Archive for March, 2010

This week we hear from Bill Iddings:

Odds are that I stand at least a Ghost of a chance of getting out of “Hamlet” with my dignity intact.

In the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company’s production of playwright William Shakespeare’s tragedy, the spirit of the title character’s murdered father is one of three — make that four — characters assigned to yours truly.  The Ghost of “Hamlet” present is one of three — well, four — roles I’m playing in the spring 2010 show that opens on the deadline for filing income taxes, April 15, and runs through mid-May.   I’m also stale hamming it up as the First Player, an egomanical actor — but I repeat myself — who later in “Hamlet” performs as the Player King in “The Mousetrap,” the play within the play wherein Hamlet (Scott Lange) intends to catch the conscience of his fratricidal uncle, King Claudius (Scott Wright).  I lastly pop up as the Priest who gives Laertes (Kyle Walker), the lone survivor of his dwindling clan, some grave concerns over the burial of the young man’s suicidal sister, Ophelia (Amy McFadden). “Hamlet” is a tragedy, all right; Characters drop like flies gagging their last in a cloud of insecticide.

With rehearsals underway in Spring Lake at the West Michigan Academy of Arts & Academics, King Hamlet (guess who?) is dead before the first line is spoken.   I mean, I’ve died on stage before — hey, I heard that — but usually I’ve first had a chance to make an entrance.  This must be what happens when your reputation precedes you.  Then the meddling Polonious (Laertes’ and Ophelia’s father, played by Joel L. Schindlbeck) shuffles off this mortal coil, stabbed in the back by Hamlet who’s disappointed to discover the old fool behind the arras and on the business end of his dagger isn’t Claudius, drat the luck.  Ophelia follows, venturing into the “undiscovered country” by diving right into a swim she would have been better off taking while strapped in a life preserver.  The Bard of Avon’s domino effect continues.  Falling one after the other under William Shakespeare’s quilt pen are Queen Gertrude (Heather Folkvord), courtesy of potent poison in an ill-advised cocktail; and a hat trick of principals unfortunate enough to be nicked by a fencing sword, the tip of which has been dipped in said poison: Claudius, Laertes and Hamlet, you’re outta here.

For good measure, Claudius, who before “Hamlet” begins has poured a concoction akin to battery acid in the ears of his napping brother (guess who?), literally gets a taste of his own medicine.  And let’s not forget about Hamlet’s goofball buddies, Rosencrantz (Brooke Heintz) and Guildenstern (Sarah Stark) who never should have accompanied the melancholy Dane back to England in the first place.  Horatio (Kat Hermes) and Fortinbras (Jeff Otto) are the last men standing, even if only one of those actors is actually a male; time for the willing suspension of disbelief.

But be it at the Dog Story Theater in Grand Rapids, Beardsley Theater in Muskegon or the parlor at Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, the final body count will litter the stage with corpses, the clutter orchestrated by director Katherine Mayberry and fight choreographer Steven Schwall.

This time I’ll have eyes to take in all the carnage.  “Hamlet” is my second production for Pigeon Creek, a professional troupe dedicated to breathing life into plays that were written four centuries ago.   My first, last spring, was “King Lear.” In that adventure, my white-bearded Earl of Gloucester had a bloody bad time of things, getting my eyes plucked out by Regan (Kate Bode) and her husband (Randy S. Brown), both of whom got what was coming to them.

Take the word of Juan Whonose: Even if it’s only make believe, having your eyeballs ripped out of their sockets smarts, hence my howling to make blood curdle.  Plus, afterward you suffer from CSSS: Can’t See S— Syndrome.  Good thing we always had a box of wipes just off stage, usually around the spot where I exited by clanging into a folding chair or bumping into a wall.

Theater is not for wimps.  It can, however,be for windbags, egos whose operational philosophy runs along the lines of, “That’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”

Not that I’m one to talk about myself.

Hey, I heard that.

Playing Fortinbras, Marcellus, and the 2nd Player

Hello!  This week’s blog comes to you from Jeff Otto.  I’m going to talk about my experience so far acting as many people.  In Hamlet, I play Fortinbras, Marcellus, the 2nd Player (or Player Queen), a pirate, and a pallbearer.  That means that I have to portray five different characters within Hamlet which is a very fun and exciting challenge.  This is my first experience working with the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company, and I have had a great first experience so far!  I love the camaraderie among the cast.  I never get the feeling that anyone is putting in less work than anyone else.  By that I mean that it’s a collaboration, we are working together as a cast to create this amazing performance and it’s very exciting watching it begin to get to its feet.

