60 of my students met their first Hamlet on stage at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, this past week. Their Hamlet was the actor Paul Giamatti, who after speaking 40% of the play’s 4,042 lines (roughly 1,440), came out onto the stage for an audience talkback to speak a few more words to them.
“He looks tired,” on student remarked to me. The play had begun at 10:15 AM, and we were still sitting three and a half hours later as the actors and crew began to respond to questions.
If we thought they looked tired, the actors seemed surprised to see us still sitting there.
“Wow!” Polonius (Gerry Bamman) said as he sat, “You stayed!”
Students were curious about how the sets moved (“The stage has a large fly space.“). Students wondered how long the cast had rehearsed (“Eight weeks, a real luxury…”). Students wondered who was most like his or her character (“I understand Gertrude much more since I have a son”). Students asked about the creation of set pieces including a large portrait (“That’s an oil painting from a photograph”).
Of course, there was no stopping the students from calling attention to Giamatti’s role in Big Fat Liar, a film from their youth. One student stood to ask, “Did Hamlet remind you of Marty Wolf?” Giamatti laughed in response, “Well, maybe,…a little… except for the blue crap!”
Hamlet is a 12th grade text, and I asked students to take a survey after they returned to the school to see what they thought of this production. While the survey indicated that the teachers in our English department had done their job, the students indicated that seeing the play performed was very different that studying the play in class:
Shakespeare was meant to be live. Although the “perfection” of a movie is enhancing to the performance, it is unrealistic. I believe that watching a play live is important to seeing the different styles and methods possible.
It was fun and a lot better than just reading it in class, it made it come alive.
I did not think it was going to be as entertaining as it was. I also did not think I would find parts humorous, but I did.
This Hamlet was part of the WILLPOWER! series (funded by the National Endowment of the Arts). The website states:
WILL POWER! is Yale Repertory Theatre’s annual educational initiative in conjunction with one of its productions and features specially-priced tickets and early school-time matinees for middle and high school student groups. The program also includes free professional development for educators, study guides and post-performance discussions with members of the company.
One of the objectives of the WILLPOWER! series is to create new audiences, specifically younger audiences, for Shakespeare. Students who have attended a Shakespeare play may be more willing to attend another play when they are older; in other words, a favorable dramatic experience will yield future audiences for Yale Drama School graduates!
The survey indicated that this goal is being met with the WILLPOWER! series; my students are certainly willing to try another play:
The performance was a wonderful experience, especially since it was my first time to see Shakespeare.
I wouldnt mind going to another because it was so enjoyable that I didn’t even realize the 4 hours passing by.
I like the way that a play has a certain kind of vibe. It’s like a live concert, where there’s a certain kind of energy. It was like seeing a live performance of a film. I would especially like to see another Shakespeare because it is the way that he intended his works to be portrayed.
After seeing Hamlet so well done, it would definitely be worth going to see another one whether it be Shakespeare or a different kind of performance.
Perhaps the most satisfying moments of the actor’s talkback for teachers is hearing the actors say things that we wish our students would pay attention to in class. When Giammati was asked about how he felt about memorizing all those lines, he explained that he enjoyed learning the lines and playing on the open space of the stage.
When one student asked, “What part of the play did you like best?” Giamatti responded, “I enjoy the end, when Hamlet returns to the graveyard, until the end.” Then, thoughtfully, he added, “Shakespeare’s words begin to come through you if you let them.” (Honestly…you could hear the teachers in the audience swoon!)
But nothing was better than hearing the young Remsen Welsh (Player Prologue) explain how the director, James Bundy, had prepared her for her role. “It’s simple,” the actress gestured enthusiastically from the front of the stage. Facing the crowd of students twice her age, she cheerfully acknowledged, “He told me, ‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action..’ and I did!”
A first Hamlet they will remember.