Tuesday / September 9 / 2019
Written by Emma
Today’s episode title: The Return of the Tuesday Night Sessions!
Check-ins began quietly. Our circle was composed of many returning members and a handful of new faces. After a few veteran members spoke about how their days were going, one new member chimed in: “Today, my silver lining is being here and having my escape from reality for a minute.” Around the circle, heads bobbed silently in agreement. We then stood up to lower our first Tuesday night ring of the season.
After tossing around some suggestions for what to do next (Reading? Improv game? Monologues?), we decided to begin reading. We cracked open our copies of Hamlet and flipped to the top of the play. Act I Scene 1 introduces us to the grim, chilled ambiance of the play. It outlines an evening of watch duty being conducted by a handful of guards, who’ve summoned Horatio, Hamlet’s college BFF. But this is no ordinary night watch duty! This particular evening there is a ghost sighting--and not just any ghost, but that of Hamlet’s father (the creatively named King Hamlet). The scene entails the guards’ discussions about the dead king, the state of the country, and some superstitions regarding roosters crowing.
To my delight, our very first volunteer to read was a returning member who had stated on her first day last year that she did not want anything to do with a speaking role. She was joined by two other returning members and one new member. I was excited twofold when I realized that all of the women currently reading either had minor or non-speaking roles last season, or were brand new! What a great way to start the season’s reading!
We took a break after a few pages to unpack the text a bit. “It’s bitter, a dreary place, and cold!” said one ensemble member, describing the scene’s environment. We tossed some ideas back and forth about what the guards were feeling. Were they scared of the ghost? Were they anxious about the increased military activity and its possible implications? Or just cold? “I think they’re setting the scene for the ghost,,” said one member. “[The guards] want to come see the ghost too, so that they don’t feel crazy,” one member said. Agreeing, another added, “Horatio is saying, ‘Now that I’ve seen the ghost, I believe you. But what’s going on with all of this—’” she gestured to the circle— “‘stuff?’”. “Don’t they also wanna know why they’re on guard? Like, is there an increase in security around here?” another chimed in, demonstrating an incredibly nuanced understanding of the text.
One woman said she thought the three men were trying to talk themselves into something. “Is that what’s being said?” another member pondered, “Or are they trying to talking something down?” The first woman said, “It feels like what’s going on in my unit lately [with rumors going around]... People are talking themselves into believing it.” The other woman shook her head. “They’re hoping that something might happen,” she said. “They might just be afraid of what could be next.”
The topic of Julius Caesar came up as we noted a reference made to the famous figure. This, in turn, sparked a discussion about omens. Before Caesar’s assasination, a lot of “crazy stuff” happened, similar to what is happening now with the ghost of the dead king strolling around. The ensemble talked about what this could mean to the guards, who aren’t privy to the questionable situation surrounding the king’s death but are intuiting that something is afoot. One member smiled as she began to speak. “I found this ironic, that they were talking about Julius Caesar,” she chuckled. “I feel like such a nerd right now, but I’m reading a book--Percy Jackson--and they’re talking about the assasination of Julius Caesar. Like, wow.” Other members of the group assured her that, if a nerd she be, then she was in good company. “I’ve read them twice!” a woman across the circle assured her.
Frannie asked the ensemble why the play begins this way. “It sets up the past,” one woman said. “It sets up the mood so, as you go along, you can see what the characters are doing,” said another. Another woman said, “It instantly draws you in,” and another agreed, “It’s just enough background to get you curious and want more.”
After we made it through the whole scene, which includes a lengthy and complex monologue by Horatio, it was time to try it on its feet. Some folks switched out so different people got to hop in and give it a shot. The first run was slow-going, a good part of which was due to the aforementioned monologue. It is worth noting that our brave Horatio was battling a cold and still powered straight through the scene! The woman playing the ghost took her cues from Casper, waving her arms and moaning, “wooooooo!” as she weaved between the other (somewhat confused) actors.
Afterwards, there was some discussion about what we felt like the ghost should be doing in this scene. “The ghost should be quiet, yeah?” said one woman. “They’re trying to get it to speak.” The woman who’d just read the ghost giggled, “Oops—sorry! That’s just what I thought ghosts do.” The first woman raised her eyebrows and teased, “Really? Have you ever heard a ghost do that?” Some felt that the ghost would be completely oblivious to the guards, even as they try to provoke it. Others thought that perhaps the ghost would walk around them, more engaged. We also considered the other characters’ reactions to the ghost. Perhaps Horatio’s monologue was actually him trying (and failing) to logic away his fear? Lots of great ideas were shared, and it seems like we are going to have no problem with text analysis this season.
Time flew by, and we found ourselves with just a few minutes left. We wanted to try running the scene one last time in front of the curtain, where the lighting is darker and we could explore the feeling of nighttime some more. Our previous Horatio tapped out, and a longtime member stepped in to fill the role. From where I sat in the audience, the scene looked spectacular--it was hard to believe that this was only our first day reading. The ghost was silent this time around, walking in from the back of the house and circling the other actors onstage. Horatio pushed her way through the bulky text, clearly frustrated but determined to see the thing to the end. Everyone offstage was just as engaged as those onstage as our final run of Act I scene 1 came to a close.
