I have wanted to stage Romeo and Juliet for years, having had a personal connection to the play and also a deep appreciation for the teenage love story and the gorgeous language. l have always felt this was a strong choice of Shakespeare for students, as they have a lot of experience with the highs and lows of tempestuous teenage romance, and of bad plans undertaken and pursued to their limit against all odds. Speaking of young love, in 1996, while acting the role of Juliet in an outdoor production, I met my husband Jeff, who was playing Tybalt. We went on to name our own daughter Juliette (much to her chagrin). Sonoma Academy also staged this piece as their inaugural theater production back in 2001, so it seemed like the right time to circle back around.
It’s no secret that I have also longed to use our campus amphitheater to stage a Shakespeare play outdoors, but I have hesitated because of the many technical complications that go into producing al fresco theater. The combination of the play’s themes and the beautiful surroundings of our campus pushed me over the edge this year. There is nothing quite like watching Shakespeare under the stars.
When staging Romeo and Juliet, many directors enjoy playing with with time period and setting—after all, ill will and strife between neighbors are common themes in virtually any social and political context. I decided a strong emotional and visual setting for our story would be the summer AFTER the “Summer of Love,” in 1969, and to set our production against a backdrop that vaguely resembles the infamous Altamont Music Festival. It was an epic and tumultuous event, where many incredible acts played—including the Rolling Stones—but where violence and chaos ultimately ruled the day. In our version, the cast of characters in Romeo and Juliet are amalgams of famous rock stars of the time, coming together for a three day musical festival, creating for us the opportunity to weave music throughout the text and also devise a setting where past grievances between the bands, family conflicts, and violent tendencies are enough to doom the pair of young, star-crossed lovers.
I was also intrigued with the music and fashion of the time. Everything seemed in flux, and I thought the actors and band would love to immerse themselves in the look and sounds of the period. I also thought that they would relate to not only the text of the play itself, but the unrest and angst that characterized youth culture in the late 1960s. With the dawn of the 1970s, idealized notions of free love and peace met with backlash and decay.
I am grateful to Sonoma Academy for promoting the arts in education, and all of the many “Theater Parents” for helping to support my at times outlandish dreams. Your effort made this event a reality. I am especially grateful to humanities teacher Jamie Murray for assembling a rockin’ student band, directing all the music, playing in the show, and also helping to orchestrate an authentically awesome song list and pre-show. I would also like to send my dearest appreciation to my cast and student team, who gave up a chunk of their summer and brought so much talent, joy, laughter and passion to this process. I feel so lucky to have the experience of working with you all, as you teach me so much.
History of the Altamont Festival 1969
In August 1969, the massive, three-day Woodstock Music & Art Fair had proved that hundreds of thousands of young people could gather peacefully even in a seemingly chaotic environment rich with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Four months later, it would become clear that Woodstock owed its success not to the inherent peacefulness of the 1960s youth culture, but to the organizational acumen of the event's producers. That idea was proven in the violent, uncontrolled chaos of the disastrous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969 in the northern California hills 60 miles east of San Francisco.
Altamont was the brainchild of the Rolling Stones, who hoped to cap off their U.S. tour in late in 1969 with a concert that would be the West Coast equivalent of Woodstock, in both scale and spirit. Unlike Woodstock, however, which was the result of months of careful planning by a team of well-funded organizers, Altamont was a largely improvised affair that did not even have a definite venue arranged just days before the event. It was only on Thursday, December 4, 1969, that organizers settled on the Altamont Speedway location for a free concert that was by then scheduled to include Santana; the Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and the Grateful Dead, all in support of the headlining Stones. The event would also include, infamously, several dozen members the Hells Angels motorcycle gang acting as informal security staff in exchange for $500 worth of beer as a “gratuity.”
It was dark by the time the concert’s next-to-last act, the Grateful Dead, was scheduled to appear. But the Dead had left the venue entirely out of concern for their safety when they learned that Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin had been knocked unconscious by one of the Hells Angels in a melee during his band’s performance. It was during the Rolling Stones’ set, however, that a 21-year-old Hells Angel named Alan Passaro stabbed a gun-wielding 18-year-old named Meredith Hunter to death just 20 feet in front of the stage where Mick Jagger was performing “Under My Thumb.” Unaware of what had just occurred, the Rolling Stones completed their set without further incident, bringing an end to a tumultuous day that also saw three accidental deaths and four live births.
The killing of Meredith Hunter at Altamont was captured on film in Gimme Shelter, the documentary of the Stones’ 1969 tour by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, which opens with Jagger viewing the footage in an editing room several months later. In the years since, Jagger has not spoken publicly about the killing, for which Passaro was tried but acquitted on grounds of self-defense.
THE ALTAMONT FESTIVAL BRINGS THE 1960S TO A VIOLENT END - staff writer, History.com 2009