Tuesday / October 29 / 2019
Written by Emma
Tonight was our first “real” session since adding about ten new members to our ensemble, and dang was it a good one! We all circled up in the auditorium, reminding one another of our names as we got ready to check in. One of our returning members quickly told a new member what these check-ins are about: a time to informally update the group on how you’re doing, with no pressure to participate if you don’t want to. After lowering the ring and getting a few quick updates, we got right down to business.
A returning member enthusiastically suggested that we start off the night with a game of “This Bottle is Not A Bottle” to get our creative sides warmed up. She explained the game to the group. The object of the game is to pass an item--a pen, a drumstick, or whatever is available--from person to person in a circle. Each person will declare what said object “is” before passing it off to their neighbor who has to interact with whatever imaginary thing you passed them, before changing it themselves and passing it to their neighbor. So, for example: “This Sharpie is not a Sharpie, it is a lion tamer’s whip!”
We went around the circle two times, all in all. Some of our items included: a guitar, lipstick, a cat on a leash, a fish, and the Declaration of Independence. As with all of our games, participation is completely voluntary, but we were pleased to have a quite a few newbies join in. Once that game came to a close, the same returning member asked if we could play “Wah”. “Wah” is a goofy exercise that involves dramatic pointing and, you guessed it, saying the word “WAH”. It is tough to put into words, but suffice to say that it is a great intro to get folks used to taking up space and making sounds--two things you need to do when performing. Due to all of the newbies, there was one slight modification to tonight’s game: “No one gets out!” We spent the next few minutes Wah-ing around our circle, laughing and loosening up before getting in to the text.
After a brief refresher on where we are at in the play, we dove in with Act IV scene III. In this scene, King Claudius is asking Hamlet what he did with Polonius’ body. Hamlet responds with some acerbic remarks and whitty turns of phrase, telling Claudius just where he can find Polonius. “He’s sayin’ if he’s not in heaven, check in hell--that’s awesome!” one woman said. At the end of the scene, Claudius sends Hamlet to England and secretly arranges for him to be killed upon his arrival (which is SO Shakespeare of him).
Once we were done reading the scene, one of the returning members congratulated a first-season member on the performance she gave reading for Claudius. “Good job!” she enthused as she started a round of snaps. Lauren asked the group what was going on in the scene, and if we had any thoughts or feelings about what was going on here. Spare a few remarks, the circle was quiet, so we moved on with reading Act IV Scene IV.
4.4 finds Fortinbras (Prince of Norway) on his way to invade Poland. Fortinbras, who has also lost his father and is seeking revenge for his death, mirrors Hamlet in many ways, though they differ significantly when it comes to the action they take (or don’t). When Hamlet crosses paths with Fortinbras’ army and hears that they are planning to engage in bloody battle over an insignificant piece of land in the name of honor, he is shook. He contemplates how many people will die for reasons unrelated to them, and how he has yet to take action against Claudius. He ends the scene by vowing to avenge his father with bloody action from this point forward.
“It feels different--he’s actually having a conversation,” one ensemble member said, describing how Hamlet feels changed in this scene. “He’s still in the middle of his existential crisis--questioning revenge, but that’s all that’s motivating him,” a new member intuitively stated. Agreeing, another member added, “He’s reasoning with himself.” We talked a little bit more about Hamlet, and then one woman piped up, “What’s [Fortinbras] fighting for?”
This question opened up some rich discussion surrounding the characters of Hamlet and Fortinbras. Some of the newer folks admitted that they were (understandably!) fuzzy on was going on. “I’m confused by all of this!” one new woman exclaimed. We took a time out to talk a little bit more about each character’s motives, role in the play, and personal history.
With everyone more up to speed, we started working the scenes we had read on their feet. As folks got in place to read the scene, a quick-thinking returning member grabbed two chairs and placed them in the middle of the stage, explaining how they could be used at any point if the actors so chose. One of our new members took the hint. Reading for Claudius, she stepped out on to the stage, speech loud and clear, and put her foot proudly up on one of the chairs. The overall effect was excellent! An entrance fit for a king, surely. We made our way through 4.3 and 4.4 with a healthy mix of new and returning folks reading.
“There’s so much you can do with Hamlet’s character,” one returning member said. “I wish I could learn all them lines.” Another returning member smiled as she turned to her and said, “You’re on ten today!” On ten, indeed! This returning member was opposed to the very idea of a speaking role this time last year, and now she is talking about Hamlet’s character. This comment led to some deeper discussion of Hamlet--in particular, how he is being treated by his friends and family. Some returning members were explaining how Hamlet’s love interest and friends had all been sent to discover why he was acting crazy, when another woman interjected.
