By Rula Al-Nasrawi
_Ten minutes. That was all the time Alex Pucci had before the curtains opened. Fifteen minutes earlier, her co-star Max Baumgarten accidentally swung his sword and hit Nika Pappas in the face. She then knelt down to the ground, her forehead completely covered in blood._
“Alex, are you ready to go on?” stage manager Rachel Bury asked.
In a panic, Pucci simply answered, “I have to be.”
This is only a small fraction of what the cast of Shakespeare To Go has endured over the course of its six-month season.
*Behind the Scenes*: Shakespeare To Go, also known as Shakes To Go, originally began 20 years ago as UC Santa Cruz’s first touring theatre troupe. UCSC initially joined forces with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, producer of Shakes, and the two have been intertwined ever since.
The only paid theater arts program at UCSC, Shakes has gained quite the reputation. Out of numerous events put on by Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Shakes is the third-largest production of the bunch. This production is part of a national initiative called “Shakespeare for a New Generation,” which basically targets students from elementary to high school.
Each year, Shakes chooses one Shakespeare masterpiece to perfect and perform for the entire season, ranging from “The Tempest” to “As You Like It.” This year’s choice was “Romeo and Juliet.”
And for Mike Ryan, UCSC theater arts lecturer and this year’s director, it was the perfect one.
“Passionate. That’s one word that describes this production of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Ryan said.
Remade countless times — from Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo+Juliet” to “West Side Story” to “High School Musical” — “Romeo and Juliet” is one masterpiece that has endured the test of time.
“With ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ there’s this force of hate and this force of love,” Pappas said. “And then there’s a fine line in between.”
This cast of Shakes to Go has traveled to numerous locations in California, including Yosemite. Since the entire cast is composed of 12 students, their performances are coordinated with their schedules.
Before arriving in Mariposa for the weekend, understudies Alex Pucci and Noah Averbach-Katz decided on a whim to accompany their co-workers. On Saturday morning, right before the second show of the day, the cast partook in what is known as a “fight call,” a last-minute rehearsal of the sword fights.
Pappas recalled that something was different about the fight call that day; everything seemed awkward and wasn’t working the way it should. Pappas and co-star Baumgarten were immersed in their roles of Tybalt and Mercutio. All of a sudden, Baumgarten’s sword slid and sliced Pappas’s forehead open just 10 minutes before the show. Pucci was then instructed to get into costume and play the role of Tybalt.
Eventually, Pappas was rushed to the hospital, doctors glued her forehead, and all was well. But the experience is one that the cast will never forget.
“It was horrifying under the circumstances,” Pucci said. “But if you let fear encompass you, then there’s no way you can perform well.”
*From Romeo to Mercutio*: This year’s cast of Shakes To Go is one of the best Shakespeare Santa Cruz has ever had. The cast is a compilation of student actors, complete with all of their talents and eccentricities. These actors succeeded in accurately embodying their characters, thanks to Ryan’s careful audition process. Regardless of their acting repertoire and major, cast members were chosen based on their skill rather than their résumé.
Pucci, a second-year student, was one of the many who made Shakes To Go a reality this year. As an understudy, she was responsible for completely mastering the roles of Juliet, Tybalt, Capulet, Nurse and Benvolio faultlessly.
“This is the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do in theater,” Pucci said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself as an actress.”
Shakes To Go is simply a nomadic tribe of student actors with a purpose. Christine Behrens, a third-year who played the lead role of Juliet, discussed the skills they have acquired from this Bedouin experience.
“We really learn to be adaptable to our audience,” Behrens said.
An actress since age four, Behrens has worked with Shakes To Go for two years, last year as an understudy.
Shashona Brooks, a third-year, shared similar sentiments about the constant moving around.
“You’re constantly moving to different spaces,” Brooks said. “All of this moving around makes you much more of an active actor.”
Although Brooks has worked with Shakes on numerous occasions, this is her first time in a touring show.
Shakes is more than just an extracurricular activity, according Averbach-Katz, a first-year and understudy of all male roles.
“You’ve got to like what you’re doing when it comes to Shakes To Go,” Averbach-Katz said.
*Shakes on Wheels*: The staff collectively agreed that Shakes provides the perfect platform for children to access the theater.
“I believe passionately in theater arts for the schools,” Ryan said. “It’s about bringing theater to those who don’t know Shakespeare.”
