We know what we are, but not what we may be.

I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK in 2006 after our (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre‘s) opening night of Henry IV parts 1 & 2. Patrick Stewart… yes Patrick Stewart was standing alone at the post show party. Having just seen him the previous night in the role of Antony in Antony & Cleopatra, I knew I had at the very least an ice breaker with which to chat him up.  Being a fan of both Shakespearean legacy as well as comic books (specifically Marvel’s the X-Men), I could barely hold myself together as I approached Patrick-Antony-Shylock-Professor X-Captain Picard-Stewart.

Patrick Stewart as Professor X in the X-Men movies.

Patrick Stewart as Professor X in the X-Men movies.

I introduced myself as a member of the cast and gracefully landed a simple, but direct, “I loved Antony & Cleopatra, you were fantastic.” He was nothing but gracious and returned the compliment (although I doubt he would’ve remembered me from my show) and we began to talk about Shakespeare.

Stewart as Prospero RSC 2006

Stewart as Prospero
RSC 2006

We went from Star and Blubbering Fan in one instant to just two Shakespeare lovin’ nerds in the next. Mr. Stewart… – oh who am I kidding?… my old buddy Patrick, Pat, Patty-o… – starts telling me about his current rehearsal process for the role of Prospero in the upcoming RSC production of The Tempest. Having played the role 3 times (once in his teens, again in his 40’s, and now) he felt his current age and Prospero’s were much closer to alignment. I told him that I too played Prospero in my teen years. We shared a smile that only two former teenage Prosperos could share and then I asked him, “so, what’s it like… to return to a role like that at different stages in your career?” Mr. Stewart will not very likely remember this conversation, but it will live in my memory as long as I have one. “It’s all there,” he said.

Now, I won’t be foolish enough to attempt to directly quote the rest, but I will share what I gleaned of his insightful response.  He told me that it was all there, that IT never changes; only WE do. He explained that Shakespeare is so rich and deep that it is impossible to get it all in one take, nor should one attempt to do so. In fact the only thing that was different was Patrick, himself. There was no way the teen age Prospero could deliver the performance of the 40 year old, nor could he now attempt to capture the magic of a moment that may have worked very well for him as a teenager. However, not one of those different experiences should invalidate the other. Just because he understood a moment or piece of text now after some life had been lived, doesn’t mean that he missed an opportunity the last time. This philosophy could be applied to a performance from night to night. Each time an actor enters into the machine of a role in performance he or she carries with them a different set of perspectives and opportunities, but as for the text… it’s all there. This look at the work was enormously freeing and continues to impact me from role to role.

I played (or should I say attempted to play) Hamlet in 1995 at the age of 17. The previous summer I witnessed Lee Ernst play the role at American Players Theatre. I was first introduced to the story at McKinley Jr. High School via the Zeffirelli film starring Mel Gibson. I have watched Kenneth Branagh’s film. I witnessed James DeVita on many nights playing the role at APT in the 2003 season, under the direction of David Frank.

James DeVita's "In Acting Shakespeare"

James DeVita’s “In Acting Shakespeare”

I have seen multiple films and read multiple books (including the many versions of the text itself).

Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh

Ben Carlson as Hamlet Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Ben Carlson as Hamlet
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

.Understudying the actor Ben Carlson in the role in a production at Chicago Shakespeare, directed by Terry Hands in 2006 was incredibly educational.  In the past year alone I have seen three different stage productions, two of which had dear friends of mine playing the Melancholy Dane (Michael Gotch, directed by Mark Lamos and Andy Truschinski, directed by David H. Bell). It is impossible not to have certain moments or line readings cement themselves in my consciousness, simply as a result of cultural osmosis. Whether I liked or disliked any of these versions is beside the point.

Michael Gotch REP 2013

Michael Gotch
REP 2013

The process now for me is about a deconstruction of those embedded assumptions as to what a moment is “supposed to be.” Then, in seeing these moments, beats, relationships, journey points – call them what you will – in seeing them fresh with a clean slate, I have to bring an innocent version of myself to each of those particular moments, allowing them to recreate my perspective of Hamlet himself and his journey and thus, recreating me.

Already there are moments in the play that have a completely different meaning for me than they ever had.

“…Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!”

