BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with ROMEO & JULIET'S Ryan-James Hatanaka
The teens of old-world stories are much the same as the teens of today, as we learn in this modernized telling of ROMEO and JULIET at the Guthrie Theater. Ryan-James Hatanaka plays the star-crossed lover Romeo and shares some insight into this production and his take on the role in 6 Questions & a Plug.
ROMEO AND JULIET is the original tale as old as time but this show has a slightly more modern feel. What did you and the cast bring to the production that you feel modernizes the story?
The opportunity to have Joseph Haj, the Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater, at the helm of this production resulted in a very exciting, energetic process. The scenery of our production represents the old world - the set is based on the centuries-old architecture that frames the Italian countryside. This is thrust up against the modern costuming of the young people in the play, who are trapped in their parent's feud, their parent's prejudice, aching to burst out. These opposing forces create a dynamic world that Joseph has encouraged us to explore the boundaries of.
As an outcome of that exploration, we are presenting the first part of ROMEO AND JULIET as a romantic comedy. Members of the audience often remark: "I never knew Romeo and Juliet could be so funny!" The purity of Romeo and Juliet's young love, juxtaposed with the tragedy that pulls them apart later in the play, makes for a very real and relevant evening at the theater.
Director Joseph Haj and Dramaturg Carla Steen talk in the program notes about the play operating in "teenage time." Their perspective on this makes a lot of sense. How did you take that insight and use it in your performance?
A wonderful and yet agonizing thing about being a teenager is how rarely we look beyond our immediate circumstances. That can work for us; that can work against us. That myopic perspective tends to moderate as we get older and long-term consequences become more real to us.
One of the great pleasures for me in playing Romeo is being able to portray the intensity of that transformation. Romeo begins to grow up in front of our eyes. At the beginning of the play, he is a melancholy teenager, doting over Rosaline. He is playing at the idea of love. When he meets Juliet, there is a major shift in his outlook - their relationship becomes core to everything he is and does.
He suddenly has everything to lose, but he's still driven by that teenage mindset, which means that he's one step away from being able to make a rational decision. Bringing to life the tension between that impulsive, spontaneous teenage mindset, and this newly formed, mature love, is a major focus of mine.
The Guthrie is bringing a lot of teenagers to see this production. Do you think they'll pick up on the themes of rash decision-making and teen time -- and what do you hope they gather from your performance?
The Guthrie is very committed to impacting the next generation through theater. ROMEO AND JULIET deals with so many issues that continue to be relevant, so it is the perfect play to have young people exposed to.
The responses from the students have been overwhelmingly positive. The high-schoolers in attendance are incredibly vocal and fully engaged in the story. After our first student show, a 9th grader came up to me and said: "Two more minutes, man. You just had to wait two more minutes and everything would have been fine." Exactly! I hope that's something that all the young people in attendance take from this show and my performance. When everything is falling apart, step back, take a breath, get help from your loved ones, and work through it. This is a timely issue.
The balcony scene, famous as it is, is usually romantic and dreamy but you and Kate Eastman brought a touch of humor to the proceedings. Did that happen organically in rehearsals or was it someone's idea to have you struggle to climb the balcony in a comic way?
The comedy that we found surfaced quite organically in the rehearsal process. I am a very physical actor, so the moment when it is confirmed for me that Juliet loves me back - I can't help but explode with happiness. As the scene formed, Joseph Haj had the innovative idea for me to struggle to climb the balcony. In his words, "Romeo could climb that thing 10 times out of 10, but the circumstances of the night just overwhelm him." It's that special kind of love that causes Romeo to lose his motor function for a moment.
Kate is a wonderful person to work with each night. We have a great relationship and are both dedicated to having fun and breathing fresh air into each performance. That scene is a real injection of energy that carries us through the rest of the show.
This is your Guthrie debut. What lead you to this role/production and what do you think of the theater and this area so far?
It's a huge honor to play the lead in a Shakespearean production - especially when I get to play a character with so much depth and complexity. From an actor's perspective, Romeo really does offer the full range of emotion. He experiences sheer elation, total despondency, and everything in between. To have such rich material to work through each night is extremely fulfilling.
I knew about the Guthrie long before I had the opportunity to be here. There are certain theaters you grow up hearing about - and you think to yourself - I'd love to be there one day. The Guthrie is one of America's gems. When I heard that Joseph Haj - who of course I knew by reputation - was directing Romeo and Juliet, I jumped at the opportunity.
The Twin Cities are a special place. The community here has made me feel very much at home. Walks over the Stone Arch Bridge, the State Fair. I love getting out and exploring on my off-days.
What brought you into acting and what aspirations do you have for your career? Dream roles?
I have always loved performing. While getting my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, I started to understand what a life in this industry could offer. It's creative, it's challenging, it can be a powerful instigator of change and thought. Since moving to New York and finishing my Master's Degree at NYU's Graduate Acting Program, I have been incredibly fortunate to have worked in theater, television, and film. I have worked with great actors and directors who constantly inspire me. Romeo has been a dream role of mine, and I can't think of a better place to have taken on this challenge. In the future, I would love the opportunity to play Hamlet, as well.
After 'R&J,' what's next for 'R-J' on stage or off?
For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of working with HBO Nordic as their spokesman. We meet in Budapest every few months, developing an innovative campaign that they present as mini-films to markets in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Spain. The opportunity to work overseas with incredibly talented artists from Europe has been a terrific experience. A return to Hungary, after enjoying a long run as Romeo at the Guthrie - will be a great way to end 2017 and will give me real momentum heading into the new year.
Romeo & Juliet plays through Oct. 28 on the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust stage. Tickets are $29-77 and are available at https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2017-2018-season/romeo-and-juliet/
Photo: Ryan-James Hatanaka (Romeo) courtesy of Guthrie Theater