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!