First Rehearsal

May 16, 2006

At long last, we're under way. Because of the crazy repertory schedule, I had one hour with the full cast last night, and then three hours with just the few actors that aren't also cast in Comedy of Errors. It's a strange way to get started, but even so it's exhilirating to officially be in rehearsal.

I was taught that it's the director's job to give a short speech at the first rehearsal. It's a time to introduce the actors to this particular production of the play; to get everyone onto the same page and ready to begin the work. It's also an important opportunity to let the cast know that the director knows what he or she is doing — knows the play, has good ideas about how to get it on its feet, and will be a good leader. It sets the tone.

Before rehearsal, I put notes on the main points I wanted to hit onto index card-sized pieces of paper. Here's what I wrote, with some elaborations on what I ended up saying — though I strayed far and wide and there's no way I'll be able to recreate everything I actually said. Also, I mostly talked about the exact ideas that I've been posting about on this blog for months, so I'm not going to reitirate everything here yet again.

First page:

Hamlet – best play ever?

Things the play is about:

I always look for most personal –
man who has lost his father
and isn't allowed to grieve

After a round of introductions and talk about scheduling and so forth, I started my talk on the play by acknowledging the intimidation factor in tackling Hamlet, the play that's probably more celebrated and respected than any other. Maybe the best play of all time, in any language. Then I said that the thing to do when faced with a play like this is the same as with any other play — take a look at it and figure out what makes it tick. I talked about the various themes the play deals with. Then I said that I always look for the most personal aspect of the play, whatever it is that makes the story hit home for the characters. On this level, the most intimate and personal level, Hamlet is about a man who has lost his father and isn't allowed to grieve.

Second page:

Hamlet's first scene – being
told to stop grieving, to
let go

then Ghost: but instead of
reconciliation, an order to

H. swears swift revenge,
then delays (2 months)

Big Question: Why? (excuses)
Revenge=accepting father's death
deciding not to revenge= " " "

I talked briefly about some of the circumstances at the top of the play — Gertrude has remarried and can't publicly mourn, Ophelia is told to keep Hamlet at arms' length, etc, all of which leaves Hamlet without anywhere to turn to express his grief. Even when he sees the ghost, he gets a command to revenge instead of any kind of closure. I talked about the possible reasons for delay, setting up the idea that the real reason for the delay is that on some level Hamlet equates taking revenge with accepting his father's death — to kill Claudius would be to participate in the changed world that Claudius is creating. Deciding not to take revenge would also be an acceptance, so Hamlet is stuck in a perfectly constructed trap.

Third page:

main action:
to deny change

gertrude's marriage
ophelia's rejection
father's death
r&g betrayal
claudius succession

I talked about the idea of change as being central to the play; a way of connecting the various things that the play is about. Death is the most profound change there is, and Hamlet's reaction to the change implied by his father's death is central. Another major change, affecting the entire world of the play, is Claudius' succession to the throne of Denmark. Hamlet is trying to deny change. I listed off several of the important changes that are happening in the play, and asked the actors to think about their own character's relationship to the idea of change.

Fourth page:

delay leads to Polonius death,
which causes O death & all

You can't deny change

we all relate – death,
something bad, wanting
to hold on to the past

don't need to beat aud
over head

Having earlier talked about the initial circumstances and early scenes, I moved on to talk about how Hamlet's delay leads directly to him killing Polonius instead of Claudius, and how that incident specifically leads to all the other deaths in the play. The delay brings about the tragedy; it's Hamlet's tragic flaw. So by trying to deny change, by refusing to let go of the past, Hamlet brings about his own downfall. And that's a lesson that everyone can relate to — we've all dealt with death at some point in our lives, and we've all felt the desire to hold on to the way the world used to be. I also made the point that I don't need the audience to leave the play saying, "Wow, I really should stop denying change in my life" — it's important for us to have some ideas about the central themes of the play in order to make a cohesive production, but there's no need to cram it down the audience's throat.

