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Betsy Mugavero on Playing Juliet to Directing Romeo and Juliet

Left: Betsy Mugavero as Juliet in 2017. Right: Betsy directing Romeo and Juliet in 2023 with her creative team.

By Liz Armstrong

Betsy Mugavero directed Romeo and Juliet this 2023 season at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, but her journey with the Bard’s most popular play began long before. 

A long time Festival actor, Mugavero has been in over 20 Festival productions since 2008. The last time Romeo and Juliet was produced here, in fact, was when Mugavero played Juliet in 2017. 

The director has been in four productions of Romeo and Juliet, playing Juliet in three of them. Her first time acting as Juliet was at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Mugavero was also in a production at Great Lakes Theatre in Cleveland, which was a co-production with Idaho Shakespeare Festival. She also played Paris’s Page in a college production at Temple University. 

“I was excited to tweak things in the way that I wanted [after having been Juliet] and seeing the play so many times. I was able to solve some problems I thought were in the play,” Mugavero said. 

It’s her favorite play, having acted in, watched, and now directed this popular Shakespeare play.

Acting versus Directing 

But this experience as a director at the Festival was an entirely different experience than when Mugavero played Juliet six years ago. 

First off, directing meant that for Mugavero, the production was her responsibility on a much larger scale. 

“As an actor, you [can collaborate], but you’re still only allowed to say the lines you have,” Mugavero said. “As a director, I’m able to share my love and nurturing of all of these other characters and encourage these other talented people to live in this story the way that I want them to.” 

The responsibility and challenge of directing wasn’t the only thing that was different for Mugavero. After becoming a mother to two children, she approached the play through an entirely different lens.

“When I played Juliet in 2017, my son was five months old and it was a crazy time in my life,” Mugavero. “This time, directing it at the Festival, I’m now a mom of two. I’m older, and I saw the story differently––from the perspective of the parents of Romeo and Juliet.”

In Mugavero’s Q&A interview with the Festival, the director expressed her hope that audience members would experience the play with a sense of compassion and understanding . . . and Mugavero did the same as a director. She found compassion especially with Juliet’s father.

“With the father having this outburst of rage, in past productions he just seems like an abusive person,” Mugavero said. “But in our production I wanted to portray him as someone who was just having a bad moment.” 

Mugavero stressed that these characters are not bad people—they are just acting out in ways that are completely and typically human. 

“I was lucky with the actors I had, as they are such open-hearted people that they couldn’t seem like bad guys,” Mugavero said. “The ‘bad guy’ is the lack of understanding.” 

Mugavero’s Start in Theatre 

“I got into acting in high school, where I did community theater. I loved the way I felt when I was performing, because I felt more myself,” Mugavero said. “As an actor, it’s like you’re putting on a mask, and because you’re hiding you get to be more of who you are . . . because it’s safe.”

After that, Mugavero went to school for acting, earning a Bachelor of Arts from Temple University and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of California, Irvine. 

Mugavero loves acting because of the symbiotic relationship between actors and audience members. 

“I get to talk with them and be with them and breathe with them and our hearts beat together . . . and tell this story with them,” Mugavero said. “When else do we get to do that? It’s a beautiful experience. We get to laugh and have fun and fall in love, and [theatre represents] so many of the best and worst experiences of life.”

Her Journey Into Directing

After directing such a compelling and beautiful production of Romeo and Juliet, it’s surprising to know that Mugavero was once very afraid of directing, having no ambition to shift from acting to directing. 

“But out of the opportunities I’ve had to direct . . . I enjoy it so much,” Mugavero said. “Not because of the power, as my experiences have been so collaborative, but because it’s fun to see what other people want to do and encourage them to go for it.”

This year, Mugavero is directing more than acting, and she is eager to direct again at the scale she did in the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre this season at the Festival. 

“The Engelstad is perfect for Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is big and bold and requires space,” Mugavero said. “But every story is worth telling if it has integrity and a place for us all to grow, meaning audience members and performers alike.”

Mugavero approaches directing with this statement in mind: 

“We should go into every project considering it a chance to learn and grow and become better at being a person.”

To experience Mugavero’s work, purchase tickets to Romeo and Juliet at bard.org, call 800-PLAYTIX, or visit the Ticket Office onsite. With just four weeks left of the production––it closes September 8––now is the time to see the Bard’s timeless tale of tragedy and love.

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