Monday, April 30, 2007

Pretentious Questionnaire... whoa

"The Pretentious Festival is only a month away! Whee/ouf! We're in the midst of scheduling your tech rehearsals, so be on the lookout for that. Meanwhile, we'd like to get the ball rolling in terms of turning the Pretentious Blog into a fun-filled world of magic and wonder. As such, we'd like a representative from each of the Pretentious shows to fill out the following questionnaire. We will post a new series of answers every day or so over the course of May, so that everyone will be able to have their say preliminary to the opening of the festival. If you don't have an answer to any of these questions, make it up! The idea is to be tongue-in-cheek, but the questions have been put together in such a way that you can actually answer them with some degree of integrity if you choose to. Links to your responses will be added to the blog during the immediate run-up to your opening as well.

And now - the questions:
1. What exactly makes your show so damn pretentious anyway?
2. Name some obscure influences on your work ­ extra points for unpronounceability.
3. The late Roland Barthes once wrote “For the theatre one needs long arms; it is better to have them too long than too short. An artiste with short arms can never, never make a fine gesture.” Explicate.
4. In what ways do you plan on alienating your audience? Cite an intentionally opaque or confusing moment within your production.
5. Which other Pretentious Festival show will you declare as your sworn ideological enemy, and why?
6. Please give us the gist of the acceptance speech you would use were you to win one of our Pretentious Awards.

Oh, and I'd like to include an image with each answer-filled post. If you haven't given us an image yet, remember to do so - likewise, if, for these purposes, you'd like to include a photo of the person doing the answering, that works too. As always, if anyone has any questions or comments, don't hesitate to ask. Likewise, if anyone has any suggestions for relevant bloggery, do tell.

We look forward to hearing what you have to say! Best, Jeff "

Sunday, April 29, 2007

and we're off...

Although we were short Thomas, it was an exhilarating and energizing first get-together after almost a year. We tried to tape it for you, Thomas, but my recorder crapped out on me -- so sorry. Guess it wasn't just a case of needing new batteries after all... We were on the same page about pretty much everything -- things we wanted to address from the last production -- costumes, props and overall concept on both -- and things we wanted to try this production. Also, we actually found quite a bit of rehearsal time in all our nutty schedules. It definitely helped to go through the calendar literally on a day-by-day basis -- even after the hours Meghan and Cynthia had spent trying to make sense of it all. And mostly, it was fun being in the same room together again. So here's a little trip down memory lane...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

First Meeting

Tomorrow is our first cast meeting. I'm very excited. And yiked. I guess we're really doing this again -- ahhhhhhhh. I'm most excited that we have the same exact cast again as last year. It was touch and go there for awhile, what with everyone's crazy schedule. So now the complete listing to the right of your screen.

Also, FYI, Gorilla Rep is doing a free uncut Hamlet in May.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Jonny Stranger

One of my bestest buddies is Jonny Stranger, Austin filmmaker, actor, writer, musician, and all around artist and mensch extraordnaire. And since I've been doing all this lofty quoting -- as is only fitting of any entrant in a Pretentious Festival, I'm sure you'd agree -- I thought I'd let someone who really means something to me choose the quotes for the day:
Jonny Stranger... About me:
No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell. -Antonin Artaud** I don't think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a movie. You can't kiss a movie. -Jean-Luc Godard** Death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down. The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you. -Woody Allen** I have ten commandments. The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut. -Billy Wilder** Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one. -Stella Adler ** Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly. -Mae West** Drama is life with the dull bits cut out. -Alfred Hitchcock**

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Negative Capability

One of the most fascinating things to me about this play was its initiation process. I never truly understood before what was so great about this great play that everyone says is so great. A strange thing happens when you delve into it. Every discovery about it becomes at once true and not true. Like Hamlet himself, you start seeing it this way but also that. And while language and socio-political context being foreign to us is certainly an obstacle, those are not at the core of the mystery. The possibilities are endless and you start thinking yourself into a black hole. I want to take back, for example, that Hamlet has a tragic flaw...

