I had an image going into it of something epic, something grand, something that would be larger than life. It was none of those things and to be honest I was never disappointed.
Hamlet feels like a milestone in a directors career. Maybe it is just me and maybe I am putting too much emphasis on it but directing Hamlet was supposed to be a big deal. I began to think about it around 2001, after directing Macbeth. The idea of a spectacle that would be breathtaking and unforgettable was haunting me and something I knew I could not enter into lightly. Hamlet is iconic and so well regarded I knew that I would end up with an audience that had massive preconceived notions, both good and bad. Everyone has done it and they have done it in every way possible. I knew I wanted to be different and unique and massive and mind altering and revelatory and it turns out I was only partially right. I have my cast to thank for making Hamlet simple never boring but in so many ways normal.
I think it is safe to say we all as a cast, staff, and theater company came in expecting, wanting to be transformed by and in turn to transform this script into the magical realm of "art." In the process people kept asking about the the concept and the spin and I always tried to have an answer. Sometimes I really believed that answer and thought that the magic will happen... The "art" will come... We will be epic... The cast was game and had the combination of talent and raw passion to believe these words into existents.
"Hamlet himself is played by a tiny woman, how much more edgy could we get?" Our symbolism and concepts were lined up and what happened was utterly normal. Sure, there were multiple dead bodies, a ghost, and a lot of really pretty words but the cast made all of that as easy as breathing. And it was enlightening and glorious.
I need to stop here and properly thank my cast. After the initial moments of "HAMLET!" in all of them, they pulled up their boots and set to work to tell a story. They had so many moments in rehearsal that challenged what we thought we knew about this show.
"Claudius is a pretty good guy." "Maybe Hamlet's dad deserved to die." "Get Thee to a Nunnery is actually intensely romantic." "The Polonius family are just a family trying to keep their head above water." "Everyone is really just trying to help Hamlet." "What Hamlet is saying is "Not to be" is the correct answer, he just never gets the chance."
As we struggled with questions and prejudices during our all too brief rehearsal period, I began to see a cast realize that a colossal battle between good and evil is not what makes this story so powerful. It is the refusal to be black and white, the determination to live in the muddy grey areas that make this story so universal. It is staring us all in the face, all we had to do was listen to the indecision of "To Be or Not To Be" or the search for meaning in this "Quintessence of Dust." Most of all Shakespeare himself was telling us what to do, "Hold a mirror up to nature." Sometimes an honest struggle to get by in the world is epic enough.
Each night during the run I had the pleasure to hear this cast breathe life into words I have heard and read and studied countless times. And what I noticed most about them is that they were simply the thoughts of people with life and death to contemplate and conversations between friends and families on how to survive in the world as a community, facing the same issues that plague us all. How to be a good leader. How to raise a child. How to mourn a lost family member. How to stay loyal to your friends. How to live up to your parents expectations. How to live up to you child's expectations. It was never about how a small girl playing a young boy going slightly crazy in a 1930's mental institution and sees a ghost deals with these problems. It was simply how do we deal with them, right now in the community we know and love.
The best piece I advice I can give someone entering into the Tragedy of the Prince of Denmark is that maybe it is best if we just breathe. Suit the word to the action and the action to the word. Stop trying to be so clever.
Ok we can afford to be a little clever.
"Great because I have been thinking, what if Othello was a robot?!"
From March 2015
The Monsters are now in full Hamlet mode. With three rehearsals under our belt, we have a little more than a month before we start working in the space. My name is Katia Haeuser, I am currently the assistant director and company manager for our production of Hamlet, and I'm also on the board of Monsterpiece. Before the first rehearsal, I sat down with Jessica Cannizzaro, our Hamlet. That’s right, Jessica. Our Artistic Director, Anthony D. Pound, in good ol’ Monsterpiece fashion cast a woman in easily one of the most recognizably male roles in the English theatrical cannon. No stranger to monster fans, Jessie was last seen in our Julius Caesar in 2013. I took a moment to ask Jessie about her upcoming work on the role.
Q: So, what are you most excited about playing Hamlet?
A: It’s funny; when Anthony emailed me, he sent me this email with no subject line, one sentence, like ‘hey I was thinking about doing Hamlet and I was wondering if you’d be interested in, you know, potentially playing the part of Hamlet’. I mean it’s a dream. I remember in college, I was like ‘I’m going to play all of the parts I can play now because once you get into the real world, no one’s going to cast you as Hamlet, as Puck, or as any of these great characters that you don’t think of as ladies’.
