘It helps me forget all of my own struggles,’ and ‘I get to be someone I’m not and find refuge from myself’, and I’m like…not so deep guys! It’s just for fun!”
Kelty Tarvin, a history education major playing Paris, shares similar views on participating in the show.
“Theater is just very fun because you can kind of…go onto stage, be someone who you’re absolutely not, and people will watch you and applaud. And it’s kind of fun.”
However, the excitement of an experimental ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is slightly dampened by the knowledge that there may be no more shows performed at the college after this year.
It was announced over the summer that Elizabethtown would be cutting the theater major and minor from its list of educational offerings, citing a lack of interest as the reason for the decision. According to the school, no freshmen declared a theater major during the 2018-2019 school year, having dwindled to nothing from healthy numbers in the past. This decision also means that two full-time theatre professors and two adjunct staff members will lose their jobs at the end of the academic year.
Students of the college, both those participating in “Romeo and Juliet” and otherwise, have expressed concerns over the school’s decision. Many cited the fact that the importance of department goes far beyond simply the education and degrees provided by the theater major and minor.
“It makes me very sad and angry,” said Gibson, “Because these are people…who trained for this…and have built up a community through repeated productions with all these different people, and now they’re basically told that their jobs and what they do at the college isn’t important enough to keep them here. And that just is really terrible, and it’s not what I see based on the work they do. They do fantastic, life-changing work, and the college is just completely devaluing that.”
Students like Tarvin have also lost not only their creative outlet, but their jobs as well.
“It makes me sad,” said Tarvin, “Because all of the people involved with the department are really kind people and I’ve gotten to know them very well over the past year that I’ve been involved with the theater, and personally, obviously, I lost my hobby and my job, and they lost their job[s] too, and it’s kind of sad.”
Many students who participate in the department’s shows are not theater majors, but simply engage with the art because it’s enjoyable for them, and many have expressed that it is not simply the major that is an important part of the campus community.
“One of the reasons I think the administration is missing [in choosing to cut the department],” said Swanson, “Is that we have lots of people in our theater productions who are not theater majors or minors, but people who simply love the art and what it does for them and what it can do for an audience.”
According to Swanson, there are currently no plans in place to continue producing shows at the college once the department is officially eliminated, so students are making the best they can of what may be their final college theater show, and hope that audiences will enjoy the production they’ve worked hard to put on.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ also stars Delphi Aubrey as Juliet, Logan Crosby as Benvolio/Friar Laurence, and Gavin O’Brien as Mercutio. It runs October 31–November 2nd and November 7–8 at 8 p.m., and November 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the Tempest Theatre box office or by emailing email@example.com.