Theater In Conversation
MELODY BATES with Ivan Talijancic
Romeo, Juliet, and the undead come together in Melody Bates’s now-published radical and inclusive spin-off of Shakespeare’s classic.
How does one even begin to attempt to introduce the likes of Melody Bates? She is a stalwart of the New York’s downtown scene and a chameleon performer you may have seen, for instance, in her multiple New York Innovative Theater Award-winning role in Eightythree Down at Under St. Marks. But then, she may have caught your eye in one of her many acting roles on the hallowed staged of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she has been a regular for many years, or on a recent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or … touring around the world as part of a secret performance project where she was roaming the streets of Barcelona, Miami, New Orleans, and many others as a pin-stripe-suit and stiletto-wearing, fang-baring wolf-woman? (I am not making any of this up.)
As if all that weren’t enough, Bates tried sharpening her playwriting teeth—no pun intended—with a head-turning new take on a Shakespearean classic, Romeo and Juliet, by adding zombies to that iconic duo’s tale. Since her riff of a work R & J & Z originally premiered in 2014 at the Stonington Opera House in Maine, it has enjoyed multiple critically acclaimed productions, including the New York premiere at the New Ohio Theater. In a pandemic-observing Messenger chat session, I caught up with Bates to discuss and celebrate her R & J & Z being immortalized in a recent publication by the Original Works Publishing.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): There is often something prescient about great works of art. So, I find it a bit uncanny that, here we are, speaking as a pandemic rages on, about the play you wrote that deals with history, eternal love, and plague—a conversation for the issue of the Rail that will hit the stands just in time for the Valentine’s Day. But I’d like to take us back to the origins of your play. Can you tell me, in brief, how the idea for R & J & Z came to you?
Melody Bates: I love this origin story. R & J & Z is one of a few ideas that I’ve had that I really consider a little epiphany. Before the pandemic, one of my main sources of income was acting in operas at the Met. One night, I had comps to the old production of Roméo et Juliette. My partner Dave and I went, and it was sublime and beautiful and a little ridiculous, in the way of opera. At the end, Romeo drank his poison and died, Juliet stabbed herself and collapsed—and then they both got back up and sang this gorgeous music together. As Dave and I were walking back to the subway afterwards, I joked about it: “I mean what are they supposed to be, undead?”—and I stopped in my tracks, literally, on the corner of 63rd and Broadway, and said: “Oh my god, I have to write a play called Romeo and Juliet and Zombies.”
The next day I went back and re-read Shakespeare’s play, and what had been a clever, zeitgeisty idea turned into something much more. I know Romeo and Juliet well, I had worked on it more than once, I had played Juliet. But viewing it through the lens of this idea, I couldn’t believe how much the play seemed to dovetail with my little brainstorm. It turns out that Shakespeare was writing it during a period when London’s theaters were all closed due to the plague. His text is full of gory, visceral language: Romeo shoos Balthasar away from the graveyard with the threat that if he hangs around, “By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint / And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs.” Juliet fears she might lose her mind if she awakens alone in the tomb, and “madly play with [her] forefather’s joints” before bashing her skull in with one of their bones. It’s gruesome, delicious, heartbreaking stuff. Entirely, tantalizingly suited to the concept for a supernatural sequel that had landed in my head. I started writing R & J & Z that same day.
Rail: It is said that the plays are meant to be performed and that they don’t really come to life until they are staged for an audience. What was the page-to-stage process with R & J & Z? Did you have specific ideas for how it should be staged and who the ideal collaborators would be?
Bates: Ahh, yes. It is always about the people in the room. When the play was still in its infancy, I pitched it to a dear mentor, Judith Jerome, who is the Founding Artistic Director of Opera House Arts (OHA) on Deer Isle, Maine. I booked my first professional acting job playing Olivia in Twelfth Night at OHA, and it has been an artistic home-away-from-home for me ever since. When I pitched it to her she said, “Let’s do it.” R & J & Z is my first full-length play, and I cannot overstate what that kind of support and belief in me as an artist meant.
