“It’s not worth it if there isn’t any blood on the floor.”
This infamous quote, attributed to Michael Kahn, former director of the Drama Division, has become the current mantra of the current third-year acting class, Group 39. The quote refers to the emotional commitment and vulnerability that is required when performing. Having focused solely on Shakespeare in acting class from September to spring break, we relied on this phrase to fight against the frequent temptation to make Shakespeare safe, pretty, and clean. There was a demand—through sheer immersion if nothing else—to absorb Shakespeare’s text so thoroughly that the language becomes dangerous, vulnerable, and genuinely alive. Through training not only with experienced and exceptional Juilliard faculty like Rebecca Guy, Richard Feldman, and Ralph Zito but also prestigious guest artists like Elizabeth Smith, Philip Quast, Harris Yulin, and Andrew Wade, the third-year actors have been propelled into this year’s Shakespeare repertory.
The two plays chosen for this year’s rep are Othello, directed by Rebecca Guy, a longtime faculty member here at Juilliard and an alum from Group 7, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Gus Kaikkonen, who directed this same group of actors last year in The Crucible. Kaikkonen’s contining relationship with Juilliard is a product of his respect for the program and its construction. “I’m very suspicious of education,” he admits, “and I’m very pleased to see the artisanal care with which the faculty treats the students here. It is extraordinarily impressive.”
Guy and Kaikkonen were selected as the directors for the Shakespeare slot this year for a variety of reasons, one of which was to enable a more in-depth exploration of the complex rehearsal process involved. “Gus and I know how the division works, so that, as we look at this very complicated scheduling puzzle that we’re playing with every day, we understand all of the elements that go into a particular decision at a particular moment,” Guy explains. Also, their friendly relationship has helped with greater communication. “We sit down and make a conscious effort to work on the whole project and not just our play,” she adds.
The plays themselves were also chosen with utmost care, in order to serve the strengths of the actors as well as obey the distinct limitations on the project. One particular strength of the actors here at Juilliard is, in fact, their youth, which Kaikkonen cites as his motivation to do Love’s Labour’s. “Most of the characters are these actors’ age,” he points out. “They can bring a lot of themselves to the play and drop the artifice, because the energy is something these actors all understand.” Perhaps the largest limitation on the project (which also presents an exciting challenge) is the Globe Theater set. All directors working in this slot must confine their concepts of space and time to the wooden mock-up of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater that serves as the universal set for all third-year Shakespeare projects. Guy says she was actually inspired by the set to choose Othello. “Jim [Houghton, director of the Drama Division] really wanted us to use the Globe space in order to keep it simple, to keep the focus on the actors and their work. And Othello is such an intimate story at the end of the day. How do you conceptionalize this? How do you put it someplace else? It’s that domestic tragedy at the heart of it that people talk about.”
Othello tells the fateful story of a successful and famous general whose life is systematically destroyed during the course of the play by his ensign, Iago. The plot is quick, violent, and fairly straightforward, but it is through the smaller domestic struggles that the real tragedy of Othello is revealed.
Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, relates the story of the king of Navarre and his three companions, Longaville, Dumaine, and Berowne, who begin the play by swearing an oath to study three years in the king’s palace, with the added provisos that they limit sleep, fast, and never see or have any contact with a woman. This oath is quickly put to the test as the princess of France arrives with her three beautiful companions to discuss diplomatic affairs with the king. Due to the oath, the princess and her ladies are forced to camp outside on the palace lawn, a decision which all four men quickly regret as each falls instantly in love with his own particular lady. The witty banter and playful deceits between the eight lovers make up the backbone of the plot, but this play, as is signature in Shakespearean comedies, also contains a rich subplot which surrounds the proud, verbose Spaniard Don Armado and his unrequited love for a peasant wench. Don Armado’s subplot soon intersects with the play’s other colorful characters. Mistakenly delivered love letters, disguise, and confusion make this comedy a gem of wordplay and sexual tension, with a devastating climax that transforms the proceedings into a coming-of-age story that gives depth to all the characters and leaves the audience wanting more.
The Shakespeare rep offerings also provide an opportunity for most of the third-year students to experience simultaneously a role of substantial size in one play and a supporting role in the other. A true group dynamic is born when all of the actors are as willing to listen and support silently in the background as they are to take the stage and propel the story forward. It is one of the most rewarding aspects of doing these two plays in repertory style.
Another inspiring and unique aspect of this project is its relationship with the Open Stages program, which brings hundreds of middle-school students to see Othello over the course of five student matinees. Lincoln Center Theater collaborates with faculty from the schools to teach the text of Othello throughout the school year, giving each student the chance to see the play as an educated audience member. There is a strong motivation during rehearsals to create a work that will inspire and keep the students on the edges of their seats. Guy describes how Othello speaks to today’s teenagers: “It’s one of the first experiences of being in the world, to have who one is be used to destroy one—and it’s something that we all can identify with, but especially in adolescence.” She adds, “We also did a lot of cutting, partly to keep the story moving forward, and partly so that the kids don’t have to literally get up and get on their bus.” All the actors want nothing more than to give the gift of life-altering language to these particular audiences; it is truly one of the most special aspects of the project.
Beginning about a month and a half ago, Group 39 hit the ground running, using all of the tools given by various teachers and special guest artists this year. A glorious ease has been found in the language—so much so that intention, action, and an emotional willingness to plumb the depths of joy and despair have led to dramatic and comedic bravery the likes of which would never have been possible in September. At least once every evening, there is some blood left on the rehearsal floor of Room 301—and truly, the size and scope of Shakespeare demands no less.