Josh McKerrow on Directing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Reisterstown Theatre Project by Teresa McCormick Ertel

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Shakespeare in the Park, as brought to the community by Reisterstown Theatre Project, has become a welcome summer staple in the area. This year, from July 27 through August 11th, RTP is  offering is the quintessential love story and tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Director Josh McKerrow gives us his insight on his production under the stars (or sun, if you prefer a Sunday matinee).

Director Joshua McKerrow. Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Teresa: How did you get involved with RTP and what inspired you to direct Romeo and Juliet?

Josh: I became involved with RTP through my wife, Kat, and daughter Ruby, who have performed in a number of shows with them over the last few years, notably Oliver! and Narnia. I really respect the RTP attitude toward shows – all volunteers working very hard to make as positive and professional an experience as they can. It’s a pleasure to work with them. They are the definition of Community Theatre: keeping arts alive for the people.

When I was asked to direct Romeo and Juliet, I was flattered but intimidated. There are 400 years of history with this play. That’s a lot of legacy to contend with. To paraphrase the writer Raymond Carver, “Romeo and Juliet is what we talk about when we talk about love.” But it has always been my favorite Shakespeare play. I can remember reading it line-by-line in my high school English class and being mesmerized by the brilliance of its perfection, its universal empathy for love and fear, honor and grief. It is probably the most famous play in the Western canon, and how could you not jump at that chance?

Tell us about the experience of directing for an outdoor venue.

Performing outdoors is incredibly exciting. I’ve always loved outdoor shows. They offer such restrictions on the director regarding sets and lights that they force the plays to live almost solely on the work of playwright and the actors. There is no room for tricks or gloss. I also appreciate that outdoor theatre creates an intimacy between the audience members. Because everybody – actors and audience members alike – share the same environment, the audience can’t help but become part of the performance.

Were you involved in the casting process?

I made all of the casting decisions myself, and while I have been very lucky in my actors, casting each role correctly was a bit of a challenge. The play is so tightly written that every casting decision affects every other one. It is also notable that some roles have significantly less stage time than others, yet the whole of the play still balances on those characters’ shoulders. In the end, though, I’m very pleased with every spot.

Introduce us to your cast.

Matthew Purpora (Romeo). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Starring as Juliet is Shelby Hylton and as Romeo is Matthew Purpora. I could not have asked for two better performers in these roles. Shelby inhabits Juliet amazingly well. She portrays her arc from innocent vulnerability through deep, true romantic love, and then into the steely pragmatic and tragic resolve that is her doom. Matthew is a joy to watch as Romeo. He understands the swaggering self-pity that starts the play, transforming into the reckless adoration for Juliet and reckless rage for Tybalt. I feel that the audience has to fall in love with the characters of Romeo and Juliet for the play to work, and with Shelby and Matt, they will not be able to help themselves.

Friar Laurence is played by Bill Soucy, and the Nurse is played by my wife, Kat McKerrow. These two are the bedrock of the play, and Kat and Bill, both experienced Shakespeare veterans, are outstanding. I’m giving both of these characters more depth and weakness than they are sometimes given, and Kat and Bill have made the parts their own.

Shelby Hylton (Juliet). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

The parts of the heedless, violent young men in the play are played by Jacob Singer as Mercutio, Lauren DeSha as Benvolio, Kevin D’Alesandro as Tybalt and Derek Cooper as Paris. These four have added the shine of action and tragedy that the play lives or dies on, and I could not be more excited to see the sword combat they have been working so hard on.

The part of Prince Escalus is performed by Mari Hill. I’ve chosen to present the Prince as the stand-in for Elizabeth I, who would have been the original audience’s idea of ultimate authority. Mari has taken this direction perfectly and portrays the Prince with both anger and grace.

The familial roles are played by Tim Evans and Kathy Blake as Montague and Lady Montague, and Bob Frank and Deb Carson as Capulet and Lady Capulet. All four are amazingly talented actors, and each has contributed immensely to the play. They have brought insights into the characters that, frankly, I had never considered, and I am deeply grateful. In addition, Deb has choreographed the authentic period dance that is performed by the actors in one of the scenes. I think that the cast has found that both challenging and great fun.

Rounding out the cast are Kristan Miller as Peter and Robert Soucy as Balthasar. Kristan has brought a real comedy to her portrayal of a hapless servant that is wonderful, and Robert’s Balthasar has the toughness needed for the opening fight, as well as the air of helplessness needed as Romeo’s servant.

We were also very fortunate to have sword fight choreography done by Michael Couey. Some of the actors had never held a sword before he came in, and by the time he was finished, I believe they would have followed him into actual combat. He was that good.

You are a talented photographer and photojournalist. How does this influence your directing style? 

Shelby Hylton (Juliet) and Matthew Purpora (Romeo). Phot0 by Joshua McKerrow.

Professionally, I am a photojournalist, currently with The Capital newspaper, as well as a showing fine art photographer. My passion is telling visual stories, and I have found this a natural transition to stage direction. I was surprised by this. So much of my artistic life has been done with a lone-wolf approach, that I never considered how rewarding a mass collaborative process could be. And it has been rewarding. I’ve found a kind of magic in the ritual of the play that I have never experienced as an artist before. It is almost totally due to the commitment and dedication of my cast. I can only hope that I have given them what little they need to cast their spell.

What will you be directing next?

My next directing role will be for the Laurel Mill Playhouse. It will be another Shakespeare play, The Tempest, opening Sept. 7th. I am very excited about this. The Tempest is a blast, Laurel Mill has a beautiful theatre, and it will be nice to not leave the stage littered with bodies.

For tickets and more information about Romeo and Juliet click here.

Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet

Show Dates: July 27th, 28th and 29th, and August 3rd, 4th, 5th, 10th and 11th.

Show Times: Friday & Saturday at 8 pm. Sunday is at 4 pm

Show Location: Hannah More Park – 12035 Reisterstown Road.  Here are directions.