Actors Theatre of Louisville is an arts and culture organization as social enterprise. Sharing experiences centered in a commitment to create a more just society, we dive into digital production to become an interdisciplinary laboratory for a storytelling (r)evolution.

Unfolding in a vibrant alternate universe that reimagines the classic story alongside our troubled moment, Romeo & Juliet: Louisville 2020 is a resonant retelling that illuminates how history reverberates in the present. Featuring a cast working together virtually from around the country, the production combines wonderful performances with new media technologies, ranging from documentary footage to video art and animation.

As rehearsals and filming got underway, Executive Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming, the director of this adventurous undertaking, spoke with Dramaturg Amy Wegener about the ideas fueling his production—which envisions the Montagues and the Capulets as prominent families, one Black and the other White, caught in deeply rooted animosity.

Amy Wegener: Could you share your thoughts about the relationship between Romeo & Juliet and Louisville 2020? How do you see Shakespeare’s story in conversation with this time and place?

Robert Barry Fleming: By imagining a heightened contemporary world for the play, I’m bringing this tale from the 16th century into, perhaps, a more immediate conversation, and that’s very purposeful—not in an effort to valorize Eurocentrism, but to say, “How is our experience shaped by the history informing this moment?” In some ways it’s still 1870, after Reconstruction—where Jim Crow and Black Codes allowed wanton lynching of Black folks without protection. That’s the kind of thing we’ve seen with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor: that Black people can still be terrorized and killed without recourse. That the laws on the books are insufficient to provide justice, due to a longstanding legacy of injustice and the attendant relentless interpersonal enmity that seems so difficult to source.

So when you think about this ancient grudge, that no one really remembers how it started since it’s become so normalized, the awakening because of a tragedy evidences a connection between the Shakespearean narrative and the contemporary story. The intersection of race (a social construct, not a biological reality), when seen through an economic, policy and legal lens: to me, that’s all in Romeo & Juliet. This has been going on for a really long time, these resentments against other peoples, as well as the ways in which the pursuit of happiness, love and self-actualization are complicated by systems of oppression.

Also the intersection of these states of affairs with pandemics throughout history, where again and again you see a tragic disconnect between public health, politics, profit, and who has been prioritized in terms of safety. There are so many layers in Shakespeare’s play. And just as he mined many sources to tell a story that’s been around for a long time, we keep meditating on this cautionary tale because it identifies vulnerabilities in our cultural landscape that don’t seem to get a lot of humanist traction through the annals of time.

AW: Part of what makes the loss in this story so palpable is experiencing all of the love, humor and liveliness animating this world. How do you think about that mix?

RBF: As big as the conflict is, so is the love. Love and hate are the two sides of a coin, intricately bound together in this narrative. You don’t take time to fight with somebody unless you have a very strong investment in them.

When the cast first read through the play, I was struck by how funny and playful so much of it is, how delightful it was to spend time with these characters. There are big stakes, but there’s also a real window into the human comedy, and boldly drawn, archetypal characters; our cast has wildly unique takes on who they are. And the plethora of talents that this company brings makes for a very diverse world, in every sense of that word. It’s made up of several generations, Black and White, both conservatory trained actors and spoken word performers—there’s an incredibly vibrant palette to work from, as all these artists come together to tell the story. It feels like the storyworld possesses the complex, ambiguous and dynamic relationships we see in our world.

AW: You’ve used the term “new media” to describe your experimentation with technology to create this experience. How are you thinking about the visual world of the production, and how the storytelling references Louisville?

RBF: In addition to capturing the actors’ work in quarantine, we’re incorporating documentary footage I filmed during the protests and around Louisville. We’re also playing with visual abstraction that’s very much like video art, and using animation for the heightened nature of the events of 2020, which were unreal and continue to unfold. I’m following creative impulses as I go, taking what I have and letting that tell me what it becomes, and I’m excited to see how that continues to reveal and manifest itself.

A contemporary interpretation necessitates an alternate story universe. The action is happening in our time period, in this space—a world informed by a reckoning with systemic racism and a pandemic. But that world has its own rules, and Shakespeare is very clear about those, in terms of power structures and access. And yet there’s so much freedom; we have a super cool playground to explore.