‘Shakespeare’s R&J’: Three Young Journalists Cover Different Facets Of The Play

When Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions announced their co-production “Shakespeare’s R&J,” Arts Angle Vantage thought that some of our experienced young arts reporters might be interested in covering it. We asked and they were very interested. 

While this play has been performed across the country and overseas since its 1998 world premiere, this production marks its first in Louisville. Our reporters didn’t see that as newsworthy as much as the play held compelling and important subject matter. They brought their curious and empathetic minds to covering different angles of this production, which runs through Aug. 27 at the Henry Clay Theatre.

This is just one way that Arts Angle Vantage is helping elevate youth voices and the arts as well as connecting them to the arts in their own community. In turn, they share their work with the wider community.

Arts Angle Vantage and the participants are grateful to Kentucky Shakespeare, Pandora Productions and to LEO Weekly Arts & Entertainment Editor Erica Rucker and Editor Scott Recker, who practice the values of collaborative journalism and bring the community these young reporters’ work.

— Melissa Chipman and Elizabeth Kramer

‘Shakespeare’s R&J’ aspires to inspire empathy in this new twist on an old story of young love

By Halle Shoaf | Art Angle Vantage Reporter
duPont Manual High School, Class of 2023

At one point in the play “Shakespeare’s R&J,” flashlight beams shine on the sleepy faces of four boys in their beds at their boarding school. They rise slowly at first, as they whisper to each other. Suddenly, it’s as if the night has come alive. They chase each other and tell inappropriate jokes, taking on the roles of the Montagues and the Capulets. They use a red scarf as a cape, then as a weapon, letting their imaginations guide them. The captivated audience laughs with them and at other times is very quiet. The action on stage radiates the infectious joy of youth, yearning and love.

Brennen Amonett (Student #1), Shaquille Towns (Student #2), Tyler Tate (Student #4) and Zachary Burrell (Student #3) in “Shakespeare’s R&J.” Photo by Bill Brymer. Courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions.

“What they struggle with and want is so universal,” says actor Shaquille Towns, who plays a student taking on the role of Juliet in this telling. “They just want to be loved and accepted for who they are.”

“Shakespeare’s R&J” is notable because Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions have staged this enduringly popular play in Louisville for the first time that Joe Calarco wrote and premiered in 1998. The production runs through Aug. 27 at the Henry Clay Theatre. 

Michael Drury and Matt Wallace, the producing artistic directors of the theater companies Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions, respectively, worked together to make this happen. Pandora Productions, founded more than 25 years ago, is dedicated to telling the stories of the LGBTQ+ community. Kentucky Shakespeare is a 62-year-old company dedicated to The Bard’s works.

“Shakespeare’s R&J” offers this fresh retelling of the classic tale of “Romeo and Juliet” that includes nearly 90 percent of The Bard’s text while subverting gender roles. At a boarding and structured, religious school, these four boys discover a hidden book with the play’s script inside. Over the course of one night, they step into different characters’ points of view as they act through the tragic love story, altering their relationships.

“You know, for me, it does everything that I want Shakespeare to do, and it makes Shakespeare relevant, and turns it on its head,” says Matt Wallace, who directed this production. “I really think it encourages empathy, really allows you to put yourself in these characters’ shoes.”

The vibrancy of Louisville theater includes the smoke and thunder of the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s annual “Dracula” production and the outdoor performances during Kentucky Shakespeare’s Festival in Central Park during the summer. People pack into the seats to watch words come alive on stage. In the process, the audience becomes more than rows of chairs: it becomes a collective of people sharing a common experience.

Through sharing a performance of “Shakespeare’s R&J,” the producers hope viewers come to see perspectives of LGBTQ+ people, and how they fit into the struggle for everyday acceptance. 

“It’s not the activists who are going to make your neighbors accept [your identity],” says Drury. “It’s you — being you.”

By giving the LGBTQ+ community a platform to express their truth and love in all forms there is an opportunity for the unknown to be understood. And after all, it’s hard to hate someone you know. 

Although we locals often coexist in close quarters, it is harder than you think to find a niche where we all converge. But at The Henry Clay Theater, there is an intimacy that envelopes the cast and the viewers. As time passes, the story of youthful discovery unfolds and provides the audience with illuminating moments. 

