Like most, I think I pulled together what would eventually be the personality of my current young adult life when I hit adolescence. I say this because my fascination with comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Trek, and (through Star Trek) Shakespeare began in my first two years of high school. It was like an explosion of off-beat geek culture that would form the foundation of how I would interact with art forms (specifically Theatre) going forward.
I remember doing my best to perform Macbeth’s “dagger of the mind” speech for a Freshman acting class (I thought I did okay at the time but something tells me that 14-year-old me was probably out of his depth). I didn’t always understand what I was saying but Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Picard read Shakespeare and he seemed to know what he was talking about so I kept at it. I read all of Macbeth without really understanding it and got halfway through Hamlet when it really clicked. You don’t have to understand all the words of Shakespeare to get him, reading his words out loud and feeling them out, it’s like magic. It holds a special place beyond the precise minutiae that modern theatre can rely on because the text is the humanity, not the subtext. We know how Hamlet is feeling because he will turn to us and tell us and we’ll understand him because we’ve felt what he’s felt too. It has nothing to do with understanding what a “Hyperion” is. The sound and flow lead you to the humanity.
All that being said, I participated in a grand total of one Summer Shakespeare production in high school: 2014’s Romeo and Juliet. I had just graduated and was fresh off a different Shakespeare play at another high school (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a show that seems to bond a lot of young Shakespearians). I was cast as Romeo’s loquacious friend, Mercutio, and it is to this day one of my personal favorite roles. Due to the nature of the program, I don’t know if I had ever been more versed or researched in a role beforehand. I had spent a summer with Romeo and Benvolio so it was hardly a challenge to portray friendship with them onstage and even though I was very late to the game and from a different high school than most, everyone was extremely welcoming. Stepping into an Assistant Director position, this culture of friendliness has not faded.
I can think of fewer things more personally rewarding than spending a summer working in Theatre. It is in its very DNA as a communal artform. It celebrates growth and development between the people who engage in it; growth between actors, technicians, directors, and audience to make a meaningful meditation on what it is to be human and all the messiness it entails. All art does this but Theatre is one of the few that truly exists in the moment between people. This fleetingness is part of its beauty, one that lies in its “limitations.” Limitations that literally can’t be in film or television due to their archival nature. They are meant to be re-watched exactly as they happened. But that one groundbreaking rehearsal that myself and the other directors of this project might have with an actor will never happen again, not with the same flavor or pitch that it would. The audience that cried at one soliloquy might not be able to tell you why later, but what is important is that it did. Technicians and actors build a world sp the audience can understand their own souls at a safe distance. The job of the directors is to make sure the cast and crew are already reminded of their own humanity in the meantime as the show is put up on its feet. This task of emotional focusing is especially important in a piece like Hamlet.
Hamlet holds a potent place in the minds of literary culture as a whole, let alone Theatre artists. For high school students to step forward and literally ask for the heritage and weight of one of the most celebrated works in human history is something you can’t demand or force, it’s something these students have volunteered for out of their own passion. Each of them decided to undertake this project for their own reasons and I doubt it was because of Star Trek and Dungeons & Dragons like me. We come to this production for a variety of reasons but what unities us is the play. In other words, William Shakespeare is one of the oldest artistic matchmakers around, inviting us all to come together and share in this experience. All of performance: Shakespeare, storytelling, Hamilton, Days of Our Lives, all of it came from the place of people sitting around and wanting to share something with each other. So when opening night comes around (maybe faster than some of us expect) just remember that as you’re sitting in our little storytelling circle, you get to be a part of this Summer Shakespeare program in just as meaningful a way as any actor or director. I look forward to sharing with you.
Hamlet runs July 20th, 21st, 22nd, 27th, 28th, and 29th at 7 pm and the 23rd and 30th at 2 pm at the Appleton North auditorium.