We’re thrilled about our recently announced cast list for this summer’s Hamlet. We’re especially thrilled about the way that this cast reflects our commitment to inclusive casting. Putting that commitment into practice, however, takes a LOT of consideration and a spirit of exploration. SF Shakes Artistic Director Rebecca Ennals sat down with Stephen Muterspaugh, SF Shakes Resident Artist and the director of Hamlet, to pick his brain about the thoughtful casting process for Free Shakespeare in the Park 2017.
REBECCA ENNALS: We are committed to casting at least 50% women and 50% actors of color. I know you deeply value inclusive casting and what it can bring to the text. How did that artistic value affect your early thoughts on the play?
STEPHEN MUTERSPAUGH: Hamlet, as compared to, say, The Winter’s Tale, is a relatively small play in terms of the cast. I was interested in keeping it intimate and wanted to go with 9 or 10 actors total…I wanted to highlight our current political hierarchy, largely casting older white men and women as the authority figures with a more diverse younger cast. While these were my guiding principles, the discoveries that inevitably occur during the audition process further shaped my final casting thoughts.
In terms of affecting my early thoughts on the play – your blog post back in 2013 helped to hone my focus on how to make this particular production of Hamlet relevant to the here and now – to continue to push the inclusive nature of our productions. There were only three roles for which I came into the casting process with gender locked down: I wanted to keep Gertrude, Claudius and Hamlet Sr. in their genders as written. Otherwise, I was open to the potential of anyone playing anything.
RE: Describe the process of auditioning the role of Hamlet.
SM: It was a bit terrifying to announce we were doing Hamlet last September and not have a Hamlet cast! I feel Hamlet, more so than any other show, requires an almost symbiotic relationship between the director and the actor playing Hamlet. To that end, I chose to wait until we found a Hamlet before I settled on my “vision” of the play, because at the end of the day it’s about the relationship between Hamlet and the audience that carries the show.
In August, I started having one on one meetings with the Resident Artists that were interested in being considered for the role. We sat down and discussed the role: what drew them to it, as well as their thoughts on the play, etc. Again, it was invaluable to have a company of artists all willing to give input, whether pro or con (yes, believe it or not, there are people who don’t love this play)!
Then, in October, we began the casting process in earnest. I can’t stress enough how incredibly useful it was to witness the various “Hamlets” that walked into the audition room, each one with a specific take that illuminated a particular aspect of this iconic role. We invited about 20 men and women to read for Hamlet. I requested that everyone prepare the “Rogue and Peasant Slave” soliloquy and another soliloquy of their choosing. Their choice of soliloquy alone spoke multitudes about how the various actors were approaching the character – what was resonating with them. After the speeches, we put every potential Hamlet through a “fight callback” [a callback is a second round of auditions], to assess their combat skills. The role of Hamlet not only requires an excellent actor, but an excellent combatant as well. After those two auditions, it was time to decide who was going to be my Hamlet.
I have to thank all the other actors for the gift of their auditions. It was an amazing representation of Bay Area talent that paraded through those doors – each and every one helping me to see the various layers of this great role and play.
RE: How did casting Davern affect how you thought of the other roles?
SM: Davern’s casting cemented three things: One, we’d be setting it present day (something I was already leaning towards, but not entirely committed to). Two, we’d be playing in a much more raw world, at least in the terms of the way Davern was exploring and approaching the role. Davern has an almost chaotic process when exploring this text – nothing is sacred and everything is possible. In order to preserve that, I set about to people the world of our Hamlet with actors that would not only complement Davern’s Hamlet, but challenge him as well. To that end, Davern was gracious enough to read opposite many of the actors auditioning for the various roles – which made it crystal clear how the cast would gel. And three, with the casting of Hamlet as a man, I now felt it was imperative that future casting decisions must highlight greater inclusion.
I couldn’t be more delighted with the cast we’ve assembled.
RE: We cast Davern just before the election, and the rest of the cast afterwards. How did the political shift in American change your ideas about how to present the play?
SM: Before the election, I was grappling with the question, “Why are we choosing to tell the story of Hamlet in 2017?” I mean, it’s an amazing play and contains some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches – but for a company that only produces one major production a year, why are we putting our energy behind Hamlet? How will it resonate with our audience? Is it enough to just see it as part of the overall 35th anniversary celebration of the Festival?
And then the election happened and everything shifted into place. Our world suddenly felt out of joint – no matter what side of the election you fell on. The anger, confusion and sometimes mourning that occurred immediately following (and still in many ways continues to this day) translated perfectly to the world of Hamlet. The character of Hamlet has lost his foundation and is grappling with how to continue on in this new world – how to find his voice within the new status quo. Does he rise up against his troubles? Or go with the flow? How much is he willing to risk what he knows is inherently just? What action can he take? It’s an incredibly satisfying moment when a fuzzy vision becomes vividly clear.
RE: We called in a very diverse, wide range of actors for each role, and for most of them we saw male and female actors. For several roles, we saw actors who describe themselves as queer or gender fluid. What were the qualities that stood out in the actors we eventually cast?
SM: First off, every actor that came into audition helped inform my final casting decisions – yes, this is somewhat of a no-brainer thing to say, but with this process more so than others, I was coming in blank in regards to how we could tell this story in a relevant way. The actors you reference all came in with such strong, emotionally-connected choices. The energy in the audition room was electric – I wasn’t responding to gender identification or the social ramifications of a particular casting choice, I was reacting to unmistakable chemistry and willingness to dive in and play the scene. I was sold on the acting first and foremost.