“The educational component of our mission is very important,” says Drury. “I have often said that people are afraid of what they might see on our stage — and I wish that wasn’t true.” 

Coming in, audience members may have certain expectations about their relationship to the characters. But as the boys on stage grapple with their emotions, as they question what they have been taught, “Shakespeare’s R&J” evokes a question for us: How can we not feel empathy for others?

Halle Shoaf, a senior at duPont Manual High School, serves on the board of the TEDxManual club, an organization that provides a platform for young public speakers impassioned in bettering society. Her play, “Little Birds,” addressing LGBTQ+ perspectives in pre-WWII Germany, was selected by regional professionals and performed in the Youth Performing Arts School’s “New Works Festival.” She participated in the Arts Angle Vantage workshop covering “Hamilton.”

‘Shakespeare’s R+J’ Reflects Reality of Self-Discovery for LGBT youth

By Michelle Quan | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter
duPont Manual High School, Class of 2023

Forbidden love. The type of love that everyone who remembers taking high school English experienced when reading William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” — the timeless classic that taught American youth the real meaning of what “true love” is. 

But “true love” doesn’t always exactly look like Romeo and Juliet. The people reading “Romeo and Juliet” in high school today may not yet even know if they really like Romeo or really like Juliet — or both or neither. 

Centered around a Catholic all-male school with hyper-traditionalist teachings, Joe Calarco’s play “Shakespeare’s R&J” tells the story of Students #1 through 4 who return to their dormitory and venture into their imagination as they act out a copy of “Romeo and Juliet” throughout the night. This play within a play, a co-production of Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions, runs at Henry Clay Theatre through Aug. 27. The story entangles which scenes are actually from the original “Romeo and Juliet” or from “R&J” exclusively. Constantly questioning, “Is that a Romeo and Juliet kiss? Or has it become more of a Student-#1-and-Student-#2 kiss?” You never fully know which “forbidden love” story you’re watching. 

This co-production of “R&J” demonstrates a growing demand for queer art in Kentucky and contributes to the much-needed representation that LGBTQ+ youth deserve.

Jupiter Zorn — 16 and a member of Louisville Youth Group which provides resources for LGBTQ youth and their allies — says what he saw during a recent performance of “Shakespeare’s R&J” was familiar to him as a nonbinary boy raised Catholic.

“Having to take a step back and look at myself and realize my queerness — I saw that reflected in R&J. I could understand it,” Zorn explains. “This show was extremely special as it’s an iconic straight story. But showing it with two men was what made it really powerful.” 

“Shakespeare’s R&J” retells the story in such a way that provides today’s LGBT youth an art form to possibly see themselves in, just as the repressed Students #1 through 4 saw their true selves through reciting Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps, by looking into love that’s not through the usual male-female lens, LGBT youth may begin to understand how they love and accept that it can be “true love,” too. 

Shaquille Towns (Student #2) in “Shakespeare’s R&J.” Photo by Bill Brymer. Courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions.

And while society may have become more accepting of LGBTQ+ relationships and see them less as a “forbidden love,” LGBTQ+ youth are still at high-risk. Nearly half of LGBTQ youth have considered attempting suicide, according to The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. For LGBTQ youth with little support from their surrounding community, acceptance must come from within.

Youth often see themselves in whatever they’re watching and/or reading. As they’re still growing into themselves, it’s more important than ever that young people have access to representative characters. 

Yet, despite LGBTQ teens making up about 5.9 percent of students in American high schools, a study led by Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell, a professor specializing in social justice in youth library services, found that LGBTQ-themed books only made up an average of 0.4 percent of library books offered from data collected from 125 high schools in a southern U.S. state. 

Shaquille Towns, who plays Student #2 who acts out Juliet, loves that the students don’t have names so they can “blossom.” He believes that each student’s role in “R&J” matched what they needed. 

“I feel like a lot of people can take a lot from [seeing R&J], especially people like me, being in the LGBTQ+ community,” he says.

The nameless students in “Shakespeare’s R&J” are like a blank canvas that LGBTQ+ youth viewing the show can easily see themselves in. Literature and art are learning experiences that can lead youth, and especially, LGBTQ+ youth in their self-acceptance journeys so they, too, can “blossom.”

