Bringing theatre—especially first-class theatre—to this community is truly an amazing gift. Here it's a miracle.
To: Michael Bahr, Education Director, Utah Shakespeare Festival
From: Geron Coale, Monument Valley High School
Regarding: Hamlet Tour
There is simply no way I can express my pleasure, gratitude, excitement, and admiration for the visit of the Festival touring company of Hamlet to Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, Arizona, Navajo Nation. As a teacher in this rural location, I have so wished that our kids had access to the arts—museums, symphonies, ballet, opera, and, especially, live theatre. While there are so many wonderful things about living here, our kids are educationally deprived because of our isolation.
When we were first introduced to the Festival touring program last year, I was beside myself with anticipation and excitement. But, honestly, I was also afraid—afraid that our students’ first experience with live theatre would be boring. It would be disastrous if that first production were a stultifying, traditional, and pedantic “SHAKESPEARE” (like all the kids were expecting). But within ten minutes, I relaxed and knew it was going to be great.
That first production—“The Scottish Play” – was more than I ever dreamed. The kids loved it and were oblivious to the minor flaws in the performance I saw. My years in theatre, including both academic and professional theatre, had given me the acutely critical eye and ear that we all apply to every production we see. I gave the performance a B+, which is a very high mark. The kids, however, gave it an A++!
I was excited when we decided to commit to a second year. I knew it would wonderful for our kids. But I was curious whether the Hamlet production would live up to the Scottish production.
And, oh my, did it not only live up to, but amazingly surpassed that first production. (Don’t tell that to anyone from that first tour!) In my jaded professional opinion, I thought it was stellar. Frank Hontz’s “story-telling” concept worked exceedingly well. The almost metatheatrical idea of presenting Hamlet in a manner like the Players in the drama might present it is perfect for a touring company like yours. The blocking, use of space, levels, and “doubling” of props and set pieces were genius. (I loved the use of the puppet thrusting through the Players’ curtain to deliver that often- boring speech.) The actors’ sense of timing, honed, I am sure, by Hontz, was as sharp as any comedy team. Allie Babich’s ability to shift focus and tone instantaneously was a marvel to watch. Natalie Blackman’s portrayal of Ophelia’s “mad” scene was gut-wrenching. Domonique Champion’s ability to handle five roles with complete clarity and individuation was stunning. Kelly Rogers’ ability to pull so much emotion and motivation from a role with so few lines was inspired. (Shakespeare didn’t give her many lines, but she managed to communicate volumes with her face and body.) I could continue giving accolades to each actor in the company. . . .
And, above all, the cutting was sheer genius. As a (former) dramaturg for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, I sat in awe, realizing that there is no way I could cut Hamlet to 90 minutes without it looking like Swiss cheese. That very night, after the production, I pulled out my copy of the text because, with only a few exceptions, I couldn’t identify what had been cut. The cutting, and its execution, was so seamless, so easy to follow, so full of the original content that it seemed to have omitted almost nothing, even though I knew intellectually that a full two-thirds of the text was missing. I quizzed my kids the next day to see if they followed the plot, felt at any point that something was missing, or could identify any jarring transitions. They all felt that they had seen a “complete” play, and couldn’t imagine what else there was to the plot.
I quizzed my kids about a lot of things, and they understood and remembered almost every moment of the play. They were not the least bit handicapped by the language. (One student even commented that he was expecting it to be in “Old English,” and thought the text had been modernized! He was amazed when I told him that the cast had performed the “genuine” and original language. And this is not one of my more intelligent and sophisticated students. He is, in fact, one of our “super seniors” who should have graduated last year, but had failed too many classes. I was almost in tears when he said that.) It was a perfectly wonderful example of how the text, in the hands – and mouths – of excellent actors, makes complete sense.
I also asked them specifically about a woman playing Hamlet. To my amazement, they were not the least bit bothered by it. They said that, after about ten minutes, they didn’t even think about the role being played by a female! That’s a real testament to Allie’s acting ability.
They were so full of excitement and praise for the performance that I couldn’t even get an answer to my question about what they didn’t like. None of them could come up with anything they didn’t like. I asked them if they thought any of the actors were “weaker” than the others, thinking that they might at least be able to deal with a ranking question. Again, they couldn’t come up with an answer. They though that every single actor was absolutely fabulous. I tried my best to get them to criticize something about the performance, but they just couldn’t come up with anything. And these are teenagers—who can usually criticize anything!
When I quizzed them about the workshops, I got the same kind of response. Regardless of which workshop they had gone to, they all loved it. They were incredibly excited about the workshops and wanted to tell (and, in the case of the combat workshop, show) me what they had learned. Even our ESS kids (“exceptional student services”—what we used to call Special Ed) were thrilled with the performance and workshops.
I know it’s hard to comprehend, but in many ways, this is still a “third-world” place. Yes, we have McDonald’s, yes most of them have cell phones (actually, a necessity here because some of them don’t even have land lines at home), but many of my students live in hogans (traditional, octagonal, hand-constructed, one-room homes) without electricity or running water. Some of them head straight for the locker rooms when they get to school so they can take a shower! And there is such poverty here that 95% of our students are on Free or Reduced Lunch, a federal program. They get breakfast and lunch here free, and for some of them, that’s all they get to eat in a day. So a professional theatre production is like a spaceship landing in the middle of a jungle!
Bringing theatre – especially first-class theatre—to this community is truly an amazing gift. Most of your performances are in cities and towns where seeing live theatre is not that big a deal. Here, it’s a miracle.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your marvelous gifts with us.