I took Annie's class upon recommendation basically because I wanted to cut to the chase -- where my own thoughts and research were too slow to lead me. But one of the most striking things she said a class or so before the last one was that this play is unsolvable.

I thought of a concept that long ago had been a huge 'aha' moment when introduced to me -- the key, I thought in all my college-age excitement, to ending wars, most of which are fought over religion: Keats's Negative Capability:
"... it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with

There is no chase to cut to. There is only yet another angle from which to see something. And while it's fun analysing the play and reading reading reading about it, the most satisfying thing of all is acting it, free-falling and letting your own molecular makeup translate and speak to you the uncertain and mysterious things you can't fathom about it but know are true.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Heads Up

Okeydoke. Time to plug some colleagues...

First and foremost, there's the very important Pretentious Festival Blog - "The Official Blog of the Most Important Theater Festival on Earth" This, mind you, is the blog by the theater that is presenting the festival, which is also presenting The Impending Theatrical Blogging Event, curated by the Brick's own Michael Gardner at which "the New York community of theater bloggers blog about themselves as a theatrical event, live, at the theater, while blogging on their laptops. All blogs are projected onto a large blog screen. Audience members are encouraged to comment on the commentators' commentary and blog about it afterwards." Phew!

And then, there's our Hamlet brother in the Festival, Ian W. Hill, who designs, directs and stars in Ian W. Hill's Hamlet, his 50th production, 10 years to the month after his first! From his description on the Festival Site (the only one that was, ahem, allowed more than 100 words, but who's counting): "Hill guides a cast of eighteen [yes, that's 18 - we can barely coordinate 7 people!] through a ruthlessly and idiosyncratically cut version of the play, being faithful to an idea of the play, while having no respect for the tradition around it." Sounds way fun and if having seen Ian perform in a reading of a play by our mutual friend, raconteur and iconoclast extraordinaire TravSD (who, by the by, is also in the Festival with his show Nihils) in Coney a few weeks ago is any indication, it most definitely will be! Ian has his own tremendous blog. (Oh, and that reminds me... Hope your mouth is recovering, Ian - ouch!)

Finally, there's my friend and Shakespeare scholar William Niederkorn's article in the New York Times last Sunday about a survey of college professors and the "authorship question." The overall result: "Here's good news for Stratfordians as they celebrate the Bard’s birth, on April 23: Professors believe in him." Bravo, William. PR being PR, I can't of course plug William without also (again) plugging his splendid review of our splendid show when we did it last year.

Finally, finally, I got a voicemail today from Tim Sheridan who produced and acted Horatio in the Q1 Hamlet at Theatre of Note in L.A. in 2003, with Kathleen O. Irace - editor of The First Quarto of Hamlet, the version we worked from, as their dramaturg. He's very excited to talk about his experience and to "get in touch with Kathy" (whom it would be great to engage). I, of course, am really looking forward to talking to him/them. Based on his message, he is just as excited about this much and falsely maligned version as we are.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ghost 2

Throughout the play, the Ghost is viewed by various characters alternately as an illusion, a portent foreshadowing danger to Denmark (“strange eruption to our state”), a spirit returning from the grave because of a task left undone, a spirit from purgatory, and a devil who assumes the form of a dead person to lure mortals to doom ­ i.e., religious, supernatural and pagan.

It’s interesting to give some weight to the ‘devil’ notion, especially in light of the ending of the play. What if Hamlet was simply deceived, tricked into losing his soul that fateful night that spelled the beginning of the end? Revenge certainly isn’t a Christian concept, and especially as a student at a theological university he would be well aware of that. What if then, as some theorists would have it, Hamlet was set up, possessed, as Jonathan Pryce played him, by a demon who sought revenge and Hamlet was his surrogate?

It makes sense in a certain way but it isn't dramatic. It takes free will away from Hamlet and the Aristotelian tragic flaw. Also, practically, it doesn't explain why the Ghost would come back in the closet scene, of all scenes. Hamlet is already poised to carry out the revenge at that point, having just tested the Ghost's assertions and proven them to be true. Why bother coming back?

