Something Speciale on Stage at Actors: Louisville Native Tony Speciale Directs ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Actors Theatre of Louisville opens its season with an ambitious contemporary staging of “Romeo and Juliet.” The play will be directed by Tony Speciale, a Louisville native and an alumnus of the Acting Apprentice Company at Actors Theatre. Born and raised in Okolona, Speciale has been living in New York City for the past 12 years. He got his start in theater while attending Louisville’s Youth Performing Art School. He started at YPAS as a piano performance major and discovered his passion for theater in an afterschool acting class.

“[YPAS was] very influential in my development as an artist,” said Speciale.

When I asked him what he was looking forward to doing while visiting Louisville, his response pretty much decimated my word count. Let’s just say this guy has a lot of love for the city of Louisville.

“Four weeks is not a lot of time to put together a Shakespeare production, so I’ll be pretty busy,” said Speciale. “However, if I do find myself with any free time, you’ll probably find me having dinner with friends at Ramsi’s Cafe on the World, Proof on Main, Jack Fry’s, Seviche, Mayan Café, or El Mundo. Lynn’s Paradise Cafe is also one of my favorite places on earth. NYC doesn’t even have such a place. I particularly love the Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue area, but am intrigued by the explosion of development downtown.”

Speciale went on to wax appreciative about everything from 21c Museum
Hotel to Cave Hill Cemetery to the Louisville Bats.

As an alumnus of the 1998-1999 Acting Apprentice Company at Actors Theatre, his return to direct at the theater is more than just a return to his hometown.

“There are still a handful of people around from the old regime who have made me feel very at home,” said Speciale. “The production stage manager, Paul Mills Holmes; associate director, Zan Sawyer-Dailey; actor, Bill McNulty (who has been part of the resident acting company since 1976!); resident stage manager, Kathy Preher; assistant production manager, Paul Werner; props director, Mark Walston; general manager, Jeff Rodgers; company manager, Dot King; and literary director, Amy Wegener, to name a few.”

But Speciale is most looking forward to working with a newcomer at Actors Theatre: Les Waters, the artistic director.

“We first met and worked together on Chuck Mee’s ‘Big Love,’ which was part of the 2000 Humana Festival, back when I was still an actor. Les has been an inspiration to me ever since, so it’s extra special for me to be back home kicking off his inaugural season with ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

Between “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games,” a teenaged “Spider-Man,” and the rise in popularity of young adult literature among adults – heck, even the final Olympic torchbearers were teens – our obsession with youth culture makes this the perfect time to be launching a production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

“We do seem to be a youth-obsessed culture,” said Speciale. “And as our life expectancy increases, so will our desire to remain young – both at heart as well as physically…The play is also mythic in its portrayal of young people and their struggles. There seems to be a common thread between this play and all the movies/books you mentioned: young people rising up against an established authority while fighting not only to survive but flourish in a world that doesn’t understand or recognize their unique gifts.”

In Speciale’s staging, Verona is contemporary suburban America.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say at first glance you might think you are enjoying a leisurely summer afternoon in a neighbor’s backyard,” said Speciale. “However, soon the characters are caught up in a world of violence, peer pressure, bullying, teen suicide, and – to a certain extent – child abuse.”

Because most people get caught up in the love story aspect of “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s easy to forget how very brutal the play is, both emotionally and physically.

“I’m very interested in how propulsive and physical the production can be,” said Speciale. “I’m working with a wonderful fight director named Adam Rihacek who is choreographing some pretty visceral and realistic fight sequences. We’re also incorporating video, projection, and other media to help support the modern aspects of the story.”

Theaters everywhere are struggling to get young audiences’ butts in seats. But Louisville has had some traction in that department. With the formation of groups including Theatre [502], Le Petomane, and Looking for Lilith, to name a few, young adults can be found attending theater productions more frequently.

Actors Theatre is similarly working to attract a new generation of theater-goer.For “Romeo and Juliet,” Actors Theatre has some unusual marketing plans to entice young people to the show.

“For selected performances, Actors is planning on transforming the theater’s balcony into a groundlings-like environment where young people may watch the show at a cheaper price,” said Speciale. “The idea is that people may be able to come and go throughout the show to get drinks or move around to try another seat.”

In the theater world, a debate has been churning about the inclusion of tweet seats in some theaters – specially reserved seating for people who want to use social media during shows. Some view this as an ingenious way to engage and attract younger audiences, not to mention that it’s free word-of-mouth marketing. Others feel that it can be distracting to patrons and actors alike, as well as discourteous to the theater workers who have put so much time into the production.

According to Speciale, it sounds like Actors Theatre is up for giving tweet seats a shot.

“This seems like a fun way to engage a younger audience, especially since we are embracing current social media in our own production,” said Speciale. “It would be great if more theaters got creative with how young audiences interact with the live experience by encouraging them to participate before, during, and after the actual event. The goal should be to continue the theatrical dialogue beyond just the two hours traffic of our stage.”

-Melissa Chipman

“Romeo and Juliet” will play 30 performances in the Pamela Brown Auditorium at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the Brown-Forman Series. It begins previews on September 4, opens September 6, and runs through September 26. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased online at actorstheatre.org or by calling (502) 584-1205.