A Conversation with the cast of Julius Caesar
Written by Kelly Wallace
Photography by Michael Brosilow
October 13, 2016
The production of Julius Caesar currently playing at Writers Theatre is, in many ways, feels like a 105-minute meditation on ambition and the nature of power. And though Caesar’s reign came well before the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire, it’s hard not to remember the fate of the ancient world’s biggest superpower as the projections onstage light up with the hashtag #MakeRomeGreatAgain. The words may have been written in the late 16th Century, but juxtaposed with the imagery of a rabid mob clamoring angrily for the complete destruction of its political enemies feel just a little too familiar. This Caesar is unapologetic about its modernity, and doesn’t waste time condescending to its audience by over-explaining its message.
I sat down with some of the cast to talk about the show’s point of view, which instead of transporting us to Rome, reminds us that we are all, in many ways, Roman…even today.
Kelly Wallace: So this is a very non-traditional production of Julius Caesar. When you first got the script and saw how modern and political the themes and undertones would be, what did you think? How did you react to that?
Arya Daire (Portia/Decia/Soothsayer): For me, when I got the script…I haven’t done Julius Caesar before and I hadn’t read it in a long time. I got the eight sides and I saw our current political climate reflected in it, and that was the vibe I had with Michael Halberstam, our co-director, when I went in to audition. It was informed by a lot of current events, especially the omens, were very reflective of our current politics all over the world and that’s all I saw. I think the casting itself was a broader pool, but it wasn’t set that it would be this way. I don’t think it was predetermined with minority reflection in it in advance from the start.
Madrid St. Angelo (Julius Caesar): Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. I was familiar with it and have seen productions of it throughout my life. When I was invited to audition for it, and especially the opportunity to work with Michael and Writers Theatre, there was no question. It’s a great role and I would’ve played him in any way that they’d chosen to depict him or portray him.
As far as reading the script, I really appreciated the stripped down adaptation and I thought it gave a great deal of focus to this idea of ambition and how ambition can trickle down and infect an entire population of people. I personally saw that parallel in the political climate, not that it was told to me, but I saw the emphasis on the relationship between Brutus and Cassius and the central characters’ obsession with power and how it spreads to the entire city and the people.
Kelly: It almost reminded me of something like Hamilton, in the sense that it takes historical figures or characters that we’ve seen in history books and have pre-determined ideas about and what they look like, and flips that on its head. What do you think it does to open up the show, if you remove that visual barrier?
Madrid: This is something I think Lin-Manuel Miranda has done incredibly well in Hamilton. It’s an indictment on our education system here in America. We learn very little about our political leaders from the past, in particular Hamilton. What we know and what we think about him is so small when you actually look at the history, where he came from, the world he lived in, what his upbringing was…it was completely multi-ethnic. It was a very dark-skinned world, not a white-washed world like we see in our history books. Lin was super smart in trying to cast and write the show with people of color, and give us the world that Hamilton lived in prior to his coming to America and studying in American schools. The world he came from was slaves and Dominicans and blacks.
Arya: And contemporary casting isn’t always accurate anyway. We’re all aware of it. Sometimes you see, in plays with all-caucasian casts, a mother and a daughter cast who look nothing alike, even though they’re both caucasian. Even if there’s no way this daughter came from this mother, the fact that they’re both caucasian makes it okay. When there are works done about Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra is often white and the Egyptians are played by Caucasian actors. When you read about the history, that’s not very accurate.
Kelly: When you think of Rome, it was in a lot of ways the melting pot of its time.
Madrid: It was a multi-cultural epicenter.
Arya: We’re used to that kind of casting that isn’t necessarily accurate and correct. We’re just used to it so we accept it as “correct.”
Madrid: I think that somehow, theater-makers believed for a long time that it was a safer bet to cast “traditionally” to make it palatable for the audience. It’s like…oh my god, girls, hide your gold, there’s some dark people coming onstage! I think what Michael’s doing with this production is painting Rome in a very authentic manner, and hopefully, if somebody says God, Caesar looks like Che Guevara, or ask why there’s a Latino Caesar, they move beyond that and we draw them into the world that we’re crafting and they get the story and start to see that the world is multi-faceted and multi-colored.
