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Guildford Shakespeare Company - Romeo and Juliet Interview

This summer one of the greatest of all love stories will explode onto the streets of Guildford.

For three weeks (21st June until 13th July 2024) Guildford Shakespeare Company are closing the High Street every evening to bring to life the passion and excitement of Shakespeare’s impulsive star-crossed lovers. In a society fuelled by greed and entitlement, can their fragile vision of a better world survive their families’ ruthless feud?

The show will start on the steps of Surrey’s largest church Holy Trinity, and audiences will follow the action as the story unfolds. The inner courtyard of the historic Abbot’s Hospital will be the Capulet’s family home, whilst the stylish Tunsgate Quarter will host to the Capulet’s ball. A brand-new art café, Art & Grind, will feature as a street café and of course the iconic Guildhall balcony will play host to the famous balcony scene, with Romeo and the audience in the street below. The entire second half takes place in the stunning Castle Gardens.

GSC’s professional cast will also be joined by a community ensemble of adults and young people. The Youth Ensemble will form the street gangs of Montagues and Capulets, and come from 3 local schools and our own GSC Saturdays. The Adult Ensemble of community actors are the guests at the Capulets masked ball.

Ahead of the production we spoke to Matt Pinches (director), Sarah Gobran (co-founder), Laura Matthews (Lady Capulet/Tybalt) and Christian James (Romeo) from the GSC to learn more about the immersive production.

Where did your arts careers begin?
SARAH GOBRAN: I knew from the age of 7 that I wanted a career in theatre! I was chosen to say a poem at the school Carol Concert and from there I was hooked. My only goal at school was to do as much drama as possible and get into Drama School. Whilst in my third year, I produced David Hare’s first play, Slag, which on graduating I took to Edinburgh and London Fringe. Although, my focus at that time, was mainly on being an actor, in retrospect, that was an early kernel into my love of the producing side; my desire to make ideas happen.
MATT PINCHES: In my teens I was a member of the local amateur and operatic society, whilst doing plays at school. I loved the fact that you could escape into a whole different world; go on adventures that you couldn’t in ‘real’ life. In hindsight I think there was also something in the power that theatre had to move and engage people that I found fascinating. A-level theatre studies took me to Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire, where I trained in Dramatic Arts. From there I began an acting career. Sarah and I set up GSC in 2006. 

CHRISTIAN JAMES: I trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 2011 graduating in 2014. My first job outside of drama school was actually a pantomime! It taught me a ton about the industry. Audience interaction (highly useful for Shakespeare) and stamina whilst performing being the main ones. I definitely learned how to look after my body whilst working and what it could and couldn’t cope doing.

LAURA MATTHEWSExactly where the Youth Chorus for Romeo & Juliet are now!  Doing youth theatre and amateur dramatics in my hometown.  At one point I think I was in four shows simultaneously!  I just wanted to be involved with everything I could.
Were there any people or performances that had a big impact on you?
SARAH GOBRAN: My biggest inspiration was my out of school drama teacher, Mrs Barnes, a fairly elderly lady with so much drive and passion for the theatre; a woman who showed me the strength and drive of Shakespeare’s female characters and gave me a thirst to play them. Though she was often frustrated by my lean towards the comic characters!

CHRISTIAN: I loved seeing Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. A fantastic show touching on English myth which is severely lacking in my opinion and a masterclass from the man himself. 

