Five Questions for an Actor in the Ensemble of ‘Julius Caesar’

The crowd is its own character in Julius Caesar; they are there to be angered, to forgive, to protest, and most importantly, to be persuaded. In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production, the ensemble sat among the audience for most of the play, standing up to protest only midway through the show. This became confusing during one of the final performances, when a 24-year-old, right-wing activist named Laura Loomer rushed the stage after the assassination scene in the Senate, shouting “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” (“We’re not promoting it,” an actress onstage said to Loomer in the moment. “This is Julius Caesar.”)

Cassandra Cushman was an actor in the the ensemble, and we asked her about her experience performing in a 400-year-old-play that made national headlines in its final week.

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Oskar Eustis said he chose to stage Julius Caesar for Shakespeare in the Park the day after the election. How long have you been a part of the production?

I got the audition through my agents in early April, had callbacks, and was cast by mid-month. My track started rehearsals in mid-May, though the rest of the cast had been rehearsing for several weeks at that point. We began previews on May 23, and officially opened on June 12. (Because of the contracting there was only one week where we were officially “open” and not in previews, but there were four weeks of performances total.)

Were there changes made in the course of rehearsal because of the news cycle?

The explosion of news from conservative media happened towards the end of our third week, and so we were well into previews at that point. By the time it had been picked up by the national media, we had already opened. The show didn’t change with the news cycle, but there was increased security for the actors and for the audience.

A staffer at the Public tweeted last week that “the hate directed at our staff and family is real and terrifying.” How did this affect the actors?

I think it depended on each person’s relationship to social media. There were company members who weren’t online and were somewhat cut off from the tweeting, the Facebook posts, the general maelstrom of it all. But there were others who wanted to engage. Our amazing director, Oskar, made it clear that we could engage in whatever manner we saw fit with the media and with the general public. The Public is a real champion of freedom of speech, and they wanted to encourage us to respond in whatever way made us safe.

I am fairly active on social media and have accounts on most platforms. I saw some rhetoric spewed my way, especially after I posted photos from our opening night party. I have a public Instagram and Twitter account, so anyone can find me and post whatever comments they’d like. While it can feel invasive and brusque at times, I also feel like this is part of what the play provokes — an open dialogue, the right to express yourself.

What was crazy was hearing from friends and family that they were seeing the show everywhere, on the View, TMZ, on the Daily Show, on every news outlet — it was pretty mind-blowing. I do engage in media and read the news, so I was seeing it come at a rapid pace, especially in our last week. I didn’t feel unsafe with the coverage, or with the interactions on social media, but I did begin to feel unsafe when we had people rushing the stage during our show.

As a member of the ensemble, you took on the part of “the crowd” in many scenes, including as protestors, wearing clothes and holding signs that would be familiar to anyone who attended the Women’s March or the Climate March.

Our main purpose was to be a device that would engage directly with the audience — this had been the plan from day one. We entered the house with regular patrons, sitting in our assigned seats, and we didn’t appear to be a part of the play until after the assassination of Caesar in the Senate in the first scene of Act 3. When the conspirators entered the house with their bloody hands and knives, we “activated” and began to become part of the play. Some of the intent was to make it feel like a real political rally, where all sides are yelling and it does naturally feel chaotic. Later we entered what we called the “Forum” section, where the amazing Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony convinces us to rise up, mutiny, and rage over Caesar’s death.

Because we watched the first half of the play, including the Senate assassination, as regular audience members, it was a surreal experience to see protestors run on stage to confront not only our cast mates, but also the entire Delacorte audience. I have to say, it shook us — those are our colleagues and friends up there. The security was amped up every night after the protests happened, and the staff and ushers did an outstanding job. I really felt so safe, and that the Public was taking care of us.

As far as the actual protestors go, I found the rhetoric they were shouting to be confusing. Also they were entering the playing space when action was taking place; it was unsafe not just for the actors, but the audience. I have no problem with protestors — we had plenty of people out front of the theater every night, voicing their opinion. It’s their right! This is exactly what the Public is all about! Everyone has a voice and everyone should use it. But when they unsafely rush the stage mid-performance, it became dangerous.

Something interesting began to happen after the on-stage protests — our scenes in the crowd became even more real. You could feel the audience around us questioning the ensemble. Are they in the show? Is this a protest? The manipulation of the crowd is one the main themes of the play — Caesar does it, Brutus does it, Marc Antony does it, and we are swayed and turned by them. That’s part of the pull of the play. Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence; it’s a cautionary tale about how democracy cannot be unseated by undemocratic means, and that large groups of people can be easily convinced to think, behave, and even strike out.

Do you come away with a new understanding of the play after this experience? 

I read Julius Caesar for the first time in high school. It’s a powerful play, one that I’ve encountered over the years of my training, but I had never been in a production until now. The reason the Public had to clarify that no lines were changed in our show, that this is all Shakespeare’s text, is because it sounds so real coming out of the mouths of contemporaries. [Three words were added to the script. “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less”; the production inserts the words “on Fifth Avenue.”Julius Caesar always been used to reflect on where we’ve been politically, who we are, and where we are going. It has been performed for over 400 years in every nation across the world, often set in the current times and with parallels to actual leaders. I could never have imagined when I read it for the first time that I would be involved in a production like this, but I am so very proud to be an artist with the Public. It’s important for art to remain alive and vital, to reflect on the world we live in, and to make us question who and what we believe.


from Longreads https://longreads.com/2017/06/20/five-questions-for-an-actor-in-the-ensemble-of-julius-caesar/

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