Kelly: Would you say that’s something you really want people to focus on in this? That they leave the show realizing that their mental picture of that character doesn’t mean much other than it was their pre-conception? I think about young people seeing something like this…all they know is mostly multi-cultural interpretation, which is incredibly valuable.
Julian Parker (Caska/Cobbler): I spent most of my process trying to convince myself that this was a reality that I could accept. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who is an English teacher and I was always the…not that I loved school, but I loved English and History. My first experience with Julius Caesar was in sixth grade and nobody wanted to read any parts, so I was the only one doing all of them. I love language and finding that balance between finding my voice through a culture where I don’t have many representations of people that look like me with my age, speaking the words I do.
I spent a lot of my time trying to convince myself that I didn’t need to speak how I’ve been told people speak from this time and to use my own voice. I realized it today when we had the high school kids. It was a real pleasure to have them, and they’re much closer to where I’m from at least, even in hue. It made me want to make sure that this shit was understood and –I hate to use the word but – to represent. This table in this room is beautiful. This is what it should look like. We have so many different voices at this table alone. So most of it was about myself, and any time I became hesitant, I looked around and I was constantly reaffirmed by my castmates, who also may have had a similar plight.
Arya: Also, the thing about doing Shakespeare is, you can take as many classes as you want, or as many monologues as you want, but the fact is minorities are not often in the productions.
Madrid: Or it’s only in minor roles.
Arya: Right, and because of that, you don’t get that mastery and fluidity in the language. The only way to get it is to do it night after night in front of an audience. I was so nervous with this text, it took me a long time to relax. Maybe a week or two ago, I hit a point where I was happy with what was happening. The language started to pull me and I understood what people meant in those books when they talk about acting Shakespeare. I would’ve never been able to reach that understanding if we hadn’t been given an opportunity to actually play it. If theater companies say they want to encourage diversity in casting, there’s just one way: You just do it. You don’t talk about it anymore. Talking has happened enough, and it’s time to just do it, and Michael is just doing it. He just said, the people who came in for these roles were the best. We need that kind of acknowledgment and we all earned our spots here in this production.
Kelly: Yes, how often do we use “the best person for the role” and they mean who’s the best white person?
Arya: It’s very coded language.
Madrid: This time apparently it was the best faggot for the role.
Kelly: We’ve seen it a lot in Chicago recently too. First at the Marriott for Evita, and now with In the Heights. Those were more conversational exchanges, not necessarily any concrete action. But this is a choice, this is an action. This is in front of an audience every night, it’s not a conversation about how we could do that.
Madrid: I don’t want to monopolize the conversation, but I want to say that on the hand of diversity in casting: just do it. A lot of people have their hearts in the right place, but aren’t at the place where Michael and Writers Theatre are at. It could be all of Michael’s experience as a man and an artistic director and an actor, where they’re actually laboring over the conversation pre-casting. They’re saying, can this role be portrayed this way, that way, and the other way? In a recent interview, Michael talked about Octavius and Cinna. Is it possible to cast that person and have one actor play both? Is that person, given the sexual ambiguity of Octavius historically, cast as a woman? Can we cast a man? Can we cast a trans-person? They’re advancing the conversation and pushing the envelope before they go into casting. Not enough Artistic Directors are doing that. They’ve never thought to. You can’t have a casting call and say we’re going to bring in 500 Latinos or 500 “ethnic people.”
Arya: It really was like that. There were all kinds of people at the audition for this production, caucasian included, and he really made an emphatic point to say that the person who got the role was the best, regardless [of identity]. It wasn’t based on trying for anything specific thing.
Kelly: Syd, do you feel that being trans has really informed your work here playing Octavius?
