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The Return of Puppet Hamlet!

03.04.15 | 1 Comment


CATEGORIES #2amt, academia, actor training, actors, classical theatre, development, dramaturgy, education

I would wager that, when faced with a show you don’t know, you do something similar to the math I do. You cobble together the basic geometry of the show from the elements you do know. In the spring of 2014 I had some of that math to do…

The central pillar of information about the Hidden Room‘s Der Bestrafte Brudermord is its elevator pitch line “it’s puppet Hamlet”. For certain populations that line alone is the dividing line, for some there’s no chance they’ll miss it, for others there’s no amount of free tickets and mead that could get them in that (Hidden) room.
I am of the former, but as a busy human I need to prioritize my nights off… what else did I know? I knew my friend Beth Burns, field general of Rose RageInvisible IncThe Girl With Time In Her EyesYou Wouldn’t Know Him…Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew had a carriage house for the honors those campaigns garnered.  Further, she isn’t the type to march out on a project she wasn’t in love with.
I knew that they had premiered the piece at American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, as solid a foundation as such a thing could have. I knew from Burns that they had worked with University College Oxford  Professor of Early Modern Drama Tiffany Stern on the dramaturgy of period puppetry and on refining the the new translation by Christine Schmidle.
I knew that…  wait a minute.
This is homework.
Beth Burns and her minions were making me do a sit-n-watch term paper! Oh lord.
You know that feeling too don’t you? That creeping dread when you’re going to have to see a friend’s show and it’s going to be drier than stale wheat toast and you are trying to make yourself feel better by saying over and over again, “It’s only 90 minutes. It’s only 90 minutes… and Jason Newman and Judd Farris are great so it’s going to be survivable – plus I don’t need to actually write a paper”.
Wait another damn minute.
Newman and Farris? Doing all of a variant Hamlet by themselves?
See you don’t know Judd Farris and Jason Newman so let me fill you in… these two were born with that glint in their eye. That smirk warning of impending mayhem.
Photo by Pat Jarrett

Photo by Pat Jarrett

If Burns had chosen these two to spar via a lost Hamlet variant for 90 minutes it was sure to be anything but dry wheat toast,

 

And lord is it anything but. They have a tasty stew going. Those who attended the initial Austin run witnessed a bubbling cauldron of recognizable Hamlet bits, shot through with broad slapstick vocals and front of stage antics from Mssrs Newman and Farris, gorgeous puppets decked out by Jennifer Rose Davis and two full cups of laughs sitting in a fine stock of live music and sound..

 

Genuine earned laughs. Not polite look-how-smart-I-am-I-get-Shakespeare laughs.
Belly laughs. How do you prepare for belly laughing at HAMLET?

 

Given their brief return engagement in Austin before they depart to perform Brudermord at the candlelit Wannaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, I had to know how they pulled it off. As a perfomer how do you build a show for yourself so full of disparate parts and make it look all of a piece all while dealing with the expectations of that NAME hovering over everything?

 

#2AMT: First could you tell me a little about your background? What sort of performing do you you usually do? Were you trained as actors?

Jason Newman – I got a bachelor’s degree in acting at St. Edwards. As for Shakespeare or early modern material, I don’t have a whole lot of training. Actually St. Edwards was the last time I did Shakespeare. I was Prince Escalus in Romeo & Juliet in, let’s see, 2002? I have a background in sketch comedy and, to a certain extent, improv. I think a lot of that comes through in this show. But mostly I do plays and movies. I’m a company member at Austin Playhouse and I’m in a couple things this year at SXSW.

Photo by Pat Jarrett

Photo by Kimberley Mead

Judd Farris – I have a BFA in Acting from Texas State University. I did a lot of improv in college and trained under Paige Bishop, Larry Hovis, and took a few workshops with some lady named Beth Burns. I studied  Shakespeare with Chuck Ney and Debra Charlton in college, and both have vastly different approaches which I really found beneficial because it gave me a pretty well rounded tool bag when approaching Shakespearean roles.

#2amt: You have a great chemistry on stage –  Had you worked together before Brudermord?

JN – Somehow we didn’t even know each other before Beth got us together for this show. We were both doing shows here for years, but had never crossed paths. But the chemistry came fast. Between acting and comedy interests, and generally just getting along, we clicked instantly. And then there’s basketball. We’re both pretty hardcore NBA fans, so by the time we actually got around to doing our first run of the show, Judd was in my fantasy basketball league.

