Pith and Moment: Why Hamlet? Why now?

‘Twas 37 years ago when I was smitten by the BBC production of Hamlet starring Derek Jacobi as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius. I was only a high-school sophomore. With time on my hands – several hours after school each day waiting for my father to pick me up at the end of his work day – I began to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquies. By the time I was a senior, I was determined to produce the play and with the support of the English department, I cast the major players and we began rehearsals. Then, Ophelia broke her leg quite badly. While we gave up the production, the attempt was immortalized in our yearbook.

For some time afterward, I fantasized playing that role. Alas, time got the better of me. In my mind, the character of Hamlet should be around 25 years old, give or take. Depending on youthful exuberance, the actual actor’s age could range perhaps between 20-35 years. I don’t want to see a 40-year old prince pining for young Ophelia. Those two characters, especially, should be young, naive, and inexperienced to be countered by the sagacity of older parental influences such as Polonius, Gertrude and, dare I include him (yes), Claudius. All the more their youth makes their untimely ends even more tragic. And now, as I look in the mirror at my balding head and gray hair, I realize that I will never, never be Hamlet.

I realize now that I not only wanted to be Hamlet, but I wanted to share my vision of the play as a director. And just as I founded the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society at the beginning of this year, it came to me: the inaugural play we produce will be Hamlet. “Wait,” I thought. “There is something better than a production of Hamletan all-female production of Hamlet!

In Shakespeare’s times and for years after his death, all of the roles in his plays were performed by men. Just recall some of the acting companies of the period. As Peter Akroyd writes in his biography, Shakespeare, “In the seasons from 1583-1586, at least eight sets of players performed in the guildhall at Stratford – among them the Earl of Oxford’s Men, Lord Berkely’s Men, Lord Chando’s Men, the Earl of Worcester’s Men, and the Earls of Essex’s Men.” The boldface is my emphasis and it should be evident why. Much of the world today remains patriarchal. However, in more than 400 years since those days of all-male players, the intelligent people of the world have awakened to the notion that one’s power and abilities lie not in the sex of the individual, but in the will to bring an internal passion to the external world. Of course, men and women are different biologically, chemically, and emotionally, but both sexes do have (should have) equality in opportunity.  I can only imagine what is was like to watch all men, in play after play, portray both sexes. Surely the story, Shakespeare’s poetry and prose, may be conveyed in earnest and received by a captive audience. What was the synergy of an all-male cast performing Shakespeare? Enough. I’m directing an all-female cast not to counter the sexism of the past or present, but for the singularly amazing opportunity to see what the synergy of an all-female cast can bring to the dark and tragic tale of the Prince of Denmark as told by William Shakespeare. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I resonate more with women than men. If anything, it should make directing it easier. (PS: The prop skull of “poor Yorick” will, alas, be modeled from a female human skull! )

In embarking on this journey, I have had a resounding personal breakthrough. The reality that I have been living as Hamlet for over 37 years has crystallized. We share the same fatal flaw: inaction, or more accurately, thinking to the detriment of resolution. I overthink everything, examining both pros and cons. This is a good attribute when there is a high risk of value loss, say life or limb. However, over-thinking and, even worse, anticipatory anxiety that results from mulling over the possible negative results and subsequent reactions, can just suck the marrow out of life. It leads to depression.

“And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”
– Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

“Well,” I say, “I am Hamlet no more! “ With this enterprise of a directing an all-female Hamlet I am shattering that crystal and finding catharsis. The currents of my pith and moment will not turn awry. Nothing will diminish my internal passion. This product of unabated alchemy will be an epic experience for Orcas Island and the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society.

It is often said: don’t think, just do!

Let us commence!

OISS, a nonprofit is born on Orcas!

In the fall of 1981, I was smitten by the BBC production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Derek Jacobi as the Prince of Denmark and Patrick Stewart as Claudius, so much so that I began memorizing Act I immediately in the hopes of producing the play before I left high school. In the fall of 1983, it was becoming a reality as I had cast most of the major players and the English department was behind my production. Well, Ophelia broke her leg fairly badly and would be on crutches for awhile. That and other factors which I cannot now recall led to the play’s cancellation.

