What It Was Like to Star in the Trump-Themed Julius Caesar

By
Corey Stoll as Brutus. Photo: Joan Marcus/Joan Marcus

“Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily.
Let not our looks put on our purposes,
but bear it as our Roman actors do,
with untir’d spirits and formal constancy.”

On the night of Sunday, June 18, I spoke those words as Brutus for the last time in Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar. I had said those words hundreds of times before, but on Sunday I almost couldn’t get them out from pride. By then, our show had become the target of hecklers and online vitriol, and it felt as if we were acting in two plays simultaneously — the one we had rehearsed and the one thrust upon us. The protesters never shut us down, but we had to fight each night to make sure they did not distort the story we were telling. At that moment, watching my castmates hold their performances together, it occurred to me that this is resistance.

When I signed on to play the reluctant assassin Marcus Brutus in this production, I didn’t know Caesar would be an explicit avatar for President Trump. I suspected that an American audience in 2017 might see aspects of him in the character, a democratically elected leader with autocratic tendencies. I did not think anyone would see it as an endorsement of violence against him. The play makes it clear that Caesar’s murder, which occurs midway through the play, is ruinous for Brutus and his co-conspirators, and for democracy itself.

When Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater and our show’s director, first assembled our cast for rehearsals, my anxieties centered on my desire to hold my own in such a strong company. After four weeks in the rehearsal room, we moved to the theater and I saw Caesar’s Trump-like costume and wig for the first time. I was disappointed by the literal design choice. I had little fear of offending people, but I worried that the nuanced character work we had done in the rehearsal room would get lost in what could seem like a Saturday Night Live skit. I was right and wrong. Audiences did laugh at Caesar, in an explosive, hungry way that shocked us with its intensity, but when it came time for the assassination scene, they lost their nerve. In early previews, isolated audience members would scoff or even applaud during the bloody, awkward, and ugly assassination scene. Two weeks in, once we refined our performances to neutralize the laughter, you could hear a pin drop. By then, I better understood Eustis’s decision to be so literal in making Caesar Trump. A nontrivial percentage of our liberal audience had fantasized about undemocratic regime change in Washington. Acted out to its logical conclusion, that fantasy was hideous, shameful, and self-defeating.

Absorbed in our previews, I was unaware that we had become a target of right-wing attacks. In a company meeting the Friday before our opening night, we were told that some conservative websites claimed to be outraged by the production. Threats had been made. Security was being increased. I raised my hand and asked what we should do if someone tried to stop the show. Some of my castmates laughed. Brutus was making me paranoid.

The Sunday before our opening, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, fearing a boycott, withdrew their support. Their acts were disheartening but not devastating to the well-funded Public Theater. The real victims would be smaller theaters throughout the country, who would think twice about producing works that could be a lightning rod for outrage, real or invented. Perhaps more damaging to our country’s cultural life, the National Endowment for the Arts distanced itself, releasing a statement saying that no federal taxpayer dollars had been used in our production.

The Wednesday after our opening night, a gunman opened fire on the Republican baseball team, injuring four, including Representative Steve Scalise. Of the more than 150 mass shootings so far this year, this was the first that appeared to be aimed at a politician. Like most Americans, I was saddened and horrified, but when the president’s son and others blamed us for the violence, I became scared.

Working outdoors in the Delacorte Theater is always challenging. There are swarms of insects, helicopters overhead, and chatty raccoons, and soon we had new forms of distraction as well. Our first protester hurled insults about us continuously from a legal, but still audible, distance for the first hour of our show. At curtain call, a man wearing an American-flag jacket who had politely sat through the play stood and unfurled a Trump 2020 flag. At first I flinched, thinking the worst, but he just stood there smiling proudly. Relieved, I smiled back. What a country.

The next night, Friday, June 16, a beat after I stabbed Caesar and he fell to the floor, I saw a flash of a white shirt, and a woman shouting something I couldn’t understand. Covered in blood and holding a very real knife, I was already in fight-or-flight mode. Luckily, our stage manager Buzz Cohen asked for security to escort our visitor out before anyone got hurt. As she was being removed, a man in the audience started shouting. He called us “Goebbels,” but I swear I thought he said “gerbils.” After a brief pause Buzz said, “Actors, let’s pick it up from ‘liberty and freedom.’” Our audience jumped to their feet and gave us a thunderous standing ovation. We took a few beats, and I resumed my place on the ground, staring at my still-bloodied hands. We would perform our play in its entirety, without apology.

In our last two performances, the security increased again, and the moment before the assassination became meta-theatrical. As the conspirators covertly moved in on Caesar, I wondered how many eyes were on us, at the same time, waiting for their own cue? Someone went to open an umbrella and three security guards rushed him. Cell phones were confiscated. On Saturday night, we had no interruptions, just the stress of waiting for one.

Our final show. Exhausted and nervous, we took our places. Before I could make an entrance, someone started screaming and was led off, as the audience angrily turned against him. Buzz won the day again, announcing, “Let’s take it from ‘’tis no matter!’” During the assassination, another person sprinted to the stage, yelling, “I’m sick of your bullshit!” He was tackled almost immediately. Forty-five minutes later, we finished the show, and our run, as scheduled. Backstage, I exhaled and sobbed.

In this new world where art is willfully misinterpreted to score points and to distract, simply doing the work of an artist has become a political act. I’m thankful for all the beautiful defenses of our production written in the last few weeks. But the cliché is true: In politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing. So if you’re making art, by all means question yourself and allow yourself to be influenced by critics of good faith. But don’t allow yourself to be gaslighted or sucked into a bad-faith argument. A play is not a tweet. It can’t be compressed and embedded and it definitely can’t be delivered apologetically. The very act of saying anything more nuanced than “us good, them bad” is under attack, and I’m proud to stand with artists who do. May we continue to stand behind our work, and, when interrupted, pick it right back up from “liberty and freedom.”

What It Was Like to Star in the Trump-Themed Julius Caesar