Publicize the breath of the numerous arts organizations in residence at Chautauqua Institution.
Initiate a three-year inter-arts collaboration to create and produce original and reimagined works.
Utilizing the creative and administrative staff to put on a one-night-only performance for a crowd of approximately 4,000.
Finding time to get the 200-plus cast and creatives together in the same room and on the same page.
Get more rehearsal time during next year’s collaboration.
These days, any revamp of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is brushed aside by some theatregoers with an annoyed, “This again?” The iconic tragedy has been remixed and retold onstage countless times—including in the current revival on Broadway—and yet another installation of theR&J franchise hits movie theatres this month.
Yet, at Chautauqua Institution—an education center nestled in Western New York and often compared to the fantastical village of Brigadoon (the Institution comes alive with performances for nine weeks every summer)—various artistic departments have banded together to retell Shakespeare’s classic in a way most viewers have probably never seen. Instead of just one Juliet dying, two additional Juliets, portrayed by a dancer and opera singer, perish with her. And, of course, three Romeos are slumped over by their sweethearts’ sides.
It began when the Institution’s president, Tom Becker, asked for a three-year, cross-disciplinary initiative to demonstrate the Institution’s artistic capabilities to a larger audience. With that edict, the company heads, who usually operate independent of each other, decided to use Romeo and Juliet as their first joint project, which bowed this past July 27. The companies represented onstage included Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, Chautauqua Theater Company, Chautauqua Opera Company, North Carolina Dance Theatre and Chautauqua Festival Dancers, and Chautauqua Music Festival.
“Many arts organizations today, whether it’s orchestras, ballet companies or theatre companies, are recognizing that they need to rediscover and reinvest in new audience opportunities,” says Vivienne Benesch, Chautauqua Theater Company artistic director. “This sort of event does exactly that. You have the opportunity to cross-pollinate not only your artists, but your audience.”
Benesch approached The Romeo & Juliet Project as an amalgam of various Romeo and Julietaesthetics across disciplines. “This was a piece that each department felt they could make a major contribution to,” Benesch explains. “It was a great starting point from our audience’s perspective, because it’s a known title—everyone from eighth grade on has some relationship to the play.”
Inter-arts collaboration is nothing new for Benesch or for the Institution. In 2008, CTC and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra mounted a production of André Previn’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. With the addition of the School of Music singers, the three companies then produced Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 2010. In R&J, however, the artistic heads saw the opportunity to create a truly original production, on a much larger scale.
Benesch asked the various departments to come up with an R&J hit list—the must-have arias, dances and speeches that needed to be included in the production—keeping in mind that the piece was not to exceed two-and-a-half-hours. What she ended up with included segments not only of Shakespeare’s text but of Charles Gounod’s opera, Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral work, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, and the song “Star-Crossed Lovers” by Duke Ellington, among others.
The goal of stitching together the project was to not repeat any scenes; Benesch made sure that each song, dance or speech transitioned smoothly into the next. In the intensive picking and choosing, such characters as Paris, Lady Capulet and Benvolio were cut, and the infamous “Queen Mab” speech came from Gounod rather than Shakespeare. Benesch explains her reasoning: “It was always important to me that this not be a collage of, ‘Now the dancers do this, now the actors do this.’”
With a simplified through line focused on the two young lovers, Shakespeare’s text was often layered on top of orchestral pieces. The famous balcony scene started with the “acting” couple—“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” was left intact; as the scene progressed, the “singing” duo entered and carried on the moment with Gounod’s “O nuit divine!” Finishing the scene, a third pair of lovers performed a pas de deux to Prokofiev’s “Love Dance.”
With close to 150 performers involved, the various administrative and creative staffsencountered their biggest obstacle: logistics. Timothy Muffitt, the music director of the Music School Festival Orchestra and conductor for R&J, is a 17-year veteran of Chautauqua. Despite having under his belt conducting gigs at the Lansing Symphony Orchestra in Michigan and the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra in Louisiana, Muffitt admits that R&J was a whole other beast.
“I’ve certainly done operas for huge audiences,” he says, laughing, “but never anything that involved all the forces—theatre, opera, ballet and symphony!” And with invention comes a lot of paperwork and scheduling, which proved to be one of the more dramatic aspects of the initiative: “There were many other projects outside of R&J taking place.”
In the week leading up to July’s one-night-only event in the Institution’s amphitheatre, a production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park was in progress, the Chautauqua Dance Company had two performances, the School of Music presented a concert and the Chautauqua Opera Company was putting on Falstaff. The full R&J cast, made up of both students and professionals, didn’t practice together until the dress rehearsal, three days before the performance. They wouldn’t all meet again until the day of the show.
For the three couples playing Romeo and Juliet, forming a connection onstage had to happen in the moment. “The process was much more condensed than normal,” admits Arielle Goldman, the “acting” Juliet and a CTC conservatory member. “You couldn’t really allow yourself the luxury of stepping into the character. I think, holding the hands of the other two Juliets, that all three of us jumped and hoped that something would pull us up instead of crashing.”
In the weeks following the performance, the various companies began to debrief and to figure out how to overcome the challenges of the project in time for a cooperative undertaking next year. The 2014 production, tentatively titled The American Expansionism Project, to be directed by CTC’s associate artistic director Andrew Borba, will feature an abstract narrative starting at the time of the Louisiana Purchase up through a to-be-decided time; Benesch notes they are considering the 1969 moon landing as an ending point. American Expansionism will include an additional player: visual art elements from the Chautauqua School of Art.
Despite the kinks still to be worked out with this sort of endeavor, Benesch believes that inter-arts collaboration is truly the future of artistic communities. With tears in her eyes, she shares an e-mail she received from an audience member who attended R&J. It reads: “Isn’t it lovely to imagine Shakespeare, Gounod, Bernstein and Prokofiev with their arms around each other’s shoulders, striding down the Chautauqua brick path in the night?”
A freelance journalist and editor, Josh Austin recently graduated with his master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University.