Is Hamlet raging here in a fit of uncontrolled passion, as I have seen it done again and again and as would seem to be the truth of the moment… or, having just seen the powerful  influence an actor has in performing, is he attempting to try on the “role” of the avenger; something he himself fears he may not have the ability to be? After all, what does he utter in the first act just before leaving to begin his vengeance quest?

“O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!”

The light being shed on these moments is illuminating different angles of what it means to be a “human being” for me. My automatic gut instincts are full of fire and aggressive passion. I have to allow that furious energy to release and take a breath in order to enter in to these moments with a state of being that is not so furious, but rather simpler, truer, more vulnerable and honest. This is the unending thrill of Shakespeare for me. It is truly transformative.  This Hamlet is changing me.

Jackie Davies & myself in Hamlet 1995

Jackie Davies & myself in Hamlet 1995

O that this too, too solid flesh…

One of the reasons I love working with director John Langs is that he is a master of focusing in on an actors path within a text. He is rigorous about slowing the process down and making sure that each moment is as carefully lived in as any other. “Who’s there?” is cared for as much as “To be or not to be.”  John uses a vocabulary that is worked out in detail by Declan Donnellan in his book, The Actor and the Target; the key word being “target.” Today, working on Hamlet’s first soliloquy, John and I (as well as our extraordinary  Stage Manager, Ev Matten and exceptional verse coach, Gigi Buffington) sat down and slowly, patiently plotted our way through the speech making sure each phrase had a target.

There’s the target of the audience, to whom I am speaking.  Believe it or not, this is a choice that must be made. It is actually very common now days for soliloquies to be delivered as personal mental conversations with one’s self that the audience merely witnesses. In Shakespeare’s day this was not a question. They were delivered frankly to the audience with out apology. At American Players Theatre, we tend to go with the latter. Though not always. After many years of exploring the option of addressing the audience, I’ve found that it is simply much more dramatic and engaging to watch an actor speak with another person (or group of persons, as is the case with direct address), than to be muttering to his or herself. Tremendous drama lives in the unexpected. What unexpected thing can happen to a person talking to his or her self? Not much. On the other hand, talking with an audience opens a flood of possibilities as to what might happen.

Then there is the Target of God. Another choice must be made here. In this first speech, as in much of Shakespeare, the phrase “O God” is pronounced. Is Hamlet using the word as an expression of frustration? If so, the target is himself. What if we accept the presence of a God that can be spoken to and called upon for answers? Well then, “O God” suddenly has a much different meaning, especially when God doesn’t answer.

Characters off stage or unseen may also become targets. We are playing around with these targets and what it might mean to demand a response from one that is not there. How many times have you muttered in the car after being cut off by a “dumbass jerk” in another car? It happens all the time. Words we’d like to say to someone, but dare not do so to their face, we utter in our privacy

The target list is infinite depending on the show and the given circumstance of a moment. Now, to get off this target for a moment and aim at another…

I have heard it argued, and by people with great knowledge and insight, people I very much respect, that the “To be or not to be” speech, while clearly about what it might mean to kill one’s self, comes out of no where or is the first time Hamlet considers such a thing. I beg to differ. I believe Hamlet’s first soliloquy is all about a longing to be dead. I look to the first four lines…

“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!”

It would be desirable to dissolve into nothingness or if God had not made it against his will to kill one’s self.

Yes, Hamlet goes on in the speech goes on to explore the why of such feelings, but when we come to the end of the speech, he concludes with…

“But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.”

If we make his actual beating heart the target of the thought, then Hamlet is pleading with his heart to stop and thus die.

Later, after learning from his father’s ghost about the dark secret of his uncle’s nature, Hamlet targets his heart again (and the tissues holding him together), but with a very different purpose…

“Hold, hold, my heart,
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up.”

What a struggle for anyone to engage in. Life and death. Two targets to be feared as well as respected.

Madness

I’m sure there will be a number of contemplations on this topic.

Our first read was the afternoon of May 9th. It was wonderful to hear the rest of the cast (so many talented artists!), but it was a wild, messy swipe at the play on my part. I tend to over prepare and hoped to stay relaxed by not doing so for the first read of Hamlet. As a result I fell, and somewhat continue to fall, into some old, horrible habits. Chief among those bad habits is a manic, frenetic energy and a clamping down with force and pressure. This results in the appearance of a tremendous amount of effort which can be exhausting to watch as well as a horrible pain and tension in my neck and upper back. This was disappointing to me on a number of levels. In one respect I am not always sure when it is happening. When I DO become aware of it, I lose control and can’t let go of the behavior.  I get “in my head” as we actors call it.