Sydney Germaine (Octavius/Cinna): Yes, absolutely. Originally, I was called in for Calphurnia and Octavius and that was really interesting. I was excited, because those are two very different characters who could be grouped that way. Something I had to get over in playing Octavius was, historically, as far as we know, Octavius was a cis male.I started trying to put on some very masculine things that may not have been right or authentic. In my everyday life, I always am having to “put on” something to be a little more presentable to people. There’s some stuff I do in my everyday life that I do onstage, but I had to realize that whatever I am is fine. That’s who the person is onstage. It’s not a trans person playing a male character. It’s, this kind of person is playing this kind of person and that’s how it is. I’ve never been able to do that onstage. I’ve always played characters who are very clearly a man or a woman, without ambiguity, which is something I deal with in my everyday life. People don’t get how to deal with what’s going on, they have to choose one or the other. Does that make sense? There’s a parallel between figuring out things onstage and figuring out things in my personal life. It’s informed and helped me in my personal life.
Kelly: It makes sense, and Octavius is figuring himself out too at this point in history.
Sydney: Right! It was also just exciting to me to be called in for a Shakespeare character who was very clearly a male, because I medically transitioned and stopped hormone therapy a few years ago because I was like, Fuck it, I don’t want to do that anymore, I’m beyond whatever this thing is. That has resulted in a lot of people reading me as female, which is what I don’t identify as, and no one had given me the opportunity yet to come in and read for a character that is traditionally cast a male. That was really, really cool to me.
Kelly: Performing Julius Caesar in this way, in this political moment, is fascinating. In the playbill, someone said something to the effect of that if you want to see more of this world, just turn on CNN when you get home. What is that like for you, to know you’re performing this show in a context that’s ever-evolving? You do this during the day, and go home and live it at night.
Sydney: I started thinking about it, even in regard to the Senators onstage today, there’s so much about this mob mentality and so much of that happening on social media. I see all these very blanket statements where people are grouping together and getting very excited or very upset about stuff and it’s all very polarized. All of that, onstage, is reflecting what I see in real life. It’s made me more aware of when am I doing that? When am I not doing my research on something and how easy is it to let myself get worked up and out of control?
Arya: Or just being carried along by a current opinion.
Julian: There are small things that are very touchy in the show, that came as a surprise. We spend so much time at the table, contextualizing and over-contextualizing, and then we finally get on our feet and we’re feeling it out. A couple weeks ago, [we were doing] something that we had been doing forever: at the very top of the show, a gun was pointed at me onstage, but in lieu of what had happened the night before in the news, I saw the other actor realize at the same time I did, that this is potentially bigger than us, even in that small moment that’s going to end in a paragraph. It can cause you to drift in a place where you have to force even your ego to override whatever’s going on with you internally. That freaked me the hell out. Something else that I saw was that we did a really good job of trying to create a culture in the room that was as nonpartisan as possible in order to stick to the work, although we did have a theme of wanting Caesar to represent a hybrid of Trump/Bernie Sanders…
Kelly: You even use the hashtags on the projections, like #MakeRomeGreatAgain, which is a pretty explicit reference…
Julian: Right, right, right. I allowed myself to dismiss that idea in the marketplace scene…where [Julius Caesar] is laying on the ground for what must be at least thirty minutes; I can’t imagine what he’s thinking under there. Something really intimate happened where he was under the cloak and I could see the brown of his skin on his calf and I don’t associate that skin tone with Bernie or Trump and now I see Barack. Now I see people that killed a brown man based on what he achieved and off of what they fear him to do based off of some social science of people who historically don’t look anything like him. So it’s a completely different variable and you’ve taken it into your hands, literally, to murder someone. Some nights I’m like, wow, we kill somebody every night, in one of the most tragic ways possible. We know this man, we’re close enough to stab him in the back, and we kill this man on the ground based off a fear of what he could potentially do, which is bullshit. It messed me up. I see somebody that looks like me on the ground. I wouldn’t have been able or allowed to have that in my brain if this hadn’t been cast in the way that it was.
Arya: History repeats itself. This was written how long ago and we always consider ourselves very highly evolved. Every generation considers itself more evolved or civilized than the ones that came before it. But…are we really?
