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Joel Sass, the Adapter of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

LONGEST HAMLET: Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play, with over 4000 lines, 20 scenes and 33 characters. Normally, it would take over four hours to perform.

FASTEST HAMLET: In 2008, a 15-minute version was performed by Austin Shakespeare in Texas. That production was called The World’s Fastest Hamlet; and after the show, the four-member cast then did a two-minute Hamlet, followed by a ten-second Hamlet.

PARK SQUARE’S HAMLET: This season, Park Square Theatre unveils a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Joel Sass, who is also its director and set designer. With a performance time of two hours 20 minutes, including intermission, and a cast of nine playing multiple roles, it will be performed for general public and student audiences.

Joel Sass has done several adaptations for the stage throughout his career, including William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Pericles for the California Shakespeare Theatre as well as Pericles for the Guthrie. In 2011, he’d adapted Neil Bartlett’s stage version of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist for Park Square Theatre, following up in 2016 with his adaptation of Dicken’s Great Expectations on our Proscenium Stage. Then he successfully pitched the idea to adapt a shorter version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square.

“I’ve gotten into the reflexive habit of exploring how to do big stories imaginatively and economically,” Joel said. “Hamlet at 4+ hours may be a great experience, but there are a lot of other ways to approach it by being more selective and creative on the story elements. I also wondered how I could manifest the world of Hamlet with less cast.”

The germ of Joel’s idea actually resulted from his conversation with former Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling who’d wanted to do Pericles but could only afford to hire nine actors. Having successfully explored that possibility for the Guthrie inspired Joel to consider a similar approach for Hamlet.

Joel Sass (second from right) in rehearsal with Hamlet cast members
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

“The process of adapting an existing Shakespeare play isn’t as complex as adapting a novel into a play. I already have the dialogue, and now I must decide what comes out and what to change,” Joel explained. “Hamlet is already a play that usually gets some cutting done. The play doesn’t have a definitive version either; there are three or four official versions with variations in plot, language and order of events. I feel that gives me implicit permission to continue to experiment. I needed to decide thematically and plot-wise what I wanted to do to retell the story.”

“I made some obvious cuts. For instance, I chose to lose the geopolitical element between Denmark and Norway, which is not necessary to the heart of the story. And I contemplated this one seriously but decided to take out Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I looked at how the plot flows and felt that the qualities of their relationship with Hamlet could be reiterated in exchanges with other characters. Take the richness implied in their friendship with Hamlet; that could be applied to Horatio.”

Knowing that the play would also be performed for student matinees where the audience may be studying Shakespeare’s longer version, I wondered if Joel had taken that into consideration for his adaptation.

“The value of students seeing theatre is not predicated on exact replication. Theatre is more organic of an experience and art tool than that. Using the tool of theatre is all about how stories are adapted or readapted. What meaning can you get from reinterpreted versions?” Joel pointed out. “The students will know the play enough to know what’s missing. The adaptation will make them more attentive to the material.”

Joel Sass with Kory LaQuess Pullam, who plays Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

With a smaller cast playing fewer characters and mixed-gender casting, Joel’s version of Hamlet will also bring an additional dimension for not just student groups, but all audiences, to ponder. What does it mean, for instance, to have the traditionally male Polonius character now be the female Polonia? According to Joel, audiences will get to explore anew characters that they may have thought they knew well.

“I’ve created a very intimate, more contemporary thriller in this adaptation,” said Joel. “I’ve emphasized the psychology of the characters and intensity of their circumstances, which can be more diffused or drawn out in a longer version. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a compelling, universal story that can withstand numerous ways of distilling events and language. We should want to see different versions of Hamlet.”

Introducing Theatre Ambassador Greta Hallberg

Theatre Ambassador Greta Hallberg
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

In a previous blog post, “The Theatre Ambassadors Program: An Arts Leadership Program,” I’d promised to introduce you to two Park Square Theatre Ambassadors so allow me to first present Greta Hallberg, a senior in Minnehaha Academy. You will meet a second Ambassador in a future post.

Park Square’s Ambassadors Program originally offered only one-year ambassadorships to 10-12th grade students before also giving a two-year option for those interested in continuing. However, a few Ambassadors have wanted to stay for a third year, and Greta is one of them.

While a freshman in high school, a good friend had piqued Greta’s interest in the program, and she joined the Ambassadors during her sophomore year. With Minnehaha Academy being a relatively small school, she loved that Park Square would be able to offer her a more robust immersion in all aspects of theatre than her school could. She would learn about “all things theatre” through personal interactions with a slew of professionals in the field.

“I used to be more one-dimensional in my understanding of theatre,” Greta admitted. “All I knew was acting, but the program changed my perspective on what I may want to do in theatre from my talks with lighting designers, directors, stage managers, and so on. I have a better understanding of what goes into a show, and I’m now more open to my future options.

