Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Hamlet Conversations

Christina Sayer Grey here for the last presentation of the 2011 Blackfriars Conference. It’s been a lot of fun to live-blog for you all this week. Enjoy!

Ralph announces that this panel was suggested by Rene Thornton, Jr.

Moderator: Matt Davies

Hamlets: Khris Lewin (2005 at the Blackfriars), Benjamin Curns (2007 at the Blackfriars, Actors’ Renaissance Season, Q1), James Ricks (2001 at the Blackfriars), John Harrell (2011 at the Blackfriars), and Thadd McQuade (1995 with SSE, also played Hamlet in the German MFA project)

Matt says that the purpose of this panel is to talk about what it means to play Hamlet here versus playing him elsewhere. This panel will be in the format of an extended talkback.

Contest: Best Collective Noun for a Group of Hamlets (the best one I’ve heard, A Sulk of Hamlets)

Q: Why do you think that Hamlet chose you?
T.M.: I think that’s a question for the directors.
J.H.: I think I’m a Polonius, but I never saw Hamlet on my path. It was always something for other actors to do, so I never paid much attention to it. I never thought I would play it and I never thought I wanted to. The Hamlet you see now is what I, personally, see the play to be from a very virginal perspective.
B.C.: It was my 2nd Renaissance Season. I had had really terrific parts in the first season, but I wasn’t carrying any of the plays. When I heard they were planning to do the Q1, but I didn’t know what that meant. I just asked to have my mind floated along in the pool of names, just to consider me. My understanding of Hamlet is that its unique in that the lead character has a scene with every other member of the company.
M.D.: Hamlet is interesting because Hamlet is the only character who really knows what’s going through the whole play.
K.L.: First gig out of college. I was 21 and I was the understudy for Hamlet. I remember sitting at the first rehearsal, and the guy playing Hamlet seemed too old to play Hamlet to me. That’s when I felt that Hamlet chose me. And then when I finally played him for real, at 33, that miraculously felt like the perfect age.
J.R.: That sense of being chosen – “why is this happening to me?” and using that. You get to have a relationship with everyone else onstage with you.

Q: Why is this role considered the testing ground for actors? What is with the prestige? Does it deserve its reputation?
B.C.: Of course it does. It demands of the actor a lot of different things. You have to build relationships with every other in the play and, in this space, build a relationship with the audience. And, you’re in 90% of the play. That, in a way, makes it easier. You don’t have time backstage to get nervous.
J.H.: Shakespeare as a cultural figure seems to get lucky sometimes, but the thing about Hamlet as a great part makes me, as an actor, way more self-conscious about performance than I’ve been in any other part. And that’s a big factor in the part, too. The role and the actor ramify in that part. It doubles the experience.

Q: Which is the character that you, as your Hamlet, most connected with?
J.H.: Horatio, which surprised me.
K.L.: It’s amazing – I really felt a special connection with all of the characters at different times.
B.C.: For me, it was the ghost, hands down. Shakespeare writes this amazing scene – “I know you have a million lines before and after this scene, but in this moment “‘list.'” The ghost gives the best pieces of advice to the actor playing the role in this speech. The ghost has so much to say, and Hamlet is required, in that moment, to listen.
J.R.: The ghost, as well. We really played with tenderness in that scene. The audience, though, was the relationship I paid the most attention to. I tried to befriend them as much as I could.
T.M.: It’s much more for me about the actors playing the roles than a particular character on paper. Horatio, though, is an enormous challenge. What is he doing there except to act as a witness and a fellow audience member. The room can alter it quite a bit, of course.

Q: Hamlet’s Theatricality – for Hamlet the audience becomes a major character that he has to deal with. How much did the audience become a mirror for you, playing at the Blackfriars?
B.C.: It made the role way easier. If I had to do it in the dark, I’d find the role much more challenging. “To be or not to be” – the inclusivity of the pronouns.
J.R.: I found it liberating and very comforting. We miss a huge opportunity when we put up that 4th wall. To that extent, the role becomes the actor.

