“Romeo y Juliet” at Cal Shakes is a Bilingual Adaptation with Two Female Leads, Director KJ Sanchez Talks About Keeping the Classic Story Relevant

For a lot of people, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet might be the paragon of indecipherable literature from a time that we can’t remember, or much less care about. But what happens when you revamp Romeo to be a badass woman with a lasso, set the two on the Wild Western frontier, and pack it with just as much emotion as there is action? What you get is Romeo y Juliet, an exciting bilingual reimagining of Shakespeare’s timeless classic that refutes all dirt upon the play’s name. 

Adapted by Karen Zacarías and directed by KJ Sanchez at the California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes), the play takes place in Alta California, during the time of Spanish colonialism. It grapples with themes of love, youth, and disillusionment, asking the question: What happens when the adults don’t show up for the young people?

I had the privilege of engaging in an animated conversation with director KJ Sanchez about the message of the play and its relevance to today’s youth. We discussed the genesis of her love for Shakespeare during her own youth, and how her identity and personhood shape her role as a director.

Esha Potharaju: Out of such a wide array of plays that you’re free to direct, what made you choose Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?

KJ Sanchez: I have been in love with this play for 30 years. I actually played Juliet back in 1994, when I was very young. And I’ve just really loved it. So when Cal Shakes was talking to me about plays that I was interested in, I had mentioned I was interested in Romeo and Juliet, and that Karen Zacarías had begun writing this adaptation of it. Eric Ting, the artistic director of Cal Shakes, found out about it, so he connected the two of us. Knowing that I was always interested in this play, and knowing that Karen wrote this piece, he put us together.

Why did you choose to direct this specific adaptation of Romeo and Juliet? What was it that interested you about Zacarías’s adaptation of this play?

It was the idea of marrying two languages, Spanish and English, and particularly here in this area because Northern California, in so many ways, is a bilingual culture. And I, being a Latina myself, I felt like it was a really great way to access a language that when I was young, I felt like it was distant from me—that I felt like I was an outsider to Shakespeare’s language—until I had a mentor who taught me how to read and speak and understand Shakespeare, and I fell in love with it. It just felt good to sort of marry the language of my home and of my family with the language of Shakespeare. It felt like it opened up a whole world for me, and I think it’s going to open up a world for a lot of members of Latinidad to see themselves in these roles and to hear their language married with Shakespeare.

two men stand speaking during play rehearsal
Juan Manuel Amador and Orlando Arriaga in rehearsal. PHOTO BY JAY YAMADA

On that note, why do you believe that these creative decisions that the adaptation madelike setting the play in Alta California, during Spanish colonial ruleare important?

Actually, setting the play in Alta California, was my decision that I offered to Karen the playwright, which she agreed to and baked it into the play. I put it in Alta California, because it was a time where there was a lot of violence. The Spanish fought the Indigenous people and First Nation people to take their land, and then Mexico fought Spain to kick them out, and then the U.S. fought Mexico and invaded. And so there were battles after battles. It was a time when people were really quick to violence. And also, it’s the Old West, it’s the Wild West, it’s the Gold Rush, and that was a really intense time. So I wanted to put the play in a time that would feel like a pressure cooker. Like everybody’s under so much stress, and that explains why everybody’s so quick to violence. And then making Romeo a woman—I would imagine how hard it would have been at times to be a woman who’s in love with another woman. And so that just puts more pressure on Romeo and Juliet, and it helped me understand how high the stakes are for both of them.

I love how you chose to place emphasis on pressure in this play. How do you interpret the original play of Romeo and Juliet?

It’s a play about so many things. But I think the main thing for me is that the adults all fail the young people in the play. Even those that are well-intending, like Friar Lawrence. Every adult does a disservice to the children, to young people. And the young people are just trying to be their authentic selves. And they have no options because nobody is intervening to help these kids. And that’s a major thing that attracts me. I think it’s still so true today. It’s like, where did kids go when all the adults in their life failed them?