LAURA: I saw Janie Dee in a production of ‘Comic Potential’ at the Lyric Theatre in 1999 - she absolutely blew me away.  It was the first play I ever saw, I laughed so hard and cried when it finished.  I met her a few years ago on a job and she was gracious and as talented as ever.  They say never meet your idols but I’m glad I met mine!
What can you tell me about this particular production of Romeo and Juliet?
MATT PINCHES: We wanted to create something special for our 18th Anniversary summer production and we also felt very strongly that we wanted whatever play we chose that our community should be at the centre of it. We’ve never staged this play in the open air before, and the first half of the story is very public affair – most scenes take place on the streets of Verona and a very public ball. So we thought what if we could swap the streets of Verona for the streets of Guildford, and take audiences on an immersive experience. Our Outreach work is also a very important part of our ethos so we felt it was also important to reflect this in the show, hence the gangs in the play are made up of young people from four local schools and our two of own drama clubs, including our Young Carers club; whilst local performers make up our Adult Ensemble playing guests at the ball. 
SARAH GOBRAN: Using community spaces is very much at the heart of what we do at GSC, and our venues often become the additional actor in our team, they enable us to create a very extraordinary and real set for the action, which in turns enables the audience to be as much part of the world of the play as the cast. To be using seven different venues for Romeo and Juliet really feels like we are able to explode that world and create something very immediate and exciting. This not only blows open the play in a completely visceral way but also enables audiences to interact with our community spaces in a new way.
We have also chosen to pair this production with a Knife Crime Awareness project which considering the storyline, and local, national and current news, felt important. We are  proudto be working with the University of Surrey, Guildford Cathedral, Experience Guildford, Street Angels, Pub Watch, The Kiyan Prince Foundation and Charlie’s Promise.

CHRISTIANWith the show being set in 2024 and performing it on the streets of Guildford, we’ve had to adapt certain things. Obviously we can’t run around with swords and knives, so the ‘sword’ fight is placed carefully within the show and hopefully will prove dramatic for the audience.
 Highlighting the speed at which a fight can turn into something much more sinister is incredibly important to the issue of knife crime on the UK’s streets.
You’ll stage the production along Guildford High Street including the use of the Guildhall balcony. What logistical challenges does this bring?
MATT PINCHES: This is probably our most ambitious show in 18 years. Closing the historic High Street every evening for three weeks has taken a huge amount of careful planning, work with borough and county councils as well as all the retailers and nighttime economy stakeholders. The first half of the show involves seven different locations that will play host to ten scenes. These range from historic alms houses and heritage buildings to stylish shopping centres and cafes. Ensuring everyone’s engagement has been a vital factor, and bringing everyone along with our vision has taken a lot of work. In addition, the logistics of safeguarding and rehearsing 60+ young people and scheduling all our community ensemble performers across 23 performances has been a logistics Rubik’s Cube itself. The payoff for all this is the knowledge that we’re creating something that everyone can feel ownership and pride in – from businesses to families.

How did you choose the locations for the production?
MATT PINCHES: I think we started with the play’s iconic balcony scene – and Guildford happens to have its own iconic balcony on the Guildhall. From there it was a mix of creating a route that audiences could follow simply whilst taking in locations that made sense for the story. Guildford doesn’t have town square but the huge steps at the entrance to Holy Trinity often feels like such a place, so that became a natural place to start. Across the road is the 400-year-old Abbot’s Hospital, which made sense for scene two as the Capulet’s home. We wanted to find a space that could reflect the grandiose persona of Lord Capulet for the ball – whilst also being big enough for holding a dance sequence – and the stylish Tunsgate Quarter was our first choice. Fortuitously, a brand-new arts café opened on the High Street in Februaryand it made complete sense for one of the scenes to happen there. Finally, the bandstand in the Castle Gardens, which has been our traditional open air space over the years, offers a quieter more intimate location for the whole of the second half, which has only four locations.  

How do you think the locations impact on this production? 
CHRISTIAN: Performing the famous scene amongst the audience whilst looking up at the beautiful guildhall balcony makes my job a hell of a lot easier and there’s no imagining for the audience. It’s a real as it gets!