In portraying my five different characters, Katherine discussed with me differentiation.  I decided that in order to differentiate my characters, I would think about the different social classes that they would be in.  While thinking on that, it really helps with physical movement.  I have thought as Fortinbras being of the highest class.  He is the ruler of Norway, and therefore has a lot of power there.  That makes him more commanding, militaristic, and proper.  This commands walking more upright and with a purpose.  Marcellus is a guard.  Slightly militaristic in the way he needs to hold the watch, but of a lower class.  Marcellus knows that he can be a little more laid back in his talking when he’s with Bernardo and Heratio – but in a later scene when he’s talking to Hamlet, he’s very humble, doesn’t speak much, and always makes sure he addresses Hamlet as “my Lord.”  This makes Marcellus more upright, on his guard yet a bit uneasy at times, and attentive.  The 2nd Player is of the acting class.  A lower class.  What I especially need to keep in mind is that the 2nd Player, since he plays the Queen in the Mousetrap (the play-within-the play), would be very young.  Younger men played women in Shakespeare’s day, so I need to portray that when portraying the 2nd Player.  The pirate I thought of as a slightly older man who has spent many days off at sea.  I haven’t fully decided, but he may have a slight limp from someone injury he received while off on some pirating adventure.  The pallbearer is probably of a slightly higher class.  He’s attending the funeral of Ophelia, so he would have to be in some sort of standing with the Polonius household.  He’s solemn and upset due to the recent death of Ophelia, and I have made the decision that he believes Ophelia’s death to be an accident, not a suicide.

Another fun thing I’d like to discuss was my recent participation in The West Michigan Academy of Arts and Academics’ Festival of the Arts.  For the festival, the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company performed a few different scenes from various Shakespeare shows.  Two scenes from Hamlet were chosen, and of those two – Act I, scene i was one of them.  It was fun actually getting to perform one of the scenes from the show already, especially at such an early stage in the rehearsal process.  It was very exciting.  Afterwards we answered a bunch of questions for the students and it was great to see that students that young already have an interest in the works of Shakespeare.  I know that I didn’t even read my first Shakespeare play until I was in High School, and I didn’t understand it.  But these kids knew Hamlet.  They knew the characters and were answering questions Katherine asked them about the plot.  That to me is really cool.  It’s great to see an interest in theatre at such a young age.

Anyways, that’s all for me!  I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s blog.  Otto out!

Greetings everyone!
This section of the Pigeon Creek actor blog is brought to you by Scott Lange.  I’m here today to talk to you about the role of Hamlet.
Scratch that. I’m here to talk to you today about my opinions and thoughts about Hamlet.  All in all, I do not actually think there can be one definitive perspective on the Danish prince.

Let’s start by actually looking at the size of Hamlet.  The role is immense.  He is onstage for eleven of the play’s seventeen scenes, and speaks over a third of the play’s lines.  Please don’t think I’m complaining here, I welcome the challenge.  But so have many other actors.  Looking through a list of people that have played the role in the past, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the heavy hitters.  Here is a sample:
David Tennant, Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Christopher Plummer, Kevine Kline, Jonathan Pryce, Ian McKellen, Richard Burton, Lawrence Olivier, John Barrymore, John Gielgud, and Derek Jacobi.  That’s not even counting the number of productions on television, in movies, or on stage that haven’t been seen by as wide of an audience.  Also remember all the productions that no one alive has seen, starring Richard Burbage (the original Hamlet) for example.  It’s an intimidating list.

When I was first cast in the role, I immediately forged an obsession about who Hamlet was, based on what previous productions had done with it.  There are so many questions about the character, and the play in general.  I felt I needed a helping hand, some sort of boost to get me started.  In my mind, the role was almost too large to battle without some weapons.

Is Hamlet’s madness real or feigned?  Does he really love Ophelia, or is she merely a pawn in the master plan?  Why was Claudius named the king when Hamlet should have been next in line for the throne?  What is the cause of Hamlet’s melancholy?  Is it really because of the death of his father and mother’s overhasty marriage?  Is the Ghost of his father sent from heaven or hell?  All these questions need answers.  For a short while, I was on a quest to discover the answers from those that have already traveled the journey. Well, that plan failed.

I don’t mean that those questions are unanswerable, or that I’m totally lost in my character development.  What I’m suggesting is that I cannot find the answers from someone else.  I watched a lot of video, and read quite a bit of analysis.  I found, in most cases, I either could not figure out what the actors’ motivations were, or I didn’t like what they had decided.  Ultimately I have to figure this out myself.

One specific part of my “who is Hamlet” obsession centers around whether Hamlet can be likable.  I think the play Hamlet is an amazing work of literature, the characters (especially the title character) are extremely complex and detail.  I love the play, and the character, but if he was fully alive, embodied and living next door to me, I wouldn’t want to spend much time with him.  He’s moody, spiteful, indecisive, whining, at times violent, cruel, “proud, revengeful, and ambitious.”  I was concerned about making a Hamlet who is all of those things, but also likeable and relatable.  But I couldn’t find much of a reason for audiences to admire him.  I brought this point up to my director and fellow actors in a rehearsal last week.  We discussed that the reason that audiences relate to Hamlet is that he is a flawed man, dealing with extraordinary circumstances, faring as best he can in the only way he knows how.  Hamlet as anti-hero.

