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Posts Tagged William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Though She Be But Little, She is Fierce

In 2015, Kathryn Fumie had played Hamlet in Theatre Unbound’s production of Hamlet, which featured an all-women cast of eight. In contrast, Park Square’s Hamlet is a different adaptation by Joel Sass, featuring a mix-gendered cast of nine. Kathryn plays Hamlet’s trusted friend, Horatio.

“I’d just been pleased that they were thinking of gender-flipping some of the roles. I knew I had a good shot at being cast if more of the characters were female,” said Kathryn. “I can’t wait to be supportive of the role of Hamlet after having experienced the slings and arrows of previously playing him.”

With this Hamlet being set in a contemporary world of intrigue, conspiracy and surveillance, Director Joel Sass had instructed Kathryn in her audition to particularly note the state of tension and level of danger surrounding Hamlet. In such a world, the importance of words is heightened, especially as it pertains to Hamlet. So Horatio would really need to consider the wisdom of telling him about seeing the ghost of his father.

“Think about the insanity of the news! It would be dangerous if people overheard. She may be in trouble,” Kathryn pointed out.

Kathryn Fumie rehearsing as Horatio
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Considering how to play Horatio, Kathryn realized that the bond between Hamlet and Horatio “has to be really apparent and simple.” Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend, but one who understands his place in society; he’s also his only real confidante.

“When two people walk into a room, you can tell that they’re best friends. They’re comfortable with each other. Through a glance, you can tell that both are thinking the same thing at the same time,” Kathryn observed. “Hamlet will always be on the forefront of Horatio’s mind. That will inform how she moves and so on.”

“The main challenge in being in Hamlet will be the time limit,” Kathryn continued. “The play’s just over two hours long. The ferocity of the pace will affect its mood and high intensity. I’ll be juggling a lot of plates and running back and forth. It’ll be like a sporting match, fun but challenging.”

Since childhood, Kathryn has taken on the fun challenge of being an actor. She recalls how, as the youngest of three siblings, she was “so teeny” as a child but persistent in getting family members to watch her put on numerous plays by the bay window of their house.

Much later, Kathryn got her BFA in Performance through the Mason Gross School of Arts, the arts conservatory at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her training was akin to being in the rigorous University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theater undergraduate program. But Kathryn chose to attend Mason Gross mainly for offering the only American theatrical program that gives students the opportunity to train for an entire year at the world-renowned Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

While reflecting on her actor’s journey, Kathryn noted, “Despite the hustle and hundreds of auditions, it never felt like work. I always felt it was leading somewhere. People see you’re in a play but don’t realize the hard work it took to get there. I’m proud of my hard work.”

As with many artists, working hard for Kathryn has also included employment in numerous types of jobs, from salon work to waiting tables. She has also taught theatre arts to children. To Kathryn, all her real-life interactions with people through work experiences are simply an extension of her actor’s training.

First rehearsal meeting for Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Being an actor definitely requires great resilience to endure the ups, downs and in-betweens along the journey. Being female requires extra grit to deal with the additional challenges flung your way. But it is in the rehearsal room where Kathryn feels especially safe to not be judged by gender.

“Women, in general, are expected to be two people at all times. When they walk into a room, they have to worry about whether they are perceived as an adult or a woman. In rehearsals, I don’t have to be one or the other. In the rehearsal room, you’re just expected to do the work well. Everyone’s simply looking for you to do the work and shine.”

The capacity to shine is limitless for this bold woman who made her own lifelong dream of becoming an actor come true. But Kathryn also sees how being an actor “comes in handy in a lot of ways” and how her skills can be applied to other expertise. Her additional interests include politics and social studies. What may that portend for her future? Who knows. But for now, she has aptly landed in the intrigue-filled world of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Directing Hamlet

Joel Sass (in second row) directs Hamlet during a rehearsal. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Having adapted William Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square Theatre this season, Joel Sass takes further control of his vision by also directing it. But he’s no control freak. Yes, Joel has made significant changes to Hamlet. Yet this is still Shakespeare’s play, and he doesn’t lose sight of that. His directorship now lets him share the creative fun of re-imagining Hamlet with others. The result: we get to look at this well-known play from a fresh perspective.

With his director hat firmly on, Joel has held extensive discussions with his production team to conjure up the world that this Hamlet will inhabit. In his words, “The world of our Hamlet will seem modern–without being specific to any one decade or national boundary. Our Denmark is a state of mind versus an actual Scandinavian country.”

With an eye toward inclusivity to inhabit this contemporary world, Joel put together a dynamic ensemble of regional actors of mixed ages, races, genders and opinions. He also purposely shifted the gender of some traditionally male characters to female, hence shaking up conventional power dynamics.

