About the author:
Since receiving her first Tony nomination for her Broadway debut as a demanding mother in 2003’s Well, Jayne Houdyshell has played some outlandish characters on the Great White Way. She lorded over Shiz University as Wicked’s Madame Morrible, drew laughs as the meddling Mae Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie and delivered her best “Broadway Baby” as Follies’ brassy Hattie Walker, which garnered Houdyshell a second Tony nod. Now, as the Nurse in director David Leveaux’s contemporary revival of Romeo and Juliet, the Topeka-born Broadway favorite is taking on the challenge of one of William Shakespeare greatest tragedies. Below, Houdyshell recounts how she became involved with the production, why the cast was encouraged to embrace the play’s comedy and why it’s an honor to bring this classic play to a new audience.
My journey with this production of Romeo and Juliet began in July 2012. I got a call from my agent wanting to know if I was interested in meeting with David Leveaux about playing the Nurse, and of course I said yes. Romeo and Juliet is a play that I love, the Nurse is a role I feel right for, and the chance to work with David Leveaux was more than enticing. My meeting with David and associate director J.V. Mercati was inspiring because David spoke with such passion and clarity about his vision for the play. I read a scene, and I guess it went well because the next day my agents received an official offer. I became more and more enthused as casting continued: All of the actors were artists for whom I had the greatest respect, and I was very excited about working with such an esteemed group.
One year after my first meeting with David, we gathered for our first day of rehearsal. The room was packed with all of these lovely actors, none of whom I had ever worked with. Most of us were new to one another. This element made initial rehearsals very stimulating—when one is working for the first time with people, everyone listens with great intensity, and the joy of discovery is made all the more wonderful by the newness of each voice.
David spoke with great eloquence about Romeo and Juliet being a story we think we know well, but our responsibility is to tell it with the freshness of a story unfolding for the first time, without knowing how it is going to end. He also discussed the speed with which he wanted to hear the tale told. There's no time to ruminate—these are people living their lives with fierce passion, joy and deep humanity. I remember him saying that the first act, in particular, is written as a comedy—the end is not to be played until it is evident that there can be no other outcome. He impressed on us the fact that there is no tragedy until something tragic actually happens, much later in the play. It is tempting to come to Romeo and Juliet with the attitude of participating in the saddest story ever told—a trap that can color everything that is said and done from the start.
Our four weeks in the rehearsal space were very busy with both fight and dance rehearsals happening in one area while scene work commenced in a second area. The initial staging for the play was organic, found by the actors on their feet while discovering the life and world of the play through the text. For the most part, no scene was physicalized the same way twice. No blocking was given or discussed. As our understanding of the play grew, our staging stayed in flux. This was a brilliant way of working, because the feeling that this story was happening for the first time was always true.
David, meanwhile, focused brilliantly on helping all of us find our way into the relationships that drive the story forward—and we also had the great privilege of working with Shakespeare coach Patsy Rodenburg to find the action of the play within the text. She is stellar in helping actors understand that when speaking Shakespeare, the word is action. Thought, action and word happen simultaneously, and it is imperative to always move forward with the text.
It was a heady and exciting time; we all were growing closer as a company as we became immersed in this glorious play. The entire tone for rehearsals was one of mutual respect and a growing affection for one another and for the work we were doing. Our first run-through was thrilling. How wonderful to see it all come together after so many weeks of working on the play in small sections and scenes! The entire company is truly terrific, and I have to say that Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom are brilliant leaders. They lead as true stars by my book, because they hold the bar high for us every day with their commitment to the play and their unfailing work ethic.
When we moved into the exquisitely restored and renovated Richard Rodgers Theatre, we were ready for the next step. As technical rehearsals began, we started to discover the physical world of this production that has been realized so beautifully for us by set designer Jesse Poleshuck, sound designer David Van Tiegham, lighting designer David Weiner and costume designer Fabio Toblini. It was also the moment when David Leveaux was able to start orchestrating stunning visual images that so eloquently assist in illuminating the story. It was inspiring to see all of those images come to light and life as David shepherded us toward previews. We now were confident with our storytelling, and it was time to learn to tell it the same way eight times a week. We had become able to repeatedly deliver the play with the fresh attack of a "first time" that the flexible rehearsal method instilled in our psyches.
Now, as we near opening night, the tweaks and changes are smaller and excitement is mounting. Our entire company is keenly aware of what an honor it is to perform this great and iconic play—though, hopefully, audiences will not view it as iconic, but experience it as an extraordinary story about love and passion, found and lost due to profoundly tragic human blindness…a timeless story that just happens to be told with some of the most beautiful words ever written or spoken.