What's more interesting is the other imperative the Ghost gives Hamlet besides revenge: Remember me. There is some eloquent thought about that to be found, including that Hamlet's vacillation comes from weighing one against the other... But not tonight.

... Hey, the festival schedule is up at the Brick site. As well as a link to this blog. Alright you guys, are you gonna keep me hanging out here on this limb by myself?!?

Monday, April 23, 2007


Apparently, Shakespeare himself is traditionally believed to have played the Ghost. Perfect.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

RSC Site

Another very informative and comprehensive (and fun) website is the Royal Shakespeare Company's, specifically Hamlet's production history through the ages.It encapsulates the definitive, mostly British approaches to Hamlet over the centuries, beginning with the first productions after its completion around 1600/1 and ending in 2001. Some things that stood out for me:
  • Hamlet was immediately popular, judging from the many contemporary references.
  • Of the 18th century productions, most notable was the first female Hamlet, Sarah Siddons. The role was regarded as having many feminine qualities and was later played by Sarah Sarah Bernhardt, Eva La Gallienne and others, including, in 2000 by German actress Angela Winkler at the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum.
  • Edmund Kean from 1814-1833 was the first to react to the Ghost “with affection and eagerness rather than terror and the first to treat Ophelia with love rather than brutality.”
  • 1864-1885 saw the period of Henry Irving, who moved Hamlet to “genuine lunacy, reflecting the interest in madness typical of the period,” and of Fanny Morant and Margaret Leighton who introduced “a more sexual, voluptuous… Gertrude.”
  • With John Barrymore came the psycho-analytical, Freudian approach and a “strong sexual undercurrent between Hamlet and Gertrude" AND between Ophelia and Laertes (hadn’t heard that one before).
  • This was followed by Olivier’s Oedipal reading and Gielgud’s romantic, disillusioned and frustrated “sweet prince.”
  • The 1960s & 70s saw an explosion of controversial Hamlets reflecting the political upheaval at the time, for example Peter Hall’s “student prince” “anti-hero” “existential prince”– “the modern intellectual tortured by the needs of political commitment.”
  • Then in 1975 came Buzz Goodbody, “the first (and so far last) woman to direct a major British production.” Her modern-dress, studio production “attempted to break down barriers between audience and actors [by having] soliloquies delivered directly to” the audience.
  • In the late 70s, Jonathan Pryce’s Hamlet was physically possessed by his father’s ghost.
  • 1989’s Daniel Day-Lewis had to withdraw from the production because he became convinced that he saw his own father’s ghost, not Hamlet’s.
  • In a 1999 poll, the play was voted the ‘master-work’ of the millennium.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Textual Clues

From Annie O.: The folio is put together and punctuated by actors versus scholars and, as such, a key to acting the play.

Periods – The place where you check in with your scene partner to see if you got through.

Commas – Words after commas are afterthoughts. Why Claudius is so brilliant – he can think on his feet.

Colon – What follows tops the last thing said and is meant to stop someone from interrupting. According to some, a colon is a cue to physically move.

Semi-colon – What follows is the thought that makes you downshift for the next thing you say; the moment of reflection – reluctance, shame, humility, trepidation, etc.; when something is important.

Capitals in mid-sentence: extra emphasis where energy will land. Ex: “too too solid Flesh would melt”

E’s at end of words are for emphasis: “we doe my lord”; “my Lord from head to Foote”

This is fascinating stuff and why modern versions have limitations. And this is a great website:

Friday, April 20, 2007

More closet

Wow, I’m sitting at a truck stop just outside of Knoxville, TN, writing and waiting for my G4 to fully charge and in the background there’s country music and announcements: “Attention Pilot shower customer 74. Your hot shower is now ready for you. Please proceed to shower 1.” My dad was a trucker. God, I so loved this country once.

Ok, back to the closet scene… In Q1 it is Gertred’s climax. After the closet scene Gertred is irreversibly changed and her denouement to the end of the play begins.