“That was miserable!” the woman reading Horatio said afterwards about the monologue. It’s written in that halting way for a reason, though. Why? Is there a clue in the dialogue that follows? “I feel like he’s trying to play tough,” that same woman said, “He’s portraying he has all the answers.” Another said, “He’s learning it as he goes.” The other woman added, “They’re really dependent on him to explain everything. So, in every failed attempt, he worries that he won’t get it right.” Another chimed in that maybe Marcellus is just really stupid, so Horatio has to go back and forth between the two guards in that effort to get them both to understand. Someone asked the woman who’d read Horatio what Shakespeare would say about the monologue. “I don’t know,” she said with mock indignation, “but I wish he was here, because I have some questions!”
The staging ideas kept on flowing, as members saw the ghost literally walking through walls—how could we do that? “I feel like every time people come to a show, they see the same auditorium—we use it the same way,” a longtime member said contemplatively. “This time, I wanna do something completely different. I want them to walk in and be like, ‘Am I even in the auditorium right now?’” Others agreed, and we had a quick brainstorm about some potential options. These would all need to be approved by administration, of course, but that same longtime member reminded us of what a great track record we have, and how supportive staff are. We should keep the brainstorm going and see where it goes from there.
“We make magic in this place,” she said.
Friday / September 13 / 2019
Written by Matt
We jumped straight into reading the play today--no time to waste! After our experimentation with the first scene on Tuesday, everyone seemed excited to get down to business.
Act 1 scene 2 is tough--it includes most of the play’s major characters, a couple of big speeches, one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies, and a whole bunch of back-and-forth related to the first scene’s action. It opens on Claudius giving a speech at some sort of official event, and his speech can be a challenge; he uses a lot of formal language and speaks in long, loopy statements that pile images and examples on top of each other. But the woman who read for Claudius soldiered through it, and we were all immediately glad that she was reading! Her confidence made the whole thing easier to understand.
At the end of Claudius’s first speech, we paused for a moment to discuss. A couple of the women broke down the plot: Claudius says that his brother died recently, he married his brother’s wife even more recently, and there’s a whole international incident involving Norway and a mirror-image subplot, so he’s sending ambassadors to his doppelgänger! Whew!
Immediately, one of the women noticed that Claudius gives two reasons for marrying Gertrude, his brother’s wife. “He’s a little bit marrying her because he loves her, but a little bit because he’s looking out for Number One,” she noted. Another put a finer point on it, wondering if the marriage was mostly about projecting confidence. “He knows that [Fortinbras] is coming,” she said, “so he doesn’t want to show a sign of weakness.” A third woman asked, “Is it safe to assume that people advised him to marry Gertrude?,” pointing to a few lines in the text that suggested that it had been other people’s idea. Perhaps, she wondered, this was just what the kingdom wanted him to do. In reply, an ensemble member said she doubted it--she thought Claudius was making that up. “Kings had more power back then,” she said. Another woman nodded, adding, “It feels like he had this plan in place. This seems premeditated.”
We read ahead, introducing Laertes and Polonius and… Hamlet!
“I can see why Hamlet would be upset with his uncle,” said one of the women. “‘Why be sad about your dead dad when you have a new dad right here?!’” she added, sarcastically. “Actually,” she said, “I know this is a tragedy, but I find this all really funny.” Another woman said Gertrude and Claudius seemed really pushy. “I feel like the king and queen just want him to get over it like they have.”
One of our new members brought up Gertrude’s relative silence. Why is she so quiet? “She’s a little lackadaisical,” mused another member. “Something’s not right,” said a returning member. “She’s afraid or something else is amiss,” she added, saying that something about Gertrude’s submissiveness felt off to her: “Is she afraid to speak out?” A couple of the women latched on to this, speculating that perhaps Claudius was intimidating Gertrude or threatening her son. Some people thought on the contrary that Gertrude was quiet out of deference to her new husband. A few wondered whether Getrude and Claudius had been carrying on an affair.
When it came to Hamlet, folks were split again. A new member asked for clarification on Hamlet’s first couple of lines. One woman said she saw the lines as sarcastic, while another saw them as dejected. A returning ensemble member explained how Hamlet’s “too much i’th’sun” line ties to Getrude’s image of the “clouds still hang[ing],” and I followed up by explaining the somewhat famous pun (Hamlet is too much “the son” of Claudius). Even after all of that discussion, however, the ensemble was still divided on Hamlet’s tone. Several members saw him as relying on dark humor to soothe himself, some saw him as more biting and sarcastic, and a few thought that he was too depressed to see his own humor, too dejected to do anything more than a half-hearted attempt at sarcasm. All this from just a couple of lines of dialogue!