So then I wrote! We had the benefit of two workshops with actors, including one with our world premiere cast several months before we went into production. That was a huge deal, and helped me craft the play into something I’m so proud of. I write with an actor’s sensibility, so I am both flying high with the language and grounded in the practical knowledge of creating characters. I also like to jump off cliffs as an artist—I like to do things that I can imagine are doable, even if I don’t know how to do them yet—but I need to believe they can be done. To work that way requires having a team that is brilliant, game, adventurous, responsible, and skillful. No pressure, right? I consider myself extremely lucky that a team like that came together around the world premiere of R & J & Z.
The first designer we brought on was Stephanie Cox-Williams, who went on to win an NYIT Innovative Design Award for her gore and special effects in R & J & Z. I knew from the start that the gore had to look real—I often say that the parents of R & J & Z are Shakespeare on one side and modern horror films on the other. I had seen some shows that Stephanie did and made a mental note that her work was incredible—and when we were starting pre-production for R & J & Z we sought her out. She says our play is the bloodiest by volume she has ever designed. A badge of honor.
To come full circle, the play doesn’t happen until the audience is in the room too. So I was beside myself on opening night. The insane level of hope that audiences would get what we were doing, that the text would sing, that the scares would be scary, the jokes land, the earnestness come through, that the gore would all work—there are so many fights and gore effects in the play that it’s a highly technical and physical feat for the actors, in addition to the emotional journey of it. I rode our first performance with the other actors in our cast like we were surfing a monster wave, hearts pounding, every sense vibrating, holding on for dear life but also, what a rush! When the audience responded as they did, with such exuberant appreciation—it was a heart-bursting gift.
Rail: The stars may have crossed for the historic protagonists, yet it seems to me they have very much been aligned for your piece. Earlier this fall, several years after the premiere, R & J & Z was published. It really feels like the work has come full circle. How do you feel now that the play has been immortalized, so to speak, in a book format? What are your hopes and dreams for the future of this work?
Bates: [Laughs] Immortalized. It really is difficult to avoid puns when dealing with this play. I am over the moon that Original Works Publishing has released the play—the print edition is gorgeous, by the way, and everyone should buy it. Not least because it is an easy way to support this artist, in a time when, deep sigh, artists are being abandoned in the US with such woeful disregard. Also it’s a lot of fun to read aloud in your own home.
When live performance is a thing again, anyone who programs Romeo and Juliet in their season should program R & J & Z as a companion piece, and anywhere Romeo and Juliet is studied, R & J & Z should be on the syllabus too. Anyone who wants a play with lyrical verse, classical scope, and modern sensibility should produce it. I’ve fielded a couple of inquiries about productions for next year—fingers crossed! And hey, I’m willing to discuss the film rights—Hollywood, get at me. I mean, I’m my own first audience and I love this play. It is a fiercely feminist, radically inclusive next chapter to the tale of the star-crossed lovers that reckons with love in the time of plague and societal collapse. I think it’s just what our times need.
Rail: I couldn't agree more! Before we wrap: has the success of your first published and produced original work inspired you to develop more scripts?
Bates: I followed R & J & Z with The Cabaret at the End of the World, a two-woman riff on Julius Caesar that I co-wrote with Rebecca Hart, and for which we won an Outstanding Original Music NYIT Award. Here in the pandemic, I’ve been developing an audio play project about pirates with another dear friend, Cait Cortelyou, who was in the original cast of R & J & Z and who is a favorite collaborator. The most significant project of my last several years is my play AVALON, which premiered in the summer of 2019, staged in a several-acre woodland art installation on Deer Isle. It’s an epic retelling of the legends of King Arthur, Morgan le Fey, et al.—one of the first stories I was ever obsessed with. Writing the play felt like excavation—stripping away the layers of other people’s agendas, to get to a story that I think is true, even if it is of my own invention. I created AVALON in collaboration with the artist Peter Beerits, who made sculptures and built structures to house the play, including a three-story wizards tower. We had a gold star cast, including actors Cristina Pitter, Hwalan Shub, Tristan J. Shuler, Jonathan West, Matt Hurley, Shawn Fagan, Maria Jung—gorgeous artists I would work with anytime, anywhere. It was an epic, magical production. I want to do it in New York. So … if anyone has an outdoor venue for an extravagant, radical, lyrical retelling of the Arthurian grail legends, I have a script for you.