Several things happen to her during the scene, the combination of which prove too much for her. Hamlet makes her see just how painful her quickie marriage was for him, just what he’s capable of and what she may well have driven him to (the unfortunate Corambis incident). This is already overwhelming enough. He then relentlessly shames her for her lustful ways – reminding her that “your blood runs backward now from whence it came,” and that she's basically pathetic. But this is his youth speaking (no, I don’t think Hamlet’s 30, but that’s another post) and could potentially be dismissed as such. So far she’s still desperately trying to run away, close her ears, close her mind, keep the status quo of everything’s hunky dory and fixable with time. But now comes the final whammy – the thing I just glossed over during my last post on the scene: She finds out for the first time that on top of everything Claudius actually killed old Hamlet.

This proves to be too much for her. And just at the moment when she’s about to faint or die or otherwise check out, the Ghost intervenes and guides Hamlet back to his mission, including taking it easy on his mother.

So Hamlet comforts her, convinces her he’s not crazy and enlists her help in his revenge. And Gertred, so grateful and incredulous that through all her willful blindness, God didn’t take away her son, too – and in her son is of course also what’s left of her beloved husband, hence the trinity I referred to – she now sees crystal clearly that this is her chance for redemption.

So if in the first half, Gerty is the girl, the sexpot, the confident female, in the second half she’s all humility, devoted servant to God – whom she now evokes much more often (“thanks be to heaven,” etc.) -- and she is mother. She tries to be mother to Hamlet, as well as to Ophelia in her hour of need. But the downward spiral has already begun.

Q1 in LA and the Dramatists List

There are two groups that I would love to engage on this blog right now. One is Theater of Note in LA who did the Q1 Hamlet in 03 with Kathleen Irace (whose version we worked from) as their dramaturg. I have an email into them and they replied saying they would forward it to the director. I'd love to get some stories on their experience with it.

The other is the dramatists list serve which is a discussion list of mostly playwrights. They're going hot and heavy at Hamlet right now ("read the fucking play," "horseshit"...) mostly discussing whether the Ghost is real or a figment of Hamlet's imagination. Well, one guy is standing his ground saying it might be a figment and he's getting pummeled by everyone else. Pretty hilarious. It's cool the play can inspire so much passion.

Here again is where Q1 displays its simple elegance and where our production ups the ante: It leaves no doubt that it is an "honest ghost." In fact, it occurs to me now that the first Truth Hamlet elicits is, in fact, the Ghost's and from there on out he's on his crusade to get it from everyone else. But really that's the case in the Folio as well. Then by having the Ghost reside in Gertred -- "man and wife is one flesh" -- there's a trinity created by the end of the closet scene that then drives the play home. Hamlet is no longer alone. He has succeeded in reuniting his precious family which gives him strength.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


When we performed the play last July, I knew I wanted to do it again, having had the feeeling that I was just beginning to really explore it when we had to close. Also, the audience response from friends and acquaintances was so positive that I felt it was a shame the production couldn't reach a wider audience (we're a rockin' ensemble, if I do say so myself). While at first it's jarring, if not downright painful , to hear, "To be or not to be, ay, there's the point," and a lot of the poetry is gone (no what a piece of work is man nor flights of angels - to name just 2 of my faves - boo), many of the responses I still get from people excited about our remounting is that they finally understood the play.

For me, it was actually immersing in the play that hooked me. I started researching various venues and festivals, started looking at Shakespeare in general -- the great women's roles -- more closely again. Along the way I got a mass email from Jason, our Hamlet, that an acting coach he admired (and I think our Claudius, Thomas, may have worked with her... Thomas?) was offering another class on Shakespeare and part of it was going to focus on Hamlet. Long story short, I took the class which, providentially, ended up focusing entirely on Hamlet. Annie was amazing. Talk about maximum involvement. She had studied the play for 30+ years and her insight was greater and deeper than I could accurately keep notes on or even absorb. Also, it was refreshing to meet someone who's been around for a while and doesn't feel the need to trade in passion for patronization and playing the guru (am I the only one who finds that prevalent in theater?).

