Today is just over a year since I went on the most amazing ride of last year: when me and some of my most talented and best friends decided to put on Hamlet in a Brooklyn backyard. I was originally supposed to play the role for a regional theater company, but then the job unexpectedly fell through and I was left, like Hamlet, pondering the meaning of life and wondering what my next move should be. After talking with a few friends of mine, I thought, what's stopping me from doing the role anyways? The truth is, nothing was. I immediately started making my own cut of the show and making my own dream cast list based on all most talented classmates and acquaintances. Fortunately for me, all of them accepted when I told them of this crazy idea and a few talented new friends joined the process. My friend Christopher was starring in an Off-Broadway play at the time and was not available to act, so naturally I asked him to direct. Together, and with the collaboration of several other talented artists all searching for meaning in their work, we created one of the best Hamlets the wide world hasn't seen. We fortunately had a few industry guests who came out to our show, and many others who went out of their way to let us know that our production of Hamlet was more raw, more real, and more interesting than any they had seen in a few years. Enough about the product though, the process is what's most interesting.
The seeds of this show were planted during the winter and beginning of 2014. I conferred with Christopher on a cast list and when I came back to New York from my winter break, I began making phone calls and meetings. As I said, all who I had asked were gracious enough to accept and we were off to the races.
Except we only rehearsed once a week. That was all the time we could find in between people's day jobs, auditions and various other things. Winter was dragging on and while the excitement over doing this play was there, the reality of doing it was not. Then one day we decided the beginning of Hamlet would have some crazy dance. Christopher and another cast-member Kotryna (playing Gertrude) had talked about some outrageously absurd dance to get people excited before Hamlet even started, and to be honest with you, I thought it was about the most ridiculous thing I had heard.
About a week or two later, the cast assembled as a unit at Ripley-Grier to try to work out this dance. This dance never made it to the show, but that rehearsal was the first time we all saw this show could be a real thing. We had spent real money on doing a production and we had a real group rehearsal. We had created a budget and we were already in debt.
After this we started ramping up rehearsals to 2/3 time a week, then 4/5, then we just found any time we could get people together at any point in the night or day. 1 am, 10 am, it didn't matter. If people were willing to give us time, we were ready.
About 2 weeks before we decided the show would go on, the role of Laertres had to be recast and we found a fantastic actor from Julliard named Richard. Richard ended up not just playing Laertres, but the Ghost of Hamlet's father and the funniest Player ever put on stage for the Mousetrap. He added an outside energy that was essential to the success to our production.
As we inched closer to production, everyone adopted a new job and pursued it with all their energy. Marc (The Player King) became a lighting designer, Kotryna became a set designer, Sam (Polonius) and Ryan (Horatio) became landscapers. Everyone, and I mean everyone made their own imprint on this show.
I remember one night, at one in the morning. Christopher, Marc, and I went out to an empty lot and found large boards with rusty nails in them and carried them a mile to our apartment just so we could sand them down and make benches for seating. We made a banner of Justin's (Claudius) face that would be dropped down from the 3rd story of our apartment complex, and designed lightboards with power strips. We rehearsed in snow in this unusually cold winter (that lingered through April), we had some of our final run-through's in pouring rain. We literally had a single dress rehearsal with everyone there and a fight that Richard and I had been taught 3 days before the show.
When we got to opening night, we all gathered to see all these people gathered in our little makeshift space. Alyssa (photographer/production stage manager/everything) gathered us for our places and texted with the nervous director Christopher who couldn't be at our opening because he had to perform Off-Broadway. We had provided wine for our audience and chatted with them before hand because, you know, theater is supposed to be fun and it's supposed to be social. I've never really bought into this "you sit there and be held captive while you watch us perform." I'd rather the audience have fun watching a show and feel like they're part of a real experience rather than watching a movie with live puppets.
First line of the show and a lighting cue goes wrong. Another actor forgets his cue. "Oh no," I think, as I sit with the audience as Hamlet, "what have I done?" The court scene with Claudius happens and everyone starts to settle down a bit. The moment "too too solid flesh" comes out of my mouth I am a nervous wreck and then something funny happens. I see the audience. I started talking to them. Not as a character, but as a person. I calm down. Horatio comes in and I'm happy to see him. Acting is fun again. I start going on a ride and I want the audience to come with me. I climb up to the 3rd floor of a fire escape to get prepped for "To Be Or Not To Be" and I notice something incredible from all the actors. We are killing it. It is freezing in April and we are killing it. The audience is having the best time, the actors are having the best time, and real things are happening. This happens over and over and then one night we close the show at 2 am. We have a bit of a party afterwards andI walk outside and see Yorick's skull sitting in the dirt and the remnants of what we've done in the back yard. "What is this quintessence of dust?"
The sky was so clear that night. I couldn't believe what we'd done. Only a few industry people had seen it, they loved it, but there wasn't anyone in particular who would advance our careers. This show will probably only live with the group of people who saw it with us and you know what?
I'm grateful. We did something. We made it with our own hands. I am enormously proud of what we accomplished and I will never forget my first Hamlet, or the perfect team assembled for it who not only rose to the occasion but exceeded all expectations.
It's looking back on experiences like this that help me deal with the fact that often this is a cynical business and cynical world. When you've got great people to help you achieve your dreams though, things can be so bad right? I don't think so. We've only got so much time here, we might as well do our best to enjoy it. While doing Hamlet, I had an interesting thought about his final line. Hamlet is such an exhausting role that rest is a relief, a sweet silence. After doing the show, I had a wonderful sleep.
The rest is silence.