One of my favorite rappers is Chance the Rapper. When I first hear his music, I can’t quite understand every single line because he’s speaking so quickly, and he’s inventing words and making plays on words…And I think that’s the case with Shakespeare, too, because he was doing the exact same thing in his time as Chance the Rapper is doing now. So I think that young people can come to this show and just let the language kind of wash over them and let meaning be found.

KJ Sanchez

That’s beautiful. I didn’t expect this play to grapple with that sort of thing, to delve into that feeling of just being lost as a kid. I’ve never really heard that interpretation before, but that puts it into so much more context. That just makes me want to ask: Do you believe that a Shakespearean play can still endure amongst teenagers and children?

I do. I hope so. I’m a huge fan of rap music. One of my favorite rappers is Chance the Rapper. When I first hear his music, I can’t quite understand every single line because he’s speaking so quickly, and he’s inventing words and making plays on words. So it takes me a couple of times to listen to it, to get all of the nuances. But when I listen to a track for the very first time, I just sort of relax and don’t worry about understanding every single word yet. I just get the gist of it. And I think that’s the case with Shakespeare, too, because he was doing the exact same thing in his time as Chance the Rapper is doing now. So I think that young people can come to this show and just let the language kind of wash over them and let meaning be found. Just let your mind bounce off of the wordplay and take away what you will from it. It doesn’t have to be a task. It doesn’t have to be anything hard. It can be actually just a pleasurable, visceral experience.

How does this adaptation carry on that theme of feeling lost as a young person from the original?

Because Romeo is a woman in our version, she has nobody to turn to for help, because she’s such an outsider. So I think it’s going to be really clear. And in the staging, you can see the friendship of these young people and how they really hang on to each other. And then the adults, like Capulet, Juliet’s father: once Juliet says, “I’m not going to marry Paris,” he is rough with her. He’s really stern. And he switches into Spanish. And what he says in Spanish is really visceral and intense. I think that you will recognize those kinds of parents who are like, “Do as I say, no matter what, and if you don’t do what I say you’re out on the street, and you’re not my daughter anymore.” We’re really leaning into those themes in the play.

I think it chronicles our time because through the lens of Shakespeare, what we’re really looking at is the age-old question of, Are young people allowed to be their natural authentic selves?’ And if their society, and leaders, and parents, and mentors do not see them for who they really are, there’s inevitable tragedy.

KJ Sanchez

I love that a lot. KJ, the motto of your company, American Records, is, to create theater that chronicles our time and serves as a bridge between people.” How do you think your direction of this play reflects this motto?

Oh, my gosh, thank you for doing your research! I’m so honored that you read about that. I think it chronicles our time because through the lens of Shakespeare, what we’re really looking at is the age-old question of, “Are young people allowed to be their natural authentic selves?” And if their society, and leaders, and parents, and mentors do not see them for who they really are, there’s inevitable tragedy. And so, how it chronicles our time is that we’re in a moment of crisis, where I think that there are too many adults that are not actually paying attention to what young people are going through right now. I mean, I’m so sorry on behalf of all of the older people; I’m so sorry to you who’s young that what you hear from us is, “Our planet is a mess. Our society is a mess. When are we going to learn our lessons when it comes to social justice?” And then we’re like, “Good luck with that! See you later.” We need to own up to the mistakes we made, and we need to be better.

I know that the play was originally scheduled for 2020, but it was canceled because of the pandemic. What feels different between these two productions?

I think the balance of Spanish and English is more nuanced. I think that I had more time to do research on Alta California. I think the play is just more well-baked than it was the first time. I think when we would have put it up originally, it would have been strong, but I think that the pandemic just gave it much more time to simmer. It was just really nice to think about the play and think about what language means to me when we were having conversations. It just raises the stakes for everything for me.

a group of people stand around a table during rehearsal
Brady Morales Woolery and Hugo Carbajal. PHOTO BY JAY YAMADA

What feels the same between the two productions?

That the play is one of the best plays ever written. That the idea of marrying Spanish and English is a really good idea. That Juliet is one of the strongest characters in the canon of theater. And the idea that some themes last forever.

How do you as a director put your imagination into a play that’s already been written, but also avoid overriding the instructions that have been intended by the original playwright?

