Airborne Weaponized Poetry

Well, here we are. I’ve made it through the first week of Hamlet rehearsals. I shouldn’t really say “made it through” like it was a trying trek through the jungle. The first week of rehearsal is usually one of the most enjoyable for a director, as I finally get to hear the team I’ve assembled start speaking the words that I have spent so much time in studying and preparing.

However, today I want to talk to you about what happens when those same words struck me as a surprise. When I heard them, and was completely unprepared for what they would do. Today I want to tell you about the day when I decided I had to direct Hamlet.

The story starts two years ago after I had just finished directing Macbeth in Priest Point Park. At the time I was feeling very down. The rehearsal process for Macbeth had been very trying, it was like a trek through the jungle, and I was at the point after a hard journey where I wasn’t sure what the next step was. It was at that time I received an e-mail from North Thurston High School English teacher Kirsten Bennett. Kirsten, who teaches Shakespeare at NTH to her Juniors and Seniors, had liked Macbeth, and wondered if I would be interested in coming in and working with them for a day. They were working on Macbeth, so it seemed like a pretty natural fit. I came in, fully expecting to have to spend 55 minutes talking to them about a play I was feeling pretty burned out about. I was not thrilled, but I was about to be surprised.

It turns out that Kirsten is not what I would have thought of as a normal English teacher. As soon as I got there she had her students on their feet performing scenes from the play. She asked me if I could coach them to help them better understand what they were saying. Coaching actors? Attempting to make Shakespeare active? Speaking over analyzing?

I realized that I had found a kindred spirit with Kirsten.

So, I rolled up my sleeves, washed away all of my mopey thoughts about the play, and dove in.  And I had a blast. We spent the whole day playing, trying out the text, and seeing if it could help the characters accomplish their goals. Pushing and poking other characters with 400-year-old words. At the end of it, I felt completely re-invigorated. All of a sudden, I loved Macbeth again.

So, what does all of this have to do with Hamlet?  A year later I was asked to come back, and this year she was teaching Hamlet.  We worked on the same things; we broke down the text, and tried to use it in the smallest digestible chunks we could. I remember spending 10 minutes with a student trying to make Hamlet’s line, “You are a fishmonger” into the meanest, nastiest insult man had ever come up with. We took small snippets and tried to give each line its due weight, and I marveled as these young, ambivalent towards Shakespeare high schoolers found an amazing level of activity within the text. In the course of 55 minutes they showed me how Hamlet could be snappy, biting, nurturing, forgiving, and mean. I loved the mean. I loved how across the span of hundreds of years, these students could still recognize when someone was being insulting. The play came alive, and I was an amazing thing to see.

I realized that this is why I love Shakespeare, and acting in general. I love when words are realized as tools. I love that symbols on a page can represent a struggle, and show conflict. I think when properly read Shakespeare can be compared to a play-by-play breakdown of a boxing match, just as easily as it is compared to great poetry. It just takes a little digging , but less than you think. The students had reminded me that each of these characters wanted something, and were using their words to get them. Hamlet has beautiful words. Words that move us, make us think, and are in fact so powerful and memorable that they have warped our very language around them. But it’s when they are weapons, when two actors are playing the game inherit in them, that I think they are at their most powerful. When we can see the human in the words, and recognize the struggle the speaker is going through, that’s when I get really excited.

So that’s when I decided to do Hamlet. I figure that if a group of seventeen-year-olds can create something as moving as what I saw in 55 minutes, then the sky is the limit for what a dedicated group might do with several weeks. We’ll see if I’m right.

-Austen A.


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