Have you had to plan any different for the production with the immersive elements?
CHRISTIAN: I touched on the fighting before, so that’s been adapted for obvious reasons as we can’t have weapons out everywhere. We have our wonderful youth ensemble beginning the show with the Capulet and Montague brawl which will be all unarmed fighting.
What challenges have you had to face in the planning of the piece?
SARAH GOBRAN: There are always plenty of challenges when working in non-theatre spaces; the first job is to understand the working needs of each venue – one is a residential space, one is a shopping centre, one is a massive great busy high street with pedestrians and cars and operating businesses. So, it is our job to find out all of the salient information to the running of each space, to understand how we can work with everyone in a way that propels the shows and complements the environment around us. It is important to us that these venues feel valued, excited and celebrated by our presence and not inhibited! 
For any theatre company the continual challenge is always financial, and projects of this scale are never cheap, so procuring funding and sponsorship is always a challenge.
Then there is the challenge of working with different groups of people. We started conversations with schools in October, but inevitably they have their own levels of busy-ness too, so a school dropping out in March and then the frantic search to replace them was just one of the many logistical challenges involved in dealing with large numbers of people.
Then, of course, there are the practical things to consider when you are using numerous venues not built for theatre; things like quick changes when an actor has to leave one venue as one character and appear in the next as another character, keeping our actors and audiences safe and well-guided while working in public locations, means all of our stage management members and front of house ushers have to have clear and detailed plans for every single moment of the play. As part of the planning, we carefully cut and time scenes as well as the audience’s journey to ensure we know exactly where everyone will be at any given point.
On top of all of the above, we have the glorious British summer to take into account. Wet and hot weather risk assessments are created with different options for each entity to ensure everyone’s safety and well-being.
Ask me at the end of the show and I am sure I will be able to list more examples and plenty of learning!

Do you have a favourite quote from the piece?
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”
If you could ask Shakespeare one question about Romeo and Juliet, what would you ask him?
MATT PINCHES: What was your idea for the ancient feud!

LAURAI’d ask him what he thought had happened to create such conflict between these families.  I imagine it wouldn’t seem sufficient for all the pain and suffering it causes
What keeps you inspired?
SARAH GOBRAN: The people, always the people! Whether it is the wonderful artists that we get to work with on our shows that pour their hearts and souls into creating beautiful, visceral, exciting productions, the participants who gain so much from being involved or the audiences that are so excited to be going on a unique adventure; everyone across the board is thrown right into the heart of a story, and the result is social interaction  and dynamic theatre at it’s very best.
MATT PINCHES: I’ll second that!

CHRISTIANWorking with fabulous actors/directors and creatives who I can learn things from!

LAURA: I am constantly inspired by the people I work with, be it cast/creatives/stage management/FOH. I love the collaboration of a group of people coming together with their ideas and expertise, ready to seek connection, ready to fix problems, ready to be vulnerable with their ideas and ready to have their minds changed.  Rehearsals are where you have your mind opened, discovering new things about the text, about your own characters and even about yourself. 
What do you hope an audience member takes away from seeing Romeo and Juliet?
MATT PINCHES: I would like audiences to feel like they have seen Romeo and Juliet for the first time. It’s one of the most famous stories in history, but it has lots of surprises; for example until the interval it has all the hallmarks of a Shakespeare comedy. It’s incredibly fast too and I think that is what helps us all completely buy into the lovers’ decisions and feelings – like all the characters in the play – we never have time to question what’s happening, and I think the promenade first half will really aid that. 
Additionally, having two ensembles as part of the production, along with the Outreach work we are doing in schools about Knife Crime Awareness, inspired by some of the play’s themes, demonstrates how inclusive theatre can be, how it can be a force for change, and how important theatre is as part of a healthy and engaged society.

CHRISTIAN I hope they can see how love is the key that unbinds the shackles of hate. Endless fighting never gets you to common ground.

LAURAI hope people first and foremost everyone has an evening of joy and utter escapism at the theatre!  And I hope if people leave with anything, it is that there is more that unites us than divides us.  It should never take devastating loss for us to learn to put our differences aside. 

Guildford Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet runs from Friday 21st June until Saturday 13th July 2024. Tickets are available from

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