It’s a delicate balance, and it really is just trial and error. I think in order to be a director, you have to have a pretty decent, positive relationship with failure. It’s almost like walking around a house in the dark. You don’t know where the coffee table is until you bump into it. I don’t know what is right or wrong until we bump into things and learn in the room. 

What were some unique artistic decisions that you took with the play, like with costume design or set building?

One fun one is Romeo. There were a lot of really strong women at the time that for many reasons were running their own ranches in Alta California. Maybe because the men were off fighting, or maybe the men got abducted and were taken as hostages. There were all sorts of reasons why women were running ranches. And so our Romeo is a cowgirl. She’s just been out herding cattle and she has a lasso. She has a whip and she’s wearing chaps and she’s kind of a badass. It’s really fun.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Romeo y Juliet plays at California Shakespeare Theater, May 25—June 19, 2022 at the Bruns Amphitheater. Tickets now are available on Cal Shakes’ website.   

Esha Potharaju (she/her) is an avid lover of the arts and a high school junior based in California’s Bay Area. She is a firm believer in the importance of diversity in the arts, because the arts shape culture, and culture shapes policy. She strongly believes that education is liberation and interns with CreateCA, working with teachers and students on a local level to raise funding and community support for arts education in her district. She is a journalist on the editorial staff of the TeenTix Press Corps, helping support youth to pursue opportunities in art criticism. In her free time, you can find Esha enthusiastically scribbling something into a sketchbook or over-analyzing comics and cartoons with her best friends.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.

“Welcome to the Landfill”: Dark Comedy Meets Youth Empowerment

16-year-old playwright Valentine Wulf is partnering with Penguin Productions to bring her darkly humorous play featuring a snarky, generationally dysfunctional family to the big stage. Wulf’s work, titled Welcome to the Landfill, is the first play written by a highschooler to receive a full, feature-length production at Penguin Productions. The company hopes it will inspire more youth to bring forward their work. Shana Bestock, the producing artistic director at Penguin Productions, is adamant about the value of producing plays from diverse, young voices: “Without [them], we are lost.”

Welcome to the Landfill is laden with cynical mundanity, lies and disillusionment. The play follows a family of estranged half-siblings who are reunited following a mysterious call about their father’s death. Everyone is hiding their own secrets, which unfurl during a road trip across the Midwest to their father’s supposed funeral home. “I would say it’s a play about family and family dysfunction. It’s a play about expectation and unexpected consequences, and unexpected effects and how we deal with them. Which really resonates with us at this time, right?” said Bestock.

The ensemble starts off with Jim Janson, the grifter mastermind behind the elaborate scheme to gather his children back together. Then comes his oldest son Bernard, a tired middle school physical education teacher in his late forties (“He’s just such a dad,” joked Wulf), and his teenaged son Jeremy, onto whom Bernard projects his unfulfilled childhood hockey dreams. Jim’s second oldest, Elizabeth, is, as Wulf put it, “a micro-influencer mommy-blogger who posts Keto recipes. She calls herself an alpha female.” Her daughter Noelle is a lonely 10-year-old whose identity is consumed by the beauty pageants she competes in. She does not have much company, save for her pet, Karl Barx, who Wulf described as “one of those little crusty white dogs.”

Finally, there is the much younger sibling Vitus, who is a 19-year-old aspiring breakdancer. “He’s not very good,” Wulf sighed. “He’s stuck working at a rundown amusement park and he plays a character called Marnie the Movie Dinosaur because they didn’t want the Barney people to sue them. So he shows up in his mascot costume. He’s just terrible.” Much of the play is set in Vitus’s crammed car, in which Wulf crafts hilariously unexpected interactions that showcase copious family secrets. In doing so, she uses her play to conduct an exploration on the very human motives of her otherwise cartoonish band of characters. 

a teenage girl in a pink and white jacket
Playwright of “Welcome to the Landfill” Valentine Wulf. Photo courtesy of the artist

The idea of Welcome to the Landfill has roots in an uncanny speculation made about Wulf’s own grandfather. “My dad and his siblings haven’t talked to him or seen him in forever,” she explained. “And they just got a call from a funeral home one day that he died and that they had to send a check to pay for it. And my dad was sitting there and he goes, ‘This could be a scam. Like what if we just send them the check, and then we drive there—and it’s just an empty lot?’” Her father suggested she write a play about the strange thought. “So I did,” she said, but she also took creative license to make it “much more.” Within three weeks, Wulf had already drafted her vision into a play. 

