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By Hannah Hessel Ratner, Audience Enrichment Manager
First times can be magical. This fall, nearly 5,000 students will see Romeo & Juliet—for many, it will be their first Shakespeare play. Not so long ago, the cast of Romeo & Juliet experienced the same thing. From classrooms to bedroom bookshelves, sitting in the audience to taking the stage, their experiences reflect something vital. After over 400 years, the work of Shakespeare is still sparking hope and excitement in young minds. As their stories show, the first experience with the text can be challenging but it only takes a small push—usually from a teacher or parent—to forge the connection.
“I would need Shakespeare to invent some more words and phrases to try and amply describe what it was like seeing his work for the first time. It’s hard to describe that experience… all I know is that it felt encompassing, important, and that I wanted more of it.” –Andrew Veenstra (Romeo)
“I had extremely little experience with the language and found it complicated and other-worldly. I was honestly terrified of it,” admitted Gregory Wooddell (Paris).
“After I got more comfortable with the language,” said Ryan Sellers (Ensemble), “I remember loving the action…What can I say? I was a young boy who wanted to see a fight and Shakespeare gave me that fight.”
Jeffrey Carlson (Mercutio) remembered his high school teacher. “He took the kid who sucked at sports and put him in a play: Romeo & Juliet….It changed my life.”
When assigned to read Romeo & Juliet at “a time when it was ‘cooler’ to pretend like you didn’t care,” Alex Mickiewicz (Tybalt) reflected, “I couldn’t help myself. I read the play several times and came into class with plenty of questions. My English teacher and I basically spent the 90-minute class having a one-on-one discussion.”
“I was not at all a fan of the written Shakespeare,” shared Keith Hamilton Cobb (Lord Capulet). “[It]only ultimately came to life for me once I had seen a performance or two, and I realized that the work was not written to be read. My aspirations shifted drastically from there.”
“The first time I encountered Romeo & Juliet was not as a play by Shakespeare, but as a piece of music,” recalled Ayana Workman (Juliet). “My mother, a dancer, played me the music from the ballet during a dance class while telling me the story. I was definitely too young to understand what true love was, but I began to understand its power.”
During his senior year of high school, Jimmie “JJ” Jeter (Benvolio) was cast as Tybalt: “I was terrified,” he remembered. “Then it happened: I saw the actor playing Romeo talking (my interpretation, of course, was flirting) with the actress playing Juliet. Well, I didn’t quite like that…I may have been fond of her. Our director said ‘go’ and it was as if every star in the universe collided. For the first time I felt Shakespeare’s language activate every molecule in my body and then some. It was an amazing ride.”
Romeo & Juliet may be first encountered most frequently when we’re young, but Emily Townley (Lady Montague) told a story that serves as a reminder—it is always someone’s first time. She remembers seeing a production and realizing, “The woman sitting next to me in the audience did not know the story! She had no idea how the play ended and was just heartbroken and horrified. She kept saying ‘I just can’t believe that happened!’ over and over again when the lights came up.”