HAMLET Rehearsal Blogs: The Process or the Product?

Director of Marketing Janet Magleby and Box Office Manager Robin Dolan offer two perspectives on Hamlet rehearsals.

Thursday, September 6, 2012—one week before tech rehearsals begin.

LeRoy McClain as Hamlet, Julie Eccles as Gertrude, and Adrian Roberts as Claudius; photo by Kevin Berne.

LeRoy McClain as Hamlet, Julie Eccles as Gertrude, and Adrian Roberts as Claudius; photo by Kevin Berne.

It was 9:59 a.m. and more than half the company awaited Stage Manager Laxmi Kumaran’s calling of the start of rehearsal.

They began from the top of the scene, where Claudius (Adrian Roberts) and Gertrude (Julie Eccles) enter center-stage with Hamlet’s university chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hot on their heels. The newly crowned King of Denmark wants a report: “How did you find Hamlet? ….With turbulent and dangerous lunacy?” As actors Jessica Kitchens and Brian Rivera began to explain Hamlet’s overall demeanor, director Liesl Tommy stopped them to request that the cast recite this scene in their own words, which proceeded as such:

Claudius: “So, what’s up with Hamlet?”

Rosencrantz: “He was erratic, he was rambling…”

Gertrude: “Well, did you do anything to draw him out? Did you talk to anything that interests him?”

Just as this improv was unfolding Zainab Jah, who plays Ophelia, walked into the space, confused about the lack of “Shakespeare” being spoken. Everyone chuckles, but they kept on rollin’…

Guildenstern: “Your Majesty, Hamlet was talking about Ophelia a lot.”

Rosencrantz: “He seemed happy to see us!”

Liesl ended the exercise by saying that this version of the scene would be funny to keep in the play, a fact on which all agreed. Then the director pointed out something that had been brought out with the actors’ modern speech—that Claudius’ job in that scene is to calm Gertrude’s fears, to let her know that he cares about Hamlet and is doing everything in his royal power to help her son.

As the scene came to a close, Gertrude embraced Ophelia, telling her that she hoped Hamlet would come around, and that Ophelia’s love would help him get there. Liesl reminded Zainab that she should be completely surprised by Gertrude’s permission to love her son.

LeRoy McClain (Hamlet) arrived for his call time and Liesl immediately set him to work the “To Be or Not to Be” speech. Hamlet entered from upstage left to find a stunned Ophelia center-stage, having just received a surprising blessing from his mother. Zainab let Ophelia feel Hamlet’s eyes on her and looked up—and they were frozen in time. She dropped the book her father Polonius (Dan Hiatt) had given her, and broke down in hysterics.

Next….well, I just can’t tell you what happens…you think you know, but you don’t. You’ll have to see it for yourself. —Janet Magleby


Friday, September 7, 2012—less than one week before tech rehearsals begin.

As we head toward designer run-throughs, dress rehearsals, and previews, everyone gets very excited about seeing the finished product: the actual production that will be performed at the Bruns Amphitheater. Many of us also love to witness the process of how the production is created. We all peek out the front window when the actors practice sword fighting in the parking lot. We laugh when we hear pounding on the walls, or screaming. (“Wonder what scene that is? Ah well, back to selling tickets.” ) We love watching the costume department open their daily deliveries of fabric, or the prop department receiving goodness-knows-what. It’s very funny to read rehearsal reports that spell out how much blood will be used and from what body part it will flow. But the most interesting work to me is what I see when I watch rehearsals.

Quietly slipping into watch two rehearsals of Hamlet this past week, I happened to primarily observe scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While no scenes in a Shakespeare play are unimportant, they didn’t seem primary to the plot. However, director Liesl Tommy focused on making sure every element was real. Tommy and the actors revealed nuances in the script, hidden depth in character, and a creative, supportive work environment.

