Los Angeles has never been particularly renowned as a town conducive to festival-grade professional Shakespeare. Whether it’s the city’s proximity to Hollywood and its blind ambivalence to what is in its own backyard, the collective trauma of force-fed, high school field-trip Bard, or a simple scarcity of seasoned directors and discerning audiences, it is safe to say that our classical theater tradition is not what one would call deeply rooted.
Such seeming inhospitableness is one reason why 28 years ago, when Ben Donenberg was launching what would eventually grow into today’s Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA), he reached out to his mentor John Langham, the legendary, long-running artistic director of both Ontario’s Stratford Festival and the Guthrie in Minneapolis.
Langham’s most valuable advice, Donenberg recalls, was simple: Don’t ever forget the connection between your company and its community.
Donenberg hasn’t. Being finely attuned to the city’s evolving cultural and social landscape has been a big part of SCLA’s artistic ethos, from its inaugural summer festival performances of Twelfth Night in Pershing Square to its return this year to the open-air setting of the West Los Angeles VA’s Japanese Garden, where the Center’s flapper-era staging of Romeo and Juliet is set to open on July 8.
SCLA has emerged as a nationally respected regional player noted as much for the audience-friendly accessibility of its outdoor productions as for its year-round educational programs that it conducts out of its downtown warehouse studio.
“The connection of our company and our artistic choices to community is why you do Shakespeare,” Donenberg declares matter-of-factly. “What you want to do is create interpretations of the plays that speak to as many people as possible. So when I work on a play, I pretend like it’s a new play, and that this guy Bill Shakespeare put a script down on my table and said, ‘This is about Los Angeles.’”
For the past three years, the man most responsible for adapting — and adopting — the Bard as an L.A. native son is the veteran U.K.- and New York-based director Kenn Sabberton. Sabberton’s contemporary L.A staging of As You Like It for SCLA was a critical and audience favorite two years ago. However, finding plausible Southern California corollaries to Verona’s feuding Montagues and Capulets turned out to be, Sabberton says, a challenge of a somewhat different magnitude.
“As obviously somebody who doesn’t really understand the politics here nor would purport to be an expert on it,” he admits, “I was [nevertheless] aware that there’s always been a kind of a gang culture in Los Angeles. So I picked up a book while I was in the U.K. called The Gangs of Los Angeles by William Dunne.”
The answer came in a chapter on how the fierce circulation wars between the newspaper publishing empires run by the Los Angeles Times’ Harry Chandler and the Los Angeles Examiner’s William Randolph Hearst spilled over into street corner turf violence between the gang-affiliated newsboys of the era. For future mafia chiefs like newsboy Mickey Cohen, L.A. journalism served as a kind of mobster apprenticeship.
“It’s a place where we can start," Sabberton continues. “It gives us the ability to understand where we are and to then unlock the play. … And then as you start to think the Capulets could be one newspaper and the Montagues the next, the people that we see in the play become partisans for one or the other, and that the fights can take place over newspaper headlines [or] over something as silly as where you stand.”
Both of those colorings are integral to Sabberton’s conceptual frame, particularly in the opening prologue that he is staging as a series escalating, dueling yellow headlines that have already transformed his theater-in-the-round version of Roaring Twenties Verona into a tinderbox before the audience even takes their seats.
And it doesn’t hurt that the 1920s fashions, music and dances contribute their own level of high-voltage spectacle, adding to the total theater experience. “It was a society where there was so much excitement and so much going on and so much money to be made that I think it gives us a good energy for the play," Sabberton observes. "Within Romeo and Juliet, people are fighting for their place in the world and for, you know, their name to go down in history.”
As for the rest — transforming the stubborn opacity of the play’s stately iambic pentameter into something translucent and affectively immediate — it is a simple matter of a lot of hard work regardless of which side of the Atlantic you hail from.
“Because ultimately, the people in a Shakespeare play are not really saying anything different from what we’d be saying ourselves," Sabberton says. "Although their vocabulary is different, the sentiment behind it and the feeling behind it and the understanding behind it is exactly the same.”
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Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ Romeo and Juliet begins July 13.
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