With Utah’s concerns about youth suicide, should students study ‘Romeo and Juliet’?

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anya Matanovic performs as Juliet during a dress rehearsal for Utah Opera's production of Romeo and Juliet on Thurs., Oct. 11, 2018.

Pitch this story today — two lovesick teenagers say they can’t live without each other, and die by suicide when each thinks the other is dead — and many parents, educators and mental-health advocates would criticize it as irresponsible.

It’s also the plot of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ which remains a high school staple.

“In some ways, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is the ultimate romanticization of suicide,” said Seymour Paul, a senior at Ogden’s DaVinci Academy, who read the play in freshman English class.

As Utah grapples with high rates of teen depression and suicide — a state report this week found nearly 1 in 5 students statewide have said they seriously considered suicide in 2017 — educators, mental-health advocates and arts organizations are considering how to teach and present the classic play.

They say “Romeo & Juliet” can help start discussions about warning signs, stigma and other aspects of mental health — an opportunity Utah Opera sees with its new production of French composer Charles Gounod’s 1888 telling of the tale.

As Paul and hundreds of other students entered a dress rehearsal Thursday, mental health advocates were available at tables in the Capitol Theatre lobby. They offered information about services they provide to those contemplating suicide and their loved ones.

They’ll be back for each performance of the opera, which premieres Saturday.

“These are important conversations ‘Romeo & Juliet’ brings up — an important conversation that we need to be having with our teens about mental illness, about stigma around mental illness, about suicide,” said Robin Holcomb, programs director for NAMI Utah, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“It’s a unique collaboration for them,” said Paula Fowler, education and community outreach director for Utah Symphony | Utah Opera.

‘A remarkable opportunity’

Kate McPherson, a professor of English at Utah Valley University, says it’s “productive” to take students to see “Romeo & Juliet.” No mental health challenge “gets better by not talking about it,” she said.

For teens, McPherson said, “everything is intense and extreme. They’re carried away by this tsunami of emotions. Shakespeare knew that the same as we do.”

Adam Slee, director of theater at DaVinci Academy, points out that Romeo is showing signs of depression and suicidal thoughts from Act I.

“His parents talk about his sudden changes of behavior,” Slee said. ”He starts tying loose ends by writing these letters. He’s taking risks, and being self-destructive. Those are all the warning signs we’re aware of now for someone who’s suicidal.”

Slee points to the character of Balthasar, Romeo’s servant and friend, who leaves Romeo in Juliet’s tomb just before the young lover takes poison. If Balthasar had been watching for signs of depression, Slee said, he might have seen an opening to offer help.

“It’s a remarkable opportunity to teach students: How could Balthasar have stepped in? What kind of things could he have done?” Slee said.

While “Romeo & Juliet” is considered a timeless, universal story — retold in Gounod’s opera, “West Side Story” and Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” to name a few variations — the dense language of Shakespeare’s original can be alienating to some students, said Wade Hollingshaus, professor of theater and media arts at Brigham Young University.

That may blunt the impact of the death scene, he said.

“There's still something distancing about older works, which is why so many students don't like to read it in the first place,” Hollingshaus said. “They don't want to engage with it at all because they just don't connect with it, even though the actual themes, they do. But you really have to kind of get in there and tease them out.”

‘It’s ... got to be talked about’

How the lovers’ deaths is depicted can have an effect, McPherson said. She faults Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie version for a death scene that leaves the teens serenely beautiful — a conclusion that “glorifies their deaths in a way that doesn’t have to happen.”

McPherson says other versions are more realistic. “I have seen a few where they die not so prettily, with vomiting and all that, where it’s not romanticized,” she said.

General media guidelines today urge storytellers to use caution depicting suicide. Showing or describing a character’s cause of death is discouraged. So are the use of graphic images, the mention of suicide notes, or descriptions of a suicide death as inexplicable, inevitable or attributable to a single cause or event. Experts complained that the controversial Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” violated those guidelines and rarely mentioned mental illness, and some urged vulnerable youth to not watch it.

Jessica James Lewis, another senior from DaVinci Academy, said that while some media romanticizes suicide — she pointed to “13 Reasons Why” — she believes “teenagers have the cognitive ability to sort things out.”

She was among the hundreds of students at Thursday’s dress rehearsal, where, like any class assignment, some were bored and checked their phones, while others paid rapt attention to the swooning lovers and the gang battles between the Montagues (in shades of blue) and Capulets (mostly wearing red).

At the end, they cheered loudly for tenor Joshua Dennis and soprano Anya Matanovic in the title roles.

The two DaVinci students agreed that ignoring the issue of suicide won’t help teens.

“Acting like suicide is something that doesn’t exist isn’t going to be effective in stopping teenagers from committing suicide,” Paul said. “It’s something that’s got to be talked about.”

The key, Lewis said, is “addressing it head-on, exactly how it is. Not making it a noble excursion. Not making it some kind of romantic way to go out with revenge or with a bang. It’s just exactly what it is. It’s just death.”

Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this article.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.


‘Romeo & Juliet’ at Utah Opera

• Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.

• When • Debuts Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Performances repeat: Monday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 21, 2 p.m.

• Tickets • From $15 to $108, available at usuo.org.