“I don’t think he was ever crazy,” she said. “He wasn’t playing crazy, either. I think it’s all real. I think they want to convince him he’s crazy!” She spoke clearly and firmly, addressing the whole group. “We’ve all felt rage, but it’s not crazy--it makes us do bad things, but I think we’ve all done that. At this point, Hamlet’s not buying anything,” she said with a faint smile. “Hamlet’s gonna do what Hamlet’s gonna do.”
As we discussed Hamlet in 4.4, one of our new members piped up. “He’s literally lookin’ at this dude [Fortinbras] all tough, and [Fortinbras] doin’ somethin’, and [Hamlet] isn’t doin’ nothin!” She continued, breaking down how Fortinbras’ action was making Hamlet feel insecure. As the conversation moved on, she continued to flip through the book, reading. A few minutes later she spoke up again: “I was reading the first part, and [Hamlet] is going through it!” People around the circle nodded in agreement. “I don’t think he’s trippin’. I think the mom and the king have some conspiracies. He’s valid, and if that behavior makes him seem crazy, you don’t know what crazy is.”
This new member was on an absolute roll! “Do you think the ghost is his thoughts?” she added as an afterthought. Eyes widened as we started discussing this possibility, that King Hamlet’s ghost is just “[Hamlet] reassuring himself.” Another new member chimed in, “The ghost is his way of thinking ‘You’re seeing it this way’.”
We could have kept at it for a lot longer, but unfortunately, our time was up. It’s going to be exciting to see all of the gifts these new members will bring!
Friday / November 1 / 2019
Written by Kyle S.
Today was my first session with the newer ensemble members folded in, and the energy in the room was joyful - and contagious. We started slow with a few check-ins and passing out scripts to the new members. Then to start us out, a returning member suggested a rock-paper-scissors style game to get everyone pumped up to move forward in the play. The concept was that everyone started as an “egg” and to evolve, you had to win in a game of rock-paper-scissors with another “egg.” If you won your round, you evolved from an “egg” to a “T-Rex” and had to compete with another “T-Rex” to level up again. It went like this until you evolved to a “farmer,” then a “business woman,” until you reached the peak of evolution: Beyoncé. The game got everyone laughing, moving, and engaging with new folks. I’m sad to say I was one of three who was never able to make it to the “Beyoncé” level...but everyone helped me through the loss.
With everyone hyped up on that Beyoncé energy, we dove in to Act IV Scene V. This scene sees the rebellious return of Laertes, who has been away in France. He returns to his father, Polonius, slain and his sister, Ophelia, gone mad with grief. To avenge his family, he storms the castle, trailed by a mob of followers, to confront Claudius who he believes responsible. The consensus from the ensemble was that Laertes is coming in and demanding answers, and that he’s going to give Claudius a run for his money. As one newer member said: “He’s kinda my hero. I’m gonna name my dog after him.”
The meat of the scene, though, and what spurred the most conversation in the ensemble, was Ophelia. We see her in the scene having gone mad with grief and calling out Claudius and Gertrude for their parts in the tragedy that has befallen everyone in the play. One of the returning members wondered if her madness was genuine, or if Ophelia was taking a page out of Hamlet’s book by tricking everyone. One of the newer ensemble members followed up by saying it makes sense that she has lost herself, having “lost all of the men in her life.” Having lost her father and having been abandoned by her love, she wondered if the return of her brother could save her “before it’s too late.” I think one of our newer ensemble members summed it up in the clearest way possible: "She's in her feelings."
When the group put the scene up on its feet, they extracted all the humor they could out of a very dark and twisted moment. Our Gertrude for the day lightened it up with reactions to the chaos of Laertes’ and Ophelia’s entrances. The woman who played Ophelia used the entire space to her advantage, rolling around on the ground and using her fellow actors as props. When another woman asked to see a little more sadness in her madness, our Ophelia gave us a haunting mixture of laughter and tears that brought it home.
As one of the returning members mentioned to me at the beginning of the session, the special thing about doing Shakespeare with a group so new to it is that nobody is weighed down by any preconceived notions of what “needs” to be sad, or serious, or dark. As we head to the end of the play, and move towards the heaviest moments yet to come, it’s refreshing to see the ensemble holding tightly on to the humor between the lines.