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Southern Methodist University Alumni Reunite as Fair Assembly to Produce Romeo and Juliet

A scene from a Romeo and Juliet rehearsalEXPAND
A scene from a Romeo and Juliet rehearsal
Joshua L. Peugh / courtesy Fair Assembly

At the end of January, the brand-new theater company Fair Assembly will be presenting its first production, Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play we all know well even if we’ve never seen it or read it: the story has wholly permeated our culture (and who didn’t have to read it at least once in high school or college?).

Even though their short-winded affair ends in (spoiler alert) both of their deaths, we look to the OG star-crossed lovers as archetypes of ideal love. Their reckless passion is somewhat inspirational. Wouldn’t we all like to throw ourselves into our passions, without thought of the consequences, without fear of making mistakes? None of us want to end up like Romeo and Juliet, but we would all like a bit of their verve and courage.

These traits make Romeo and Juliet the perfect fodder for Fair Assembly’s first production. The company consists of a hodgepodge of Southern Methodist University graduates and friends from Nebraska Wesleyan University. Some of the members have been steeped in the world of professional theater or dance since their graduation: these members know the constant difficulty of this work, the instability of it and the long hours. Others have lost touch with theater since their graduation from SMU. All of them know that starting a new theater company is an act as daring as Romeo and Juliet’s fatal elopement. (It’s almost certain that Fair Assembly, however, won’t end in a double suicide to echo its first production.)

While starting a new company is daring, the actual craft behind it is second nature to many of the company members. They learned the technique of theater together; many of them were in school together, and worked on plays together. Those who have remained in the industry have since learned new skills, which they can bring back a decade later and apply to their new company.

This is especially true for the three co-directors of Romeo and Juliet. Joshua L. Peugh, Emily Ernst and Chris Rutherford were classmates together, but they have all since gone on to make bounds in the theater world. Peugh is the founder of Dallas’ own Dark Circles Contemporary Dance; Ernst (who plays Juliet in the production in addition to co-directing) went on to study theater in Paris; Rutherford honed his skills as an actor, director, lighting technician and all-around theater-maker in Baltimore. The trio is returning to the olden days of late-night student productions, but bringing with them the precision and skill of 10 years' work in theater.

Although these three are co-directing the play, the company is focusing on an ensemble production. Even those who haven’t practiced theater in a decade have the background necessary to build a professional company. Making theater may be like riding a bike: the craft is never forgotten. Romeo and Juliet has 10 cast members, many of whom are doubling as directors or lighting technicians. Ten was the golden number.

“It gave everyone enough of part, and didn’t give anyone too much to do,” says Rutherford, who plays the Friar and Peter in addition to co-directing. In order to reduce the number of backstage crew needed, they are also keeping the production bare-bones. Their focus is on Shakespeare’s words and on the acting that brings his antiquated language to life.

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“A play should be able to stand alone without lights and costumes or any kind of ornamentation. The work has to be relatable and human and accessible on its own,” says Peugh. Romeo and Juliet is certainly that, and this production will let the work shine.

Focusing so much on the text required a big-time commitment: They spent six months reading Romeo and Juliet, uncovering the layers of the classic text. Some of this time was spent condensing and cutting out parts of the text, in order to remain loyal to the prologue’s promise of a two-hour run time. But time was also spent listening to what each contributor had to say about the play, bringing in fresh perspectives on their own roles and those of others. This gives the actors agency over their roles and brings about a more cohesive piece.

“It feels organic, because it’s come from us, and not from someone who has decided that in their living room before rehearsal,” says Ernst of the collaborative process. Working on a play like this requires more time and effort on everybody’s part, but the result is a truly collaborative product that’s been fleshed out from a variety of perspectives.

Fair Assembly is producing the play from Jan. 30 through Feb. 2, at Arts Mission Oak Cliff (410 S. Windomere Ave.), a repurposed church that now serves the arts and more. It’s a fitting place for Fair Assembly, who are finding opportunities to give back to the theater community through their production. Any money that they raise over their goal will go to an SMU scholarship awarded to graduating theater students, giving them a leg up on the professional world. Additionally, any patrons who want to support the show but who can’t attend personally can purchase a sponsor-a-student ticket for $15, providing a student the chance to see the show for free.

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