There were two directorial corrections Tommy made that involved the same simple blocking, but brought so much to each scene. In Act II, ii, when R & G initially enter the stage having been summoned by the King, Rosencrantz enters first and speaks. Then Guildenstern pushes Rosencrantz to the side to enter the court. Liesl Tommy instructed actor Brian Rivera to make sure that he didn’t look at Rosencrantz as he pushed her aside. “You’re too nice,” she joked, “Don’t look back at her to make sure she’s okay. Just do it; she’ll get it.”  The act of not looking communicated an understanding between the characters, as well as a slight power relationship.

Next, in Act IV, i, Gertrude explains to Claudius that Hamlet has killed Polonius. Actress Julie Eccles began the scene by looking at the King as she told her story. Tommy suggested, however, that Eccles look straight ahead instead, at the furniture. This simple choice made even clearer how distraught Gertrude was.

It’s a gift to get to see such skilled artists creating a piece. Tommy, at times, would get right onstage with the actors, stretching on the floor to see exactly what they were doing. She and Eccles laughed at how much they wished Gertrude noticed more of what was happening around her. Everyone in the room laughed at a scene where Dan Hiatt used his great comedic skills to simply say “uh” while thinking as Polonius.

In Act IV, ii, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern summon Hamlet to the King’s chambers. This was the first time I saw Leroy McClain perform, and it was clear why he’d been chosen to play the role of Hamlet. McClain made fresh choices in blocking, voice inflection, and emotional communication each time they ran the scene, even after he tripped over a set piece. I also got to see a brief part of scene IV, v, where Ophelia begins to go mad. Actress Zainab Jah was riveting, the kind of performer you can’t keep your eyes of when they’re onstage.

It’s difficult to communicate the richness of observing this work. For me, it builds my appetite to see more of the creative process and product of these artists. While I love the process, I also now can’t wait to see the full production once it is brought to life. —Robin Dolan

Hamlet plays September 19 through October 14 at the stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater. Get your tickets today.


Behind the Scenes at the HAMLET Photo Shoot

Director of Marketing Janet Magleby on the Hamlet cast’s publicity photo shoot with director Liesl Tommy and photographer Kevin Berne.

Last week some of Hamlet’s cast members gathered in the Cal Shakes’ green room, in anticipation of our publicity photo shoot Kevin Berne. Zainab Jah, playing Ophelia, inquired as to costumes for the shoot, since the performance versions are still in various stages of design and production. “I guess we’ll be naked!,” somebody teased her. But the costume department did not disappoint, and were ready for the task at hand with simple dresses for the women, military garb for Adrian Roberts (Claudius), and a stylish, slim suit for LeRoy McClain (Hamlet).

Kevin and his wife, Alessandra Mello, were introduced to everyone by Marketing & PR Manager Marilyn Langbehn. And then it was “places!” and right to work: Hamlet director Liesl Tommy had very specific ideas about the feel of the shoot and the positioning of each cast member. First things first, though, we got some tunes bumpin’—Liesl picked a little soulful R&B, which will have a prominent place on the production’s soundscape.

Zainab, Dan Hiatt (Polonius), Julie Eccles (Gertrude), Adrian Roberts (Claudius), Nick Gabriel (Horatio), and LeRoy were all positioned in standing positions as if on an album cover, Hamlet in the foreground with the rest of the “band” strategically placed behind him. A lightning-fast round of 20 shots or more ensued; then Kevin instructed everyone to “wiggle it out” before the cast is given more direction by Liesl. Hamlet was instructed to look right at me, Gertrude at Hamlet, Polonius to look fatherly, Ophelia to rest her head softly on her father’s shoulder softly…consummate professionals, the actors follow their director’s words to a tee.

The cast of Hamlet; photo by Kevin Berne.

Left to right: Zainab Jah as Ophelia, Dan Hiatt as Polonius, LeRoy McClain as Hamlet, Julie Eccles as Gertrude, Adrian Roberts as Claudius, and Nick Gabriel as Horatio; photo by Kevin Berne.

Liesl, Marilyn, and I watched the laptop as the shots appeared in order. We made note of the ones we liked, whispered our insights, and suggested slight adjustments: Subdue some flyaway hair, smooth a wrinkled garment, et cetera.

