When Jo Mei, a member of this year’s graduating class (Group 40), moves into the real world after graduation, chances are she’ll be called on to summon a new character with each audition. So what better preparation than to portray nine different roles—from the Bishop of Ely and the King of France to the Dukes of Gloucester and Bourbon—in Shakespeare’s Henry V?
“Before we started, I was kind of unsure how I was going to be able to do it,” Mei admitted recently. “Some of the characters are more defined in the script than others, and the question was, ‘How do you distinguish that duke from this one?’ But what’s great to know is that after four years of Juilliard, with so much physical training and vocal training, I can read a script and get a feeling that a character’s weight is, say, in the back of their feet, and you start performing differently. The key to that character, their relationship to another character, how they might stand, the way they talk to people—suddenly you realize it’s all in the years of training Juilliard has given you.”
That confidence is precisely what James Houghton, the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division, and his staff hoped to bolster with the creation of a fourth-year repertory program. Running from February 9 through 20, the inaugural season will present Henry V in rotation with Boston Marriage, David Mamet’s comedy of manners about the conflicts and compromises of female relationships, and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, a nod to Lorraine Hansberry’sA Raisin in the Sun, about white flight and gentrification (which opened the fourth-year drama season in October).
The directors are, respectively, Niegel Smith, a founding member of 425D, a director’s lab, who recently completed a TCG New Generations Fellowship as artistic leadership associate at the Public Theater; Lucie Tiberghien, a Swiss-born former dancer who has remounted operas with the New York City Opera, the Washington Opera and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris; and Hal Brooks, who has directed several plays in the fourth-year Playwrights Festival, is the associate artistic director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference and also a member of the Lincoln Center’s Directors Lab.
Previous fourth-year students had ended their Juilliard tenures with a group project, most recently a three-year cycle of The Greeks, adapted by John Barton and Kenneth Cavander and directed by Brian Mertes, which chronicled the ancient Greeks’ mythic history by weaving together the works of Aeschylus, Euripides, Homer, and Sophocles.
Originally The Greeks was to be followed by another cycle, The Americans, with both original and established texts, “but ultimately I decided that the repertory would better serve the students,” Houghton said in a recent e-mail interview.
“Repertory tests the mettle of any actor, professional or otherwise, and it seemed like this was the perfect model in the perfect moment to provide an opportunity for each student to be fed and tested by the rigor and excitement of repertory,” he wrote. “It gives us the opportunity to better serve the individual needs of the students with a broader range of plays, three professional directors, and a scale that matches this penultimate moment for the student as they transition from student to professional.”
Houghton added that this repertory is “the single largest project we’ve done in recent years and we are grateful to the production team and the administration for taking on the vision and scope of it.”
That vision required some creative maneuvering from the scenic designer Alexis Distler, who was charged with creating three shows within a single budget by reusing, reinventing, and altering the same basic set for each production.
She said that her role as the rep scenic designer is basically the same as it is for any single play: “to collaborate with the directors and other designers to create a space in which the action of the plays can unfold.” The first challenge with rep, she added, “is to make these scenic changes within a one-hour turnover between shows. The second challenge is that inevitably things change throughout the rehearsal process, and because we are sharing scenery, a change in one show often affects the others. So I’ve had to be in constant communication with the directors, the scene shop, the paint shop, and the props shop to make sure that each of the productions gets what it needs. The three shows are quite different in scope and style, but I think we’ve come up with some exciting and simple solutions to help tell each story.”
The challenges, for both student and staff, didn’t end there. As in all Juilliard drama productions, the plays were cast by professors rather than through auditions.
“We assign all roles during the four years because it provides us the opportunity to align the educational needs for each student to a specific production or project,” Houghton said. “We are able to be a bit more prescriptive with each student and provide the right challenge at the right time and help the each student develop.”
In Clybourne Park, Ryan David O’Byrne does double duty as Russ, the owner, in 1959, of the home once owned by the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun, and as Dan, a construction worker 50 years later decked out with, he said, “a ’70s porn mustache and a tool belt.”
“I think the most obvious benefit is that we all get one more play in which we all have a really great role,” he said. “After four years, I like to think of myself as an actor who is capable of portraying any sort of person. My hope as an artist is to be able to share an experience—everyone’s experience. I don’t want to have to limit myself.”
Both Mei and O’Byrne acknowledged that the Drama Division’s rigorous class and rehearsal schedule limits many students’ ability to undertake professional work until after graduation. “The training is just so consuming that they don’t have any other time,” O’Byrne said. Still, he added, “the training is just so good that they don’t want for other things outside of the School.”
The caliber of direction is an additional benefit of repertory, Houghton said: “All three of these directors are working within the profession and bring with them a collective experience that is quite astonishing. The rep is an opportunity to expose our students to these working professionals, and it provides an extraordinary learning experience as each directors leads their own unique process.”
Although she is working with students who have scant professional experience, Lucie Tiberghien, who is directingBoston Marriage, said she has found her interaction with them to be nothing short of awe-inspiring.
“I was asked to take a look at the play, and I recognized immediately that it was a great piece of writing, but frankly I didn’t understand it at all,” she said. “It was pretty clear that it was more intelligent than I was, basically, and that I was going to need a thesaurus and dictionary to understand it. I didn’t know yet what the students were going to be capable of.”
It turned out she needn’t have worried. “It’s a very, very difficult text, and I find these actresses to be extremely intelligent in their ability to understand this,” she said, with a laugh. “I was actually kind of flabbergasted.”