Praised be rashness for it, let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends ...
f you're going to take on what is perhaps the biggest play of all, you'd better know what you're doing, or it's going to suck.
Luckily for Tulsa audiences and two of our theater companies, director Whitson Hanna totally does.
Here's the setup: Theatre Tulsa -- the venerable, glamorous, elder stateswoman of the Tulsa theatrical world -- and Odeum Theatre Company -- relative new kids -- have teamed up to bring the Prince of Denmark and his ridiculously dysfunctional family to life at the Performing Arts Center beginning Oct. 26. In combining, the two troupes have assembled two casts as well: one a traditional cast of adults and the other a cast of teenagers.
"I've got a youth cast that, when they walked in, I thought, 'I've got 14- to 18-year-olds who are about to tackle one of the hardest theater pieces of all,'" Hanna said. "But they're doing it. They're learning emotional complexities that they don't know about because they don't have the life experience."
And here's where knowing what you're doing actually matters. Hanna also serves as the artistic director for Odeum. It stands to reason, then, that, stemming from his administrative role there, and how integral he has been to nearly all Odeum shows, he understood from the onset that the actors, whether they were 14 or 40, had to learn the show. Not just their lines or their sword-fighting moves, but the show itself. That was going to take some actual education, and perhaps more so than actual direction.
"I wanted to give these kids a high-level college-type of training that they wouldn't get outside of the collegiate level," Hanna said. And to hear about his rehearsal plans and what has unfolded onstage, it seems he's done exactly that, right down to essentially swiping some techniques in scene studies that he presumably learned while taking a theater degree from the California Institute of the Arts.
"We spent the first week purely on table work. We showed them how to go through a script and break it down and understand it," Hanna said. "You know, 'What are they talking about?' That can be difficult. Then we went on to scene study, almost like in an acting class. They'd get up and take a whack at the scene, and then we'd talk about it, and then the adults would get up and take their whack at the scene.
Then we moved on to act studies, and finally to the whole show."
And "the whole show" is an enormous undertaking. Chances are you've never, ever seen the entire, uncut show, because its original running time is somewhere around five hours. In order to make this thing manageable for actors and audiences alike, Hanna had to take it in small pieces.
"I kind of intentionally broke the process down from the very beginning so that we could focus on instruction even more so than we were focusing on actual blocking or rehearsal," he said. "I figured, and it's worked out really well, that Shakespeare's so good that if you understand what you're saying, and you can convey that and stand on stage and say it, then you can convey that. So if they understand what they're doing, it will work."
That focus on instruction has paid off, according to Hanna, who has embraced the idea that you never truly understand something until you've taught it to someone else, and he decided to focus on that, rather than on directing a show.
"They've blown me away at how they've handled it. I've got a 14-year-old that's playing Hamlet," he said. "And he's handling it. You've got 40-year-olds that try to tackle Hamlet and do a poor job. But he's holding his own. If you'd told me four months ago that would be the case, I'd have said, 'We'll see.' They're doing so well."
To be sure, 14-year-old Micah Weese doesn't look like a 14-year-old boy. He's a tall kid, so it's not like audiences will be looking at a short and prepubescent middle-school boy.
Sara Phoenix, president of Theatre Tulsa, discovered Weese last year, she said.
"I worked with Micah when I directed him in his first play," she said. "Then he was in Odeum's youth production of Once on This Island. Whit saw him and said, 'I want him to audition.'"
Weese and his young castmates have learned buckets about theatre, and Phoenix said she's had as much fun watching them as they've had actually doing it.
"Sometimes the adults will pull the kids aside and talk to them, maybe about how 'This is how I'm doing this scene,' or 'Here's my approach this situation,'" he said.
All this collaborating came about almost by accident, really.
"We both wanted to do Hamlet, and it was kind of one of those things where we thought about collaborating," according to Phoenix.
"She'd had this idea of an adult cast working on a show and teaching a youth cast," Hanna explained. "We just thought, 'Hey, why don't we collaborate on this?' That way, it takes some of the pressure off both companies, and it's kind of mutually beneficial."
Essentially halving the logistical and financial burdens while doubling available talent pool? Totally a no-brainer.
"We just thought, 'Let's do this great show together and make it something special,'" Hanna said. They seem to be on their way to doing just that, and doing so in at least one unforeseen manner.
"It's one of the funniest versions of Hamlet that I've ever seen," Hanna said. "They've found humor in this script that I've never seen before. ... They've found stuff in Act III that's just flat-out comedy."
That idea of lifting audiences up before the big fall is something Hanna relishes, to be sure.
"I feel like the more you pick an audience up, the better it is when you knock them down," he said. "You know, you give them the highs, and then you just kick them in the nuts."
Hamlet opens Oct. 26 at 8pm in the Liddy Doenges Theater of the Tulsa PAC, 110 E. 2nd St. Youth casts are featured in the Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 matinee performances at 2pm, and on Oct. 30 at 8pm. The adult cast plays the remaining shows: Oct. 27 at 8pm, Oct. 28 at 2pm, and Nov. 1-3 at 8pm. Tickets are available through three websites: theatretulsa.com, myticketoffice.com, and tulsapac.com, in person at the PAC's 2nd Street box office, or by phone at 918-596-7111.
Wear a cup.
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