Joel Sass and cast members Kory LaQuess Pullam and Wesley Mouri  look at Alice Fredrickson’s costume designs. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

In a note attached to the rehearsal script, Joel told the cast that they’d “explore our own reorganization of scenes and speeches in order to find a more cinematic ‘drive’ to the plot. So you will definitely find things missing, streamlined and in some cases transplanted. And I’m expecting that as we work together on it, we may find more things to lose, add or shift.” He also welcomed their “ideas about how to best make the language work.” Did all this imply that Joel would give the actors free reign to improvise?

“No,” Joel assured me. “You still need discipline in exploration, or you’ll get lost in your own improvisation.”

As the director, Joel’s responsibilities included identifying boundaries while maintaining the creative latitude for the ensemble’s exploration. For instance, in the big scene when Hamlet angrily confronts his mother Gertrude in her room, Joel had the two actors consider how they’d physically move and interact so the audience could understand how close they actually are as mother and son. Their physicality would be key to revealing a fuller backstory to their relationship that cannot otherwise be captured through the lines in the scene.

The shifts in gender, too, force the cast to examine how characters would interact in light of the changes. Polonius, the male chief advisor to the king in Shakespeare’s version, for example, is now the female Polonia in Joel’s adaptation; Bernardo, one of the first officers to have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father, is now Bernarda; Hamlet’s closest friend, Horatio, was also changed from male to female. What resulting tensions will charge the atmosphere of this play? What performance choices will make sense to enrich the storytelling?

While interviewing several of the actors in Park Square Theatre’s production of Hamlet, I found that, more often than not, they also shed light on the director’s role during auditions and rehearsals. Simply follow our blog to keep learning more!

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.”

The Triple Threat

Joel Sass is the adapter, director and set designer for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

From October 13 to November 11, a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be performed at Park Square Theatre. Not only has Joel Sass adapted this famous tragedy for our Proscenium stage, but he is also its director and set designer. Who exactly IS this talented dynamo who has taken on these three demanding roles for a new production?

Joel Sass has been in the Twin Cities since 1990, working hard to offer AND build up his talents to become the highly respected theatre professional that he is now. His accomplishments are too many to list so here are just some examples: designing and directing on 15 award-winning productions at the acclaimed Jungle Theatre, being resident assistant director as well as designing and performing with the Tony Award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune and co-founding the award-winning Mary Worth Theatre Company. Joel has himself been a recipient of many awards, including a 2007 McKnight Theatre Artist Fellowship for sustained artistic excellence, 2006 IVEY for scenic design on Last of the Boys, 2009 IVEY for overall excellence on Mary’s Wedding and 2007 Alan Schneider Directing Award for national recognition as a freelance director from Theater Communications Group (TCG). Twin Cities theatre critics named him 2002 and 2008 Best Director and 2009 Best Scenic Designer in the Twin Cities. His theatre lab, Mary Worth, was deemed 2003 Best Independent Theatre Company, and the Jungle Theatre was named 2009 Best Large Theater under his interim leadership.

Joel remains a sought-after freelance artist; but as for most theatre professionals, Joel was not an overnight success. I asked him to reflect back on his long journey, particularly to inspire young dreamers, some of whom may be part of the student matinee audiences for Hamlet.

“I had been doing theatre for a long time without realizing it,” Joel said. “I grew up in a rural area without extracurricular activities. So I played in the woods or in the barn. What I was really doing was building stories. I was that bossy kid who organized everyone.”

Theatre was not on Joel’s mind upon entering college at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay (UWGB). He planned to pursue visual arts with the possibility of becoming an art teacher. However, he found the path to be too solitary in nature. He was a collaborator at heart. That’s when theatre tugged at him, and he considered becoming an actor.

“I was one of the lucky ones. Someone told me early on (his freshman year) that I wasn’t a good enough actor,” Joel recalled. “But he recommended that I should look into design or directing.”

That was exactly what he did. And with UWGB being a smaller college, Joel described his experience as “getting to do a lot in his four years” to prepare him for the outside world. Then after college from 1990 to 1993, Joel worked for Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which he described as his “graduate school.” It was like being in a rigorous, practical mentorship.

“But the best way to find your personal artistic voice and approach–there are few invitations for anyone to do that–is to start your own company,” Joel advised. “So I spent years making my own work.” In 1994, he became co-founder and artistic director of Mary Worth Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where he directed, designed and adapted over 14 new works and devised imaginative reinterpretations of classic plays.

“I advise anyone thinking of going to graduate school to first do your own thing for at least three years to see if you can get something going. Find and develop your artistic voice and approach. Then you’ll no longer replicate your teachers. Your voice and approach mature over time, too. Continue to learn. There’s never something that you don’t know.”

NOTE: Look out for future posts regarding each of Joel Sass’ roles for Hamlet.

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