At a staff meeting last week, I asked my boss if I ought to write a blog post about Julius Caesar, since the Ides of March was coming up. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve always felt like Caesar was a little bit boring!”
“I know! Me too!” I exclaimed. We agreed. When we thought about Julius Caesar, we thought rhetoric, politics, marble columns, and 10th-grade English class. Or, as Sean Hagerty of Jersey City’s Shakespeare@ puts it, “Most people’s memories of Julius Caesar seem to conjure lifeless portraits of stiff-legged, toga-clad patriarchs declaiming about rights and Roman law.”
We reached out to our Shakespeare theater partners across the United States to ask them how we could rehab Caesar’s fusty-dusty public image. They responded, telling us about the best productions of the play they’d ever seen and reflecting on the themes that make Caesar more exciting than it might have seemed in your 10th-grade English class.
Many of the theater artists we talked to emphasized that Caesar’s story is more relevant than ever. The key to making Caesar exiting is not to hide its parallels to our 21st-century moment. John Stark, Artistic Director, of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, recalled how the festival’s 2019 production of the play made an impact on him:
“The most engaging production of Julius Caesar that I’ve witnessed was the 2019 adaptation by Quetta Carpenter produced at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, titled Caesar. Caesar placed the action in a modern setting that acknowledged the existence of 24-hour news, cell phones, and social media. While the assassination of Caesar was physical and ‘real,’ the aftermath did not move to battlefields but rather to the internet and prime-time news. The events of the second half were announced over a myriad of screens and Brutus’s demise came by firearm. Modernizing the setting made the story come alive for the 21st-century audience.”
Steven Marzolf, Artistic Associate at Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, reflected on the production that changed the way he saw the play:
“My first encounter with the play was in 9th grade English, where we read it and listened to the old BBC records. I checked out immediately, as did the rest of my class. It felt old and dated; it was laced with arguing politicians, and dense rhetorical speeches. I asked myself, why would anyone want to do this play? And if they did, how do you make it accessible? I have seen several productions of it over the years, and I’ll be honest, I hadn’t seen one that I was able to connect to emotionally. That all changed in 2018 when I was text/acting coaching Theatresquared’s summer Shakespeare Academy production (ages 13-17) where director Morgan Hicks set Caesar in a wealthy private school that was having elections for student president. There was something about the youthful, gossipy, desperate, backstabbing aura of the world that opened up the play for me in a new and exciting way. It felt very “mean girls meet the Bard” and it worked. Really well. It was wonderfully visceral and poignant in a way I had not felt in previous productions.”
A new approach to casting the play made a huge difference for Bryn Boice, Associate Artistic Director of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company:
“The best way to shake up Caesar is to shake up the purist mindset and shake up the casting. I directed an all-female Caesar, and after a little soul-searching and discussion with the cast, we changed all of the pronouns. Just that little change opened up the text in a whole new way, and I will never look at the play the same way again. These works are very elastic and can be stretched and pulled in so many different ways to highlight new and important themes. I think artists being excited about the possibilities in these works is how we get audiences to find them exciting, too. (Shakespeare has been gone long enough, he’ll be ok with our taking some liberties.)”
Jalice Ortiz-Corral, Artistic Producer at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, remembered the best production of Caesar she’s ever seen:
“In July 2022, the Fools And Madmen theatre company produced a vibrant, high energy, hip-hop production of Julius Caesar. The script and musical adaptations made by Joshua C. Thomas and Caitlin Carbone Hernandez allowed the characters and their relationships to take precedence and convert a political drama into a story of friendship and intimacy.”
Noah Silas, who played Caesar in Fools and Madmen’s production, is joining Baltimore Shakespeare Factory to play King Henry in their April production of Henry VIII.
Our partners also reflected on how to help students connect with the play. Kunal Prasad, a teaching artist with the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, is about to tackle Caesar with a group of young actors in the festival’s Saturday Upstart Crows program, a physically- and mentally-engaging Shakespeare experience in which students age 11 – 18 deepen their skills and knowledge through a rehearsal process exploring language, history, voice, movement, text analysis, and play. Prasad wrote:
“I think we can make Caesar more exciting for students and audiences by engaging their curiosity about power and the reasons for exerting power. We all have to navigate the social hierarchies and responsibilities of our daily lives, so we know something about the motivations of the characters in Julius Caesar. The key is to spend a good amount of time inquiring about those motivations and not just accept the events of the play at face value.
“I intend to lead a curiosity-filled inquiry with my student actors this Spring at San Francisco Shakespeare Festival in a performance workshop titled, The Shakespeare Lab- Julius Caesar: Politics, Rhetoric, and Zero-Sum thinking. Zero-Sum thinking is a person’s subjective view of a situation that one party’s gain necessitates the other party’s loss and vice versa. In Julius Caesar, many characters engage in this type of thinking which results in an assassination and a civil war. Were the conspirators justified in their actions or were they not? Was Brutus’s reasoning clear or was it clouded by something? Was Mark Antony wise in his power brokering tactics? The thoughtful answers to questions like these will no doubt capture the hearts and minds of students and audiences alike.”
Kati Grace Kirby, Associate Producer at Atlanta Shakespeare Company, wrote:
“Divisive and polarized political points of view regarding the ‘right’ way to govern are not a new concept to our children and students.
“In the Fall of 2016 I directed a touring version of Julius Caesar that traveled to middle and high schools. The parallels between our world and Caesar’s world at that time were not lost on anyone: students, teachers and artists alike.
“For the funeral sequence, four of my actors left the stage to join with the audience, leading and encouraging the students to chant and vocalize their responses to Brutus and Antony’s pleas for their support, utilizing the interjection text that Shakespeare gives these Citizen characters as their rallying cries. This audience interaction created an electric environment, my actors onstage directly addressing the students as if they were Rome itself, and left the students on the edge of their seats as the war began to see how the chips would fall.