Michelle Quan is a senior at duPont Manual High School, where they are the Manual RedEye Social Media Director.

On the set: Intimacy Coordinator in ‘Shakespeare’s R&J’ production helps support actors in this new take on the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story

By Abigail Knoop | Art Angle Vantage Reporter
Indiana University Southeast, Freshman

Theatergoers often see a new title in playbills when they go to a show: intimacy director or intimacy coordinator. With this new term, “Are there sex scenes in this?” might be among the first questions that come to mind. But not really, say those behind Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions’ staging of “Shakespeare’s R&J.” 

This modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy takes place in a restrictive Catholic boarding school and the play’s four actors bring the story to life while never leaving the stage. Behind the stage, however, this production had the support of intimacy coordinator Hannah Pruitt. 

Intimacy coordinators, who help actors operate in emotional and intimate encounters, aren’t a brand-new idea. In the past five years, there are more working in Hollywood and now on Broadway. Lately, these roles have trickled down to the 502 as more Louisville productions have them. While it’s a new role, it’s a very vital one according to Pruitt. 

Arts Angle Vantage: What does an intimacy coordinator do? How long have you been working as an intimacy coordinator? What drew you to it?

Hannah Pruitt: Intimacy directors who work in live theatre act as resources for everyone involved in the creative process — artists, directors, designers, etc. — to foster an environment centered on consent and communication. Their role in the process can vary.t can be to help actors advocate for and establish boundaries, choreograph moments of intimacy on stage just like a combat choreographer, or even work through tricky interpersonal interactions regarding the creative process. 

I began my training in late 2021 with Intimacy Directors & Coordinators Inc. and am still in the process of getting my full certification. I had heard about this work and it just clicked into my own values of creating art, being of help to others, and making positive change for all generations in theatre.

Arts Angle Vantage: What do you specifically do in this production as the intimacy coordinator?

Hannah Pruitt: With “R&J,” I served as the intimacy consultant where I met with the team to establish the needs of the production, share resources and helped the artists learn how to communicate their needs, and clarify the choreography for the physical journey of these four characters.  

Arts Angle Vantage: How do you apply your role as intimacy coordinator differently seeing as though the characters, instead of actors, are minors?

Hannah Pruitt: I approached it through the eyes of young love — everything is new, exciting, and a little bit scary. The moments started with the idea of mimicking things that they may have seen from others or what they imagined might happen and morphed into something that was natural and true to those characters. That discovery was so beautiful. I definitely thought about the young people who I work with at Kentucky Shakespeare’s Camp Shakespeare — what I would want them to know about consent and how I hope that they can find a place to be their authentic selves.

Hannah Pruitt, Kentucky Shakespeare Director of Creative Engagement and Intimacy Coordinator, Courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare.


Arts Angle Vantage: Why is this job necessary for this production?

Hannah Pruitt: This production blends a traditional play with a lot of stylized physical storytelling which means communication is key for everyone. The clearer and more specific that we can be means that not only is it great storytelling but also it means that the actors involved are always safe and supported.

Arts Angle Vantage: What would you tell people who assume intimacy immediately means having to deal with sexual content?

Hannah Pruitt: I would say that, frankly, they couldn’t be more wrong.  Intimacy can be anything — a handshake, a hug between family members, a look shared between characters, etc.  It doesn’t have to have a sexual context at all. The ability to have someone with an eye specifically aimed toward intimacy in a production can only add to the depth of connection, meaning and impact that your story has on your audience. Also, the presence of someone in the room to navigate consent, the power dynamics, and the safety and comfort of everyone involved cannot be overvalued.  

Arts Angle Vantage: What’s special about this production to you?

Hannah Pruitt: This production will always have a special place in my heart — not only because it was the first one that I was able to work on in this capacity, but also because everyone involved was such a joy to work with. They brought their whole selves to this process and the magic that they create is something to behold.

Abigail Knoop is a freshman at Indiana University Southeast studying elementary education and journalism. She is a 2022 graduate of New Albany High School, where she was a section editor for the school newspaper, The Blotter, and in numerous productions through NAHS Theatre Arts. She participated in Arts Angle Vantage workshops covering “Mean Girls” and “Hamilton.”

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