There’s just a wealth of amazing male characters that you look at and you’re like “Oh, it would be so great to be cast”…No one else will ever look at me like that, especially me. I’m just short of 5’2”, a small girl. I kind of settled into the thought that I’ll be playing a lot of nice, little, young ladies. So the idea of getting to play something like Hamlet…it’s a dream, and I feel like it’s never not going to be exciting, terrifying, and wonderful.
Q: What do find to be the most challenging or the most frightening?
A: I mean…everything. It’s so known. You open it up, you start to read, and you know everyone’s seen it and everyone’s read it in some context. In some version, but you read it and every speech is just so known. You can’t go a page or two without reading something and going, “Oh man, I feel like I’ve grown up hearing that”, and I feel like I was born hearing “to be or not to be” and all these wonderful, sticky, juicy, lines. That’s both thrilling, and so much pressure. It’s such a ridiculous amount of terrifying pressure because you don’t want to mess up these words. First of all, you can’t, because someone in the audience will go, “actually, if you read the Arden edition…” You just can’t improvise it. Beyond just the words, which are brilliant, it’s such a colossal figure to try to step into.
Q: How do you think you being a woman playing Hamlet will affect the rest of the cast and the audience?
A: I went into the first read through being so scared, because everyone’s going to read the cast aloud and think ‘wait, sorry. I think you made a mistake, she…her…really?’ So there is that pressure of what happens when the lights come up. People come with an idea in their head of who Hamlet is, and I would love for my performance to speak to the person whose idea has always been Hamlet played by a small girl…I’m trying to figure out if gender is a constriction and if I can overcome some very obvious physical barriers.
Q: Are you playing this any differently emotionally? Is there a lens you are looking through?
A: Yes and no. In a way you have to have some kind of a different approach. You can’t just walk in and say I’m a little girl, playing Hamlet, and that’s fine, and there will be no issues overcoming that. It’s not that there’s something to overcome, but there will always be those moments when you call Hamlet a she, and then you say,
“Oh no I meant he”. I’m sure there will be little issues like that, that crop up here and there.
The beautiful thing about Shakespeare is that the text is so ridiculously gorgeous, especially Hamlet is just, the imagery is so, not to sound like a total nerd, but it’s so wonderful and rich and full of these beautiful words…words, words, words, that gender you know, male or female or whatever lens you’re trying to look through or approach you’re trying to take; you get these wonderful words you can just start with. Stripped of everything else, you have an amazing play; so I’m excited for that. As I become more nervous as the process goes on, or as I try and tackle all these problems, I know at the end of the day we can always come back to those wonderful words, words, words.
Q: So, it's been a few weeks since we last spoke. How is it going so far?
A: Opening weekend was a wonderful success! So terrific to see so many loving, supportive faces in the audience at each show. We are right on the precipice of jumping into our extension week, and I couldn’t be more excited. Get those tickets today, and join the cast after the show for a beer!
Q: What are some of the challenges you've faced in rehearsal?
A: Overcoming my own fears. Attempting to say “To be, or not to be,” without thinking too much about the countless other times those words have been spoken and immortalized across the world. Trying to stage-fight former firefighter Alex Pepperman (Laertes) and win.
Q: What are some of the pleasant surprises you've encountered?
A: Learning that Hamlet is just like us! He just sees more ghosts. And causes more destruction. And speaks in more soliloquies. Oh wait, he’s nothing like us at all.
Q: Turning to the gender question. Have you found it difficult playing Hamlet from the perspective of a woman?
A: No, since women are generally smarter and prettier than men. Oh, you want a real answer? Okay then: Yes, always, every single day. And at the same time, no. Though the role as Shakespeare wrote it is at times unquestionably male, it is moreover unquestionably human. These words cry out across the pages of time, fly above the weight of the centuries, get recited over and over at school and scribbled into the margins of marble notebooks that are artfully doused in Crayola. Hamlet plays to our rawest emotions and speaks to the deepest kernel of truth hidden inside of each of us: when we are most scared, when we are most happy, when we don’t know where to turn. Whenever I find it difficult to be a girl playing Hamlet, I strip everything else away and return to the honesty, transcendence, and humanity of these ridiculously, stupidly, insanely beautiful words.
Q:What do you look forward to coming into rehearsals every night?
A: Getting to play with some of the most supportive kids around town. No matter how my day is going, I know that when I walk into the rehearsal room, I will be greeted with laughter and love. These kids are hilarious and talented, full of cheer and creativity, and they bring every ounce of that spirit into every single rehearsal. Opening up the script each night with these kids is a new adventure, one that moves me the way wind moves through leaves and puts my mind at ease like a cool drink on the hottest day in August. I can always depend on the brilliance and support of this talented cast, and that is a lovely thing to look forward to each night.