They wiggled it out once again, and moved to the next round of adjustments: Horatio stands as if he is waiting for the bus. Then Liesl asked him to put his right hand in his pocket. Then his left. How ‘bout just the thumb hanging of the edge? OK, never mind. Back to the first pose!

We all agreed that we had something beautiful in the 30+ shots, so we released Adrian, Julie, and Dan to change for rehearsals. We kept Nick, Zainab, and LeRoy for more shots.

Liesel “shopped” the prop shop for just the right chair; she has an idea for a solo shot with Hamlet.  She picked up a contemporary, Scandinavian piece (hey, this is for the Prince of Denmark, right?) and sets it center-stage. “Sit here, please LeRoy.” He obliged, immediately starting to position himself in striking poses, with exactly the haunted look you expect from the Prince of Procrastination.

Left to right: Nick Gabriel, LeRoy McClain, and Zainab Jah "wiggling it out"; photo by Kevin Berne.

Left to right: Nick Gabriel, LeRoy McClain, and Zainab Jah "wiggling it out"; photo by Kevin Berne.

Next up was Hamlet with the two people he loved the most (or are they?): Ophelia and Horatio. Zainab sat on LeRoy’s lap with Nick on adoringly looks from the side; serious poses were interspersed with laughing, playing around, and “wiggling it out.”

Then everyone was up and standing for vertical shots: Hamlet in the center with Ophelia on his left and Horatio on his right. Hamlet needs his arm around her shoulder, but where? On her shoulder was awkward somehow. On her neck? The back of her head? Finally it landed gently around her waist. More whispers, more laughter; more moments as the cast continued to gel after just six days of rehearsal.

As we released the remaining actors, Fight Director Dave Maier called Nick over to begin sword fight choreography with Nicholas Pelczar (Laertes, Lucianus). Director Tommy moved onto the next job, carefully hand-setting props on the empty rehearsal hall floor. I can’t tell what I saw her putting out—you’ll want to see it for yourself.

Hamlet plays September 19 through October 14 at the stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater. Get your tickets today.



Notes from the SHREW Meet & Greet

How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon? —Dr. Seuss

The Taming of the Shrew

Yesterday was the first rehearsal day for The Taming of the Shrew, the final production of our 2011 season. And though the last show of the season is always steeped in bittersweet, this one has a sense of triumphant closure to put the anticipation level right over the top. As Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone explained at the start of the traditional first-day meet-and-greet presentation, our 2000 production of Shrew (directed by Lillian Groag) was not just the start of Moscone’s very first season here—it was also the first show that his new Associate Artistic Director, Shana Cooper worked on.

Fast-forward to 2011, and a new Shrew is being created in the Cal Shakes rehearsal hall, directed by none other than Cooper. It took some work to get her out here, said Moscone, but he kept a promise to Cooper that started the negotiations rolling: As he’d sworn to do when she left Cal Shakes in 2004, he want to see her MFA senior show at Yale, Ghost Sonata.

Love's Labour's Lost at OSF

Cooper's recent production of LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST at OSF; photo by T. Charles Erickson

“I wouldn’t be where I am today or be able to imagine worlds the way I do if it wasn’t for my time here,” said Cooper, fresh from a production of Love’s Labor’s Lost at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She went on to explain how she started 2011 with Romeo and Juliet at Yale Rep, and how she also considers Shrew to be a great love story as well—albeit from a far more adult perspective. In her Shrew, the extremities of violence in R & J‘s culture are replaced by extremes of seductive commercialism. Kate and Petruchio are untamed spirits, creatures of authenticity who stand out in sharp relief to the culture of Padua. And in this play, they begin an adult relationship, which is, by its very nature, a challenging journey.

SHREW set model by Scott Dougan; photo by Dave Nowakowski.

SHREW set model by Scott Dougan; photo by Dave Nowakowski.

