COVID-19 rules prompt Utah theater group to perform Shakespeare in the parking garage

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City theater troupe SONDERimmersive rehearses "Through Yonder Window," a theater-and-movement adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet." The performers stay at least 6 feet apart and audience members will stay in their cars.

In “Romeo and Juliet,” Mercutio dies bleeding with a curse on his lips, aimed at the rival Montagues and Capulets: “A plague o’ both your houses.”

While William Shakespeare knew about plagues, the creative forces behind an interactive adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” are figuring out how to tell the story of star-cross’d lovers during the coronavirus pandemic.

The production by the theater company SONDERimmersive, “Through Yonder Window,” will run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, June 11-20, in the north parking garage of The Gateway shopping complex in downtown Salt Lake City.

“We create an environment that the cars that go into, where normally we create environments where audiences walk through,” said Graham Brown, artistic director of SONDERimmersive.

“It’s a very experimental experience,” said Nadia Sine, who plays Juliet. “It’s definitely not what you’d see in most places.”

The history of Shakespeare in parking garages is brief — the Jets in the “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired “West Side Story” met in one before the big rumble, and there’s the time archaeologists found the remains of Richard III under a car park in Leicester, England. Brown, the show’s co-creator, aims to turn the unusual venue into an advantage.

“It won’t look like a fluorescent lit, dank parking garage,” Brown said. “It will look like a magical other world.”

The show has been developed with social-distancing limits in mind. Performers wear face masks and are 6 feet apart at all times. Attendees will sit in their vehicles — the ticket price is $45 a carload — with the windows open a bit, listening to the soundtrack and pre-recorded dialogue through their dashboard radios.

Brown said there’s almost no dialogue spoken by the actors in performance — the dialogue in the iconic balcony scene is pre-taped, Sine noted — and the cast of eight will dance around and interact with the cars. If a performer touches someone’s car, the production promises to clean and sanitize the vehicle before it leaves the garage.

“Any contact we make with a car will leave it cleaner than it is,” Brown said.

The audience is near the center of the action. Their gaze is mostly focused forward, but they also get a 360-degree view of the actors moving around them.

“In traditional theater, there’s one story that goes on and off stage, and you follow, in this case, Romeo and Juliet,” Brown said. “Everyone, every character, is in the environment the entire time. Therefore, we have the creative task of filling in all the gaps — what happens to Friar Laurence before and after Romeo comes to visit him, and things like that.”

Brown, who is “a choreographer by trade,” started developing “Through Yonder Window” with his creative partner, writer/dramaturge Rick Curtiss, in March. SONDERimmersive was set to reopen its production “The Chocolatier,” which is performed in a chocolate shop, on March 13 — but two days before, the coronavirus pandemic hit home when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was diagnosed as having COVID-19 just before an NBA game in Oklahoma City.

“Everything just stopped in a second,” said Sine, who was cast in the revival of “The Chocolatier,” which Brown and Curtiss had to postpone after previews had begun.

Contemplating their next move, Brown said, he and Curtiss saw other theater and dance companies moving to online content, teaching classes on Zoom or streaming recorded performances of past work. “We just couldn’t wrap our head around that, when our mission is so deeply about human experiences,” Brown said.

Curtiss noticed that drive-in movie theaters were opening, and even thriving, during the pandemic, Brown said. That planted the seed for an interactive theater experience seen through a windshield.

They considered adapting an existing show, but, Brown said, “No, it really needs to be something new and different, and I really felt like it needs to be something that is easily accessible — a quick story that people understand and know.”

Brown suggested “Romeo and Juliet,” which, he said, “I thought was kind of a silly idea, but everyone thought ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would be kind of great.”

Curtiss, Brown said, welcomed the chance to reimagine Juliet. “He didn’t like how passive a character Juliet was, and he wanted to give her more of an empowered role inside of the whole scenario,” Brown said.

This Juliet, Sine said, “is more of this free spirit, a beat-your-own-drum kind of girl. She doesn’t like being told what to do.”

Rehearsals were done adhering to public-health guidelines. The actors wore face masks and worked at least 6 feet apart from each other — with no more 10 people in the garage at any one time. They will maintain those guidelines in performance.

The masks, Sine said, also carry significance within the world of fair Verona. The lovers, she said, “rebel against their society and have these powerful moments together where they unmask themselves, defying their world’s limitations. It’s a very bold statement that they make because they believe the love they have for each other is worth dying for — quite literally.”

Sine said “there wasn’t really a ground plan” when rehearsals started. “Graham said he really wanted to give us a lot more artistic freedom in finding our characters,” she said.

Working first with pairs of performers, then with the entire cast, Brown and Curtiss (who also plays Lord Montague, Romeo’s father) started workshopping scenes, seeing what would work in the unusual format.

The scene of Romeo and Juliet’s wedding night “started really awkward in rehearsal,” said Sine, who graduated this spring from the University of Utah’s theater program — missing out on a commencement ceremony.

Ultimately, she and Jacob Baird, who plays Romeo, found a way to convey passion at a distance. “We focus our energies toward each other, but really we’re focusing on concrete pillars across from each other,” she said.

That scene fits Brown’s goal of using dance and motion to create something “emotionally meaningful and impactful,” he said. “You believe the emotional experience of the performers as it’s being represented by this abstract presentation.”

Brown promises “Through Yonder Window” will not be a typical night at the theater. “We love creating unpredictable experiences,” he said.

‘Through Yonder Window’

The interactive theater production “Through Yonder Window,” based on “Romeo and Juliet,” produced by the experimental Salt Lake City group SONDERimmersive.

Where • North parking garage, The Gateway, 400 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City.

When • Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, June 11-13 and June 18-20, 6 and 8 p.m. each night. The run could be extended if shows sell out. (The company delayed the opening in response to the curfew ordered in Salt Lake City that runs through June 8.)

Tickets • $45 per carload, available only online, at throughyonderwindow.com.

Running time • Approximately 1 hour.

COVID-19 safety • Audience members must stay in their cars, with windows open a bit, throughout the performance. No restrooms are available. Performers will wear face masks, and stay at least 6 feet apart at all times. Cars will likely come into contact with performers, materials, soap and water.