Madrid: And there are more ways than one to kill somebody. In one way, we’ve been killing Barack Obama for eight years. We’ve been killing Hillary Clinton for thirty years. The media encourages it. We actually have candidates implying that somebody should shoot this person, and you have somebody saying here’s a President who wasn’t even born in this country and amassing an incredible amount of hate towards someone. That’s another way of killing any good that they might do, be it out of fear, jealousy, or envy. When I think of Caesar, I heard the Trump allegory and the parallels that were being talked about when we were working in the script. I always liked Caesar, and I try not to judge the characters that I play going in. I was able to separate Caesar, the way he is with his wife in the play, versus this idea of ambition and how ambition can spiral out of control and blind you to everything. It blinds you to decency, and general good-doing. It catapults you somewhere else. People can love it, hate it, want to bury it, want to kill it, and I think that’s what happens.
Julian: That’s so interesting. I believe there’s a lot in the show that revolves around ambition. You could play a drinking game with how many times we’ve mentioned it. I also think that it can even be about reform versus tradition. And I think, again, with Caesar in this adaptation, we or at least I, see a man who sees what the people need. Who’s to say that Rome doesn’t need a fucking dictator right now? It could’ve been like the one dictator that did it right. It’s reform versus tradition. We have a Republic who insists to keep it how it was, versus the new. That is the crux of the play and what’s driving it, and how quickly it all falls apart. You see at the beginning of the prologue we created, and the beginning of a hint of what a Democracy should look like, it’s like 12 Angry Men almost. Then you see it again at Portia’s house. That’s the moment where I think it would be like a back room, where they’re actually trying to fight this out. They don’t all agree. You get to see the Republic they set up, that they understand, and the workings of that, and then you see it all fall apart immediately after they stab and kill him. People decide this maybe wasn’t a good idea.
Sydney: When we leave the house, at the end of the scene, it’s not settled. We were talking about this in rehearsals, but they didn’t have an exit plan.
Julian: And Cassius is a dictator!
Arya: The ideas are connected, the ambition informs the reform versus tradition. We don’t reform unless ambition informs that wish to better what comes before. Ambition runs everything. Ambition informs a lot of the honor that Caesar stands on, but it’s also ambition to kill your best friend.
Kelly: This is fascinating…Julian, since you brought it up, I’d love to know what’s the crux of the piece for all of you.
Madrid: I would like to believe that it has to do with love. Love of country can take you in directions that are both good or bad. Everyone clearly loves Rome – I think Caesar loves his country, I think Brutus does, I think Cassius loves Rome. But I think that when you add the ambition to that, like they say money is the root of all evil, ambition can take you in directions that ultimately result in your own demise. At the end everyone’s dead.
Arya: For me, the crux of it…I always go with psychological things to help me understand plays I work on. Every character in the play has certain traits about themselves that they value and certain other traits about themselves that they try and silence. Using Brutus as an example, he values honor, virtue, nobility, but he doesn’t listen to his emotional self, which is kicking underneath very hard. The harder it kicks, the more brutal his words become to suppress it. He’s not respecting that other part of himself. All characters in the play have this duality. The reason I think of it this way is I do that a lot in my own life. I don’t respect my emotional side, I always think the logical, rational thing has to happen. And if I cave to the emotional side, it’s weak. So, in the play, that’s the crux of it. That’s where I see the human in all of the characters.
Christine Bunuan (Calphurnia/Metella Cimber): I feel like for the characters that I play, it’s coming from a place of love and maybe righteousness, and a protection. I feel like that’s where I’m coming from. Metella loves her brother and is trying to find a way to protect him and bring him back because what was done to him was not right and she is fighting for him. And Calphurnia absolutely loves her husband and the last thing on earth that she wants to do is lose him and it’s just horrifying. I mean, I’m married, so the thought of losing my own husband is awful. If the only way I could protect him was to keep him in the house for just that one day, then…I would do everything that I could to keep him in the house. I actually come from a very emotional place. This play has touched a lot of emotional things in my life, because I also don’t normally get to play roles like this. I play funny, quirky roles. So to play a woman like Calphurnia has been very rewarding and has allowed me to be the strong person that I am in my life and to represent her onstage.