Another wow factor for Greta was that the Ambassadors Program provided a teaching artist of her choice to hold a workshop in her school, with the expectation that she would do the legwork to coordinate and advertise the event. This perk resulted in a visit by Stephen Houtz, who is a director, music director, actor, composer and vocal coach, to teach “Acting Through Song” in her school.

The community-oriented aspect of the Ambassadors Program was definitely a strong attraction for Greta. Not only did the program outreach to her school community, but it has also provided her with a strong community of theatre-loving peers who can freely and comfortably share and express ideas, opinions and thoughts with each other. That has been HUGE.

“I’m naturally more of an introvert so at first it was intimidating to make connections with people from other schools, but the friendships I’ve made through this program got me out of the bubble of just being in my school’s theatre program and really helped me to branch out a lot,” Greta said. “And each time we see a show together, we meet afterwards for a discussion. The kids are smart and have different perspectives on how they see things. Mary Finnerty (Park Square Theatre’s Education Director) encourages us to be honest about why we liked or didn’t like something, and whatever feedback we give is valued and respected. Mary has even shared our comments with people involved in the show, and sometimes they’ve taken our suggestions. I feel like our opinions really matter!”

Greta steadily became more aware of the interconnectedness in the Twin Cities theatre community as well. She would recognize actors whom she’d met or seen at Park Square Theatre on other stages in town. She noticed that the theatre professional who’d coached her on monologues as an Ambassador was involved in the Guthrie’s Native Gardens.

“I’ve also gained a broader human perspective,” Greta continued, “on how we connect with each other. Theatre creates empathy; it promotes empathy for people with different lives than our own.”

Besides theatre, Greta also has a strong interest in music, just like her mom, who is the band and orchestra instructor at Minnehaha Academy. Greta herself has been in bands and a youth symphony. She prefers the humanities, while her dad and brother veer towards the sciences but are invested in the arts as well. With still one more year of high school left and plans to attend college, Greta has plenty of time to explore her interests. But whatever her route in life down the road, Greta knows one thing for certain; she will always maintain the love of theatre that was further nurtured by her involvement in the Theatre Ambassadors Program at Park Square Theatre.

Stacia Rice Returns

After a two-year hiatus from the Twin Cities’ stages, the inimitable Stacia Rice is back! Now through July 23, you can catch her on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Stage in Girl Friday Productions’ Idiot’s Delight, directed by past Ivey-award winner Craig Johnson. Stacia plays Irene, the enigmatic Russian companion to the unsavory French businessman, Achille Weber, and romantic interest of American entertainer Harry Van.

“My last show was To Kill A Mockingbird at the Guthrie (in 2015),” Stacia said, while discussing her choice of Idiot’s Delight as her return vehicle. “Kirby Bennett (Girl Friday’s founder and artistic director) and I had talked about doing something together in the past, but the stars had never aligned until now. I adore Kirby as a human and a producer, and I’ve loved working with Craig before.”

In fact, Craig had been the director of the first production by Torch Theater, founded by Stacia in 2005. Housed in the Theater Garage at the heart of Uptown Minneapolis, Torch was formed as a means for Stacia to, as she put it, “work with good humans and performers” and, once she’d become a mother, engage in projects that “are worth being away from my children.” Stacia is, indeed, contemplating steps for Torch Theater to eventually return, just as she has.

Some cast members of Idiot’s Delight
(Photo by Richard Fleischman)

But at present, Stacia is focused on her new role in Idiot’s Delight. When we’d talked, she was still getting to know Irene and loving that the character is so mysterious and not strictly defined in the script. Is Irene really Russian? American? Or some other nationality? What is she hiding and why? Nothing was completely spelled out by Playwright Robert E. Sherwood, which left Stacia more creative freedom to flesh out her character.

“It’s always lovely to play a rich character as you get older yourself,” Stacia added. “Irene can sometimes be very over the top. She’s pretty colorful. It’s nice to play a really big, colorful character and find out what makes her a real person.”

Throughout her acting career in the Twin Cities, Stacia Rice has gained nothing but accolades for her powerful portrayals of women. Be sure not to miss her this summer in the Pulitzer-winning dramatic comedy, Idiot’s Delight!

Jamil Jude, We’ll Miss You

Jamil Jude

Park Square Theatre was blessed to have Jamil Jude join its artistic/production team in December 2015 to begin a two-year mentorship with Artistic Director Richard Cook, made possible through a prestigious Leadership U[niversity] – One-on-One Program award of a two-year grant to fund Jamil’s professional development via a mentorship. Jamil was one of only six early-career leaders from all areas of theatre throughout the nation to receive such an award.