Her challenge—and that of her cast and creative team—is to re-hear this play, so that they can give that fresh hearing to the audience. Cooper, herself, heard something in our current production of Candida, which she saw this past weekend, that director Moscone had not heard. In the final scene, Cooper heard Kate in the title character, particularly in this passage:

“Ask James’ mother and his three sisters what it cost to save James the trouble of doing anything but be strong and clever and happy. Ask ME what it costs to be James’s mother and three sisters and wife and mother to his children all in one. Ask Prossy and Maria how troublesome the house is even when we have no visitors to help us to slice the onions. Ask the tradesmen who want to worry James and spoil his beautiful sermons who it is that puts them off. When there is money to give, he gives it: when there is money to refuse, I refuse it. I build a castle of comfort and indulgence and love for him, and stand sentinel always to keep little vulgar cares out. I make him master here, though he does not know it, and could not tell you a moment ago how it came to be so.”

Bianca costume sketch by Katherine O'Neill

Bianca's costumes; sketch by costume designer Katherine O'Neill.

Cooper has no doubt that Shrew is a love story, one with a cost. Both Kate and Petruchio are changed by the end, but only Kate is asked to make her compromises public. Recalling a conversation she had with the freshly-married Erica Sullivan, who plays Katherine in our production, Cooper said, “This play is a testament to the great challenges and joys of marriage. At the end of the day, all we can do is turn to our partners and ask, ‘Is the cost worth it?,'” as the couples of Shrew all do at play’s end.

The world of the play, explained Cooper and set designer Scott Dougan, is one in which appearances are crucial. The whole thing is inspired by pop art, from Warhol and Lichtenstein to Jeff Koons and Banksy and beyond—beautiful colors and bright, graphic pieces that are seductive but ultimately prove themselves to be shallow, empty. “Part of what pop art is about,” said Dougan, “is that it’s not real. Everything is repeatable and sellable.” That is the world of Padua—Baptista’s Hollywood Hills-type home is decorated in the midcentury modern style and intersects with a garish billboard; Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson, currently buttoned-down to the nth degree as Prossy in Candida) is auctioned off using giant cardboard cutouts of herself, and rides something akin to a famous Koons creation into one of her lessons.

And this kind of world, said Cooper, “is what makes what happens between Kate and Petruchio even more miraculous.”


CANDIDA Grove Talk Podcast

Philippa KellyPriceless dramaturgical insight into Jonathan Moscone’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, by Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. The music at the beginning of the recording is from “Racer” by Paul Dresher; the music at the end is from “Hallelujah Junction” by John Adams. Podcast produced by Will McCandless.


Ask Philippa: CANDIDA Edition


Top to bottom: Anthony Fusco, Julie Eccles, and Nick Gabriel in CANDIDA; photo by Kevin Berne.

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, shares her thoughts and answers your questions on our 2011 productions.

Written early in Shaw’s dramatic career, when he was about 38 (he would not stop writing till his death in his mid-90s!), Candida belongs to the time of his life when he idealized women as Madonna figures. Not the Raphaelite figures whom he described as dumbly bovine, but the “Shavian” Madonnas, beautiful, quick-witted and hardworking, unafraid to clean sinks and carpets. On a lovely sunny October morning, Shaw presents Candida (his Madonna) with an unexpected choice that comes seemingly from nowhere, and yet which forces her to reflect on her marriage and, indeed, on her whole life.

Are you going to see our production of Candida? Do you have questions or comments about the production’s themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.


Belated Notes from the CANDIDA “Meet and Greet” Event

By Publications Manager Stefanie Kalem

Candida art

This has taken me a while to get around to writing, which is really too bad, as the first-rehearsal “Meet and Greet” event, on July 13, for George Bernard Shaw’s Candida was inspiring, enlightening, and just plain hilarious. Ain’t no production like a Jonathan Moscone production: Our fearless leader explained, cajoled, and delved his way deep into this romantic comedy within minutes.
Below are a few observations with which I walked away.

The Play: Moscone finds Candida more complex and dissonant than Mrs. Warren’s Profession in some ways, even though this is classified as one of Shaw’s “Pleasant Plays.” This play, said Moscone, “could be explosive if it was untied; it could be an opera. It should vibrate energy just under the surface of this content world.”

