Hamlet (2014 - 2015)
April 29, 2015
Shakespeare has led me in many directions and into many extraordinary experiences. Today I attended a 2 1/2 hour presentation of HAMLET, performed by prisoners at the Racine Correctional Institution (under the tremendous leadership of Jonathan Shailor ).
The show was very good, but some of the most remarkable moments came afterward in the talkback. To hear a grown man express that he has been debilitatingly shy his whole life and that he hated himself (which, he offered up, was the root of his crimes), and then discuss how working on this Shakespeare project has helped him to be more connected to people, to the world, and allowed him to like himself more... I... just, wow.
The man who played Hamlet (excellently by the way) said that yes, the words were hard at first, but after a while he started to feel them deeper inside, like music. He said Shakespeare's words moved him in a way he didn't realize was possible.
One of the inmate performers is currently transitioning into being a woman. When one of the inmates that came to view the presentation stood up to comment in the talk back and address her, I became very nervous. However I was quickly blown away by the love and support he offered up. So many of the viewers and the participants spoke up with positive reinforcement, I was deeply moved.
When Hamlet talked of Denmark being a prison and then offered up "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," I nearly wept, the context was so potent.
Thanks universe. Today was truly enlightening.
~ Matt Schwader, Instructor, University of Wisconsin-Parkside Theatre Arts Department, Professional Actor/Director, Chicago
May 5, 2015
To the Men of RCI’s Muddy Flower Theatre Troupe:
First and foremost, I wish to thank the entire troupe for sharing your work with those of us fortunate enough to witness it. As a director I was impressed, as an audience member I was moved, and as a brother, I was proud.
The challenge of the journey you committed yourselves to was immense, and your individual growth showed through your performances - beyond the words spoken and the story told. Personal evolution is the power that fuels our work in the theatre, and that which makes it more than mere play.
If the smallest unit of being human is 2 (which I believe), than you all succeeded in multiple ways - with Shakespeare, with your director/teacher, with one another, with yourselves and with your audience. Take the lessons you've learned and commit to forward motion in your lives, for “Anything that you learn well will never forget you”.
“The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of the word is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”
~ Christopher Shailor, Director, Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School Theatre Workshop
May 10, 2015
To the Muddy Flower Theatre Troupe:
Thank you! Thank you for allowing me and the other audience members to witness a tremendous performance of Hamlet. You should take great pride in the work you put into your production.
I feel fortunate that I was able to visit both a rehearsal and a final performance of the play. If I was impressed back in February, then in May I was truly touched. It is clear to me that from the rehearsal to the performance in late April you all grew as actors, speakers, and individuals. I was particularly impressed by the camaraderie that was apparent at all stages of the project: before, during, and following the performance. I remember David (Horatio) raising his hand after the rehearsal, which, to be fair, had its share of rocky moments, and calling on his fellow performers to step up in their rehearsals, to memorize their lines, and to commit all that they could. It was apparent to me that two months later everyone was up to the challenge.
Each of the actors brought their own spark to their respective character(s). Ricky (Hamlet), of course, had the largest task in terms of lines and spotlight, and he more than delivered. Watching David’s interactions with Ricky appropriately felt like being privy to conversations between two old friends. Likewise, Chris’s Laertes challenged his rival in all the right ways. The range of emotions expressed by these three actors, as well as the others, helped emphasize many of the play’s key themes, which as evidenced by the talk back were picked up by the audience members. Jason’s ability to take on the role of Gertrude mid-way through rehearsals was a welcome surprise that showed true flexibility. It impressed me to see how those playing multiple roles used their basic acting tools—bodies, voices, and expressions—to distinguish each character. For example, the exchanges between the gravediggers and Rosencrantz/Guildenstern (Foist and Dale) felt completely different as if embodied by two separate pairs of actors. The singing was excellent, too, by the way. Jamie brought the right amount of meekness and, later, imbalance to Ophelia, a task that I recall being part of the rehearsal back in February. Gary’s raging and conflicted Claudius and Ed’s frantic and well-intentioned Polonius provided a nice contrast. (I’m still not convinced that Claudius was in the right to off his brother, though!) It’s very important to recognize, however, that despite all the individual talents and the various contrasts I’ve mentioned, the final product was very much a cohesive whole — the collaborative efforts of a group of highly motivated and dedicated actors.
Of course, hearing both the audience and the troupe speak about their experiences during the talk back provided yet another wonderful component to the experience. I especially appreciated the comment by one man about his first contact with Hamlet being a Simpsons episode, a pleasant reminder of both the power and universality of Shakespeare.
As I reflect back on the production and attempt to convey my impressions of both the rehearsal and the performance to others, I find it difficult—as always—to do so. I can only give a general sense, a vague shadow, of the touching performance that I witnessed. I only wish that more people could see this transformative work. The efforts of the Muddy Flower Theatre Troupe are inspiring, and I hope that they will serve as a model for many other programs in the future.
José Vergara, Coordinator, Prison Humanities Project, Oakhill Correctional Institution, Wisconsin
May 29, 2015
Dear Muddy Flower Theatre Troupe,
It has been a month since I had the pleasure of witnessing your excellent production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, hearing your post performance remarks, and listening to the profound effect you had on your audience. Your production has stayed with me.
