Art and the Handshake

Detail from “Romeo and Juliet” by Sir Frank Bernard Dicksee, 1884

Welcome back to the Production Manager Corner. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Michelle Kashinsky and I’m the Production Manager at Third Rail Repertory Theatre. I’ve been stepping out from behind our brilliant design teams to offer my perspective on how we move forward in this new world.

I’ve been thinking about the handshake. The week of April 6th, 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the country’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.”

Dr. Gregory Poland, M.D. of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic states: “The whole idea of extending your right hand derives from medieval times when you showed that by extending your right hand, you were not harboring a weapon. The reality of it is, in modern times, you may well be harboring a bio-weapon, so to speak. I think there are much more safe and culturally appropriate ways to indicate a greeting.”

While it is not every culture’s custom to shake hands, if what Dr. Fauci says is true, how will we as a nation choose to greet each other? On my mother’s side, we’ve always greeted each other with the “air kiss,” followed by saying, “MWAH!” It’s delightful, but may not be for everyone. There’s also the fist bump, the curtsey, the arm clasp, the Vulcan salute, and jazz hands.

If the landscape of how many of us greet each other on a daily basis does in fact change, what does this mean for how we represent greetings in the plays we produce? And what if a play calls for actors to kiss? What is safe and what is art? 

One of the most famous kisses in Western drama occurs in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was written in 1594. 

Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. 

              Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.

    [kisses her.]

Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Romeo: Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!

            Give me my sin again.

   [Kisses her.]

Can this iconic scene be accomplished without touching? Do all actors need to wear gloves? Masks? Costume designers will become even more important if we have to integrate personal protective equipment into our costumes. 

Interestingly, 1594 happened to be right after theatres reopened from a plague that hit London. Claire Cochrane, a professor of theatre studies at the University of Worcester, said, “The current situation is almost unprecedented. The only comparison is really the plague outbreaks in the 16th century and the early 17th century – and then the really big outbreak in 1665 to 1666. In each case, the public theatres were closed to protect the public from infection.” 

When plague hit London in 1592, theatres remained dark from the fall of 1592 to the spring of 1594. London’s theatres closed again when another bout of plague hit from April 1603 to April 1604. The only option available for theatre companies during these times was to tour shows in the provinces of England. Sadly, with our current pandemic, touring is not an option.

We now share the same fears that existed when other calamities shuttered theatre doors across history. (Note: Calamity is now a word my 7-year-old uses in everyday conversation.) The very qualities that live theatre celebrates – communities coming together to witness human stories, responding with laughter, tears, and gasps – must be on hold for the time being. 

Theatres have been forced to close before, but they reopened. The capacity for cultural rebirth is alive in all of us. The most encouraging lesson we can learn from Shakespeare’s era is that the playhouses will survive and reopen, again and again. Theatre will adapt and find a way. It has and it will again!