Aside from the Hamlet-is-a-dead-man-once-he-meets-the-Ghost insight, she shed some other light and provided some tools I'll throw in here and there...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Maximum Involvement

In my recent thinking about Hamlet as the harsh taskmaster, I thought of Ibsen's Brand and of Kierkegaard's Abraham as a man of faith. The former is a pastor who holds himself and all of his followers, including his wife, to uncompromising moral standards. And even though he falters a few times, he goes the distance, sacrificing his mother, son, and wife along the way in an attempt to adhere to his beliefs. In the latter case, Kierkegaard compares Abraham to Agamemnon, saying that the former is the true man of faith because the Jews will turn against him, never believing that God would command a man to sacrafice his son, whereas Agamemnon can rest assured that his people will stand behind him, knowing that he killed his daughter for the good of them. Oddly enough, Ibsen and Kierkegaard -- Norwegian, Danish -- hmmm...

In any case, this notion of the search for the absolute is somewhere at the core of dramatic literature. And it is the thing that I was taught well early on to look for as an actor [and] in search of the core driving force in characters to be portrayed: make the choices that will allow for maximum involvement. It yields the most passionate, resonant results, at least in theory, if not always in execution. So it was exciting to me in a recent class I took that focused specifically on Hamlet to discover the idea that Hamlet knows he is going to die because of a voice he heard that he knows to be the Truth but that no one will believe. What a difference it makes thinking about the nunnery scene, the off-stage scene where Hamlet appears to Ophelia disheveled and frightens her, the closet scene, 'To be or not to be,' the death of Polonius/Corambis, the scene where Hamlet contemplates killing Claudius/King in prayer... Hamlet's entire m.o. from the point of view of someone who is reconciled to the fact that his physical existence is about to end versus someone who is going through a metaphorical existential crisis.

Monday, April 16, 2007

On desperation, or what makes the closet scene rock

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation... But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." H.D. Thoreau

Let's say I'm right and Gertred has willed the blinders on herself, desperately wanting to deny that anything is wrong, that she has done anything wrong, that her husband is dead and that her family as she knew it is no more (and that she is aging, but I'll save that savage beast for another post... maybe). Then what makes the scene such perfect drama is that she and Hamlet are at complete cross purposes.

Once the Ghost that came unbidden reveals the truth to Hamlet, he's a dead man. There is no escaping it. As prince, he is the only one who can revenge the death of the king. It's his duty. But it'll be treason because you can't depose a ghost as a witness in court. "Oh cursed spite that I was born to set it right." So Hamlet now spends what's left of his young life trying to figure out how to live and die a good man. He has just seen a ghost suffering unspeakably because his soul is not at rest. What does it take to muster the courage to act if the act is killing? But, more, he desperately needs to know why he, personally, has to kill the king - not as prince, not as revenge for his father's death, not because his religion tells him killing is bad - but why he needs to do it. Nothing less than his soul is at stake.

And to find that out he demands Truth from everyone - from R&G, from Claudius, from Ophelia, from himself -- how many times he uses the word 'honest'! And from his mother.

So the whole closet scene, after Polonius/Corambis' death, is the fierce battle between two desperate and thus tremendously powerful people trying to get what they need. The deeper the measure of desperation, the more explosive the scene will be.

Beyond that, it's a family drama and we all know the powder keg those can be. Hamlet, his mother and the Ghost of Hamlet's father (the latter two in one, in our case). The measure of love for each other among the three... again, the deeper the endowment, the more exhilirating the end when they all emerge cleansed and united on the other side.

In this scene is where the first quarto is truly an exquisitely simple thing of beauty. Hamlet is always in search of wisdom, but from here on out, because she hears of the murder for the first time, there is also complete clarity for Gertred: "Hamlet, I vow by that majesty That knows our thoughts and looks into our hearts. I will conceal, consent, and do my best, What stratagems soe'er thou shalt devise." There is no subtext in Shakespeare. Her mission is clear from there on out.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

More on the Ghost and Gertred...

