‘Romeo and Juliet’ graces Pittsburgh’s parks


By John Lavanga / A&E Editor

For many acting troupes, the rehearsal space is a place of safety. It’s a place where actors can experiment with intonation, work on lines and blocking and develop chemistry, all within the isolated vacuum a rehearsal space provides.

For the actors involved in Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ production of “Romeo and Juliet,” however, the isolated bubble of rehearsal is quickly popped by the joggers, dog walkers and curious children that trot by during each evening’s rehearsal in Frick Park. As the actors move back and forth across the space, they must navigate a hodgepodge of ever-changing obstacles that make the already lofty task of putting on the works of Shakespeare all the more challenging.

It’s a challenge that members of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks have been relishing since 2005, during  which time the program has utilized the ’Burgh’s beautiful public parks to bring a taste of Shakespeare to the city at no cost. This season will be no different: “Romeo and Juliet,” which opens this weekend at the Blue Slide playground in Frick Park, will be staged eight times over the next four weeks throughout the city.

The play features a handful of Pitt connections. The cast is stocked with one current Pitt theater student, Michael Magliocca, and three Pitt alumni, including 2008 Pitt-Johnstown graduate Andrew Miller playing the titular role of Romeo.

But the play’s cast is dodging kids and dogs for a reason. The complications created by the play’s outdoor rehearsals are important in helping the actors prepare themselves for their month of performances. According to Helen Meade, the play’s director and a board member of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks who brings experience from both opera and theater direction, this array of unique challenges during rehearsal allows the actors to brace themselves with working around an audience that controls the dimensions of the stage through their choice in seating.

According to Meade, navigating the balance between stage and audience is key. She says actors should be provided with specific direction in order to remain grounded in the scene, but “at the same time you have to create staging that is incredibly flexible, because ultimately the audience decides where they’re going to be for the show.”

This isn’t the only twist that outdoor staging adds to the play. Michael Mykita, an actor from Mars, Pa., who graduated from Pitt in 1985 with a degree in computer science, plays the role of Lord Capulet. He says that the natural setting removes the respite provided by a curtain.

“Once you’re there, all eyes are on you,” Mykita says, adding that even when offstage, “You’ve gotta kind of convince [the audience] you are who you’re playing the whole time.”

Furthermore, the actors’ intonations and vocal volumes must change to suit the open environment, says Miller, who received a year of classical acting training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art following his graduation from Pitt-Johnstown. 

He and co-star Danielle Powell, a senior acting student at Point Park University assuming the role of Juliet, must navigate their moments of onstage intimacy while ostensibly shouting their lines. “Even if it doesn’t really feel natural to us … to be almost yelling at each other during all those intimate and romantic scenes, we still have to find a balance,” Miller said.

But, according to Powell, raising the volume isn’t all bad. “I love being able to be as loud as I want to be,” she says.

Even more crucially, the play’s fight scenes take on a newfound element of unpredictability on the park’s hilly terrain. Miller noted that during onstage combat, he and his partner “have to be careful about getting too much momentum going downhill. Plus if it rained the day before, it’s probably going to be a little bit slippery” — meaning he must watch where he places his feet, lest the faux violence get a little too real.

Still, even with all the pitfalls and hazards of an outdoor performance, the cast expects their rendition of “Romeo and Juliet” to be a big hit with crowds. The organic and adaptive use of the park makes for performances that will vary based on weather, locale and audience. As Meade puts it, this variation “keeps the performance fresh in a way that you don’t see in other productions.” 

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks presents Romeo and Juliet

Admission: Free

All performances at 2 p.m.

Aug. 31 and Sept. 1: Frick Park, Blue Slide Playground, Beechwood Boulevard at Nicholson Street, Squirrel Hill

Sept. 7 and 8: Allegheny Commons, Ridge Avenue at Arch Street, North Side

Sept. 14 and 15: Arsenal Park, 40th Street at Butler Street, Lawrenceville

Sept. 21 and 22: Frick Park, Blue Slide Playground, Beechwood Boulevard at Nicholson Street, Squirrel Hill