Being “in your head” means to be physically engaged in an interaction with the outside, real, tangible world, but to be trapped in an intellectual tailspin of the mind, which detaches one’s self from being present in the living moment of reality. This happens to everyone, not just actors. A driver might get lost in his or her thoughts and speed through a red light. It happens to me from time to time while reading. Sometimes a whole page goes by before I realize I hadn’t been absorbing the story but contemplating some matter in the day that needs to be dealt with; like an oil change, or a confrontation with a loved one, or really any old “day dream.” The difference is that when it’s happening while trying to play a role on stage or in rehearsal it becomes much more apparent to one’s consciousness. Becoming aware of one’s lack of attentiveness may in and of itself be an experience of “presence,” but the play is still rattling on and as an actor one must let go of the chaos of thought and return to playing the moment at hand. This gets harder the more it happens because it is so easy to beat one’s self up for not being present, which results in more of the same… NOT being present.

CONFESSION TIME: Am I a crazy person? I don’t think so. Have I felt crazy? Yes, I think we all have from time to time. I do have a type of paranoia or fear that I am constantly fending off. It is a suspicion and fear that I am letting people down, or worse… that I am cause for other people to speak ill about me behind my back. The intensity of these feelings fluctuate. Some times I have more stressful anxiety surrounding these thoughts than other times. Often it is difficult for me to receive praise or love without fearing that I am either a.) not worthy of such kindness or b.)  that such generosities given to me are mere gestures of cordiality and that the second I am gone, my absence will ignite a sigh of relief for those that remain.

In the play Hamlet is met by his two dear friends Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. Unbeknown to Hamlet, the two have been summoned by the King and Queen to spy on him. After a few brief exchanges, Hamlet quickly begins to suspect something is not right and proceeds to corner them into confessing they are actually not visiting him of their own volition but were in fact sent for by the King & Queen. Suspicion confirmed. Friendship betrayed. Hamlet is now beginning to see that not even his closest friends can be trusted. If this is so… who can be trusted? What is real? What is not? Paranoia strikes deep.

Now, madness meets madness. As an actor that knows what it means to experience an irrational fear, I try to set myself into such a state. However, while these feelings may seem similar to one another, my social anxiety is of a very different breed than the life or death stakes that Hamlet’s suspicions are engaged in. Now comes the delicate task of extricating my real life fear of doing a poor job in front of my peers and replacing it in my  active mind with an acute listening to my fellow actors for evidence which will either disprove or confirm Hamlet’s most pressing and terrifying fears. Is fear madness? I don’t think so… but I am pretty sure spending too much time thinking about the fear can drive one insane… so I’m going to put away these thoughts for tonight.

good friend; I’ll change that name with you

Tomorrow the entire cast of Hamlet meets for the first time for a red though, a little discussion, and then the start of a journey scene by scene where we will explore in depth all of the words, relationships, and events of the play.

Tonight, however, I got to get to know my Horatio, Ro Boddie. We sat, the two of us, with our director, John Langs and stage manager, Ev Matten aand discussed the trajectory of the relationship of Hamlet and Horatio. Then, Ro and I went off for a little adventure to explore the countryside and get to know one another a bit more.

The relationship between Hamlet & Horatio is exceptional in that it is the one close relationship Hamlet has in the play where there is no question of truth, honesty, or loyalty between one another. It begins with a hint at a shared history and knowledge of one another. Horatio is respectful of Hamlet and speaks to his status, which Hamlet quickly corrects by insisting they call one another “good friend.” Later, Hamlet will confess nearly everything to Horatio: a father’s message from beyond the grave, a subtext to the presentation of a play, the murder of   classmates, an embracing of oblivion, and finally a request to tell his tale. Horatio maintains his loyalty to his friend, willing to leap into death along side Hamlet if need be. There is something profound between them.  We think there might be something to this relationship intensifying and becoming more dear as the play progresses. John says there will be many machines through which Hamlet will be processed throughout the play. This relationship being one. I can’t wait to see how this grows.

