An Interview with David Jenkins, Director of Romeo and Juliet, Coming Soon to Jobsite Theater

TTB: Would you share with us the Jobsite Theater process of editing, rehearsing, and creating an engaging production of Shakespeare’s work for the Tampa Bay area’s audience?

DJ: WOW! I could write a book on just this first question. 🙂 I will try to give a a very broad overhead view and boil it down to one word: collaboration. When I choose a Shakespeare show, the first thing I think about the story that I’m interested in telling — what about this 400-year-old play speaks to *me* and why do *I* think a modern audience will care about it? Once I feel like I can articulate an answer to that, then the collaboration begins. I start with my composer, Jeremy Douglass, and costume designer Katrina Stevenson. This approach was born in the Shimberg where we knew we could never get a big set in the room and didn’t have fancy lighting equipment, relying more on sound and costumes. In collaborating with them, I start settling into styles, genres of music, sometimes all the way down to specific instruments with Jeremy, and then Kat begins to add in that visual pallet. Between the three of us we then have this basic operational aesthetic that informs the rest of the play — at which point I bring in the other designers. Casting, too, is a collaborative endeavor in that it comes together one piece at a time, with each part informing the others. I’ve never been able to cast a show without having the actors really interact, and for me to share even virtual space with them to establish a vibe. With Romeo & Juliet, I found the two of them first. Then started throwing the net around them to establish their friends (and enemies), then the adults around them, etc. To lose any actor for any reason over the course of this process puts me at a sever disadvantage, because each part depends on the adjacent parts. Not every director feels that way about casting, but I live and breathe that. Performers are not “plug and play.” If we ever lose an actor between the auditions and rehearsals, or have to replace anyone once we start working, it’s a huge blow. As far as the editing goes, I’ll try to be brief and just say that once I’ve established the story I want to tell, have an aesthetic world in place with my design team, and then have a real group of tangible performers the cutting almost takes care of itself. It gets easier and easier for me as I do this to not feel guilt in editing down these plays, or even messing with the structure here and there. There are scenes in R&J that I have re-ordered, and one in particular that I have drastically changed to better fit the story I’m after telling. Also, a modern audience just isn’t going to sit through plays that are 3-4 hours long. We spend a lot of time in rehearsals talking about the audience — how we can help guide them through a text that may be difficult to follow just through words, how we can keep them excited, how we can even manipulate them. I’m audience centric as a theater artist in general, but it’s important to remember when doing Shakespeare that these were originally populist plays, popular entertainment, and created for every strata of London society done in an interactive environment. So, we try our best to do the same thing!

TTB: You have scheduled several matinee performances for grade school classes to travel to the Starz and experience a Jobsite Theater Shakespeare production. Would you share your thoughts on the importance of engaging students of the Tampa Bay area to live theater with us? And especially Shakespeare?

DJ: I think it’s vital that young people have the experience of going into a real professional theater and witnessing the way that these plays were meant to be experienced. We do not tour to schools, we do not offer 30 minute cuts of these plays — the “greatest hits” approach. We do not dumb them down by putting them in “modern English.” Shakespeare is largely ruined for students by well-intentioned English or drama teachers who force it down like medicine and not as an experience. It’s also not the same thing to get the “greatest hits” of a play in the gymnatorium during a 45-minute class period when you just left math and are headed to gym next. It’s one thing to tell them why this stuff matters and another to really show them. *Really* show them. I grew up poor, with no cultural predisposition to attend theater. I didn’t even get the bug until I was a teenager, and it only came after having a real experience in a real theater — then the light-switch went off and I got it. Is Shakespeare the only thing that can do this? Certainly not, but to be frank it’s easier to get the schools out for something like this because every middle and high school student in the county studies Shakespeare, and that can’t be said of any other playwright. Some say Shakespeare gets too much credit and attention, which isn’ at all my belief because these plays have endured for a reason. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be more voices alongside his in schools, but we’re working with what we have until the curriculum changes — that part is outside of our control. This is where it becomes so important for us to honestly assess what each of these plays has to offer our modern day, and how we can tell these 400 year old stories in a way that will look like our community now.

TTB: What is the uniqueness of Jobsite Theater to bring engaging works of Shakespeare to the Tampa Bay audiences?

DJ: It’s hard to answer this one without sounding like you’re tooting your own horn, but I think our uniqueness lies in a lot of the things I’ve already said: Jobsite’s collaborative model with a lot of different kinds of artists, our audience-centric approach, our desire for these shows to be events just as they were in their original day, and I’ll maybe add that we do all that while maintaining a true reverence for the text. We can add in aerial routines, or songs, or create these epic alternate universes, and still keep the integrity of the poetry. Audiences leave surprised that they understood the play, and that they enjoyed it. Even people who regularly attended Shakespeare in the past remark how accessible we make the work.

 TTB: What needs to bring people back to the theater and help theater attendance grow for Jobsite Theater?

DJ: We’re always looking to reach into more corners of the community, to bring people to the theater who may not consider themselves a fan of the form. We used to joke in the early days that we were even theater people who hated “theatRE.” I believe that people, however, crave experience and folks tend to LOVE a good live show if you’re talking about a comic or a band or something like that. A lot of bad and irrelevant theater, as well as barriers to access like money and simply growing up doing it, gives “the theatRE” the bad rap it has. Some of that is deserved and some not. We’re just after hyping that we can provide that same kind of live WOW that folks get from a comedy club, aerial or burlesque show, music hall, and so on. That we’re here for everyone, and not just the elite or the “artsy-fartsy.” That we are just as much of the local culture as our bars and restaurants, music clubs, galleries, and so on. I’ve always had a “build it and they will come” belief. We’ll keep doing the work that excites us and that we believe excites others. We’ll keep reaching a hand out to all corners of the region for whomever wants to take it and come play with us. We do that, and we should be fine.

TTB: What is the value of Jobsite theater to the Tampa Bay area community? Why should someone who has never attended a theatrical play buy a ticket to a Jobsite theater production?

DJ: Well, we employ like 60 regional artists a year, and we’re offering a place for over 15,000 people a year to come together and collectively witness human experience. That’s “valuable.” I also believe something happens in that room in that interchange of energies on both sides of the curtain. No play, and no theater, is going to single-handed fix anything in our world, but there will always be value in a group of people in any community coming together regularly to share, witness, and attempt to understand. Most of us don’t get that regularly — and we certainly haven’t had a lot of that since March of 2019.I’d say to someone who’s never been to a play, or even just to Jobsite, to consider if they’ve missed that feeling of being part of something. Or even if they’ve just missed the excitement and immediacy of being in front of a live, talented performer. Or just getting out of the house and being transported away from the real world for a few hours. If so, I guarantee that there is a show out there for you. Look us up, find something that sounds exciting to you, then just make the plunge and buy a ticket. Not every play can be for everyone, and not every theater company in this region can be to every single person’s tastes — but I guarantee there’s something here for you. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you what kinds of shows you should be going to. Do you. There’s a lot of great work in this region, and we’re all holding out a hand …

Romeo and Juliet Runs Jan. 14 – Feb. 6, 2022
Thu. – Sat. 8pm, Sun. 4pm
Tickets start at: $29.50

Preview Performances: 8pm, Jan. 12 – 13

Jaeb Theater, Straz Center for the Performing Arts

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