In the fall of 2021, she was selected by Penguin Productions to participate in a cohort of youth playwrights called the Bonfire Collective. Wulf brought her play’s script to the very first meeting, and her fellow cohort members immediately jumped into a cold read of the work. “I’d never heard the script read aloud before. Actually, hearing how it would sound onstage really helped it come together and it helped me see what things I needed to change,” said Wulf. She quickly found that the community of Bonfire Collective writers propelled her story into being the best it could be. They would ask questions that pushed Wulf to rework the script. They would guide her to fleshing out her characters into nuclear personas. And most importantly, they would provide her with a support network to fall back on during her creative journey. 

Soon after Wulf completed the Bonfire Collective’s programming, Penguin Productions reached out to her about producing Welcome to the Landfill. “It’s so different from a lot of shows that youth get to perform. There’s no romance, there’s no talking about going to school,” said Artistic Associate Annika Prichard. “It’s really about a non-traditional family who gets pushed together in this set of really weird circumstances. And I think so many know what that feels like.”

Another thing that drew the company to the play was the wildly different age range of its characters. “We shouldn’t just be asking teens to play teens. We should allow them to expand themselves, and this play gives them the opportunity to do so,” said Bestock.

The Bonfire Collective is only one of the completely free theatre education programs that Penguin Productions offers. Its business model intentionally defies that of other theatre companies: “We wanted to entirely eliminate that pay barrier and remove that shame that’s associated with needing financial aid,” said Bestock. The company prioritizes paving an accessible gateway to theatre for youth who need it the most. One strategy it employs is guaranteeing registrees challenging and meaningful roles in play productions, regardless of prior experience. “Theatre is important because it centers humanity. So this question of ‘Why is making it accessible to youth voice[s] important?’ comes down to ‘Because it preserves our humanity,’” said Bestock.

While the Bonfire Collective was transformative for Wulf’s playwriting career, she “caught the theatre bug” a ways back, in the fifth grade. “I started in Youth Theater Northwest, which is all the way in Mercer Island, so I was pretty committed to having my mom drive me to shows,” Wulf chuckled. Her first role was Caliban, a prominent character from the magic-filled Shakespearian drama The Tempest. At the opening performance, Wulf said that “someone’s little grandma came up to me and told me that I was amazing at acting, and that I should never stop. It feels so cliché, but I still think of that moment every day.”

a teenage boy lies face down on stage during a play reading
Hersh Powers in “The Mediocre Beyond” at The Bonfire Festival, as part of the Bonefire Collective where Welcome to the Landfill was workshopped. Photo by Antoinette Garon

From observing her performance scripts, Wulf taught herself how to write plays and started taking on passion projects in the eighth grade. “Gifts can be squandered, gifts can be shoved into a corner, or gifts can be used,” Bestock said. “Valentine is someone who uses her gifts.”

Wulf is committed to creating togetherness with her play: “Theatre is such a collaborative medium, and I wanted to see how people come together to work on this,” Wulf said. “I’m excited about this because the director, the cast, the set designers might take it somewhere that I hadn’t imagined at all, and there’s this element of surprise to seeing what the finished product might look like.”

The show is set to inspire other teens who don’t know how to take their work to the big stage. Penguin Productions has expressed its enthusiasm for opening this opportunity to teen playwrights. “Work created by youth doesn’t come second to big plays that you’ve heard of before,” said Prichard. “They deserve to be on just as big of a stage, to have just as much attention, and just as much care as these really well-known plays.”

Welcome to the Landfill will have performances on March 19 and 20 at Taproot Theatre’s Isaac Studio Theatre. 

