Saturday, June 16, 2007

Q&A with Tim Sheridan

In 2003, Tim Sheridan produced and played Horatio in a production of the First Quarto Hamlet, directed by Andrew Borba, at Theatre of NOTE in Los Angeles. The production dramaturg was Kathleen Irace, editor of the version we're using. Details and some photos of the production were outlined in Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623 (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series) -- "They chose an intimate indoor set, furnished like a library, they dressed the actors in vaguely Victorian or Edwardian costumes, and they cast a woman as Hamlet." Tim was kind enough to give us some further, pretty illuminating, insight into his production:

1) Why did you decide to cast a woman as Hamlet? What were you exploring?
Not surprisingly, we get this question all the time. It's a two-part answer: The very bland truth is that Alina Phelan came to the audition and blew the roof off the place. She was the best actor who auditioned for the role, and therefore won it! Usually, people are disappointed by this answer, as they expect we had some sort of important message in casting a woman; if there is a message, I suppose it's that, when producing a text such as this that has been neglected or overlooked - we have an even greater responsibility to present it in the best light possible! She was the best, and we wouldn't settle for less. That's the first part; now the second: There was an interesting byproduct to Alina's casting. I, in my arrogance, had expected that doing the Q1 text was more than enough to get people to the theater. The director, Andrew Borba, was much smarter. He knew that we needed to play up in the press the fact that we had cast a woman - just to show people (who were mostly ignorant of Q1) that we were doing something different and exciting that was worth their time. Once we had them in the theater, then we could excite them about the text!

2) How did you decide upon the indoor library setting and the "vaguely Victorian or Edwardian costumes"?
I wish I could claim credit, but again these were the brilliant ideas of our director and our terrific production staff. The important thing about the library is that it was in a state of massive decay. On one very practical level, the set was meant to symbolize the erosion of the state in the play. We basically took a cue from Hamlet's unflattering descriptions of Denmark, his uncle, in comparison to Denmark, his father, and then brought that to the physical world of the piece. On another level, this was in keeping with the main theme of the production, which was that we were creating new life inside something very old, very established and, to a large extent, run-down (referring to Hamlet in general). Wardrobe has always been the easiest way to convey chronological setting. We felt it was important to set the production somewhere in the past - and we agonized for much of the pre-production and then even into rehearsals over when to set it. We wanted to be careful not to look like we were making political or historical arguments and/or judgments, which unfortunately you so often see in Shakespeare productions. Some people seem to think that since they're in the public domain, these texts are their own personal blank canvases; those productions invariably end up imposing a logic upon the text that Shakespeare did not intend and which, therefore, works against the true merits of the play. If you want to know how to produce Shakespeare, simply take Hamlet's advice to the players and keep it simple and honest. Back to the wardrobe: one of our main goals was for our audiences to walk away thinking of Q1 as a perfectly viable and playable text. We thought we'd play upon the common prejudice that "good" and "legitimate" Shakespeare is regal and heavily costumed. We wanted the audience to know that we were taking this very seriously and that, therefore, they ought to as well; hence, the Victorian/Edwardian wardrobe. That sort of consideration isn't something you see a lot of in L.A. Shakespeare, and I assume it's why ended up being nominated for Best Costumes at that year's Ovation Awards (L.A.'s "equivalent" to the Tonys.)

3) You had a fascinating beginning to the play. How did you arrive at using the First Player performing the Pyrrhus speech as the context for announcing old Hamlet's death ("presumably") to Hamlet?
I was totally against it! And I was totally wrong! Remember that our goal was to show people right away that this text was not what they were accustomed to. Andrew knew that the opening scene (and every scene with Marcellus!) was too similar to the Q2 and Folio versions to get that message across right from the start. So he concocted that "moment before" which opened every show and showed the audience that they were about to see something they'd never seen before. All I can say is that I was very lucky to have found Andrew Borba - the guy's a genius.

4) I was intrigued by Rob Kendt's calling the production "found-art 'outsider' Shakespeare, as richly revealing as any post-modernist deconstruction." Inasmuch as you understand at all what he meant, could you elaborate on/take a stab at this?
Isn't that a great quote? What I especially love is that he completely got what we were going for without any coaching or program notes. Success! We produced Q1 in 2003, on the 400th anniversary of its publication. Yet very few (even Shakespeare lovers) knew of its existence! This was a great experiment; we were confident the text was playable as written, but we would never truly know until we actually did it. Then when it all started coming together, though we had been confident, we couldn't help but enjoy feeling like we had uncovered something special. Many folks who came to see the show have told me they experienced the same rush I had felt years before when I, quite accidentally, happened upon Q1 in the Florida State University library - "Wow! What is this that I've stumbled upon??" It's virtually impossible to get that kind of rush from a 400 year old text, and I think Kendt was verbalizing the excitement we were all feeling!

5) Why did you decide to cut the Ghost's appearance in the closet scene? And to have Hamlet speak the lines instead?
Well, this is a terrific illustration of why I should never direct. Throughout the production, I (along with our amazing and gracious dramaturg, Kathi Irace) was the champion of the text "as written." If I had been in charge creatively, we would've ended up with a live version of the play exactly "as written," which would've been very authentic, very structured and VERY BORING! Andrew came in and right away said "Tim, I'm going to direct Hamlet. Period." I told him he had my total support as long as he didn't alter a word of the Q1 text. He completely agreed and it was as simple as that. As far as this particular scene, Andrew always tried to keep us remembering that, in a lot of ways, Hamlet is a ghost story - and it therefore be scary! I think we felt that a guy onstage looking 'ghostly' (especially after having already seen him twice) was less freaky than if young Hamlet became possessed by Old Hamlet right in front of the audience. I mean - it's like 'The Exorcist' - how scary is that? Wish you'd seen it. Still gives me chills.

6) How long was your run and how would you describe your audience response to the Q1 version?
We were limited to a twelve-week run, like most Shakespeare shows in L.A., but we knew that going in. Obviously, we had a terrific response from the Shakespeare literati, as evidenced by our inclusion in the new Arden edition! As far as the general audience, I think Rob Kendt's quote totally embodies the response. Things I heard were that people enjoyed the production, were thrilled to have "discovered" the text, and most of all, to have seen the entire Hamlet story in under two hours!! Who wouldn't love that?

7) What was your own response trajectory from your first encounter with this version to the end of the run?
When I stumbled across the text, I knew it was good, it was playable and that I would produce it. But then, I'm pretty stubborn. I have to say, though, that nothing prepared me for the rehearsal process and, ultimately, the run of the show, where I and our entire company came to believe in and fall in love with Q1 more and more every night. It's one thing to understand something intellectually and quite another to experience it viscerally. My old high school English teacher was the first to tell me that Shakespeare is meant to be acted, not read. This becomes especially significant when dealing with a largely unknown text and is why I am so thrilled to know that you are involved in a Q1 production! The work isn't done yet; some of us on the inside get it, but there's still a world of audiences out there who are unfamiliar with Q1 and those who are familiar with it know it as the "bad quarto." It's up to us to change their minds!

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