Originally a dancer, tour manager Sara Wilbourne has found that after working nine years with Shakespeare Santa Cruz and five years with Shakes, she fell in love with Shakespeare all over again.
“His language is so rich and juicy. It’s as if you were dying of thirst and someone hands you a lemonade, and you didn’t even realize how thirsty you were,” Wilbourne said. “Just jump into the river of language and luxuriate.”
The entire staff of Shakes, from director Ryan to tour manager Wilbourne to the entire cast, has dedicated a great deal of time into this project, regardless of the part each person plays.
Before the curtains open for each performance, cast members run left and right, rehearsing last-minute monologues, swordfights, and numerous tongue-twisters as part of the chaotic pre-show preparations.
“You go into a kind of noman’s land when it comes to performing,” Pappas said. “You don’t really know what to expect because each performance is a little different from the last.”
This day was different than all other days. This was the day Mike Ryan would come to watch the show. Ryan is solely responsible for the script cuts, the casting, and the huge alterations in the character dynamic. During the fall quarter audition process, Ryan decided to change two vital male characters to female: Tybalt and Benvolio.
Ryan, as well as the cast of Shakes, all agree that this drastic change emphasizes the passion of Romeo and Juliet much more.
“These character changes create so many different layers,” Brooks said. “The new love triangles just make everything all the more tragic.”
And although Ryan played around with his androgynous roles, he respected the language of the Bard himself.
“[Shakespeare] was brilliant at being able to articulate what it’s like to be that small person in the world,” Ryan said.
Pucci explained that Shakespeare’s language is the key to the beauty of this production, because it is simply priceless.
“Shakespeare’s language is beautiful and his themes are so contemporary,” Pucci said with a smile.
About a week before each performance, Ryan would host Shakespeare workshops at each school they toured to give students a background of what is to be expected. Pappas also taught a few of the workshops and was surprised at the outcome.
“I was so excited to see kids interested in this 500-year-old dead guy,” Pappas laughed.
One of the main reasons Shakes has made it to all of these locations is Wilbourne, the administrative and education coordinator. Wilbourne, who refers to herself as the tour manager of the group, is responsible for contacting the schools and booking all the shows.
Wilbourne clarifies that “Romeo and Juliet” will always appeal to kids because of the passion the play exudes.
“Humans are humans. We haven’t really changed all that much,” Wilbourne said. “Betrayal, love, the stuff of human nature, there’s really nothing like it. The truth and relevance of that story is still there.”
*From Students to Capulets: Becoming a Family*: Following each performance, the actors provide the students with a question-and-answer session. They collectively agreed that there is no greater reward than seeing kids thoroughly intrigued by their performance.
Naturally, the cast of Shakes has experienced some awkward times during this period, leaving them either speechless or in complete hysterics.
Behrens recalled a time in which a seven-year-old boy asked if the reason Juliet killed herself was because she was pregnant with Romeo’s baby. Because the cast does so many shows, they are always prepared for any questions, no matter how unexpected.
The cast of Shakes has managed to channel its talent through to these children, who might not have access to theater or Shakespeare.
“[Acting is] a transport for some kind of message to heighten community,” Pappas said. “Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s where I want to go with my art.”
Shakes is important not only to schools, but to the entire community, Ryan said. There has always been a bizarre rivalry between the locals and the university, but Shakes is one of the few productions that actually bring the two together.
“This shows how town and town can work together to create something great,” Ryan said.
Brooks explained how the audiences view the cast as adults, when in reality they are just a bunch of kids like any group of college students. In an effort to constantly keep one another on their toes, cast members have made a habit of pulling countless pranks.
Logan Fox, who plays the role of Paris, has been known to release silent-but-deadly pranks during the show, leaving the rest of the cast in uncontrollable fits of laughter.
“If you can keep each other on their toes, then it’s a good day,” Pappas said.
These talented men and women thank Ryan for the opportunity to work a touring acting job, make lasting friends, and touch children’s hearts.
“We all trust [Ryan] implicitly because he makes brilliant choices,” Pucci said. “This is an invaluable experience for everyone involved.”
This family agrees that this experience has never been for the money and never will be. All in all, it comes down to the audience.
“If we can touch one child in our performance, then we’ve done our job,” Pucci said. “Epic. That’s what this experience has been.”