Esha Potharaju (she/her) is an avid arts lover based in Fremont, California. She is a firm believer in the importance of diversity in the arts. In her free time, Esha enjoys writing articles, drawing and overanalyzing comics and cartoons with her best friend.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.

“Arms and the Man” at A.C.T. Sings True as the World Slowly Reopens

As we collectively mark a full year in nation-wide reclusion, American Conservatory Theater launches A.C.T. Out Loud, a series of play readings challenging audiences to relate to centuries-old works. The event features George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, a witty comedy set at the end of the Serbo-Bulgarian War.

The play follows Bulgarian noble Raina, who falls in love with the enemy mercenary Bluntschli even though she is already engaged to a Bulgarian war hero. Shaw helps us confront change through Raina and her community as they return to an unfamiliar home.

On the first day of rehearsals for Arms and the Man, I talked with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon about the theatre scene in the Bay Area, going virtual, and how this 127-year-old play is particularly relevant right now.

Esha Potharaju: A.C.T. is the biggest theatre company in the Bay Area. When you think of the Bay, the uber-rich Silicon Valley giants are the first things that come to mind. But I know the Bay is a lot more than that. It’s a culmination of culture with a history of immigration and revolution imprinted in it. As an arts company, how is A.C.T. influencing its culture scene?

Pam MacKinnon: We’re part of the largest theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as such, we tend to pay artists more than any other theatre in the area. It’s very important. We’re part of an ecosystem. I don’t see us in competition with other theatres. We’re there as an employer. We’re there as a way to make sure that artists, in a very expensive region of the country, can afford to live here, that artists can afford to create, and to bring themselves to step in to doing the work that they want to do. So that’s one aspect of being big.

And also, here we are in a not just region-wide, but a universal shutdown of our art form as we know it. We’ve pivoted to the virtual realm. As a big theatre, we embraced technology really swiftly at the top of this pandemic and encouraged artists to embrace this new medium for theatre…This is an art form that’s normally all about gathering people in person to tell stories, and we just don’t have the ability to do that right now for health reasons. But it doesn’t mean we’ve shut down in any way.

Pam, you’ve said in prior interviews that you believe theatre is a core of human life. It’s how people gather, tell stories and find a sense of belonging. How is your production team planning to emulate that community-like environment virtually for this play?

Arms and the Man started rehearsals today, so that’s one moment of creating community. It’s about bringing actors around the country together with the director Colman Domingo, Christina Dare, who is helping out this amazing company of actors with some voice work, as well as a dramaturg who’s on staff, and a stage manager, and a video designer. And so that’s sort of the first slice of building a community. It’s that rehearsal room, and we’re doing it all virtually. This is a four-day exploration with the great actors of this play. Then, we’re going to edit it and create a video document of this exploration. Then we’ll put it out for ticket buyers. And we have a sliding scale for tickets, so tickets can cost as little as $5 and then sort of go on up.

We’re also making it free for educators and their students, and I see that as community building as well. I mean, I’m hopeful that educators will take us up on it, and there’s a lot of remote learning going on as well. Students of a particular class, even if they’re remote, can watch the play…and get to discuss it, and those discussions are inherently a form of community building. It’s not necessarily the same thing as a group of people gathering together as an audience in a room, but I think as long as the art…fosters conversation, that’s inherently community building. Even in a pandemic.

That’s great. I love that you’ve still managed to preserve the meaning of theatre to you, even while we’re going virtual.

Yeah, I think that’s right.

So Arms and the Man will be performed as a staged reading rather than a full production. In that limited format, what changed in the play? And how are you feeling about that?

The fun thing about Arms and the Man in particular is that it’s comedy. I’ve listened to the reading for the first time without any direction, without any work, and it is a laugh-out-loud comedy. And it just keeps on—you have these great moments. You know, it just, it gets whacky really fast. And it sort of ratchets up the tension, and you can feel that in the reading. George Bernard Shaw also wrote very specific stage directions and descriptions of what he thought the room should look like, what the costumes should [look] like. So our director Colman Domingo is going to decide which of those stage directions should be read and which are left to our imagination. So I think that will be a fun way for the audience to experience this play. You know, when you normally stage it, as you said, there’s a set that is built, normally costumes that actors wear, but this is much more basic story-telling theatre. And to have George Bernard Shaw’s elaborate descriptions read will be a different way into this play.