Julie Eccles

Actor Julie Eccles, who portrays Candida.

The title is ironic, Moscone opined, in that the character of Candida rarely gets to speak for herself. Yet both Candida and her husband, Rev. James Morell, are either loved or hated by everyone else in the play. No one is ambivalent about this seemingly perfect pair—everyone is fanatical over them, and all the characters maneuver around the two, positioning themselves to their best advantage. Appropriately, Moscone called the set “a very complex little chessboard.”

Sets: Moscone’s frequent co-conspirator, Annie Smart, has returned. She designed his productions of The Pastures of Heaven, Man and Superman, and An Ideal Husband (as well as the Berkeley Rep and Broadway productions of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play) so she knew of whence she spoke when she said that, though Candida is written as a classic Victorian drawing room play, a small handful of people on the Bruns stage can be hard to watch if they’re all staying in one place most of the time. So she and Moscone settle on a “room without walls” for this production, similar in theory to Smart’s 2009 Private Lives set. She opened it up, so the audience can see people coming and going.

Candida set

Set model and photo by Annie Smart.

A major source of inspiration for the Candida set is British interior designer William Morris, who was also an activist. His rooms and houses were what we call Mission or Arts & Crafts in the U.S.—very human, handmade, welcoming, which is parallel to Rev. Morell’s character, how his ideas for Christianity and mankind fit together in a utilitarian way. This room is a working room, too, so it will appear to be a very busy office that, at one point, was a parlor, but now is in service to a very busy, in-demand man.

With no walls to decorate, Moscone and Smart decided on a yellowed, parchment-paper backdrop behind a hand-stained, floral-pattered window, imbuing the whole set with the feel of a photo.

Proserpine Garnett

Miss Proserpine Garnett costume sketch by Anna Oliver. Click for more costume sketches!

Costumes: Costume designer Anna Oliver, who designed Nicholas Nickleby andRestoration Comedy for us, explained the creative team’s decision, early on in the planning process, to move the date of the action forward by a decade. The women’s silhouette in the mid-1890s was very aggressive, she said, with big sleeves, tiny waists, and severe hair. In looking for a softer, more sensual shape—in an effort to to “speak the character, not shout it out”—they landed in the early years of the 20th century.

The costumes of Proserpine Garnett (played by Alexandra Henrikson) are of particular interest, in that being a typist was one of the first non-domestic-service jobs widely held by women. Garnett wears slightly masculine dress, with a slightly silly hat to demonstrate that she’s got her own money to spend.

Candida begins previews Wednesday, August 10; opens Saturday, August 13; and closes Sunday, September 4. Get your tickets now!


L. Peter Callender in the News

On the occasion of his appearing in the Stanford Summer Theater’s Homeric cycle, which showcases The Wanderings of Odysseus (an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey), the Stanford blog The Book Haven has posted a lovely piece on L. Peter Callender (pictured at right with Julie Eccles and James Carpenter in our 2009 production of Romeo and Juliet).

“It’s one of my favorite types of theater when it’s done well,” the Cal Shakes Associate Artist told blogger Cynthia Haven, “because of the language, because of the history, the mythology, the depth of character and the depth of passion.”

Read the whole post here.


Amy blogs the last week of PASTURES.

Nearly three years. That’s how long I have been involved in the collaboration which ends its first life this coming week. I have been immersed in Pastures for these last weeks, doing my work while performing, but also letting it have free reign through all my quiet time, my half-awake time, what I call my dream-time, when so many ideas come to me, things to try during the next performance. My body changed over these weeks. I am stronger now than I was on May 1. I know, because I can get up off that platform during the tantrums so much faster that I have time now to see Julie, to focus my rages at her, to send her scurrying out of my line of sight (whereas before…I was just working on getting the heck up off the floor!) Also, I know, because the pillows I fling seem to go so far sometimes if I am not careful…backstage crew says they are taking bets about whether or not I’ll heave the mattress off the platform after the pillows one night…well, maybe closing? Wouldn’t that be fun?!