Q: Hamlet can, in some ways, be an isolating part, but in this space, he’s never alone in a very obvious way.
J.H.: I’ll buy that.

K.L.: To the other Hamlets, how did you use the house for soliloquizing? Stagecraft-wise?
J.H.: I started by doing the “too, too solid flesh” speech in the DSR corner. That first speech is nerve-wracking and that acted like a security blanket almost.
K.L.: From center stage, that first speech made me feel like an insect under a microscope.
B.C.: That speech is a place where you feel like you’re being judged as an actor as well as the character.

Q: How have Original Practices affect your develop of the role? What was the relationship of O.P. to your Hamlets?
B.C.: OP version of special effects. How can we use “magic doors” and sound cues for the ghost? Ostensibly, the scene calls for five people, but it’s really an all-call for the supernatural elements.
K.L.: I did Hamlet two years later in a traditional theatre, we had lights and fog, etc. Was there a precedent for using mist?
Lauren Shell (from the gallery): Yes.
J.H.: I like how this kind of space…the advice to the players – making this really advice to Hamlet from himself. It made for a very interesting little puzzle when relating to the role and this space.

Q: Hamlet wasn’t a Blackfriars play, it was a Globe play. Hamlet ribs the groundlings and some scholars have said that it make him an elitist. Are there groundlings in this space?
J.H.: You are being ruthlessly upstaged by the players. There are always people who are WAY more interested in the dumbshow than in anything Hamlet says.
T.M.: In this space, the groundlings are above in the gallery. It’s very tangible, that split and it’s very exciting. Different communities/audiences on different levels.

Q: In this space, does Hamlet then throw the “groundling” lines up rather than down?
J.H.: I always pick the one person on the stools who isn’t paying attention because there is one, inevitably.

Q: A show of hands for who has or is about to play Hamlet – What’s the experience watching someone play Hamlet in this space?
A (Justin): It seems like such a wonderfully intimate venue. It’s enclosed and you can feel like the audience is always so close.
Q: And you did your Hamlet in a graveyard?
A (Justin): We started in a 19th-century opera house and I felt it was harder to reach the audience in that space than it was outdoors.
A (Daniel): This space is quite similar to the Winedale space. It’s surrounded by audience on three sides. You can touch/get in the face of someone in the front row. It allows you to connect very personally with the audience members, convince them that they’re the person about who you’re talking.
A (Bob): Outside in central Texas. It’s very hot. The challenge of the role is less about the lines than just the physical exercise involved in performing the role. At Winedale, audiences are constantly fanning themselves and shifting around. It makes it impossible for the actor to stay still the whole time. Added to the manicness of the character.

Q: In “all occasions,” there is a passage – “will and strength and means…” 26 consecutive monosyllabic words, begins and ends with a caesura. So, basically – pause, 26 monosyllables, pause. Have you thought about what that’s all about?
J.H.: The leaden ratio – that speech happens at the moment the audience most palpably wants Hamlet to shut up. And, you are out there saying something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Q: Act – motive, intention, and performance. If you apply that concept to what Hamlet is saying –
J.H.: If he just changed to the past-tense “If I HAD cause and will…” it would make so much more sense.
T.M.: I think that the thing is what Mamet called the ‘Kitten monologue’ – someone grinding the play to a halt with a jarring, nostalgic moment. It’s like a play-sized caesura. It’s a different flavor for Hamlet. He can misrepresent himself to himself, self- deception. I think it’s an interesting moment that, if you’re looking for fluidity, continuity, and rationality, it’s clear why it gets cut, but it can be a moment where Hamlet and Fortinbras can suss out the differences in their characters.
K.L.: I didn’t do it here, but I did it elsewhere. And it’s interesting – it’s the last big speech, it’s the only one not at the castle. And it’s the turning point after which he acts – he deals with R&G, he gets involved with pirates, he gets his revenge. He becomes this sort of action hero-y character offstage.
J.H.: And, I found it incredibly easy to memorize.