Aside from taking a college course in Shakespeare in the Spring of 1985, it would be some time later before the Bard would have me in his grip again. Even then, I often skipped classes and rarely did the necessary readings for the course because I was spending more time writing music or acting with the college theater department. Shakespeare didn’t really fit in then. In fact, it was strange to find such a subject-specific literature course at an engineering college. It had fairly recently (in the year I matriculated, 1984) gone from Clarkson College of Technology to Clarkson University. So, it finally had a substantial offering in the humanities. As usual, I have digressed…

My interest in Shakespeare was rekindled when I was strong-armed, roped, hoodwinked, asked to be involved in the Orcas Island Shakespeare Festival, not an official festival per se, but rather a week of Shakespearean activities produced by a committee of the local Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber had been given a five-year grant which was to be applied to boosting local businesses and attracting tourists in the shoulder season in the month of April. I participated in its last two years as an actor and in the final year I also served on the planning committee. I was excited that the theme for this annual (albeit limited to a term of five years) business event was centered around Shakespeare, a theme for which I had an affinity. And when it was over, I thought someone should consider starting a non-profit organization which could see to an annual festival, a celebration that would become part of our local heritage. Moreover, it would be great to infuse Shakespeare’s works, life and times into other community programs, i.e. talks, classes, performances in schools, at the library, and other places. In other words, give the subject a permanent presence here for those who wish to be entertained or educated, or to do the entertaining and educating. “Let’s explore Shakespeare together as a community”, I thought.

On January 1, 2019, I officially founded the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society as a nonprofit organization in Washington State. As said in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Act III, Scene III – “Huzza!”

Now, I’m too old to play Hamlet. That’s regrettable. I no longer entertain that idea in the least. But, I can vicariously live through something as remarkable – even better!  I’ve decided that while we have a lot of planning and organizing to do in terms of programming, the Society’s own (yet-to-be-formed) company of actors will perform an all-female production of Hamlet. Huzzah (my preferred spelling)! There have been productions of Hamlet with an all-female cast and I suppose I will try to see some of those that have been recorded. They will not, however, have any bearing on my direction. This will neither be an abridged production nor a gender-bended modern adaptation. Not until many years after Shakespeare’s death did female actors take the stage in his works. In his lifetime, all of the actors were men. I can’t imagine how this seemed, especially in the more serious plays of tragedies and histories. But, if a gander can portray a goose, then a goose can portray a gander. A stage with only female actors will be, to my mind, an extraordinary experience. Those who know me well, know there are more women in my life than men; I am just drawn to feminine energy. Thus, directing a female troupe will be nothing less than sheer joy!

2019 is the year for planning: building a society and an acting company. You can expect to see the OISS production of Hamlet hopefully in the summer of 2020 or 2021.

In the meantime, stay tuned in to www.orcasislandshakespeare.org and like us on Facebook, for now the only social media platform I will personally manage. (Other members may take on Twitter, Instagram, etc.) If you are local, consider joining us. We will have weekly meetings at the library starting in Spring 2019.

Adieu!

An Acting Imperative

I was recently reminded of a quote by Kurt Vonnegut: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Well, I don’t think I’m a monster, but I if I don’t write often enough I feel my soul will fly up and I wouldn’t want to be around what is left behind. I haven’t been writing and I find myself philosophizing to the point of losing sleep at night. Last night a question was running around in my mind – how accurate should an actor be reciting his or her lines for it to do justice to the intent of the playwright? I’m writing this essay to alleviate my anxiety so that I stand a chance of sleeping well tonight.

A brief note of why this is important to me is in order. I’ve been working on my magnum opus for nearly six years now and studying language has been an important adjunct. In particular, I’m in my fifth year of a Latin course, classes of which only occur once each week. And despite the fact that English has Germanic roots, the extensive focus on Latin grammar consistently over the years has revealed a lot of English grammar that I don’t recall learning in high school or college. The grammar rules may have been there, but applying those rules had not been. Now I find myself seeing the power and magic of words more than ever. And the subject of my concern is the potential (power) held in the voice and mood of language.

I am not a scholar of Tennessee Williams and his work and aside from watching “The Glass Menagerie” performed live once over twenty years ago, I have only read “A Streetcar Named Desire” once. So, I have to make the assumption that he was deliberate in his words and cognizant of how his words may be construed or misconstrued. And recalling the question at hand, I conclude that his words must stand alone in portraying, text and sub-text, implicit mood and explicit emotion. Thus, an actor should strive as always to recite the lines verbatim, with little variation.

The example that got me thinking of this is as follows. In Scene Three of “Streetcar”, Blanche asks Mitch if he has any cigarettes. The lines follow:

Mitch:  Sure.
Blanche:  What kind are they?
Mitch:  Luckies.
Blanche :  Oh, good. What a pretty case. Silver?
Mitch:  Yes. Yes; read the inscription.
Blanche:  Oh, is there an inscription? I can’t make it out.

Let’s suppose instead of Mitch saying “Yes. Yes; read the inscription,”
we hear “Yes. There’s an inscription.”