JF – what Jason said. Instantly, we connected on a lot of levels and discovered we have very similar senses of humor. We just enjoy being around each other and that always makes working and facing challenges more fun.

BB – There’s also a sizzling sexual chemistry between them, but if I point it out too much it just becomes uncomfortable.  Better left unsaid like Sam and Diane or Maddy and David.  But let’s be honest, it’s why I cast them.  They can call it “similar senses of humor” if they want to.

#2amt: How long a rehearsal process led up to the premiere in Staunton and then to the Austin mounting?

JN – This show as a whole has been a uniquely drawn-out process. I talked with Beth about being in the show in like March of 2013. Then that Summer we workshopped one scene at the Austin Puppet Incident. Then that fall, we rehearsed and went to Staunton. I remember that rehearsal process being pretty quick. I think we were having to figure out so much of the puppet stuff, and stage construction stuff, that the amount of time we actually got to run the thing was scarce. And then we had the Austin run last March. It always feels like we don’t have quite enough rehearsal time because there’s so many elements.

#2AMT: Did This process begin with the text for you or with the style of storytelling?

JN – The text, I’d say. We did talk some about what the tone and approach was for these types of performers. That they would have been akin to carnival barkers who would need to grab and keep an audience’s attention, who, in some cases, might have been just passing by.  But once we identified that as our jobs, it was all about bringing out the humor we thought was in the script.

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Photo By Cami Alys

 

#2AMT: Did Burns simply open up the room to ideas and let the two of you riff over top of the text or did you begin with standard table work and move to layer the humor and style over top of that?  

JN – It was wide open from the start. We needed to see very quickly if it was funny. That was all part of the laboratory, right? If this was a puppet show, it was probably pretty silly.

BB –  We knew that Shakespearean adaptations as puppet shows were very popular at early modern fairs in particular.  Starting with what we know about the type of entertainment you still see at fairs/amusement parks and some extant materials to give hints on tone, I encouraged the guys go for it, experiment, and build what seemed to work best.  And luckily, both of them are smart and naturally funny.  They had me in stitches for most of the rehearsal process.

#2amt: What was the most surprising change for you from the Hamlet we know and cherish?

BB –   The addition of comedic characters Phantasmo the snotty fancy pants, and Jens the country bumpkin.  They’re pure gold.  Also, Ophelia’s madness seems to be played for laughs.  She becomes love-crazed and violent.  Puppets kissing, then fighting is great to watch, and is just like my life.

#2amt: What did you miss the most if anything?

BB – “To be or not to be” doesn’t exist in the German version.  Puppet Hamlet’s difficulties in avenging the murder are evident, but they don’t seem to give him as much inner turmoil as human Hamlet endures. It also makes me wonder if that monologue itself  just didn’t resonate with audiences then as it does now.

JN – I remember you saying that the origin of this version of Hamlet was probably somebody going to see a touring production and then writing down everything they could remember afterwards. That makes sense. Almost none of the lines are the same.

BB – That’s right.  It’s one of Tiffany Stern’s possible scenarios that the text of Brudermord is largely a remembered Hamlet that was then co-opted.  It would be like if we decided to re-do Citizen Kane for ourselves after seeing the movie a couple of times, and then making it a puppet show and taking it all over the world.

#2amt: What is your favorite change?

JF: I particularly like the use of different types of clowns with Phantasmo and Jens. They are both completely alien to the world of the play we are familiar with and have grown up reading. Phantasmo satisfies some of Osrick’s function, but you just wonder, “why this guy?!”

#2amt I found the work in front of the stage to be surprisingly physical. Was this a goal or just something that grew out of the process? [and there’s a rumor Mr. Farris once lost a swordfight to himself]

Photo by Pat Jarrett

Photo by Pat Jarrett

 

JF: The play moves at such an insane pace that it is hard not to be physical. Really working with Connor [Hopkins] and Caroline [Reck], and the observations of Beth helped me to learn stillness and when all of the focus should be on the puppets. Also, there is a prevailing idea from our research that the narrators often served as clowns or hired local clowns to get audience attention. Some puppeteers and showrunners were also magicians or performed “impossible” feats, in addition to the puppet shows. So, we wanted and talked about integrating that element into it. Ha! I have learned if you have to swordfight yourself, you are a loser before a sword is swung. #hellojoeheller

#2amt Is the music all original or more period unearthing?

JN – There’s actually only one completely original jam. The thing I play when Hamlet does a soliloquy is mine. I came up for that when we did the Austin Puppet Incident workshop. Otherwise everything is early modern stuff that Jennifer Rose Davis brought in and helped me learn.