Q: Offstage – why do you think Hamlet goes to Ophelia’s closet and what it he trying to do there?
J.H. [laughs]: What are they generally trying to do there?
B.C.: If you believe that he goes there directly after the ghost scene, he goes there to tell the person he trusts the most, but when he gets there, he remembers he’s sworn to secrecy and so stands there in silence. He hopes to find a support system, but can’t.
K.L.: It’s one of those near misses. Like, if only that servant could read and didn’t have to ask Romeo…
J.R.: Jim had us rehearse that scene to get a reference point.

Q. In this particular theatre, we’re willing to join you on an imaginative journey, do you think it matters how old Hamlet is?
J.R.: Modern audiences certainly relate to college Hamlet and his buddy Horatio. I think it assists their understanding.
K.L.: It is such a wonderful role, and I want to see all kinds of different Hamlets. I want to see Hamlets of all kinds.

Q (Maxim): If you could give yourself advice as you were playing Hamlet, what advice would you give?
B.C.: Ask for help. In a season with no director, I was really fortunate to have Rene as Horatio and he set aside time to sit with me as I worked the soliloquys. Rather than feeling like you have to carry the show, take in as much information and feedback as possible.
J.R.: I would tell myself…give myself permission to fail. I came in with a lot of preconceived notions and couldn’t allow myself to let them go.
M.D.: It brings up the thought – is this the sort of role you should really play twice?
J.H.: I wish I could have been able to relax about it.

Q: Is it difficult, as Hamlet, to be directed? Since it’s such a dominating part?
T.M.: Not at all. I think I would have been a lot more at sea if I hadn’t had Ralph as the director. The director can be a very useful pressure to create a clear form. Otherwise, the part could just spill everywhere.
J.H.: The best directors at least give you the illusion of ownership. I feel that I can answer for everything I’m doing on the stage.
J.R.: I felt that Jim was an ally and really helped in fleshing out each of those relationships, one by one.
B.C.: It’s great to be asked a lot of questions. As to ownership, the answer is yours. A good director won’t tell you the answer but encourage you to ask the question.

Q (Paul Menzer): To Ben, could you talk about doing the Q1, a Hamlet that is familiar and so different.
B.C.: I always thought that “there’s the point” would get a giggle because it’s jarring. But, the Q1 feels like the difference between an action film to an arthouse film.
K.L.: It’s just so exciting to have that feeling.
T.M.: The German translation version is structured differently even from Q1, but there are still recognizable bits. And those were the moments where the audience could get onboard with something familiar before something strange and jarring happened. Hamlet is in our cultural consciousness and there are a lot of people who may not know the play well enough to be jarred greatly by the differences.

Q (Casey Caldwell): On the subject of Folio and Q1, what is it like working with a play that has different, somewhat competing versions?
B.C.: Simply, I ignored all the other versions.
K.L.: I had a fifty email exchange with the director that was like a bargain – bartering lines. I did miss some stuff that wasn’t there, but how long do you want to make the evening? Every line can help you as an actor.
J.H.: We worked from the Oxford and Jim had done the cut. And, usually I’m a bargainer, but in this case, I just went with it. I only asked for one line back. And then, trying to learn the Q1 sequence was very confusing. I had learned Hamlet’s path one way and that was Hamlet. So, learning that different version of the character was cool.

Q (Rene): Is there a part of Hamlet that you don’t like?
J.H.: Osric. I don’t understand why he’s there and I don’t think I ever will.

Q (Tom Berger): When you offer a conflated version of Hamlet, that doesn’t exist. It’s a 19th century play.
J.H.: It’s really a 21st-century play. We’ve taken these pieces and played with them more.
T.M.: But, it only matters if you’re trying to authorize it in some way. In the playing of it, does it really matter?
K.L.: It adds to the mystery of what is this Hamlet.

Collective nouns: A Procrastination, A Prevarication, A Bedlam

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