Hamlet: Smells Like Tween Spirit

McGee working with students on tableaux creation.

Part One in a new series by Marketing Intern Katie McGee as she participates in a Cal Shakes classroom residency.

What does Hamlet have in common with a group of middle schoolers? MAJOR angst and uncertainty about their futures. Right? Except the middle schoolers (5th-8th grade) at Northern Light School in Oakland seem unbelievably unangst-ified, thoughtful, and quite sure of themselves. They ask provoking questions, make bold plot predictions, and are willing to take risks.

Guided by their fearless leader, Cal Shakes Director of Artistic Learning Trish Tillman, these bright young tweens are beginning a 12-week journey into the depths of Hamlet. At the end of their journey, they will perform an abridged version of the classic Shakespearean tragedy. Lucky for me they eagerly invited me to join their exploration.

To start, we studied a word cloud compiled from the play’s text. From this, we made plot predictions: “Hamlet gets married!,” “The clown kills Hamlet!,” “There will be madness everywhere!,” etc. While predictions shot around the group, I was reminded of how gratifying the unknown can be. Where will life take us? What role will I play? What will be the stakes? Our imaginations were revving up and we were raring to get on our feet.

To warm up our bodies and to practice connecting text with movement, we physically expressed nouns, verbs and adjectives.  My partner Isabel and I had some shining moments portraying a “waterfall” and the color “blue”.

With our actors’ tool kits (body, voice, imagination, focus, and collaboration) in tune, we were ready to dive into some intense tableau creation. Each tableau was inspired by a key plot point and paired with a pertinent quote from the show. Together these tableaux formed an abridged and highly entertaining Hamlet. Students confidently portrayed anything from a queen doomed by poison to a curtain veiling truth.

After the last tableau performed, we were 15 minutes over on time. Students were wiggling in their seats, not because they were ready to leave, but because they were eager to continue the activities and exploration.  Who can blame them? I mean, Hamlet speaks to the ghost, escapes on a pirate ship, stabs his girlfriend’s dad, murders his uncle to avenge his father… Need I say more?

I am truly looking forward to observing the artistic wonder and creation generated by these students over the next few months.  “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. These students are not fearing to attempt new things on this project and marvelous educational growth is already appearing.

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