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TBA Online: News & Features: April 2016

Mark Jackson’s Hamlet at Shotgun Players

Monday, April 11, 2016   (0 Comments)
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By Kathryn Roszak

Imagine memorizing the entire text of Hamlet, drawing the part you’ll play from a hat a few minutes before you go on stage, and then the next night acting in Who’s Afraid of  Virginia Woolf? Sounds like an anxiety dream, right? But that is exactly the task facing the actors in Shotgun Players’ 25th season, which features the agonies and the ecstasies of performing five different plays in rotating repertory: in addition to Hamlet and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? actors will take on The Village Bike by Penelope Skinner, Heidi Shreck’s Grand Concourse and Caught by Christopher Chen.

Of course, Shotgun’s Hamlet isn’t just any Hamlet, but a “roulette” version where roles are assigned afresh each night. At the helm of this grand experiment is director Mark Jackson, who explains the casting concept simply: “Everyone must rehearse everything seven times. Everyone must know the entire play.” With a cast that includes El Beh, Kevin Clarke, Nick Medina, Cathleen Riddley, Megan Trout, David Sinaiko and Beth Wilmurt, this means that a middle-aged man, for example, might be playing Ophelia one night and Polonius the next, and an African American woman might be playing Hamlet. Shotgun will hold 14 previews to ensure that everyone is rehearsed, but the shows are ruled by the luck of the draw, and an actor may never play Hamlet during the actual run. 


Beth Wilmurt, Nick Medina, Cathleen Ridley* and Megan Trout in Shotgun Players' Hamlet. *Member AEA. Photo: Pak Han


Is the “Hamlet roulette” idea original? “I’m not a big believer in originality,” says Jackson. The concept, according to him, came up over drinks; the initial idea was to have 10 actors rehearse for two years. While Jackson is not rehearsing for two years, the cast did hold a workshop last October, tightening the script down to 2.5 hours. Jackson also has innovated new techniques to spur his cast towards discovery—including what he calls “schizoiding,” where one actor speaks lines from the text, such as “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” or “To be, or not to be,” while another actor explores movement at the same time, responding to what s/he hears. There can be a third outside actor observing while the other two actors are working.  

Then the group selects one movement from what they’ve seen; this movement becomes a part of the staging, and carries meaning throughout the text. “It’s a physical embodiment,” says Jackson, “and all the actors share this gesture—which is simple but potent.”

Because each cast member is immersed in all of the roles, notes go from one actor to the next, and actors borrow each other’s ideas. “Usually, stealing other people’s bits is taboo,” says Jackson. 


David Sinaiko, Kevin Clarke* and Nick Medina in Shotgun Players' Hamlet. *Member AEA. Photo: Pak Han


Actor Kevin Clarke echoes this. “Normally it would be: ‘Why are you stealing my move?’” he says, “but here it’s okay because we’ve become an ensemble.” Shotgun’s Hamlet is Clarke’s 13th show with Jackson. “He’s a great ensemble director,” Clarke enthuses. “We are not using props—there is a movement solution to all that.”

This is true even of the stage combat, which in this production is realized without swords; Jackson’s rehearsal process focuses on the audience seeing the swords in their imagination. “It’s mathematical,” he says. “We want to see the length of the sword. We are finding the stops in the movement. How you hold your wrist makes it clear.”

Fight rehearsals are elaborate, with extensive physical warm ups, followed by each of the actors performing the same fight, multiple times, with different partners. Sound designer Matt Stines has even created a score of digital clangs played live on the computer for each cast combination. The rehearsal process is challenging for all, with the sound designer and stage manager trying to follow each pair’s tempo as the actors execute the intricate choreography.

The actors’ work is repetitive; they rehearse like dancers by focusing on the moves and letting the acting come later. “There’s sweat, putting the body through it. It’s boot camp, joyful torture, and psychological discipline,” says Jackson. “There is stress and we must surf the wave through 14 previews.”  


Megan Trout and Kevin Clarke* in Shotgun Players' Hamlet. *Member AEA. Photo: Pak Han
David Sinaiko and Beth Wilmurt in Shotgun Players' Hamlet. Photo: Pak Han


Fortunately, Shotgun Players is no longer a seat-of-the-pants operation; in their new, lavish Shotgun Studios rehearsal space in Berkeley, they have room to rehearse multiple cast configurations on the actual stage set of the show. There are still, however, plenty of challenges to navigate. What’s different about this new and complex process, says Jackson, is “our expectations about where we should be. We have to let go of ego and let go of tricks.”  

Another difference, according to Jackson, “is how we use time. We learn more slowly and the discoveries come later. We are dealing with feeling less prepared on stage. Actors can call for lines during a performance. We have learned to be strict with ourselves and generous with each other.” 

This appreciation of the value of time comes from an artist who has spent many years discovering Hamlet. Jackson was 33 years old when he launched his one-man-show, I Am Hamlet. “Now I’m 44,” he says, “and different things are important—introspection, death, friendship. It took several hours just to set the ‘Poor Yorick’ speech. Looking at the skull, there is nothing sentimental about death at all and it’s hard to make simple.” 


Kathryn Roszak directs Danse Lumière. Her choreography was recently screened at NYC's 92nd Street Y. In May, she’s producing Women Ballet Choreographers at Djerassi, Woodside, Ca.