At Park Square Theatre, Jamil was given the title of Artistic Programming Associate, and he was placed in the foreground to help the organization remain a relevant theatre in a community with a demographic that will continue to shift towards greater diversity. During his mentorship, he would move forward the theater’s vision to be “intentionally diverse” and practice “radical inclusivity” (both terms appear in Park Square’s website).

Richard Cook

It has been nearly a decade-long journey to prepare Park Square for the 21st century and beyond. This mission was initially envisioned by Richard as he witnessed the impact of live theatre on students, particularly students of color, attending its Education programs. The long journey is not surprising as institutionalized exclusionary practices are difficult to dismantle to be able to support truly inclusionary practices. An organization must have strong leadership support and clear and consistent buy-in both from within and without to be able to broaden its scope.

In his short time here, Jamil especially impacted Park Square by being a skilled connector and unifier, doing the very hard work of fostering trust amongst diverse artist communities and giving generous access to his broader network. He has also provided crucial insights and suggestions to challenge the same old approaches in the theater’s programming and audience outreach. Some changes were made in tailoring post-show discussions for diverse student audiences, making script selections and recruiting and attracting more diverse talent to be onstage, behind the scenes, and as instructors for workshops. All his actions accelerated the impact of making real, lasting changes. However, there is still quite a bit to do even as Jamil’s mentorship comes to an end after June and the Artistic Programming Associate position dissolves.

While Park Square is a top employer of local stage talent, 64 percent of whom are women and artists of color, it still has no core staff (including leadership positions) and just one board member of color. But a few years ago, it created the role of Artistic Associate for the purpose of broadening the organization’s perspectives, and recruited Aditi Kapil, Carson Kreitzer, Ricardo Vazquez and James A. Williams to serve as ongoing Artistic Associates. Park Square has also invited local theatre companies, such as Girl Friday Productions, Sandbox Theatre Company, Theatre Pro Rata and Wonderlust Productions, to become Theatres in Residence and partnered with Mu Performing Arts to produce this season’s Flower Drum Song as mutually beneficial exposure to new audiences.

Currently, Park Square is partnering with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce to create a Community Advisory Board made up of people of color to give ideas and feedback on what types of stories need to be told on stages and who to share them with–in short, to engage in honest dialogue to better understand how Park Square fits within an evolving community. On June 21 from 5-6 pm, Jamil will be a facilitator for “Cocktails and Conversation” in our Proscenium lobby for professionals of color to give such feedback.

Only time will tell what the future holds for Park Square Theatre without the transformational presence of Jamil. It’s more difficult to question and alter inherent biases and beliefs than to organically build from the ground up with that vision in mind the way that a new organization, such as Full Circle Theater Company, can do. It’s more difficult to transform an organization with individuals at different spectrums of cultural competency regarding issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. Any stall into complacency, regression into status quo or backslide into habituated ways of doing things negatively impacts the outcome. Park Square will steadily need to match good intent with continued action to move forward into its total vision.

Jamil himself will move forward to Atlanta, Georgia, where he will become True Colors Theatre Company’s Associate Artistic Director. At True Colors, Jamil will also get to direct a play each year and, for the first time in his career, focus his energy within one organization rather than be, as he described, “split-brained” amongst multiple organizations and freelance projects.

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

While Jamil has certainly left his mark on Park Square Theatre, what many may not know is the wider impact he has also had on the Twin Cities theatre scene since his arrival in Minnesota in 2011. From 2011 to 2014, he worked for Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis’ West Bank as its National New Play Network Producer in Residence and created and facilitated artist/educator-audience discussions as its Free Speech Program Director. Jamil made another strong impression in 2013, receiving the year-long Playwright Center’s Many Voices Mentorship to help Minnesota-based playwright of color hone one’s craft. Within a few years, Jamil had further widened his circle and influence, joining the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Theatre Alliance (2012-16), the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (both since 2014). In 2015, he had founded the New Griots Festival to promote the work of Twin Cities black artists into the future; the festival will return this year at the Guthrie from July 6 to 16. In 2016, he directed the highly relevant and critically praised inaugural productions of Underdog Theatre’s Baltimore is Burning, written by local artist Kory LaQuess Pullam, founder of Underdog Theatre, as well as local playwright Josh Wilder’s The Highwaymen at The History Theatre in St. Paul.

Park Square Theatre and the Twin Cities theatre community will dearly miss Jamil Jude. Not only could he inspire us, but more importantly, he brought people together to get things done. Jamil Jude has left things better than when he’d arrived. What more could we ask for? We are very grateful and wish him well.

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(Note: Be sure to also read the previous blog post, “What’s That Got to Do With Jamil Jude?”)


 

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