“To make Julius Caesar exciting, allow your student audiences into the world of the play to imagine themselves as Roman citizens: armed with only sketchy, incomplete facts as to what is happening in their community and why, with only the words of Brutus and Antony to rely upon as they seek out truth for themselves. And, of course, flashy sword fights post-funeral help too.”
Katherine Norman, Utah Shakespeare Festival Education Director, responded:
“Let the play speak for itself! When we let go of assumptions of what it is or should be, and look afresh at what the play is actually filled with, it becomes extraordinarily exciting. This is a play teeming with magic and portents, plots and conspiracies, daggers and battles; it poses deep moral questions about power, language, and honor, and it has a ghost! Connect this epic to our own current political climate—rather than relegating it to an imagined Roman past and Caesar becomes an ideal text through which to explore big ideas in middle and high school.”
Jack Young, Artistic Director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival, wrote back:
“Boring?” The play has riots in the streets, conspiracies, assassinations (with plenty of blood), paranormal storms and ghosts returning from the dead to prophesy the outcome of a giant battle, which is won by a boy-general—Game of Thrones has to do double time to keep up.
“And, to put it a little more darkly, people who don’t think much of JC haven’t been paying attention. If someone thought, before January 6, 2021, “Such things just can’t happen and have no relation to our current times,” maybe they’ll see JC in a new light.
“The way to get students keyed into the play is to have the mob be as important as any of the individual roles—make the funeral oration as vital as what they’re seeing in video of current school board meetings.”
Sherri Young, Founder and Executive Director of San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company, was shocked at the question:
“Are you kidding me??!! Conspiracy, overthrowing the government, and then the famous speech where the conspirators flip Mark Antony, only to have Mark Antony gives a speech that upends the conspirators’ whole mission in real-time. That’s what I call high drama!
Other parallels of this story includes our production with the Black Panthers with Malcolm X as Caesar. Or our 2016 production, set in a war-torn African nation with five actors.”
Despite his assassination, Julius Caesar’s story lives on thanks to the universality of the tale. Colleen Dougherty, who played Cassius in Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s FREE! Shakespeare in the Park’s past production of Julius Caesar, said, “themes of politics and power allows the story to be relevant in every time and place. Audiences will always respond to the story because of the emotions that politics ignite.” As CSC looks onward to their upcoming 2023-2024 season, they are proud to continue bringing Julius Caesar to life on their mainstage in March of 2024.
American Players Theatre Core Company Actor and Education Director David Daniel remembered playing Antony in an electric production:
“American Players Theatre is an outdoor classical rotating repertory theater nestled in the beautiful hills of southern Wisconsin—A thrust stage with multiple aisles entrances through the audience. In 2006, APT produced a Caesar that will stay with me always. I was playing Marc Antony. At the first read the director, Sandy Robbins, addressed the question of why the crowd so quickly and easily switches allegiance from Caesar, to Brutus, and then to Marc Antony. He was adamant that this was not a weakness in the crowd, but [due to] the electrifying force and skill of the orators. The speeches, though structured differently, were both offensive maneuvers. Jonathan Smoots (a wonderful Brutus) and I were graced with a Roman crowd made up of the most seasoned actors at APT. The push and pull between the two groups of skilled and dynamic actors was electrifying! The director had carefully plotted Antony’s movement through the oration. Beginning on stage where Brutus had spoken, Antony, matching the slow build of his rhetoric, began to wind his way through the crowd—both the Roman and the Wisconsin ones. At the apex of the speech, “Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?” Antony was standing just above and behind the audience with everyone cheering and applauding for revenge. Fantastically theatrical. Skillfully conducted. It had brought the audience to a roar… even during Wisconsin summer matinees outside. The power of rhetoric and the dangers of its abuse is a lesson that always bares reminding.”
Sean Hagerty, Shakespeare@ Artistic Director, reflected on the joys of producing Caesar as an audio drama:
“When we decided to produce Julius Caesar as part of our all-audio Shakespeare@ Home series during the height of the pandemic, the decision seemed an easy one, given the play’s examination of the fine lines between power and corruption, duty and ambition, and of course the perils of a state divided… and this was before the events of January 6, 2021. I could not think of a more compelling play for today.
“I believe the question of how we, as theatre practitioners, can make Julius Caesar more exciting is asking the wrong question of the right play. Julius Caesar, at its core, is a nerve-wracking, powerful, and indeed, action-packed play if we are willing to acknowledge that the action is in the word.
“When we talk about making Shakespeare interesting, usually what we are talking about is the choice for a novel set or setting, perhaps a vigorous staging, or other visual esthetics that capture the attention.
“But, by its nature, audio drama (and Shakespeare in general) focuses on language. It demands more of the audience, but in return gives more. Once you spend five minutes listening to an audio drama, your imagination takes over—you engage and participate with us. We may lead you down the road, but you, the audience, complete the journey.
“If we cater to this idea that we must make the play ‘more interesting’ for audiences, aren’t we perpetuating the ill-perceived notion that, in order to be interesting, Shakespeare (and theatre in general) should behave like film, where our attention is primarily passive rather than engaged?
“In our audio production of Julius Caesar, we have certainly done some things that might be interesting to the listener, but we did not set out to make the play interesting. The interest is there, if we would only listen.”
Listen to Shakespeare@’s Julius Caesar, starring Patrick Page as Caesar, on their website. Check out the first episode here!
What about you? Was there a production of Julius Caesar that changed the way you thought about the play? Tell us about it in the comments!
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