by Hannah Gunson McComb, dramaturg
Over a year ago, our director Julia Ashworth had thought about inviting Jose Cruz Gonzalez, a noted children’s theatre and bi-lingual playwright, to see Romeo y Julieta. Initially, the hope was that he would respond to it in its completion. As luck would have it, when Julia reached out to him in September of 2017, he was able to do much more than see it. At the end of last semester, he was able to come, meet, and workshop with us for an entire weekend.
Jose Cruz Gonzalez is, as was said, a noted playwright. Beyond his extensive work in children’s theatre, he’s also done a fair amount of community-based theatre and theatre for social change. His accolades include teaching theatre as a professor for California State University, Los Angeles, and South Coast Repertory Theatre’s playwright-in-residence. As we began mounting the task of cutting and translating William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, having the aid of someone so versed in all the theatrical practices we were using was a welcome support.
“I guess if I was Mormon, I’d be drinking Coke?” he laughed, humorously apologizing for bringing a cup of coffee to breakfast. Bright and early, Jose was willing to share his time and talents with the dramaturgs and playwrights at a breakfast meeting we held here on campus. Much as he would be for the rest of the weekend, he didn’t just anecdotally impart knowledge, but generously gave honest wisdom, advise and inspiration. Frequently, he spoke of our work (be it as a dramaturg, playwright, director, etc.) as a “service,” that we give of ourselves to the production itself and theatre as a whole. Jose then urged us to take care of ourselves (eating right, working out, sleeping) because, if this craft needs us and all that we can bring, then we had to have the energy and awareness to serve. In his words, our attitude should be one of “thank you for letting me write for you and your audience.”
Jose certainly continued to serve us. Only a few hours later, he spoke at a forum, open to everyone. In that forum, he shared his experiences working on his 2014 project, Dialogue Dialogos. Jose spent two years working with the Latino community in Santa Ana, California, to help this community share their voices. Dialogue Dialogos was created entirely from interviews held with members of the community. They shared story after story from their lives and, with that, they created the story of a family who learns to accept and heal after the death of a loved one. In that forum, we not only heard how Jose workshopped with them, held rehearsals, and eventually performed this piece, but he shared the extremes— the cathartic and the brutal. At its worst, Jose and those involved with the show witnessed immigration officials taking people out of rehearsal, and even death. But at its best? The only reason why those in that community (and I fear, in so many others) did not gravitate towards theatre is because they did not feel invited. So when Jose brought theatre to them, and they were able to express themselves in this art, those that performed and those that saw were elated and grateful to be a part of Dialogue Dialogos. They performed outside, without a traditional theatre space, people brought lawn chairs, and there was no “hushed reverence of an elite audience” to be found. Instead, there was a joyful atmosphere as those who needed it most, perhaps, gathered and watched a relatable piece of theatre.
Perhaps some of the most inspiring and strengthening words given to us in rehearsal by Jose were “Dare to suck.” Saturday morning, as the cast nervously began to work through some of the moments that scared us most (namely, the very end of the show) Jose reminded us with that simple phrase that perfection is… limiting. We’re scared, we’re unsure, maybe we’re self-conscious. But at this beginning stage in the process, we’re allowed to make mistakes in the name of discovery. Nothing remarkable happens without bravery. So the cast acted entirely on impulse, guided by a few prompts from Jose and Julia, to create powerful moments from the play without words. For the entire rehearsal, the cast didn’t even touch the script. Instead, we took the opening and closing scenes and explored them. We experimented with sounds— stomping, clapping, snapping, humming. I sat on the floor, picking out chords on my guitar, as the cast created pictures, or “tableaux,” (shown in above picture) from their scenes. In such an experimental atmosphere, inhibitions slowly slipped away. From that point on, as we have approached new scenes this semester, we have encouraged each other to “dare to suck.”
After a quick Sodalicious-and-tacos run, Jose met with Julia, our assistant director Mariah, our stage manager Cameron, Amelia— who plays “El Ama”— and myself in another conference room. With the script from our Google drive on the large screen in front of us, we slowly worked through the entire script. Painstakingly examining every line, we considered what was actively benefiting the show and how we could interpret the lines. However, our main focus was to make sure that we were honestly and accurately expressing the desired themes of this show: miscommunication and multi-culturalism. We were careful to take from the cast’s heritages to influence their characters; now, we were combing the script, looking for the best ways to make those influences prominent. Our final workshop with Jose ended, all of us exhausted and satisfied with the work we had accomplished.
Adapting and translating Shakespeare for children’s theatre has been a mighty undertaking. We knew from the start that such an effort would be required, and though we may have been capable of doing it ourselves, the warmth and wealth of expertise we received from Jose was immeasurably enriching to both Romeo y Julieta and our own practices. What has been added to us and the show is irreplaceable, and we’re now able to give you a more poignant, unique, and developed production.
So, take care of yourselves. Be aware of and serve your community. Dare to suck. And dare to fail. Though be careful on that last one, because Romeo and Julieta did that a little too well…