"Arms and the Man" Director Colman Domino.
“Arms and the Man” Director Colman Domino. COURTESY OF A.C.T.

Awesome. So having it read, rather than visually.

Right. You know, in theatre, the audience is that last element that you bring into any theatre project. Your imagination takes over, right, and I think there is something just beautiful that your imagination can fill in those gaps. And that’s what this will be.

I think it’s just so interesting how the way that people interpret art has just kind of changed during this pandemic. A lot of it is left to imagination, but we’re still doing art, and I think that’s great.

And I feel so grateful that there are actors around the country who are joining us in San Francisco virtually to work for four days together. And that just normally wouldn’t happen. We have actors from the Bay Area, actors from New York, actors from Los Angeles, all coming together for four days to tell this story.

Pam, I know you consider Edward Albee’s works as a huge shaping force in your career. He was known for writing thought-provoking and often deeply uncomfortable plays. What about his works held so much appeal to you? Are you letting that shine through your selection of Arms and the Man? I know Arms and the Man is written to be quite thought provoking as well.

I like theatre that makes you question your point of view, even question your values. And Shaw definitely does that. Shaw, like Edward Albee, has a really strong voice. You can tell a Shaw play when you hear it, if you’ve heard or seen Shaw plays, there’s usually some kind of didactic lesson. He sort of sets himself a task to point out hypocrisy or circle something political that he deems important and necessary for people to talk about. And while I think Arms and the Man has that and points out the hypocrisy of heroism or the hypocrisy of posturing that you’re in love without being in love is also just at the core, the play is just so richly drawn. The characters feel vulnerably human, as opposed to just symbols. And so I would say for that reason, yes, he and Edward Albee can be talked about in one sentence.

Late playwright Edward Albee with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon at the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in New York City in 2012.
Late playwright Edward Albee with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon at the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in New York City in 2012. PHOTO BY BRIAN HARKIN

Why did you select this play to be performed? What about it made you think, “Wow, this is really relevant right now”?

I think there are some timeless themes, [and also some that are relevant to] this moment in a global pandemic…Shaw has written a play with these soldiers returning home from war in various states of fatigue or celebration. And I feel as people start to reunite, as even classrooms and workplaces come together after being remote for so long, there’s something about this returning that feels really relevant. And also, this moment of return, when it need not be a return to what had been, should be a critique of what had been. There’s something about the return that opens up possibility to make it better or make it different. And that feels very of the now.

Wow, I love that. This honestly never even crossed my mind when I was reading up on Arms and the Man.

Yeah, it’s one thing to return from war, but I think that idea of coming back after having this harrowing and completely extraordinary experience and returning home. Well, home has changed while you were gone, and you have changed while you were away, so instead of just assuming that everything goes back to the way it was, get ready, because that’s not going to. And I feel that’s around the corner for us as a society.

As a young person, and given that I’m speaking to someone who really wants everyone to understand the importance of, and have access to theatre, I have to wonder what A.C.T. is doing to make the narrative of Arms and the Man more open to this generation?

It doesn’t need a rendition. It doesn’t need it. Colman Domingo’s first point of direction with the actors was just bring your whole selves. Certainly, the story takes place in the 1880s in Bulgaria, but he’s saying we’re American. We’re Black. We’re white. We’re Latinx. He’s saying it’s 2021. Bring yourself to the emotional and story situations. And we’ll make it sing.

Arms and the Man will be available on demand April 12–18. A watch party will kick off the play’s run on April 12 at 6 p.m. Tickets are available for purchase here.

Esha Potharaju (she/her) is an art and story lover who is passionate about enriching her community through arts involvement. In her free time, you can find Esha participating in student advocacy initiatives and overanalyzing comics and cartoons with her best friend. You can find more of her reviews and interviews on TeenTix.org.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.