... from the point of view of an actor playing the wife/mother in this play:

To go through Gertred's journey with the added element of imagining the spirit of her husband -- the great love of her life, the father of her only son -- always inside her, raises the stakes. The bond is now not merely metaphorical; they are one. The denial of the meaning of her new marriage becomes all the more profound and willful and desperate. When we did this show last July, it was my first stab at the role. I came at it as an outsider with all the usual abstract notions of lust and sex and fallen womanhood. But the more I inhabited the part, the more I felt this sense that, although she is certainly a passionate woman with physical needs, maybe she was unable to let go of the elder Hamlet; maybe she hadn't confronted and grieved his death, to put it in modern terms (the only terms under which I can own and endow the part); maybe she just wanted her family to continue. I felt that, with a little prompting by Claudius who readily understood this circumstance and exploited it fully (though even he -- no mere comicbook villain or plot device -- understands the rankness of his offense, thus also honoring Gertred's character), she was pretending that by marrying her husband's brother she could keep going as though nothing had changed and that her son would in time cooperate with her delusion.

Though this is nothing one can act, Gertred was considered virtuous and honorable and was highly respected among the people. Knowing this does add to the understanding that Gertred is no mere ditz and prohibits any fleeting thought one might have of playing her as anything less than a mature soul and thus robbing the part and the play of its highest potential.

In all, I think the power of her fierce determination to deny her crime (her marriage was considered incest) and to deny the gravity and fallout of what she knows to be ailing her son (though not in the quarto, in the folio: "I doubt it is no other, but the maine, His Fathers death, and our o're-hasty Marriage") are heightened for the audience and for the actor by having both parents reside in the same personage.

... which brings me to the utter devestation/desperation that is the closet scene...

Butoh and Hamlet

One of Cynthia's more inspired strokes is doubling "Gertred" and the Ghost. Hamlet says to the King: "My mother is your wife, man and wife is one flesh, And so (my mother) farewel: for England hoe." The idea that (Hamlet's love for) the father lives inside the mother, adds a layer to the onion of Hamlet's dilemma. It makes palpable the Ghost's warning, "let not thy heart Conspire against thy mother aught, Leaue her to heauen, And to the burthen that her conscience beares," and reinforces the ever-presentness of the Ghost in Hamlet's psyche once he appears to him ("Remember me") at the beginning of the play.
On a personal level, it made the production more exciting to me as an actor. Having studied butoh for the last five years or so, it presented a great opportunity to combine the play and the dance, both studies is the raw essence of what it means to be alive and human. Yesterday one of my favorite teachers, Atsushi Takenouchi, sent an announcement for his next workshop... excerpts:

life walking, death walking. walking in the various situation with restriction. the way of body operating to make the movement come out from inside. sketch the things in the nature world like living life, animal, natural material by body properly. - one cycle of an embryo, a baby, a child, an adult, an old man. - an insect, a beast, trees, grass, a flower. - a gas, a liquid, a solid, gel, amoeba, an organism, minerals. capturing a conscious movement and an unconscious movement as a dance. dance a fragmental dream. gravitation and floating. various sound and body expression, voice. dance the seasonal body of your own. the process of the metamorphosis. the dance by organic and inorganic contact with other life. how we can be desperate.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Here's what we gave the Brick yesterday...


It could be an early draft by the bard or it could be a blatant rip-off, but throughout history it has been called the “bad quarto.” This fast-paced, action-packed production proves that “it ain’t necessarily so!” Half the length of the better-known play, this version crystallizes the famous story of murder, madness, love and betrayal. It is performed by an agile ensemble of 7 actors playing multiple roles, including the actress playing Hamlet’s mother doubling as a “butoh” inspired Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Performed uncut, this is a great version of one of the greatest of plays!


Playwright: William Shakespeare

Title of source material: The First Quarto of Hamlet (published in 1603).

Producers: Dillon/Liebman/Schafer in association with New World Theatre Company

Director: Cynthia Dillon

Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Meghan Dickerson

Cast: Anthony Bagnetto, Jason Liebman, Kevin Lind, Alyssa Mann, Thomas Poarch, Gabriele Schafer, [one actor not yet cast]

Butoh Choreographer: Nick Fracaro

Fight Choreographer: Al Foote, Qui Nguyen

Photographer: Quinn Chandler

PR Photos: