|Romeo (Javier Gutierrez) and Juliet (Janelee Rodriguez) (BAFTA LA)
"How do you feel?" asks Philip Rhys.
"I feel sad and confused," responds Lloyd James.
"Why confused?" Rhys asks.
"The whole scenario of the death of the two of them…" says James.
"People died over love," says Rhys.
"Yeah. I mean, they killed them, they killed each other! I mean, that's messed," says James.
This is a conversation between actors, over a play that has brought the words love and death together for many generations, Romeo and Juliet. What's more unusual is that the conversation involves two people from such distinctly different worlds. Philip Rhys is an experienced British actor, born and raised in London, who now works regularly in Hollywood in film and television production.
Lloyd James is a student at George Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles, performing Shakespeare for the first time. But despite the differences in age, geography and culture, the two men are committed to bringing the bard’s words to life. They are not alone.
In collaboration with Dr. Melanie Andrews, Drama Teacher, and other dedicated faculty members at George Washington Preparatory School, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Los Angeles (BAFTA LA) is presenting a very special production of Romeo and Juliet. BAFTA LA members are volunteering their professional expertise to coach and mentor the young actors, as well as adapt Shakespeare's play into a shorter performance piece, supply the show’s musical score and provide Stage Managers for the production.
This will be the first time that any of these students perform Shakespeare, though that lack of experience was difficult to discern at the rehearsal I attended. Students and mentors alike were wholly engaged by the work of Curtis Smith (Mercutio), Javier Gutierrez (Romeo), A'Donus Gillet (Tybalt) and Joshua Thomas (Benvolio) who performed a scene for the entire cast. They played with such energy that their peers erupted in applause at the scene’s end.
"I love them all," says Katy with a smile. Katy Haber and Paul Heller, longtime board members of Bafta LA and Co-Chairs of its Community Education and Outreach Committee, are co-producing the play. The project began when BAFTA LA held a screening of WHY SHAKESPEARE, Lawrence Bridges' inspirational documentary showing how Shakespeare and live theater is decisive in changing young lives, followed by a one-time Shakespeare workshop at George Washington, in October of 2010.
The response from students and teachers was so enthusiastic that Haber and Heller started to collaborate with George Washington’s Dr. Melanie Andrews, the school’s drama teacher and the show’s director, as well as Darryl McCane, the school’s Film and Media Teacher. They held auditions in December of 2010 for an abridged rendition of Romeo and Juliet, and started rehearsing in January of this year, with an excited young cast. The response from BAFTA LA's members has been equally enthusiastic. “What’s great is that we’ ve had enough professionals volunteering so that every student has been able to experience one-on-one mentoring,” says Dr. Andrews.
For their part, Haber and Heller envision this production as just the first of many. From the start the rehearsal process has been filmed by Bafta, in collaboration with Darryl McCane, for a documentary that the producers wish to serve as a template for similar productions in Los Angeles and beyond.
It is hard work, but in Haber feels that the results are well worth the effort. “All of these kids come from such challenging backgrounds,” says Haber. “To see them come alive, and express themselves and develop such talent in this setting, is just amazing.”
The production will have it’s public premier on May 29th at the Ladera Heights Amphitheater. The event will also serve as a fundraiser for the George Washington Prep Media and Arts Programs.