Kelly: What do you think about the diversity of theater here in Chicago? You have a lot of theater, from the storefronts to the bigger theaters like this one…
Madrid: People should keep in mind, about storefront theater, that you’re talking about a city that has over 300 non-equity theater companies. You’re talking about a lot of actors getting work, but not making any money. Here, we’re working at a theater that pays actors really well. Is there the opportunity to take this elsewhere? Sure, but not making what we’re making here. Money is a factor.
Kelly: What do you think is so different out here versus other cities?
Julian: I think it’s all about the handshake here. It’s very much rooted in a complete open-door policy. You can meet anybody from the Artistic Director all the way down the ladder. Through my non-profit, Definition Theatre Company, I truly believe it’s all about the handshake here and relationships, more than anywhere else. If you do good work and want to do good work, people will link you in. There’s so much shit happening here all the time. As far as representation goes, I think Chicago is doing much better in the theater scene, but it’s still a huge gap of what should and could be. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but it starts with representation from a young age, in the classrooms. That’s why those performances are the most important.
I was almost a manager at Hollister. I didn’t know where I was going, I was out in Northbrook trying on clothes and they signed me up to be a manager. But what I learned from it is that they put you in the front of the store wearing the clothes. If I’m the only one who wears that, it’s like, oh, somebody looks like me wears that! So you have to get in the schools and get these kids to know. There’s such a push to have all-black or all-lady administration on both sides of the table. If they don’t know that’s even an option, all we’re doing is twiddling our thumbs that we can’t find them because we never showed them it was cool, or a trustful place to go, or that you could accrue cash from it too.
Kelly: I think it’s really moving for people to see people who look like them. It shows them that they can do it too, whatever it is.
Sydney: The first time I saw someone onstage who was like me was three years ago and a thing happened to me where I was like oh…OH. It’s okay. You can be different. I am still very impacted by that.
Christine: Performing is a part of my culture. People start singing karaoke when they come out of the womb and they all start dancing and stuff. So I was trying to think back about when it did affect me. My mother always encouraged me to sing as a child, then I did see somebody doing a talent show, and she was Asian. So I never necessarily believed I couldn’t do it, because I saw other kids. Sometimes I think that talking too much can actually separate us. I didn’t see colors, really, until I came to Chicago and not really until I’d graduated from school, because I was told that I was Asian. I would see auditions and I would just go in because I “didn’t know any better,” but it wasn’t until everyone started talking about diversity that it actually made me fearful of it. Then I started to only go in for Asian roles, and I put myself in a little box and started to live in fear. A few years ago, I saw I put myself in my own box. Some people do need to see someone like them in order to know that they can do that too, but it’s also on us to be like, well, this is what I want to do, so I’m just going to do it anyway. If it’s in you, the worst that someone can ever say is no. So go try again.
Kelly: The last thing I want to pose to all of you is…what do you hope people take from this? When someone leaves the theater, what do you want them to have that they didn’t have before the show started?
Madrid: A) An appreciation for the language, B) I hope that the story inspires them to have a real conversation amongst themselves.
Sydney: And an understanding that the ideas that they have about what casting should be is not…
Arya: It’s not set in stone.
Sydney: Yeah, I think especially a lot of the people in this area –and I don’t want to make assumptions –but a lot of people have a certain idea and I want it to be shattered.
Christine: What’s fascinating is they did a reading with the Chicago Inclusion Project of Saint Joan, and [Michael Halberstam] presented a very diverse cast, and asked the question to the audience, did it throw you to actually see this diversity onstage? And one woman raised her hand and said she thought about it for a moment, but that’s it.
I think it is important for Artistic Directors to understand. Michael is one of the rare ADs who actually understands the complexity. When he did present this show to his audience, he was like, did this change the story in any way? And the audience said no, not at all. It’s our responsibility as artists to give our audiences more credit, that they are smarter than what we think they are. So the door’s open, and it’s going to be a different world.