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BYT Interviews: Creator & Cast of “R&J” @ Signature Theatre
March 1, 2013 | 11:19AM

All words: The Theatre Gay

Hot, smart and athletic. No, these are not the words describing my newest boy-toy, but descriptors for Signatures Theatre’s current remounting of the greatest love story ever told: “Romeo and Juliet.” I recently saw Signature’s sexy and provocative production of “R&J” (you can read the full review here). Absolutely riveted with the work I was seeing, I begged the editors to let me sit down with Joe Calarco, the director and writer of “R&J,” and Alex Mills, Student 1 (Romeo) in the show.

So, you’ve been working on this piece for a while. When it was first performed in the ’90s, how did you deal with the explicit gay romance, and scenes of gay marriage?

Joe Calarco: It was certainly provocative and arresting. I don’t think it upset people’s opinions in the theatre. But I do think that because of the nature of the story, and because the two boys are so petrified of the idea of kissing for the first time, it does feel fraught and dangerous. I will say in past productions, people have gasped, because for me I think “Do you think they wouldn’t kiss?” I mean, it’s a half-hour into the play The marriage sequence, interstingly, is played exactly the same as past productions, and hasn’t changed. And because it is such a political subject now, it appeals to a wider audience. Part of what was exciting then and now, is that love is love, and it doesn’t matter who’s feeling it. The fact is you are getting the very famous love story that happens to be played out by two men. You’re getting that it’s the same story.

Have you experienced anything at Signature right now that could be considered backlash? Anyone from the Westboro Baptist?

JC: (Chuckles) No. In the early 2000s there was an all female production of “R&J” that was picketed. That was the only show I know caused a problem. They were trying to get it shut down because it was done on public property. I was very surprised.

What was the rehearsal process like for “R&J?” Alex, how much input did you have in the additions to the script and this new production?

Alex Mills: Well, Joe did change the ending towards the end of rehearsal, but the script hasn’t really changed. The rehearsal was great. We didn’t just block it and say “Ok, now we’re just going to run it.” We were constantly fine tuning it. Joe would give us notes continually. So, the show that we learned was really solid. Up to a certain point, we knew the show very well by the time we had finished blocking. Going into runs it continued to gel.

JC: And about the new ending, Alex really dove in, and made it work. I knew he would. I mean we rehearsed it in something like 15 minutes. It was a big change, and he handled it well, which was a great gift to me. It speaks to his talent as an actor, and his intelligence.

Do you change the ending for every production or is this the first time?

JC: This is the first time. I make slight tweaks and cuts throughout the years. I made a massive changes to Act 2, before we took it to London in 2003, but the end for Student 1 was made for this production.

Alex, for you, what do you think is the best thing about D.C. as a theatre city?

AM: Oh, it’s the fact that you can work always. Essentially, if you work a couple of years, you can know everyone who is working, whether it’s a friend of a friend, or someone else. You realize, “Oh I do know you!” I came up here when I was 19, and started working. Luckily, I can support myself on my acting, and I don’t think that’s something New York can provide. I think D.C. cultivates young talent, and if you want to be an actor, you can come to DC and work as an actor. Which is what you want to do, right?

What was it like working with the four boys in such close quarters? Was there any conflict?

AM: Generally, and I don’t want to say generally, everything was great. Eight hours a day, six days a week, you have to get along, and if we didn’t, it would have been a horrifying process.

JC: I do feel like they genuinely get along… We had three sets of auditions to get these guys in, and it wasn’t until first read we were all in the same room together. So we were definitely blessed.

It’s nice to see a production that has so much breath in it. While working on the show, did you find it difficult to “let go” of the production as it went into performance?

JC: Well, their answer might be different than mine. I used to be an actor, so I love actors. The goal in the rehearsal is to find the frame of the show. Once we find the borders of the show, they can run around a lot. I continually give notes, I saw it last night and gave them some. To me, the goal is to let it go, and let the show grow, and it’ll naturally evolve. I think they all understand that they know the nature of the piece.

AM: I agree. The thing is, the rehearsal process was slow, but not slow in a bad way. Joe was very meticulous with what each scene requires, and needs to be. I didn’t find it stifling at all, I knew the points I needed to hit, and as long as I hit those, I could create my character. I think its both, I think he’s very hands on, and really lets you loose.

JC: I believe that structure gives you freedom. I will say, as the director, I feel that I am more meticulous with this show than others because this is unlike other performances.

With the current economic crisis, I am seeing a lot of things in theatre that are laden with spectacle, with very little heart. Do you think what will get people to come back to the theatre are shows like this that have love oozing out from it?

JC: I think story gets people into the theatre, I mean its what gets people into the movies. And Romeo and Juliet is a very good story. They’re [The Students] story of discovering the play itself, and of them growing into men. This production has more spectacle than it had before, and to me, the piece is partly about theatre, but I have veered away from that. What intersts me more is the story of these boys falling into this play. Magical things happen to them. Chris Lee, who lit this production, really explored that, and developing that. They fall into the story, and we need to take them to a different place. Tech and lights do tell part of the story. I remember pacing the theatre, and thinking how am I going to make this part of the story come alive. We had to redo part of it in tech rehearsal. Literally dragging the piano from the lobby into the theatre, so we could recompose it. Bottom line, I think good story gets people, and I think that is what will get people to come back.

R&J only plays for this next weekend. So go, go get out there and see some theatre!

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