Fifth page:

a world undergoing change

-claudius is a new regime
-everyone getting on board
-Denmark a major player
in new world order

It's always important to relate all this talk of theme back to the actors — how does all this analysis apply to their work? Circumstances are one answer to that. We need to create a world which is in the process of changing. Claudius is a different kind of King from Old Hamlet.

Sixth page:

as a way to
express/get at/reveal
Shakespeare's intent

1890's – second Industrial

-art nouveau

Claudius embraces all
that is new

(1800 ghost, WWI Fortinbras)

I talked about using a non-Elizabethan period concept for a Shakespeare play as a way to bring out Shakespeare's themes and ideas — making visual choices that will resonate more specifically with today's audience. I connected the choices we're going with in this production to the circumstances of a world undergoing change. And I talked a bit about the design; how this period gives remarkable variety in men's suits, how the set will combine art nouveau elements with industrial encroachment, etc.

Seventh page:


all 3 dimensional

all trying to do the right
thing – even Claudius

-Claudius a shrewd leader
-Polonius thinks his orders to
Ophelia drove Hamlet mad, wants
to help find a cure
-Ophelia thinks so too, loves him
-R&G trying to help their friend
-Gertrude trying to save Denmark
by marrying Claudius
-Laertes as Hamlet w/o delay
-Horatio balancing that

I spent a couple of minutes relating all this analysis back to the various characters — I didn't have time to mention every single character by name, but I hit as many as I could. I said that part of the genius of the play is that every character is three-dimensional, complicated, and totally sympathetic. Even Claudius, the nominal badguy, is a shrewd leader who doesn't move against Hamlet until he absolutely has to. One goal of the first-day speech is to get the actors excited about being in the play.

Last page:

the text

how I work

text & scansion
objectives & beats

I have plans for each scene,
but also open to discoveries

my job: make you look good
your job: take risks, make choices

all: trust each other
support each other
work together
have fun


I wrapped up by talking about our version of the text — the cut of the play mostly following the Arden, how I'm open to any text-geeks in the cast who want to use the Folio punctuation instead of the Second Quarto for a particular line, or what have you. How I have a list of bits I'd love to put back in if we're under an hour forty-five. I told them that I'm a big scansion guy, and that I will sometimes talk about scansion in rehearsal. I also talk about objectives and beats and beat changes. I told them I'll have ideas for how I think a scene can be played, and for blocking, but that we'll be making discoveries in rehearsal and the ideas I already have are just to back us up when inspiration doesn't strike — the best ideas come out of collaboration. I talked about the fundamental deal that directors and actors make with each other: my job is to make the actors look good; their job is to take risks and make big choices in rehearsal, together we have to trust each other. A process like this (touring, rebuilding the stage each night, etc) requires everyone to trust and support each other, and especially requires everyone to work together, and to have fun! Finally, I wrapped it up by talking about how lucky I feel to get the chance to direct Hamlet, how lucky we all are to get to spend a summer tackling such a difficult and wonderful play — maybe the greatest of all time, in any language.

After my talk, we went outside to check out the fully-constructed stage; the set designer was there to show the actors how it all worked. It's really great to have the set already built at the first rehearsal — though it will have to reconfigured for Comedy of Errors as well, so I won't always get to block on it. The stage manager talked about some scheduling and businessy stuff, and that was all the time we had.

Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet are the only actors not also cast in the other show, so they stuck around while Comedy of Errors had its first rehearsal. We read through some scenes, and talked about these characters and their relationships. Some interesting ideas came up — if Laertes' mother died long ago, maybe in childbirth with whichever sibling is younger, maybe Gertrude was the closest thing to a mother that Laertes and Ophelia had, and Laertes' admission of guilt comes right after Gertrude dies. If Hamlet's a little older, maybe Laertes always looked up to him while they were growing up. After 90 minutes or so, we let Laertes and Polonius go and I worked with Hamlet on the soliloquies — he's already off book for some of them.

We're off.


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