Romeo & Juliet in JC; Exclusive Interview w/ Director Sean Hagerty
Interview with Sean Hagerty
I recently sat down with Sean Hagerty, artistic director of The Curtain, Jersey City’s premiere classical theatre — formerly known as Shakespeare@. Sean directed The Curtain’s current Romeo and Juliet, which we saw at the Nimbus Arts Center and highly recommend you catch before it closes on October 22nd. Read my thoughts on the show below the interview!
Sean holds a Masters Degree in Shakespeare and Theatre from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he graduated with Distinction. Sean has worked as an actor, teacher, director and producer regionally and internationally for many years. In other words, he is the guy you want to be at the head of your Shakespeare ship when you settle into your seat in the theatre. We were lucky enough to catch Sean for a few questions about the rebranding of Shakespeare@, their premiere production of R & J, and why this theatre company is such an amazing asset to Jersey City. Read on!
Why did you decide to rebrand Shakespeare@ to The Curtain?
The original idea was to go to different spaces with our performances. For example, our production of Hamlet at Grace Church. Part of the Shakespeare@ mission, and what still holds true for The Curtain, is to tell epic stories in intimate and unique spaces. The impetus for the rebrand, for one, was simply that people weren’t quite taking to the company name, and when the pandemic hit, it felt like the perfect time to rethink that. The Curtain was the name of an Elizabethan playhouse and one of the first theatres that Shakespeare’s company played in. If you look at our logo, you can see Shakespeare’s coat of arms, Hudson County’s coat of arms are integrated into our logo.
You adapted this version of R & J. What is that process like?
I go in with specific ideas about themes I want to look at or production ideas that will help illuminate scenes that I want to touch on. With R & J, there are three different versions of text to work with: First Quarto, Second Quarto, and the Folio version. They’re all very different, the First Quarto in particular, people even thought that was a pirated version. Now, people think it’s a draft (and I agree), a sort of moment frozen in time of an early performance. I enjoy the process of playing with the versions and mashing them up together. I’m not opposed to moving things around, experimenting, and combining characters — it’s one of my favorite parts of the process.
Your actors had so much clarity with the text and seemed expert in handling Shakespearean language. Can you tell us about your rehearsal process?
Well, as for the text, language being utilized well should be the baseline, and clarity of storytelling is the main goal. Our rehearsal process started on its feet pretty much on day 2. I could confidently say I have about 70% of the show already blocked in my head or on paper when we start rehearsal. That can always change, things move around because of what the actors bring, and it’s not locked in of course. Still, I find it useful for me and the actors to have something to hang our hat on.
And why R & J for your first show coming out of the pandemic? Can you talk about your choice to set it in the Jazz era?
R & J is a funny play, and then it turns and it’s so tragic. It just felt like the right play post-pandemic. Setting it in the Jazz era was a choice to explore specific themes that we’re dealing with a lot now that are reflective of the uprising at that time. I was searching for a time period where there was a big youth movement and the 20’s seemed perfect; it was a real inflection point in society. I wanted to explore where new movements were fighting against old establishments. That era was about the young vs. the old, which I wanted to focus on, more than the tribal aspect of Capulet vs. Montague.
Can you talk to me about the Radio Plays that you started producing during the pandemic with the Shakespeare@ Home podcast? Will there be more in the future?
Well, Richard II was a response to the first weeks of the pandemic. We had R & J planned for the Spring of 2020, followed by Macbeth, and that was all halted — but we wanted to keep making theatre. I really didn’t want to do a zoom reading. I’m the kind of person that can find in-person readings tedious, so I thought, let’s not do that. We paired up with the brilliant Sonic Designs, and as we rolled out episodes, we started getting letters from people with mobility impairment and vision impairment. One letter in particular from an older woman that said “thank you for bringing theatre back to me.” That really struck me and I thought, why didn’t I think about that before? There’s such an underserved community to reach. After Richard II, we did The Tempest and Julius Caesar. Listen to them here. And yes, there will be more to come in the future.
Anything else you’d like the folks of Jersey City to know about The Curtain?
I’m just really happy to be able to share this show. People don’t really realize that we’re trying to bring the kind of acting and shows here that you expect to see in the city for ticket prices upwards of $100. Our mission includes the accessibility of theatre with all-star and international casts — at an affordable price point.
I’ve always said it should be called Juliet and Romeo. And especially in our version.
Check out more about Sean Hagerty and The Curtain, and make sure to grab your tickets to Romeo and Juliet before they sell out! Jersey City is now hosting some of the best actors and performances out there, thanks to this company.
The production of Romeo and Juliet we need right now.
I’m going to start this review out with my honest feelings on seeing Shakespeare. Whenever I have a night out at the theatre to see one of The Bard’s epic shows, I am often weighted with feelings of tentative expectation. Five little words pop into my head over and over; “I just hope it’s good.” In those words, here’s what I hope: I hope the actors can grasp the material, I hope the director hasn’t over-directed the show or indulged in a new take that doesn’t really serve the text or story, and — mostly — I hope I can understand what the actors are saying on stage. More importantly, I hope the actors understand what they’re saying on stage.
When Shakespeare is done well, it has the ability to transport you, to cross time and culture, to speak to matters of the heart that provide a real catharsis for a seeking audience. When done, let’s say, less than well, it can be a long night at the theatre. The Curtain’s production of Romeo and Juliet beautifully and completely lands in the former category. In this not-to-be-missed production, directed by The Curtain’s artistic director, Sean Hagerty, you are promised to not only witness magical performances by the actors on stage, but to be taken care of by their facility with the language. From the rising of the lights to the final bow, this company will have you trusting in their storytelling, so that you can sit back and soak in every word that they speak.
Working from a version of text that Sean adapted himself, he smartly sets the story in the Jazz era, making a choice to explore specific themes that we’re dealing with a lot now, that are reflective of the uprising at that time. He remarks, “I was searching for a time period where there was a big youth movement and the 20’s seemed perfect; it was a real inflection point in society. I wanted to explore where new movements were fighting against old establishments. That era was about the young vs. the old, which I wanted to focus on, more than the tribal aspect of Capulet vs. Montague.”
With a star-studded cast, the performances throughout R & J are a true gift to the stage. Standouts include Aria Shahghasemi, as a beautifully understated, amusing and love-struck Romeo, Andrew Sellon, as the grounded, heart-felt and steadfast Friar Laurence, and Anita Pomario, as the riveting, dynamic, and heart-wrenching Juliet. In addition, I perked up whenever Romeo’s squad — Mercutio and Benvolio — played skillfully by Tucker Lewis and Jomack Miranda, entered the scene. There is not a weak link in this cast, and from the comedy to the deep tragedy of the story, each performer plays with a depth of honesty and joy.
So, it is without further ado that I say — go see this play. Running now through October 22nd at the Nimbus Arts Center, grab your tickets today to a production that will leave you thinking, feeling, and wanting to come back for whatever The Curtain produces next. With a mission to make really great theatre more accessible, The Curtain keeps their prices very low, while keeping the talent and work top-notch. At just a little over $26 per ticket, you can now call Jersey City your home for an inspiring, heart-stirring, and affordable night at the theatre.