To themselves, acting students are true
Master of fine arts class to perform show inspired by 'Hamlet'
It’s not a question of to be or not to be, but rather of what to be.
Last spring, Associate Professor Marya Lowry told her master’s of fine arts students – third-year actors – they’d perform a play loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in the fall. When they broke for the summer, it remained just a seed of an idea.
Lowry, who is directing their production of “A King of Infinite Space – Hamlet in a Nutshell,” which opens Friday at the Merrick Theater in the Spingold Theater Center, asked each student to put together a book of ideas over the summer, a messy collection of thoughts, no matter how tangential, on the play – images, quotes, sounds, moments to which their brains wandered.
“It was kind of scary but also really exciting,” says Jonathan Young, sitting in the audience of the Merrick Theater during a rehearsal break. “We all spent the summer thinking about ‘Hamlet.’ I read it four or five times. The idea was just incubating.”
When they regrouped in September, they collectively and individually explored the moments they created, and searched their mutual pool of concepts for pervasive themes and direction. Dances, a poetry slam and an original song all became part of the ever-evolving script. Where their ideas needed more grounding or connective thread, they returned to Shakespeare’s words, incorporating chunks of text. A cohesive narrative began to take hold.
“There are certain skills you have to have if you’re acting Shakespeare, and there’s no getting around it,” Lowry says. “But this semester they are both working in a very traditional way on scene study and text analysis, learning how to physicalize a text and verbalize with relish, and understanding the rhetoric and all of Shakespeare’s poetic devices.
“But the Hamlet project is much more about devising theater – how to create moments from ideas and themes – so the emphasis is not so much on language or on telling the arc of a play,” she says.
Sara Schoch says creating the moments was a great way to find out what was interesting about the play to her and her fellow actors, but “the best part was how amazingly creative my classmates are.”
Not to mention how well they think on their feet.
With just days to spare before pulling back the curtain, the performance is constantly changing. Surrounded by skulls and shovels, rugs and lights, the actors and director continue brainstorming ways to tighten the story and enhance their delivery. When Lowry sees a problem, Schoch shoots to her feet to join a scene in which she has not previously performed.
“I’ve been in plays before where you get rewrites in the last few days,” she says. “They print them on different colored paper. Here, there is no paper.”
Young adds, with a smile: “It’s a little nerve-wracking. Usually by now the lines are in my body.”
Lowry says it’s good training, and represents a shift in the way Brandeis approaches its acting programs.
“We were part of that vision of ‘60s and ‘70s style of training actors for the professional theater, and it was a good way of training,” says Lowry, who has been teaching at Brandeis for more than 20 years. “But in the 21st century, things are different, and theater has changed in the way everything else has changed in the world. We’re now training them to learn how to make their own work, because that’s what’s going on out there.”
Audiences will see a show inspired by “Hamlet,” but shouldn’t expect a version they’ve ever watched or read before. They may recognize characters like Hamlet and Ophelia – heck, they’ll see a bunch of them – but students have made the work their own.
“I’m part of this line of actors who gets to play Hamlet,” Young says. “Even if it’s just this one scene, that’s really cool. We created this ceremony where each actor passes the dagger and receiving it is like receiving this honor.”
Performances will be held in the Merrick Theater in the Spingold Theater Center Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees shows at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free and open to the public.