ArtsLink: Facing Difficulty of Contributing to Current Conversation when There is Nothing Left to be Said

By Jason Young on June 04, 2020 from A&E Blog via

I don’t know how to contribute to the current conversation because I don’t know what is left to say. 
Two months ago the majority of my professional life shuttered. Two weeks ago part of my past fell apart when my alma mater eliminated their performing arts degree programs. Now it seems like our whole world is burning. Every time I turn on the news, I feel like I am watching the third and fourth acts of a Shakespearean tragedy. 
This past fall I had the pleasure of directing a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In fact, it is the last tour that our Rustic Mechanicals had out on the road. It was such a pleasure because, in true Mechanicals fashion, we took some major risks, swung for the fences; and those risks paid off in a big way. 
We set out to tell the story in a very sexy and very bloody way and decided to put a major emphasis on the crowd psychology in the play. 
Crowd psychology is the study of crowd behavior. Crowd behavior is heavily influenced by the loss of responsibility of the individual and the universality of group behavior; both of which increase with the size of the crowd. Which is to say, the bigger the crowd, the less responsible people feel they need to be. 
Many of you may have read Julius Caesar in high school like I did sophomore year. From the discomfort of a student desk and blurred within the small type of a textbook, the play doesn’t seem very engaging; but it is. It is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most engaging histories. From the jump the audience is dropped into a rapidly deteriorating world, where an ever-increasing threat of society-altering violence looms. The status quo lingers on the precipice of complete collapse, and the power to light the match or deflate the chaos seems to exist in the words of great orators.  And while I think this is true to varying degrees in all of Shakespeare’s plays, the audience of Julius Caesar is this show’s most important character because the audience is Rome. 
With that in mind, we challenged ourselves to create a production we believed got to the heart of Shakespeare’s great play by manipulating our audiences to behave in a way we chose based upon the way we approached and performed certain scenes. 
Let me explain. 
While the production played multiple schools and public venues all across the state, I want to tell you about one show we had that encapsulated the entire tour. We were at a public high school in our northern panhandle on a Friday in mid-October. The show began at 9:30 a.m., and we were playing to a near-capacity crowd of over 400 high school students. We started with an invitation to the audience to participate with the production as we invite them and cue them throughout the performance. We were well aware those types of invitations gave the teachers in the room pause, but we made them anyway. 
The play opens to a crowd. Caesar is on his way back to Rome, and a crowd is gathering to celebrate his most recent military victory over Pompey, a victory that put an end to the empire’s first triumvirate. It’s a celebratory moment like the parades we see for sports teams after a championship has been won. So we started with a song, a song that our crowd knew, a song they could sing: Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” 
Stomp, Stomp, Clap…Stomp, Stomp, Clap…
I know as you read those words you can literally hear them. You can hear the feet on metal bleachers; you can hear the smack of the hands. As I write those words, I remember how deafening that auditorium was that fall morning, how loud and enthusiastic the students instantly became. It certainly didn’t feel like the opening moments of a 400-year-old play: It felt like pre-game at the WVU Coliseum when the Jayhawks are in town. 
Cassandra Hackbart, as Cassius, had the inauspicious task of silencing the mob we had created so she could deliver the play’s opening lines of dialogue and we could move forward with the story. The crowd would be back, but a lot of things needed to happen before we would see them again. 
Caesar comes home; rumors begin to swirl that he is going to accept a crown and become the emperor of Rome putting an end to the power of the senate and the Democracy that the empire’s true patriots valued over their own lives. Patriots like Brutus, the play’s central character and one of Rome’s most respected citizens. To make a wonderfully complex plot very simple, Brutus and a group of conspiring senators assassinate Caesar, bathe their weapons and their hands in his blood, and carry his body to the center of town to address the citizens who have now gathered again into a crowd. 
At this point in our production, we snuck a couple of actors into the audience to cue the students and establish the pulse of the scene. We also turned the house lights on and lit the stage with simple white light to eliminate any barriers that may have previously existed, to remind everyone that we were in the same room, breathing the same air, in the middle of the same story. 
The mood is very different this time. The citizens’ champion has been slaughtered, and people want to know why. 
Brutus goes first. It takes him 36 lines to convince a crowd that started the scene aggressively demanding answers to accept that Caesar had to die because he was ambitious. At this point the conspirators are victorious: Their threat is neutralized, democracy is restored, and the electorate is on their side. Until Brutus makes what would ultimately be his fatal mistake. He gives up the microphone, offering it to Caesar’s best friend, the publicly popular war hero Marc Antony. Brutus and the conspirators then leave, imploring the crowd to stay and listen to what Marc Antony has to say. 
So there we were, a bloody body lying on stage, a single actor standing in natural light, gazing out on a sea of rowdy protestors, people who were now Roman citizens even though they had been high school students not an hour prior. Daniel Crowley, as Marc Antony, took a deep breath and loudly began one of the most famous speeches Shakespeare ever composed. 
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
And a hush fell over the crowd. 
While we had actors planted among the students to help get them where we wanted them to go, we didn’t need them on this particular morning. They had been with us since the first chorus of Queen’s anthem. The speech is simultaneously logical and emotional. Marc Antony disputes Brutus’ claims of Caesar’s ambition, pauses intermittently to grieve, reverses the psychology by faking his desire for the crowd to remain calm, and claims that he isn’t a strong enough orator to move “the stones of Rome to rise in mutiny.” 
Our crowd didn’t remain calm. We knew they wouldn’t. So to put the icing on the cake, before Antony left the stage…stomp, stomp, clap…stomp, stomp, clap… 
The walls of the auditorium began to shake again: The crowd was rioting, stomping, clapping, shouting as we pressed on into the next scene. The most disturbing scene in the play. 
Our actors that had been in the audience as citizens climbed onto the stage in pursuit of the conspirators when they come across a fellow citizen late to the funeral. The mob demands the citizen’s name. He provides it, Cinna. One of the conspirators is also named Cinna. This tardy citizen wasn’t a conspirator. He was a poet, but it didn’t matter. Underscored by the shouts, cheers, singing, and laughter of the audience riot we had created, our mob of actors tore apart a fellow citizen for having the same name as one of Caesar’s assassins. And the crowd loved it. 
When the scene was over and Cinna the Poet was dead, the play seemed to stop. We still had quite a lot of story to tell, but the moment was so powerful, so palpable, so disturbing that it lingered in silence and shame. Our mission was accomplished. Our experiment was a success. I remember being in the back of the house in stunned silence next to our technical director David Byard. I searched the auditorium for John Shirley our Director of Education; he had stepped into the hallway, too overcome with emotion to bear witness. 
Thirty minutes later, the play was over. Brutus, Cassius, and most of the rest of the conspirators were dead. Marc Antony was victorious. Order had been restored to Rome. The house lights came on once again. Our actors took a seat on the front of the stage as John stepped forward to ask the only question on everyone’s mind: We wanted to know why the audience allowed themselves to become an active part in the senseless violence that we were portraying within the play. 
“You told us to.”
The violence that we see on the streets of our country today, we were able to create in a laboratory setting seven months ago using a script that was written four centuries ago based upon an event that took place over 2,000 years ago. What was right then is right now; what was wrong then is wrong now. Yet here we are. 
I don’t know how to contribute to the current conversation because I don’t know what is left to say. 

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