Claire Danes as Juliet in that movie we all watched a hundred times in high school, despite Leo’s incapacity with the verse.

One of my favorite things that happened on my recent Shakespeare Roadtrip ™ was that I stayed with Bridget, an actor who was in Duchess (2016), as well as this summer’s Much Ado remount. Bridget has done well for herself, working consistently at ever more prominent theaters and in better and better roles. She’s been auditioning and touring regularly. She’s starting to get invitations from directors to audition for them, which is a sign of how wonderful she is to work with. And that’s where this story happens.
A director she’s worked with before invited her to audition for Juliet. It’s a great role for a young woman–Juliet is So. Damn. Smart., and R&J is a great play in spite of all the people who say it’s a great play (that’s my hill to die on, come at me). Bridget said she just couldn’t get into it. She didn’t see herself as a Juliet. She felt like she was competently delivering the words, but she was surfing the top of them.

Always eager to work with a great actor, I asked if we could look at it together. So we found an empty space and took it on.

Here’s the thing. To me, Bridget is an obvious person to cast as Juliet. She’s a brilliant human who has an open and lovely heart. Her skill with the text is solid. She has good range, playing a wide array of characters with truth and insight. She’s grown as an artist since Duchess, becoming braver about showing up with her own unique self and demanding space. But to Bridget, this invitation was uncomfortable because she didn’t see herself as Juliet. She’s not a waif. She doesn’t get to be the girl who gets the guy, she gets to be the BFF.

Bridget as Julia, The Duchess of Malfi at Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, 2016

To me, Juliet is about the soul of a person who believes in love–and who also takes absolutely zero crap that poses as love. We were working on the balcony scene, and one of my favorite things about it is that Juliet shuts Romeo down every single time he tries to make her a lacy valentine of words. That demand for clarity and honesty–that’s who Juliet is. And I know Bridget can be that.

Shakespeare never tells us what Juliet looks like, except that everybody in the play says she’s beautiful. It’s no different from the way Oberon is invisible when he says, “I am invisible.” We don’t try to hire an invisible actor (although that is … a choice). We do productions of Comedy of Errors or Twelfth Night where the twins are easy to distinguish, but audience members have a hard time telling them apart because all of the actors are pretending to. When the script says that a character is beautiful, her beauty is a given fact. I happen to think that Bridget is beautiful. But whether I think that or not is immaterial. If every character treats her as the most beautiful person in the world, then she is.

How do I know this?

Because in 2012, I directed a production of Romeo and Juliet and our Juliet, Kat, was not the physical type that generally plays that role. I’m embarrassed to say that it didn’t occur to me initially to cast her as Juliet. The thought didn’t cross my mind until Kat expressed interest in the part. As soon as the executive director told me that Kat was interested, I was so excited to work with her on it, because she’s awesome (I also think she is beautiful, but not in a conventional way. And again, what I think is immaterial). But I wish I had thought of it–I wish she hadn’t had to put herself forward in a way that probably felt like a big deal. I wish it hadn’t been A Conversation.

Kat as Juliet, Sean as Romeo, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, 2014 (remount). Photo by Motley Cat Studio.

I thought I would get pushback on that choice from somebody. I did not. Audiences–including the high school matinee crowd–completely accepted the idea of Kat as this paragon of feminine beauty. I heard a lot of feedback from many audience members about that show, both regarding the original production and the 2014 remount, and no one–and I do mean no one–commented about that casting choice, other than to commend Kat’s acting. No one even said anything like, “It was daring/refreshing/unexpected to see a curvy Juliet.” I sometimes asked people what they thought about that casting choice, and they insisted that they hadn’t even noticed it until I pointed it out. I think she was so good that she made those thoughts impossible.

Romeo and Juliet at the Rose

And the influence of that casting choice rippled out to people who never saw the show. Last year, I was teaching Basic Acting at a university where many of the students, from the very earliest days, are overly invested in their “type.” Frustrated with the way they put themselves in boxes before they were even done with puberty, I showed them this image, with all the groundlings just looking like they are going to lose it as Romeo and Juliet part. I said, “This is the very best Juliet I have ever seen. She’s not that ‘type,’ we just didn’t care.” One girl started weeping, looking at this photograph. She said, “I never thought someone who looked like me would ever have a chance to play that part.” Seeing just a still photo of Kat in that role changed how those students saw themselves. It shaped the rest of the work they did in that class and the roles they chose to audition for later in the year.

So in the work I did with Bridget, I wanted to change the way she saw herself. It was the only thing standing between her and Juliet (as Shakespeare says: “The orchard walls [that we build ourselves out of society’s crap nonsense that we imbibe with every breath] are high and hard to climb.”)

We did some work on text and rhetoric. We did some work on intention and choices. But the biggest work I did was just in showing her, over and over and in different ways, that I saw her as Juliet. And eventually, I think she saw herself as Juliet, too.

I hope she gets that role–if not from this audition, from another one in the next five years or so. And I hope that when she does, that some young actor sees herself differently because she saw Bridget be this goddess of love and beauty. Because this is how we change the world, one refusal to be bound by the cages we’ve been sold at a time.

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