First, I loved its simplicity. Essentially without costumes or set, you went right to the heart of your characters. Each character became defined strictly by their words and action, and by your very important emotional choices. These choices also seemed simple – clear --but very right.
Shakespeare is not easy to deliver. I have seen many productions where it seems like every actor is in their own world, lost in their own rhythm, ignoring meaning in the name of poetry. This was not the case in your production. Your troupe, under the capable direction of Dr. Shailor was always articulate. I understood all of your lines and their intention. You clearly were in control of your characters and their choices. You had done the necessary table work to understand each of them and were in command of your roles in the play.
Those of you who did multiple roles delineated those clearly. I was never confused by who you were – or for that matter where you were.
I was totally amazed that the actor who played Hamlet was not a project veteran and had never done Shakespeare before. He handled Hamlet’s raging conflicts and questions as if he understood exactly who that character was at every moment – his decisions and lack of decisions. Hamlet is a role every great actor wants to play – often for the wrong reasons. Not long ago, I saw a production at Writer’s Theatre in Chicago, where I thought the actor playing Hamlet was too old, too in control of his emotions to be teetering on Hamlet’s cliff. I did not feel that way about the Muddy Flower actor's portrayal. His had an emotional truth to it, perhaps informed by his own life choices.
I liked your trimmed down version of the play as well. I have seen Hamlets where the order of scenes is changed – just because they can be. Dr. Shailor did a great job of cutting to the essential scenes and spending the time with you to rehearse them well. Sequence was never a question.
Ophelia was tender, touching and truthful. I loved the energy the actor brought to the part. I also appreciated the commitment, capability, and depth of the other actors' performances.
I also found myself sometimes watching the actors offstage as they prepared to go on: their complete attention to those on stage and their excitement as they took the plunge back into the play. It was fun to see the level of awareness and commitment being paid.
I also personally always love to watch an audience watch a play. Your audience that Wednesday night was completely rapt, hearing your every word, leaning forward to see all the action, wanting to understand every piece of the play’s puzzle. I wish we could have recorded their comments after – their appreciation of the play, the characters, the risks you took to be part of it, and the tremendous dedication of time and intelligence you put into it. They clearly understood and admired the choice you had made to be part of it.
It was also good to see and hear from the educational directors of the facility their understanding of your important work, its effect on the institution as well as individuals, and their willingness to continue to support this program.
I am looking forward to the next part of your adventure with Hamlet. I would be delighted to return to witness more of your deep and meaningful work.
Meade Palidofsky, Artistic Director, Storycatchers Theatre, Chicago, Illinois
June 1, 2015
To the Muddy Flower Theatre Troupe:
While it has been more then a month since seeing your wonderful production of Hamlet, it continues to be very much on my mind. I have seen all of the productions by the troupe over the years (except for Othello) and have found each show to be meaningful and profound in multiple ways. This production, without much in the way of production support of scenery, costumes, lighting, etc.… was equally powerful in its depiction of the story of Hamlet along with the story of each of you involved in the project. It was a wonderful reminder that the power of theatre lies in the text and the relationship between the actor and that text. Yes, it would have been wonderful to see you in a real theatre with all of the benefits of design and support, but your work illustrated the power of the words, and the way that you have developed a relationship with those words and with one another. You told the story well, you embraced the characters, and embraced your performances in ways that were very moving and often powerful.
I was impressed with moments that each of you had on stage and your willingness to conquer your nerves and to fully commit to what you were doing. So many of Shakespeare’s words take on new meanings when spoken by you in your setting and our awareness of that brought me new understanding of the breadth and depth of the play and the impact it can have. I thought that all of the performances were very strong and was never bored or taken out of the play. Even watching the off stage preparation as you watched one another and prepared to go back on in your next scene was fascinating to watch. Again, that commitment to what you were doing – in front of your peers and invited guests - was wonderful to watch.
I have always been a supporter of the Shakespeare Project at RCI because of its integration of Shakespeare, performance, analysis of human behavior, and self-reflection. I have seen moments that I cannot exactly describe, but that have stayed with me for years and given me one more example of what it means to be human and what it means to give to an audience through the theatrical experience. It seems very clear listening to you discuss your experience that you have grown from putting on another man or woman’s shoes and seeing new perspectives.
I thank you for inviting me to come and to see your performance. I am so proud to have occasionally participated in some rehearsals of past productions and hope that I can do so again. I am honored to have been able to participate as an audience member as well.
Dr. Shailor has given you an opportunity to know yourselves in new ways and it appears that you have learned and experienced quite a bit through this process. Clearly, by the discussion that followed, your audience was moved and learned as well. The comments and the discussion was wonderful – I wish that we had longer to engage in the dialogue about the play and your experience working on this production of Hamlet. I look forward to next year’s production of Midsummer and hope you will allow me to come again.
Lisa Kornetsky, Associate Professor of Theatre, University of Wisconsin-Parkside
“This above all — to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man”