Dispatch #2 from the R&J Rehearsal Hall: Repurposing, Re-creating

Cal Shakes Blogging Fellow Peter Selawsky continues to blog from inside the Romeo & Juliet rehearsal room.

In my last post, I summarized the main points raised by director Shana Cooper as she discussed her upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet with Cal Shakes staff. Today, I want to take a closer look at how her general vision for the play is being reflected in the details of the production’s set design. We were lucky enough to recently hear from set designer Dan Ostling (Cal Shakes’ productions of The Verona Project, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing) who shared some of his general thoughts about the play, and how they might relate to the specific needs of this production.

Ostling’s first observation was that the world Shakespeare created for Romeo and Juliet is “not what we immediately think about… it’s not perfume and flowers, it’s brutal.” More specifically, he pointed out that Renaissance Verona had the reputation of being a fortified, violent city. He imagines Verona as a fortified city filled with fortified houses and dangerous streets, torn by internecine strife and random violence where opposing forces meet in the public square—but with internal gardens and sanctuaries such as Juliet’s balcony or the Friar’s cell. The idea that love and beauty could grow up from the very heart of hate and violence may be why the story of the children of bitter enemies falling in love was ever considered remarkable in the first place, and may be why one of Shakespeare’s best-loved works still has the capacity to move us. Like director Cooper, Ostling emphasizes that the harshness of the young lovers’ surroundings not only endangers but highlights their love.

This focus on the bleakness of the surrounding world explains why Ostling envisions a bleak set with nothing superfluous: We “start from a bare stage and build up from there.” Indeed, Ostling claims to be the rare set designer with “a distrust of scenery,” refusing to allow any elements that do not prove themselves to be necessary. The set will feature barn wood that will be torched to look like reclaimed wood and worn, aged, rusted grates on the downstage corners of the stage. Both set and costume will display an appreciation for the possibilities of repurposed things, utilizing tension and distress of materials and creating an austere, militaristic vintage aesthetic. The stage will be built in the shape of an X, creating a neutral, public focal point for the collision of equal and opposing forces.

Set Model for Romeo and Juliet

While the set will have a very minimal backdrop, Dan is interested in including (potentially) mobile spaces where actors can perch. For example, the crew has discussed various possibilities for re-creating the famous balcony scene. Seen with fresh eyes, this moment has the potential to appear as an unexpected miracle, full of tender humor and the wonder of the discovery of love.

Romeo and Juliet opens at the Bruns Ampitheater on July 3 and runs through July 28. Tickets are available on the Cal Shakes website.

Big thanks go to Jay Yamada for making this blogging fellowship possible.

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