University of Washington and Cornish acting professor Amy Thone has been working on the Seattle stage for over 20 years. In February, Seattle Theater Writers awarded her a Gypsy Rose Lee Award for her lead performance in Frost/Nixon early last year; she was also nominated for a Gregory Award for the same production. This spring she appears in ACT Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by John Langs. The production casts both ASL and English-speaking actors, adding a new dimension to a story rife with misunderstanding. Thone will play the Nurse, the Prince and, like the rest of the company, help vocalize the lines of Romeo and the Friar, played by deaf actors Joshua Castille and Howie Seago, respectively.
I sat down with Thone to discuss her history with Shakespeare and Langs’s new take on the classic tragedy.
Can you tell me a little bit about the production?
We are doing this age-old play at a theater called A Contemporary Theatre, but the director, John Langs, feels deeply, strongly, and profoundly that this story has tremendous focus and meaning for right now. So not only is the production contemporized with modern dress, but it also, he thinks, specifically relates to the Parkland shootings, in that those students came forward and said, "The adults in this culture are failing us." He thinks that this is a story of how the adults fail the young people and that many, many young people die as a result of that.
There are also two amazing, nationally-renowned deaf actors in the cast—the young man playing Romeo and an older gentleman playing the Friar—so John believes we are upping the ante. Not only is there the inter-scene strife and violence between the Capulets and the Montagues, but there is this additional layer of the abyss between some characters in the play [that] is widened or deepened by a communication barrier. Romeo is an ASL speaker and Juliet is a spoken English speaker and they have to figure out, through their immediate connection, how to communicate.
What drew you to this particular production?
I have always wanted to work at this wonderful theater and the director, John Langs, is somebody I have worked with in the past numerous times and I admire. I think his ability to create a very singular kind of magic in the room is off the charts. There is a feeling of import and intent and drive and hunger and happiness that he helps foster and ferment in a room that is really unlike any other director I have worked with. Some of the cast members were very interesting to me, too. People in this cast that I have worked with or haven't worked with or have worked with through my whole career in Seattle that I love going back to. So, it was a sense of community. I love this play. I thought John's ideas around it were exceptional and exciting. I've been in this play nine or ten times. At one point I even said, maybe five years ago, "I don't think I ever need to do Romeo and Juliet again" and this production made me feel like I wanted to do it again.
How have you coordinated with the actors portraying Romeo and the Friar to keep in time with their ASL?
We just did an hour and a half working with the Friar trying to figure out exactly that— because the rhythmic connection between ASL and spoken English is difficult sometimes. Sometimes ASL is longer, sometimes ASL is shorter, so we're trying to respond to that with rhythmic syncopation in terms of how they're signing and how we are speaking. Sometimes we ask—we have an ASL master, her name is Ellie—we will ask her to create more ASL or to pull some out.
Do you make a lot of eye contact with Romeo or do you primarily look at the other characters?
Super good question. Sometimes when we are voicing Romeo, we look at Romeo. Sometimes we look at Juliet. Mostly I find that I am looking at Romeo because I feel a little bit like I am his soul and so I am trying to watch—and [Joshua Castille] is an unbelievable actor—so I watch his acting and his communication and then I try to come into him and voice what I'm seeing happening.
You're emoting just as much as he is?
Exactly. Exactly. Because we can't narrate the text we have to live it with him. That's the idea. That's the hope.
How do you think this production, aside from being more accessible to the hearing-impaired, enhances the text for audiences, both hearing and deaf?
I think that that layer is not to be overlooked. I think that it is going to be powerful and remarkable and will draw people into the story in a different way than they've been drawn in. I also think John Langs is a master circus manipulator and so the way he coordinates design and production elements is astonishing. So I think the whole container for the text to live in will be exciting.
Is there any other facet of this production you want to share?
Theater can be boring. I mean we've all been bored by theater. We've all been bored by bad theater and bad Shakespeare theater, but I think this production will have the sizzle of a rock concert in addition to having a lot of really beautiful language and remarkable relationships.
Romeo and Juliet
March 1–31, ACT Theatre, $20–$87