ChapelHill

Ro and I left our talk excited and chomping at the bit to get to work. I swung by my home to get my dog and the three of us took a ride out toward Plain, WI (just north of Spring Green). There’s an old chapel at the top of a hill in the woods behind the old convent there. Ro, being new to the area, did not know about it and since I am a constant explorer, I thought it’d be a fun thing to hike up there in the evening light and get to know one another. We talked about the things guys talk about. Work, women, and wilder days. There is something so important to knowing and trusting your fellow actors when working on something as powerful and intimate as Hamlet.    It’s of tremendous comfort to me to know that Ro is not only an insightful and easy going guy, but that he is game and eager to work. I think we will be a great team.

Tomorrow I have to read the role of Hamlet in front of all my peers and my employers… it’s good to know I’ll have a friend there and that we’ve got each other’s backs.

The Readiness is All

The move “home” to Spring Green has been bitter sweet. Saying “goodbye” to my girlfriend and our cats for the summer was tough, but breathing the clean fresh air of the Wisconsin countryside is exactly what my spirit needed.

I am returning to American Players Theatre after a sabbatical. In my time away I have had many adventures…

My mother and I jumped out of an airplane. (her idea)

IMG_3940

I lost a Grandfather, who lived to the ripe age of 98 years on this earth. (He was a great man and one I looked up to enormously. We called him the “Great Dane.” Grandpa Newell’s end had been approaching for quite some time, and while it was partially a relief to see him leave the struggles of ailing age behind, it was still very sad to say “goodbye.”)The Great Dane

I found new love, filled with bright hope, optimism, and cats. Yes, she has taught me to appreciate… cats.
IMG_4502Marlo & Lucy

I  traveled with an organization called Shakespeare Link Canada to Quelemane Mozambique, working with Montes Namuli an African Dance company on an adaptation of Winter’s Tale as well as an orphan feeding program and girls school. Here I witnessed starvation, violence, disease, and poverty on a level I never previously understood  juxtaposed with laughter, dance, generosity, and boundless love.

P1100105

Saying Goodby

Saying Goodb

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I traveled to South Africa and visited The Cradle of Human Kind for a glimpse into humanity’s historical genesis; to the Apartheid Museum to witness the atrocities of injustice and racial insanity; to The Market Theatre in Johannesburg for a taste of where my art and the march of history met face to face and made a deep impact on one another; and to Kruger Park, one of the largest wild game reserves in Africa, where I witnessed Lions mating, baby Elephants being weened, and Leopard attacks at night.

I traveled to Florida, London, Spring Green, Chicago, Notre Dame, New York, and Delaware witnessing so much extraordinary theatre (including 3 different productions of Hamlet and 3 different productions of Richard III).

I made a choice to change up my career, turning down work for a chance to study improvisation and sketch comedy at The Second City in Chicago, to verse coach Romeo & Juliet for The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and to create my own production company, The Crowded Tub Collective, which permitted me the great opportunity to teach and direct a group of young actors in a small scale adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.
LIFE DEATH NAP CTC co Photo

The past few years have been a tremendous journey in and outside of myself.

What does all of this have to do with Hamlet? Everything… because I am going to be playing Hamlet. When we approach anything all we can truly do is bring ourselves to the challenge before us. When I look at the dark monolith that is this play, I don’t see impossibility, nor do I feel burdened to carry on my conscience the rich and marvelous history of people that have mined the play again and again throughout time. What I see is a story that has stood the test of time because it continues to fascinate us all. Why? Because, like all great stories, it is our own.

When we witness play from the audience, what determines our experience is equal parts quality of the production and what we bring to the play ourselves. Have we lost a loved one too soon? Have we been driven mad by our inability to make a difference? Have we driven others mad with our selfishness or our obsessions? Have we lost a child to school, to war, to illness? Have we feared failure at living up to our parents expectations? Have we experienced the seed of mistrust only to have that fear confirmed to our great dismay?  Have we in our darker moments never voiced to another human being the passing thought of what it might mean had we never been born or of self destruction and the oblivion of suicide?

We start Hamlet tomorrow afternoon with a reading and discussion of the play. All I can do is bring my self to the table in the room; my thoughts, my education, my experience, my short comings, my strengths, my attitude, knowledge and my ignorance. It is what everyone will be bringing to the table on day one. Then real and exciting work begins when we share ourselves with one another through the telling of this story.

Right now… the readiness is all.