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KPBS Midday Edition

New 'Romeo And Juliet' Employs Gender-Blind Casting

Heather Warren is Juliet and Andrea Acuna is Romeo in the gender blind casting of Pickwick Players and PowPAC's new production of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
Adriana Zuniga-Williams
Heather Warren is Juliet and Andrea Acuna is Romeo in the gender blind casting of Pickwick Players and PowPAC's new production of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

Pickwick Players and PowPAC partner to bring Shakespeare to North County

New 'Romeo And Juliet' Employs Gender-Blind Casting
GUESTS: Tyler Hewes, 'Romeo and Juliet' director Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

This is KPBS midday edition. Maureen Cavanaugh All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players especially when it doesn't matter what your playing is a man or a woman. Pickwick players and POW pack of partnered on a new gender blind production of Romeo and Juliet for North County PBS arts reporter Beth Komando speaks with director Tyler Hughes about his decision on the casting of the play. Tyler you are currently directing a production of Romeo and Juliet and before we talk about your unique approach to this I want to ask you about your Pickwick players. This is a community theater group but I think people sometimes have misconceptions about what that means. So tell us what Pickwick players is all about Pickwick players and Powerpack pathways. Community Theater have done a coproduction on this Romeo and Juliet and both our community theaters in that they are amateur. They are nonprofits and they are open to actors and directors of all levels of experience. That said this isn't exactly Waiting for Guffman because Southern California is very interesting. We have a lot of very very well-trained actors who majored in theater maybe have a masters degree. Did professional work. But then for various reasons financial familial what have you. They've actually gone in different directions. While it technically makes them amateur in this production there is nothing amateurish about their performances for this Romeo and Juliet. You decided to go for gender blind casting. Correct. So what does that mean. And why is that an approach you wanted to take. It's funny the last show I directed was King Charles the Third. It was a great production by Mike Bartlett down at Cornell the playhouse. And the interesting thing was for a lot of the roles I had to really look for men and so when it came to Romeo and Juliet I thought well let's just turn into this kid and open it up to the wide breadth of both male and female actors. I'm not going to box myself in trying to find that one perfect actor to be Romeo when I have female actors who can assail the role and do brilliantly with it. So I opened it up for several of the roles to be either male or female and in this production we have a female Romeo a female Friar Lawrence a female Kuzio female Tybalt female Prince and female apothecary. Now all of the actors are women but the roles are still men. Romeo is still a young vivacious passionate fairly stupid boy Friar Lawrence is still a man of the cloth. There has been no gender change to the character. I have faith in each of the actors that they will portray the reality of these characters as the text presents it to. So we're at a time right now where casting roles is getting a lot of attention where there's a lot of focus on you know who gets cast for roles. So you don't seem to be casting for kind of a thematic reason you just seem to be casting for finding the best actor. Exactly. And I just kept pairing up women with women men with women women with women men with women. I just kept pairing up different combinations until I said ah Andrea Heather that's it that's my Romeo that's my Juliet. And now that you do have this gender blind casting in place have you found that the production feels different in some way are people reacting to it differently. Is it getting people to see it with fresh eyes. I hope it's getting people to see it with fresh eyes it certainly made me see it with fresh eyes the femininity that each of these actors bring to their roles and the work that they do to actually scale that back to bring the registers lower to put on a more masculine feel. The decisions that they make it has really informed how I see the play and how I see those characters. The one conscious decision I made when I had cast so many women in these iconic roles was I said to Georgiy our fight choreographer George is a professor over at Maisa and a brilliant choreographer said George these need to be brutal. These need to be the most vicious Kill Bill style fights we can possibly do because they're women. I don't want the audience to ever think Oh they're going to back away from the brutality of these moments. So we're Kuzio and Tybalt have a fantastically choreographed brutal fight. So we didn't back away at all from the more aggressive more masculine elements of the play for you mounting a contemporary production. What are the challenges you see and what are the reasons that you're drawn to it. For me it's always the language he is for my money the greatest writer in the English language the poetry the thematic elements just to be able to explore these characters in this text. It's evergreen. I never want to back away from that. And so an opportunity came up yeah I'm going to grab it. That doesn't mean that everyone's going to have an easy time with the language either actor or audience so that meant we had to really focus and Julia who is our dramaturge and text coach Julia did 12 years with drunk Shakespeare in New York. She is a text maven and every single word we explored got out our dictionaries went through the line notes from every copy of Romeo and Juliet I had. I had a stack yay. Hi. We're on the radio. That's about seven inches high of copies of Romeo and Juliet and we would go through the editorial notes and then Julia would just help us break down every single line and mine every joke. And there are a lot of really really dirty jokes and we embraced them fully. That was director Tyler Hughes speaking with PBS arts reporter Beth Accomando about the new production of Romeo and Juliet running through August 5th at pathways community theater.

Tyler Hewes loves Shakespeare and wants to find new ways to make the plays accessible to contemporary audiences. For his production of "Romeo and Juliet," he decided to go with gender-blind casting.

Gender swapping has been popular with modern adaptations of Shakespeare. "The Tempest" was adapted to the screen with Helen Mirren turning the male Prospero into Prospera in 2010. The Old Globe Theatre is currently staging "The Tempest" with Kate Burton as their Prospera.


But that's not what Hewes wanted to do with his current production about the Bard's famous star-crossed lovers. He decided to simply open his casting call to anyone so he could simply pick the best performers whether they were male or female, black or white. He said that decision freed him to think about the play and the characters differently.

This production of "Romeo and Juliet" is a collaboration between Hewes' Pickwick Players and PowPAC.

Pickwick Players and PowPAC Present 'Romeo and Juliet'

"Romeo and Juliet" runs weekends through Aug. 5 at PowPAC, Poway's Community Theatre, 13250 Poway Road, Poway. Tickets are available online here.