When it came to Hamlet’s “Seems, nay it is” mini-speech, though, people were united in their interpretation: Hamlet is sticking up for himself in the face of people who are trying to tell him how to feel. One woman took it a step further: “Do you think he’s saying this for his mother? Like, ‘Sometimes things aren’t what they seem--LIKE YOU! … ‘These are actions that a man might play’ is, like, ‘What are you playing at?’”
Our Claudius soldiered through another long speech, this one directed to Hamlet. This one everybody understood instantly. No need to recap.
“They trivialize the death of [Hamlet’s] father!” exclaimed one woman instantly. (“Thought-burglar!” said another, who had wanted to say the same thing.) “They’re trying to convince him he’s overreacting,” said a third, though she added that it doesn’t seem to be working. Noting that Claudius was preventing Hamlet from returning to college, a skeptical member furrowed her brow and said, “It feels like they have an ulterior motive for keeping him there.” A few people had ideas about that! One woman said, “They don’t want him to go back to school because they don’t want his grieving antics to reflect back on them.” But another disagreed and said they were trying to “put Hamlet in his place.” A third suggested that they might “see his grief as defiance,” and added that a defiant prince could be “seen as a sign of weakness for the kingdom”--she also added that, more than anything else in the scene, Claudius keeping Hamlet from going to Wittenberg suggests foul play. Another woman took it a step further, suggesting that Gertrude and Claudius are plotting against Hamlet. The woman who had started the whole discussion offered a more charitable idea: Claudius wants to keep Hamlet close in case something happens to him, to make sure the line of succession is clear and the prince is ready to be crowned immediately. The discussion continued until one woman offered two explanations: “I think they want to keep an eye on him,” she said firmly, then added “Or maybe they want the cooperation of the people, and maybe the people will support the marriage more if Hamlet does.”
Phew! That just about covers it! As a facilitator, it’s always fun to watch the ensemble getting into a genuine discussion about the text (I didn’t say a word during the whole conversation about Claudius’s motivations except, I think, to note that “people named ‘Hamlet’ seem to be dying at Elsinore,” which didn’t actually add anything to the mix), but it’s especially amazing to watch this group really go at it after an entire season (Twelfth Night, last season) of having nothing to actually talk about in the text. There are so many smart, insightful, and articulate women in this ensemble… it was so great to watch them really dig in!
And that was all before Hamlet’s soliloquy. Actually, the ensemble had very little to say about the soliloquy, compared to the other parts of the scene. I’ve always thought of the soliloquies as the richest, densest parts of this rich, dense text--but I realized after we talked about it that the first soliloquy is quite simple. A brand-new member summed it up perfectly (without, it should be added, any “help” understanding the text): “He’s got two things going on: he’s trying to process his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage. … But he can’t voice his feelings; they’re not validated.” I think that about covers it.
Well, they weren’t quite done unpacking the speech. “He’s madder at [Gertrude] than at his uncle,” noted a new member. “He feels betrayed by her.” Another member added that “He can’t talk to anybody about it… He feels disgusted and alone. When I feel that way, I feel everything he’s saying.” The woman who so perfectly summed up the soliloquy added, “He don’t have nobody to talk to. If he told his mom all this, she’d be, like, ‘This is all about you now, isn’t it?’”
One woman was particularly unsettled by the speech. “There’s a hint of danger here, too,” she said, noting that Hamlet specifically says that he can’t tell anyone his feelings. When I asked about the opening lines, a new member sighed and said, simply, “He just doesn’t want to feel.”
The final pages of the scene bring us back to the first scene: Horatio et al. tell Hamlet about their ghost-encounter. Pretty much everyone proclaimed the scene a pretty good cliffhanger… and also found the scene comical! One longtime member found Hamlet’s quip about the “funeral-baked meats” being repurposed as cold dishes at the “marriage table” so funny that she got an attack of the giggles. “Wow!” she said, trying to catch her breath. “It’s like: Here’s a casket--Bless the departed--Does anyone have objections?--You may kiss the bride!” A woman sitting beside her was similarly tickled by another line: “‘A countenance more in sorrow than in anger’ is the quintessential dad move!”
Lastly, we decided to try the soliloquy on its feet. Two women read it aloud, each bringing something different to her performance.
“I felt like, he’s just all over the place,” said the first, “and he’s just so disgusted with his mother’s actions…. He’s thinking how he wants to die, then, right away, he’s like, ‘That woman!’ … Almost the whole thing is about his mom.” A new member said, “We can relate to this--how we all go back and forth.”
The second woman to read the soliloquy was a longtime SIP member. Her performance was different--more distracted, less angry, less focused. Her Hamlet kept trying to move on and change his thinking, but he was constantly drawn back to the same thought over and over. A returning member pointed this out: “When [she] did it, I realized that he keeps coming back to this one thing: his mom.” The woman who had performed agreed and said that she had been going for that effect.
We had run out of time, so we put up the ring, but it was so nice to spend a whole day talking about this one scene. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season with this brainy bunch--there’s so much to discuss!