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Suffolk alumnus discusses how Shakespeare play turned into a free speech controversy
September 27, 2018
The Public Theatre in New York City strives to be a voice by and for the people, so it’s no surprise that last year’s production of Shakespeare’s classic play “Julius Caesar,” which performed free viewings in Central Park of New York City in June of 2017, included a modern, political twist.
The theatre exchanged Caesar’s Roman robe for a suit and red tie, which was later drenched with blood, intentionally making the dictator resemble President Trump, a scene Press Associate for the Public and Suffolk alumnus Danielle Ruff said upset viewers. Another scene depicted Caesar emerging fully naked from a bathtub and his wife, Calpurnia, who spoke with a thick Slovenian accent.
Ruff visited Suffolk Friday afternoon to discuss her work in public relations and how she controlled the chaos and negative press that unfolded during the four-week run of the show. Ruff said that as international headlines spread, she spent three weeks tirelessly tracking media coverage while the theatre received death threats and lost sponsorship money from large donors.
Despite realizing the powerful statement the show was making, the theater company did not foresee the sheer volume of negative attention from the media that quickly followed after the show’s preview, when the New York Times published a review of it on June 9, only three days before opening night.
“You have to be ready for everything,” said Ruff during the question and answer session.
Two days before closing night on June 18, more trouble stirred as 24 year old protester Laura Loomer rushed on stage, and said that this show was unacceptable because it normalized political violence against the right.
During the last performance, two protestors attempted to rush on stage, but were tackled by security. In addition to conventional protestors, the show got backlash on Twitter from Donald Trump Jr. and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer released a statement from the White House.
Caesar’s assassination is shown in every adaptation, but some people could not bear to watch a Trump-like character suffer a bloody death.
Along with critics, the theater also gained support from celebrities who embraced the theatre’s right to free speech. “Saturday Night Live” actor Alec Baldwin, who is famous for portraying Trump in various SNL skits, attended the play on opening night. On “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” Meyers and Amy Poehler did a skit poking fun at the protesters who waited hours just to see a show they already knew they hated.
As the summer went on, the actors stuck beside the message that the bigger picture of the play is about solving political issues democratically, because if they are solved with violence, mayhem ensues.
Ruff said that the cast bonded as a family because each of them believed in the political standing of the production.
“In the last several years, free speech has been such a hot topic and it was nice to hear [Ruff] talk about how to deal with it,” said junior theatre arts major Gabriella Quigley in an interview with The Suffolk Journal. “How you can handle that situation and protect the theatre, the actors, [and] everyone who is a part of the production and maintain that same message of freedom of speech?”
To diffuse bad press, artistic director Oskar Eustis came on stage before the performance on June 13 to give his opening remarks. He noted that “neither Shakespeare nor the Public Theatre could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems.” Ruff said the Public encouraged spectators to take out their cell phones, something theatres normally would forbid, hoping his words would be recorded and posted on social media.
Ruff said that an experience at Suffolk helped prepare her to calmly handle the “Julius Caesar” controversy. In 2013, Ruff was assistant stage manager for a production of “The Crucible” at Suffolk. In the middle of rehearsal, the cast heard about the Boston bombing, and Ruff had to keep a cool head and maintain leadership though the city, student body and nation were in crisis mode.
Moving forward, the Public will continue putting on shows that touch on a variety of issues and people. As the place where landmark Broadway shows like “Hamilton” and “Hair” first premiered, Ruff said although they do not have a perfect track record, they must stick to their values.
“We lead the way in not just having white actors play roles and not only just in casting but in all roles in general,” said Ruff. “We keep evolving and we keep going.”
Ruff’s presentation was brought to Suffolk by the Theater and Arts department and took place during Assistant Professor of Practice Heather Stern’s introduction to stage management class.
Stern said she hoped the speaker showed students how the stage manager can serve as a hub of communication between the cast and crew to ensure the show goes on safely.