Two things happen here. First, Mitch’s mood has changed from the imperative to the indicative, a rather active command, becomes a passive statement. This can be (but may not be in every case) extremely important in conveying a character’s personality. For example, an overconfident macho pack leader such as Stanley Kowalski would come across more “in command” if he were to use the imperative mood. However, using the indicative mood as well as a passive voice would weaken his machismo.  But, in this example this is Mitch we are talking about so, there’s a decision to be made: how much of a boss should Mitch be? I won’t answer that question here. Only I wish to import that diction is very significant in a performance.

The second effect is more subtle. The exchange lacks virility. Notice in the case of the actual text:

Mitch: “Read the inscription.” (imperative and active)  Let’s call this voice/mood experience, A.

Blanche: “Oh, there’s an inscription?” (indicative and passive) Let’s call this voice/mood experience, B.

The dynamic of the dialog is lively going from A to B.

In the case of the following deviation:

Mitch: “Yes. There’s an inscription.” (indicative and passive)

Blanche “Oh, there’s an inscription?”  (indicative and passive)

The dynamic in this case is, well, static, B to B; there’s no change. The voice/mood is stagnant.

Of course, there’s no reason to consider that one is better than the other.  Sometimes an exchange should be static rather than dynamic. There is something subtle here.

Being true to the script is an homage to the playwright. Then again, plays are usually written for the zeitgeist of the period. Revivals are therefore anachronistic. This is what makes them potentially fascinating because there is an opportunity to play with the language, to explore a story and vary portrayals.

Enough said. I think I can sleep tonight.

RIP, Beau.

RIP, Beau. After 48 hours of vigilant attendance and hospice care, and after every attempt to save him including veterinary house calls in his final hours, our beloved canine family member passed away Sunday afternoon in the company of his three humans. No longer limited by the constraints of their material bodies, he and his caprine brother, Casper, are hanging out together again in a sacred and transcendent space in our hearts. ♥

A Poem: A Relic Transformed

A Relic Transformed

I stood silently staring in the twilight moments after sunset.
An enormous steel structure lay static in counterpoint to a rather pacific ocean.
It was several stories in height and at least a city block in length.
Waves lightly lapping against a motionless grid of solid beams
corroded, eroded, yet structural integrity remained.
The elements of nature collaborated on this rust-colored sculpture
from the relics of humankind’s industry.
Its now-rough surfaces carefully caressed and contoured
Over a hundred years by a salty air;
And every so often a seagull added its deposits
to retard corrosion in places for the perfect patina.

Suddenly my imagination gave birth to a vision,
a vision of cohabitating with this slowly changing seascape.
Some people may see an ugly object where I see a beautiful process.
Some people may see decay where I see refinement and natural transformation.
I thought this could be the framework of a living community of people
for whom the present moment is the only reality wherein
each seeks harmony with the interconnectedness of all things.
The sculpture would then take on new participants in its evolution.

I removed my shoes, walked into the water, and began climbing.
I possessed no fear, neither for falling nor for puncture wounds in my feet.
I felt intuitively safe, like a small child climbing all over his parent.
The steel was still warm from an all-day sun bath. It was rather soothing.
And standing one story high, I looked up and imagined domiciles
artfully stacked and stretched throughout.
I envisioned one future resident playing a flute, another meditating,
and myself, sitting in a library behind a glass wall.

It was a dream, and a lofty one at that.
For I was alone.
I hadn’t seen a living person in a decade of my wondering this land.
I longed for community, even the company of a single man or woman.
A woman – oh, to be with a woman again in heart and soul.
But, I shall make this my home.
I can transform it myself.
Just for me.
Just…for the process.
And so, I did.

A Poem: Dream Child

Dream Child

Sarah is nine when she wants to be. Every morning she tells me about her dreams and it’s clear to me that she must be at least 109. The landscapes she paints, with words few children her age can pronounce, can be horror-filled and paradisiacal, sometimes at once.

She skips down the sidewalk
with tacks in her bare feet
going clickity-clack, clickity-clack.

Stopping by the pond
to look at the koi
she drops to her knees.

And in her reflection
she sees not a face
but a mountainous range spewing lava and ash.

She touches the water with her finger
and the ripples reveal the lava
forming into fish.

They dance for a moment
and dissipate back into lava
as prior to being disturbed.

She wants the fish
to dance some more,
so, she touches the water again.

But the lava now flowing
down the reflection of her face
does not form into fish.

So she swabs her cheek
with her entire hand
and beholds her ash-covered fingers.

To answer some instinctual call
she licks the ash from her finger
and smiles.

The taste was fantastic;
she savored the moment;
and the ash became shiny black crystals.

