Jumping Into the Fire: An Understudy’s Tale

During the extension week of Liesl Tommy’s Hamlet this month, actor Nicholas Pelczar fell ill the morning of the Student Discovery Matinee, and his understudy, Philip Goleman, went on for him.

This is his story.

Everyone said, “Not what you expected when you woke up this morning, huh?” And it was not: It was a whirlwind from the moment (Stage Manager) Laxmi (Kumran) called me to the minute I got back on BART to head back to work after the show.

I must have looked like a deer in the headlights as I was whisked from the green room to the stage for fight call to rework the play’s final fight; to the dressing room to get the down-low on the costumes; to the moment when I finally stepped on stage. Thankfully, I was surrounded by a wonderful, supportive group of actors, stage management, and backstage crew to get me properly through the show.

It’s a show that, from the audience’s perspective, did not seem like three hours—and it seemed a lot shorter from my perspective that day. For me, my favorite moment was coming down through the audience as Laertes, gun in hand, yelling at the King, with the kids in the audience turning to see me and exclaiming “whoa!” as I went down the steps toward the stage. That made the day for me, being there to make sure that they got to see this show and get exposure to Shakespeare.

Going on is not something you expect to happen, especially in the extension week, but you keep alive the idea and the willingness to jump into the fire on a moment’s notice. With a phenomenal show and superb cast and production crew, you know you’re not jumping in alone, and it’s something I would willing jump into again and again.

Pictured above: Goleman with actors LeRoy McClain (Hamlet) and Zainab Jah (Ophelia) after his performance; photo by Jay Yamada.


HAMLET Grove Talk

Click on the arrow below to listen to a podcast of a pre-performance Hamlet Grove Talk, presented by Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Podcast produced by Will McCandless. Hamlet has been extended; the production runs through October 21, 2012.



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.


Death and Revenge in Hamlet

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly on grief and vengeance in Hamlet and beyond.

Painting of Shakespeare's Hamlet and his father's ghost by Henry Fuseli.

Painting of Hamlet and his father’s ghost by Henry Fuseli.

Hamlet returns from Wittenberg to honor his father’s death, and is suddenly confronted with his father’s ghost. Immediately, it seems, he is roused (or provoked) to an act of honorable revenge; and thereafter there transpires all the mix of rage and scrupulousness that drives us inward—along with young Hamlet—to the maddeningly fascinating heart of Shakespeare’s play.

There is, indisputably, this sword of honorable revenge that helps drive us inward with Hamlet; but I would like to call attention also to the meaning of simple grief. Many in the audience know all-too-well what is to suffer the death of a family member—because we are human, and because death is one of those few things (apart from our birth) that remain, quite simply, beyond our direct control. Now think of Hamlet, returning from Wittenberg, with his father long-buried and his mother remarried to his uncle.“Heaven and earth! Must I remember?” Hamlet says. His very second line in the play is, “I am too much in the sun.” Hamlet is, from the very start of the play, cast in a vale of tears, and his new “parents” are determined and resolved to live in the sun. Hamlet tells his mother that he wants to set her up a glass: to see what? To take her out of the sun and into the darkness where he resides?

Hamlet Before King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and Ophelia by Christian August Printz.

I suggest that Hamlet’s inward spiral begins before he ever meets the ghost. It is the fact of death itself that has sent him scurrying inwards—the fact of death itself that has raised up, for him, his own inward glass. Much has been written about the ghost provoking young Hamlet’s inner struggles of “to do or not to do,” “to be or not to be”—but I wonder whether Shakespeare isn’t alluding to the very fact of death itself—its ineluctability, the fact that we cannot un-make death, the fact that we can never have again that person, nor replay the day he died and do the day differently—that resides at the very root of Hamlet’s inaction. Death was a different commodity in Shakespeare’s time (much more common) and kings and princes were different commodities as well. But, even for a king, even for a prince, there is still the very fact of mortality, what it means and how we can possibly cope with it. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, has responded to her husband’s death by doing the first best thing—she papers over the hole that her husband left with a new king and a new husband so that things run along as they always have. This doesn’t mean she does not suffer—it possibly means that she is not prepared, internally, to live with the hole that’s opened up by death if she doesn’t have to. In telling her that he will be her glass, Hamlet is not just saying “Look into yourself and see that you have betrayed the memory of your dead husband by marrying his brother,” but “Look into MYself and see the pain that lives there. I am outraged when I see you pretending that that pain is not there—because I have chosen to live with it.”

I suggest, then, that ideas of loyalty and honorable revenge are—even in Shakespeare’s day—not just codes of internal structuring and mechanics for this, possibly his most famous play. Shakespeare was so devilishly psychologically astute, these codes are something else as well: They are masks for the real, elemental emotions of mortality that strike at the heart of all humans in all times and circumstances.

Liesl Tommy’s production of Hamlet  graces our stage September 19–October 14, 2012.