This conversation brought two things to light for me.  First of all, I’m not really alone in my quest.  I have a director and ten other actors to help me.  I may be portraying the title character, but it doesn’t matter whether I’m amazing or not, I need to have a cast with me on stage, and a director behind me that I trust completely.  I am extraordinarily blessed to say that this is absolutely the case here.  Really this is what Pigeon Creek is all about, creating an ensemble and exploring a play, discovering what we can get out of it to share with the audience.  There is no one actor that is more important than the group.  Everything I do must relate to the other characters on stage.  This gives me visions of myself lurching around the stage, screaming my head off, while my fellow cast members stare at me in horror.  There is no room for me to be a primadonna or allow my ego to get ahead of me.  One for all and all for one.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Also, our talk made me finally realize why it is that we are so infatuated with this character.  He is us.  Shakespeare shows us this all along.  We like Hamlet because we can see ourselves in him.  He may not be very nice, but he opens his heart and soul to us.  He acts rashly, but how many times during the day would we love to tell people exactly what we think of them.  He is frustrated with his situation, angry at the world, and cannot stop his brain from chewing on itself.  I know I’ve had some sleepless nights where I’ve felt the exact same thing.  It’s true that the audience may not like the character, disapprove of what he does and says, but cannot help but relate to him and sympathize with his struggle.

This also explains why my search through the past for the perfect Hamlet failed.  It is impossible for me to be Kevin Kline, Lawrence Olivier, or even David Tennant.  The Hamlet that I play has to be MY Hamlet.  I need to glean from my own personal experiences to create who Hamlet really is.  Shakespeare gives us clues to this.  Hamlet tells the players:  “hold the mirror up to nature;” and shows Gertrude a glass so that “she may see the inmost part of you.”   That has to be me on stage, a mirror to my own nature, show the audience the inmost part of myself.  And most importantly:  “to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night, the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  As long as I trust myself, my instincts, my company, and my audience, flights of angels will sing us to our rest.  And now, for silence.

Hello! This is Amy McFadden and I am playing Ophelia.  My personal mantra-on stage and off- is “All for one, and one for all!” Being a part of the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company fits it perfectly.  The entire company is supportive, everyone has some skill or talent to offer, and we all accept multiple responsibilities. I have happily accepted my roles as actor, event manager and costume crew member. I will not elaborate here on organizing an event or doing my castmates’ laundry, but I will share some of my acting process.

The first step is the text work.  It’s like finding all of the pieces of a puzzle before you start putting it together, and it’s a blast.  This process began the second I got cast, accelerated after the read-thru and initial cast discussions about character, and continues now (our third week). Armed with the clues, truths and tools gleaned from this work, we entered the next phase of the work: ACT-ing.  Moving. Talking.  Hurling myself into interaction with my scenemates.  I held the intellectual detail work in my head, and began the struggle to pull myself out of my brain and into my BODY.

This is the work of communication, PLAY-ing for the audience.  It can feel like a betrayal-when the words resonate as something so lovely and true in my head, but my body isn’t sufficiently marinated in Ophelia yet to properly bring her scenes to the stage. Fortunately, our director, Katherine Mayberry, started our first working rehearsal with a perfect exercise to snap me out of my head.  She sent Scott Lange (Hamlet) and me to improvise a non-verbal exploration of what happened when he came to Ophelia on the  night he talks with is father’s ghost.  (This scene is not in the play, but Ophelia recounts it to her father, Polonius, in II, i.)  Directly after the improvisation, we rehearsed II,i, and then the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene (III,i).  The 10-minute improvised exchange infused my body with Ophelia.  It gave me an emotional starting point, visual- and muscle-memory, and a visceral anchor for Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet.  It made this early work in the scenes more productive, and gave me my next goals for homework and future rehearsals.

In transition from brain to stage also comes speech. We all know that speech expresses thought, and comes from breath and energy.  I do not always know where that breath and energy should originate, or sit, or how to connect it to Ophelia’s thoughts.  Enter Katherine, again with a tool for me!  The exercise is “Head, Heart, Gut, Groin,” and it helped me to decide where my energy is centered, where to speak from, and how, within a speech or scene, those things transition between the four places.  Some of the choices seem pretty instinctive, but being aware of them for each line is helping me connect my body and my voice.  Work on connecting my thoughts comes next…I can’t wait to see where the next few weeks of rehearsal take us, and what I will learn next about Ophelia!