The crystals were attractive.
They could make a nice neckless
and for that she needed more.

With both hands and vigor
she plunged into the pond
and hauled out two handfuls of black pearls.

She thought they’d make beautiful jewelry.
Moreover…
she could sell some at the market.

Into her pocket
the lot of them went
and she stood up.

Skipping again
with mud-covered legs
she ran through the marsh.

It just made her happy
playfully batting
at grasses as tall as she was.

It was the finest of days,
with sunshine and clouds,
against an azure-blue sky.

But the grasses were getting
taller and thicker,
and the skies grew darker.

Grass turned to sticks,
more rigid like branches,
and she had to move them around as she walked.

She came to a thicket,
and the only way out
was through a bog.

She waded through dark patches
until she tripped
and fell down.

Before standing up
she looked behind her
and saw the most amazing pile of leather shoes.

She found herself in the cobbler’s stall
at the market
when she had an epiphany.

She could trade a black pearl
for a new pair of shoes
if the cobbler was willing to barter.

The cobbler said, “Sure.”
So she reached in her pocket
and pulled out some koi.

The cobbler than said,
“Well, I have a branding iron to trademark my shoes.
You can put them on that.”

It looked like a skillet,
but it made sense to her,
so she dropped the koi on the surface.

The koi mouths opened,
and out came shrieks,
then sizzle-pop, sizzle-pop, fizz.

All that remained
were shiny brass tacks
in a pile.

“Perfect! I can use these on my boots,” said the cobbler.

Then Sarah awoke and shared with me this “tale of a long protracted journey” – her words – of her soul. Her visions seem wise beyond her years.

Mid-September News

I’ve been on a writing hiatus since the beginning of August in order to facilitate moving my family into a new home.  Only this weekend are we finally moving things from storage to the house. Tomorrow will be the third and final day of loading and unloading a 20-ft truck and not enough room in our small house for all of it to stay. It’s time to simplify and rid ourselves of so much clutter. A yard sale will happen next weekend, and probably the following weekend or two as weather permits. We have way too many things to go through to do it all at once.

While I intend to write intensively in October, in the mean time I will publish some poems here over the next few days that were written earlier in the summer.

I’m officially back on duty as Secretary on the Board of Directors for the Friends of the Orcas Island Public Library (FOIL). After a leave, I can now attend the monthly board meetings and volunteer again during the week. Next month is our annual meeting for all  members and there’s a bit of work to do.

Remain resonant for some poems to follow!

m.

Music Among the Synchronicities of My Life

About 18 years ago (September 8, 2000 to be exact) I planted my feet on Orcas Island for the first time with my lovely wife (at that time she was my future wife), Mariah,  for the sole purpose of hearing a Seattle musician perform at Susan Osborn’s performance venue then known as the ‘The Living Room’. We were merely groupies at the time, following local performances but not having really known the piano-playing songstress before then. Her name was and is Mary Lydia Ryan and I now consider her one of my dearest friends still on Earth today.
 
[synchronicity alert] As of August 1st, Mariah, Thian and I have just moved into our new home which happens to be the house next door to that former venue, The Living Room, which is now an art gallery for local visual artist and painter, Jacqueline Kempfer.

Another crazy thing [synchronicity alert] is that one of my favorite muses among new age composers since the 1980s is Suzanne Ciani, who also happened to perform at The Living Room, although I was neither then nor afterward in a position to hear Suzanne perform live. (Suzanne, if you are reading this, you are always welcome to perform in my living room, right next door to your last venue, using my GEM Promega 3 digital stage piano which I always offer to Mary Lydia Ryan when she performs on Orcas!)
The house next door is a multi-unit construction and is now owned by a nice woman named Robin who I just met a few days ago. That’s easy for me to remember because at the time I was trying to break into the new age/ambient/electronic music radio scene with my CD in 1995, I often came across a woman named Robin Spielberg, who as another solo piano artist seemed to be in the charts a lot in New Age Voice, a publication of radio station playlists. I admit I am not familiar with Robin’s music. [synchronicity alert] Mary Lydia Ryan, however, is familiar with Robin’s music because she has performed with her at the Whisperings Solo Piano Radio All Star Show in California a few years ago and they are now friends on Facebook.
 
Wait, there is more! You can join in the synchronicity.
 
Mary Lydia Ryan often visits Orcas Island, in some years more times than others. She will be playing at the Village Green stage in Eastsound this year on Sunday, September 2, 2018 at 5pm. Share with friends so that we can encourage a long set of music and an encore of sumptuous songs as well as solo piano compositions. It’s Labor Day weekend and a picnic is in order. I’m more than happy it’s only three blocks away.
Hope to see you there!