My experience at the Bruns has been intimate, and expansive, and has stretched me in ways that feel so good, like oiling a creaky joint. And now comes the last week of sharing these stories with an audience. Here lies the rub. How to gently let it go. I always feel as though doing theater is like filling up the gas tank of my soul. I suppose because of my home circumstances, which only allow me to do theater work every so often, I may never feel that professional detachment I see in other actors, which I imagine they use most when the time comes to let the experience go. I will miss Cal Shakes in a personal way, all you in Admin, and Box Office, and backstage, and the interns, and the artists. Jon and Octavio. I will miss my castmates…all the love and chicanery…and most of all I will miss my characters. They have been my constant companions and now will have to be folded away and put in the memory box with the script, the book, the reviews, and some hairpins from Miss Martin’s wig. Phillipa Kelly asked if I would come back to work again at Cal Shakes; yes, I would. It is a truly special family, and I am grateful to have shared this experience with you all.


Pictured above: Julie Eccles and Amy Kossow as Helen and Hilda van Deventer, respectively, in John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven; photo by Jay Yamada.

Belated blog from the middle of the night.

Amy Kossow, Word for Word Performing Arts charter member, has been involved with the development of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven since the beginning. Now, as an actor in the forthcoming world-premiere production, she blogs from inside the rehearsal room. This blog was written in the wee hours of Saturday, May 22.

Hello out there: Up in the middle of the night here listening to the quiet, running lines in my head. Realized I forgot to memorize the coda! That’s what jolted me awake!

Rehearsals are already half over, with two weeks to go before opening. The play is already fully staged and we are in the weedy bit now when we are off book but not quite at speed—heading into stumble-throughs—and it is a time of maximum discovery and growing ownership. Nice. Anxiety always a part of the process, but can be useful, if frightening.

I am shocked that my major choreography (massive tantrums as psychotic child) is on the floor of a platform 12 feet in the air. Holy cow. I am pretty scared up there, but I figure use it or lose it, or both! I also have a good share of the combat—a fistfight with sweet Julie Eccles who then SHOOTS me—and I have my first-ever death fall onto three very bouncy mattresses which propel me hilariously all over, like a big bowl of jello; two wranglers (the amazing Katie and intern blogger Dallas) and Charlie Robinson are on call to stop me bouncing back up and ruining the moment!—spent yesterday morning getting cortisone shots in my 47-year-old crappy knees, of course. Yesterday was relatively low key for me, mostly feather choreography and BBQ mime, though deep backstories are developing into quite the soap opera among us BBQ attendees. We had to be reminded that, uhh, the scene was not about us “extras” per se … Jon (Moscone) doesn’t know what he’s missing. Well, he doesn’t want to know what he’s missing, probably…

My family is sorting itself out without much attention from me. Robin turned 14 this week and has his party today—first one I ever had to miss. boo. He requested physics kits and is building an eternity clock right now. Something innately poetic about him. I was personally more intrigued by the trebuchet. Give me a big machine for hurling rocks! I think every woman needs one!

May as well get up and make his cake. Going to make brownies while I am at it for the theater folk. They never eat sweets of course…

John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven runs June 3-27. Visit calshakes.org for all the details.

Photo by Kevin Berne.

Jim Carpenter wins Best Bay Area Actor award!

Cal Shakes Associate Artist and fellow blogger James Carpenter was just honored by the East Bay Express as part of their annual “Best of the East Bay” issue. Carpenter was lauded for—among other Bay Area portrayals—his roles in Cal Shakes’ Romeo and Juliet (Lord Capulet), Uncle Vanya (Professor Serebryakov), and Richard III (King Edward IV).

“Besides creating fully believable and affecting characters,” they write, “which in itself is no mean feat, James Carpenter can make you look at plays and speeches you might have seen a dozen times anew as if it were the first time….Sure, the play’s the thing, but to make the play all about one minor character’s tragedy for one fleeting moment is a real art.”

Read the whole thing here. And congrats, Jim!!

Pictured above: Carpenter with Julie Eccles as Lord and Lady Capulet in 2009’s Romeo and Juliet; photo by Kevin Berne.