We don’t live in a binary world – neither did Shakespeare. His brilliance was his ability to use his poetry in a subversive manner to help push the boundaries and comment on the times. Our ability to challenge the normative casting of such iconic roles is our greatest tool in supporting and giving voice to all members of our community.
RE: Half the roles in the play are cast with actors whose genders differ from the genders of the characters. Would you be willing to share your thoughts on how those roles will be played? For example, Polonius will be played by a woman (Resident Artist Sharon Huff), as a woman. What should the audience expect to see?
SM: It’s a little too early to talk specifically about this particular question. What I can tell you is that any role being played by a woman will be approached as a woman within the world of the play. Same with the men. While it may seem like huge sweeping changes to Hamlet – women playing Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and a man playing Ophelia – these choices do nothing to the actual plot of the play. The story remains intact. These choices highlight aspects of the play and help it resonate with our modern sensibilities – they tie it to the here and now. The specifics will be discovered as we move forward.
RE: Will you be adjusting the language of the play in regards to gender (i.e., swapping out pronouns or honorifics like “sir” or “madam”, or deeper changes)?
SM: Once again, too early to say. I’m still locking down the cutting of the script and beginning my conversations with the dramaturge, and all around Shakespeare guru, Julian Lopez-Morillas. My initial response is that we’ll keep the pronouns the same – in the past, when I’ve changed pronouns, it rang false to my ears – it either messed with the meter or just made me too aware of the performer and took me out of the play. That said, the end decision on pronouns will be reached based on conversations with the actors playing the characters. I feel like it’s important for them to have a voice in that particular decision. Even more so with the play being set in the modern day, considering how forefront gender identification is in our contemporary culture.
The larger language question is much easier to answer. Very rarely do you get the full cut of Hamlet in production – I’m cutting down a four-hour play to somewhere closer to two hours. The act of cutting the play in and of itself is “adjusting the language” – I’m cutting with not only run time in mind, but in order to fit the cast I’ve assembled.
RE: Personally, I feel like Shakespeare wrote human characters of all genders who were all portrayed by men during his time. To me, there’s something inherently performed about gender in Shakespeare – which he acknowledges overtly with cross-dressing in plays like “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” and “Merchant of Venice” and more subtly with gendered language like “frailty, thy name is woman,” which is in reference to a woman being played by a man. When you see a cross-gender performance, some of those subtleties become very clear and surprising. How will your casting choices highlight specific moments in the language of the play?
SM: I completely agree and this absolutely something we’ll be exploring. The difference being, we’ll be wearing our gender on our sleeves, as it were. Women and men will be playing roles that were clearly written for the other gender, but also clearly read either way – what an amazing opportunity for exploration that will lead to many wonderful discoveries!
Specific moments will be hard to talk about now, but certainly the “nunnery scene” takes on a whole new dimension in terms of the sexual shaming, etc., when there are two men playing it. As well as a female Laertes giving her advice to Ophelia to steer clear of Hamlet – is this because of a former relationship between Hamlet and Laertes? Or is it merely a big sister looking out for her sibling?
To me, one of the biggest parallels of the play is between Hamlet and Laertes (a parallel that already exists within the text). We watch Hamlet grapple with his problem for two-plus hours: should I revenge my father’s murder? Can I trust the ghost? Should I end it all rather than deal with this pain? Then in storms Laertes, who has arguably suffered a greater loss and is looking to avenge his father’s death – all action, no hesitation. Now add the lens of gender to this parallel… not sure where it’ll lead, but I’m very interest in going down that path.
One of the traps, in terms of gender within Hamlet, is that all the women in the play can easily been seen as pawns with little or no agency. This is unacceptable to me. Obviously, some of this issue relies on the actor and director to solve in the playing of the scene, but some of it is baked in over the centuries of performance.
There was a moment during the audition process when two women auditioning for the role of Hamlet were discussing how refreshing it was to be at a combat callback – they often get to take part in moments of violence onstage, but largely as the victim of violence. At this particular callback they were being asked to swing steel and initiate combat – a skill they were both well trained in but sadly, as mentioned above, a skill they rarely get to exercise. It’s moments like this that informed me along the way. After this discussion, I became very interested in the potential of a woman playing Laertes, and consequently a man playing Ophelia – something that didn’t really come to fruition until the math of casting came into play.
RE: We’ve been talking a lot about gender, but of course our cast is also ethnically diverse, and that diversity is more strongly present in the younger generation of characters. I know that was a deliberate choice – can you talk about that a bit?
SM: Yes! I was very interested in mirroring our current political landscape. With largely white older men and women in leadership roles, with a much more diverse younger generation rising up to take leadership roles. Some of them get disenfranchised and disillusioned along the way. While I’m discussing this disenfranchisement in terms of our current politics, I still see it as a direct reflection of the character of Hamlet and his school mates from Wittenberg and how they navigate the new regime in Hamlet’s Denmark.
RE: How will we make sure this production is accessible to first-time audience members? What choices are you making specifically because we welcome people who are seeing Shakespeare for the first time?
SM: We’ve been discussing the specifics to this particular production of Hamlet, but at the end of the day, the play is the play. What I mean by that is, we’re not changing the story of Hamlet, we’ll still be taking all our cues from the text. I’m still very much interested in the relationship between the characters and the audience – to that end, the audience should expect to be an active partner in the process. You will be talked to. You will be implored. You will be challenged. And yes, sometimes it will be by an actor that is in a role they normally wouldn’t play.
In the end, the story of Hamlet will be told, with certain changes that help it resonate in a specific way to a modern audience.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.