Ask Philippa: HAMLET Edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes and production dramaturg for Hamlet, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. Hamlet runs September 19–October 14, 2012.

Philippa Kelly

Photo of Philippa Kelly by Jay Yamada.

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!” Shakespeare’s Hamlet apprehends the soaring heights to which human reason and imagination can aspire. He displays a character of enormous depth and range (as well as outlandish humor). Hamlet suggests that he feels the complex effects of his political and personal situation; and yet struggles (as do we all, in different degrees) to understand the forms that this feeling should take. And he apprehends, all too keenly, the depths of depravity to which humans can sink. When all is said and done, what is this creature, humankind, other than a quintessence of dust?

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


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.



A Haunted HAMLET

Blithe Spirit has been such a witty whirlwind that things got a little behind in the Hamlet department around here. As a result, here’s a belated combo blog, featuring impressions from a lunch the marketing department had with director Liesl Tommy, notes from the first rehearsal day Meet & Greet and table reading, and photos from the Meet & Greet. Notes by Director of Marketing Janet Magleby; blog by Publications Manager Stefanie Kalem; photos by Marketing Intern Marivie Koch (view the full set here).

Liesl Tommy grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, with her brother, Kurt (yes, both of them are named after characters in The Sound of Music). She has lost many people in her life—one roughly every ten years—and therefore her ancestors and their spirits are of crucial importance to the director. “I don’t know if I’ll ever stop exploring the way the dead and their spirits effect my thinking,” she told us.  “Even in the production Party People (the story of the Black Panther Party, produced earlier this year at Oregon Shakespeare Festival —ed.) I changed a character—made him dead.”

Clint, Liesl, Philippa

Clint Ramos, Liesl Tommy, and Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly on he first day of rehearsal.

This is the door through which Tommy, her set and costume designer (and frequent collaborator) Clint Ramos, and the rest of the Hamlet team is entering the venerated tale of Hamlet: as if entering a haunted version of Shakespeare’s world, a place where the dead pile up, wherein being a survivor is a position of dubious triumph. Tommy and Ramos took early inspiration from a New York Times photo spread on the abandoned homes of busted Mexican drug lords, then places like Saddam Hussein’s palace and Mike Tyson’s mansion. “We decided the story needed to happen on this emotional level,” said Ramos on the first day of rehearsal. “The set needed to contain violence, confusion, and solitude. We looked at places that were post power, pre-ruin. This is a place that was not allowed to die.” Ramos’ clothes for this production are modern, but not contemporary: Slim suits, long dresses, a palette of grays, blacks, and blues with shots of color. And Jake Rodriguez’s soundtrack will include R&B ballads—music that delivers pure emotion.

LeRoy, Tommy, Kitchens

LeRoy McClain, Liesl Tommy, and Jessica Kitchens (Rosencrantz, back to camera) on the first day of rehearsal.

Hamlet is played by LeRoy McClain, who Tommy has also worked with before, and of whom she says, “I trust him with my life.” In a New York restaurant, she told us, they sat and talked about Hamlet all day—through three consecutive meals. McClain’s first-day script-reading was almost completely from memory, eyes closed but tones smoking with wide-open anger; Tommy’s idea of the title character is poetic and romantic, sad and violent, and—like the empty pool that takes up much of Ramos’ set—unsatisfied. “I love everything to do with water.” said Tommy. “Water is romantic, dangerous, and beautiful.” The pool, she says, is “in a state of unfulfilled function and  purpose, like Hamlet himself.”

“We are going to have an adventure together,” said Tommy that first day of rehearsal. And indeed, we all left the room that day with a combination of anticipatory chills and fevered fascination with this stellar cast and with Tommy’s unique, provocative vision.

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


Ask Philippa: Off-season Edition!

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, shares her thoughts and answers your questions on our upcoming 2012 season programming and about productions past.

Philippa Kelly by Jay Yamada

Photo by Jay Yamada.

Throughout his 20-year writing career, Shakespeare was fascinated with metaphors of rehearsing and scripting: the very things we do in life to re-make the past and to predict and forestall the future. No matter how we might wish it, there is no rehearsal that can prepare us for, or insulate us against, the vagaries of life itself; and there are limitless possibilities for misspeaking our intentions and mishearing what we ought to understand. This is the stuff of comedy as well as tragedy, history as well as romance.

What was Shakespeare doing in the “lost years”, the period immediately prior to 1592? What were his preoccupations when the 35-year-old author wrote Hamlet, at the end of the 16th century? Why was The Tempest one of his very last plays, even though up to that time he was in still in the full vigor of his life and production schedule? Thoughts, questions, opinions about Shakespeare or about any of his plays (they need not just concern Hamlet and The Tempest), are welcome in the “comments” section below. Also welcome are questions about George C. Wolfe and Zora Neale Hurston, whose Spunk we’ll be doing next season, as well as Noël Coward, whose Blithe Spirit is third in the Main Stage line-up.