#2amt From how early on were the puppeteers present in the process?

JF: the first iteration of the play was the Austin Puppet Incident performance of scenes from the show. We collaborated and brainstormed with the very talented and lovely, Connor Hopkins and Caroline Reck. We were using Punch and Judy hand puppets then, but the training and practice of voicing the puppets and discovering our roles as the narrators was immensely helpful. Then, I think Cami Alys was the first puppeteer that came and watched Newman and I run around like goofs displaying our ideas for the physical characters. I believe that was in mid-August, but that whole time is a blur to me. Others came in a few weeks after.

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#2amt Did you work with them to create the voices for each character or were those voice in place when they stepped in the room?

JN – I think at our first read-through we were mostly doing impressions. The King was George W. Bush. Leonardus was Keanu Reeves.

JF – Some came more easily than others, but all were test cases. Still sometimes wished we had G.W. Ericko.

BB – “Phantasmo, you’re doing a heck of a job, heh heh.”

#2amt Was it difficult to find a rhythm with other performers you couldn’t even make eye contact with?

JN – Definitely a unique challenge. The puppeteers are great at taking cues off of stuff we do vocally, and then if we see the puppet do something we’ll try to match that in our lines or in an ad lib. But for me the real challenge is more how we relate to the audience. We’re there in two capacities. We’re performers, and relate directly to the audience on one level. That I’m used to. But for the most part, we’re trying to act through the puppets. We’re in front of the puppets, but acting wise we’re trying not to upstage them too much.

#2amt What did you find to be the most challenging part of preparing the show?

BB – For me, it was in the early weeks of rehearsal, pouring over the research that Tiffany Stern provided but not knowing what type of puppets to use, or what style of delivery would be most appropriate, or what the stick was for that the narrator would hold and how to use it.  Without a living performance history, we were playing Columbo with playbills, diary entries, paintings, poems, songs, and every possible clue in the script to make big calls.  That was scary, and exciting, but mostly scary.

Photo by Pat Jarrett

Photo by Cami Alys

 

There are other things that are even more challenging, but we had the most incredible team on them – Mystery Bird Puppet Show building these beautiful puppets, Jennifer Rose Davis taking the little guys and giving them human hair and nicer clothes than I will ever own, Custom Creation making that extraordinary stage – all of the production design issues were wildly challenging.  So much so that I didn’t have the skill set to even approach them.  I’m just glad that Jesse, Moira, Jennifer, and JB are such masters and were willing to do it.

#2amt What did you find to be the most challenging moment of performing the show?

JN – For me it’s this one part I do on the guitar. If I get through it clean I have this little “heck yeah” moment where I feel like an early modern Jimmy Page.

#2amt What moment of the show can you not WAIT to get to every night?

JN – It’s kind of become the moments where something unexpected happens. There’s almost always something that goes wrong–the puppets will get tangled up, or one will drop their sword. And it’s always a great laugh if Judd or I can roll with that.

#2amt Have you made any changes or shifted approach at all in this run up to making the big jump to the Wanamaker?

BB – We have one really cool change at the Wanamaker in that audience will be able to choose seats where they can get a backstage view of the puppeteers.  And since the Wanamaker is entirely candlelit, we’re making sure that none of our styling items (like our hair products) are flammable.  We want to set London on fire, but not literally.

#2amt Who would you say is Brudermord’s audience? What sort of person is just going to have their socks knocked off by this hybrid style of theatre?

BB – Brudermord has had the widest range of fans of any Hidden Room show so far.  There’s something really special about being able to have Shakespeare scholars and children in the audience, and they both have the exact same look of complete delight on their face.  You’ve got a timeless story that comes from the most bizarre background, told by puppets and people.  It’s like a bedtime story where the pages are alive.  Come on.  It’s not even fair.

Der Bestrafte Brudermord returns to Austin March 6th for a weekend of themed evenings before taking off to: 

JMU in Harrisonburg – March 20
St. Joseph’s University – Philadelphia – March 22
Villanova Univeristy, March 23, 24
Ursinus College, Pennsylvania March 26
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre as a part of Shakespeare Research and Education, Shakespeare: Inspired Season  May 31st, matinee and evening performances with further UK dates TBA.
Travis Bedard

Travis Bedard

A long time theatre blogger, Travis is the Artistic Director of Cambiare Productions and a contributing writer to 2amTheatre.com. Travis holds a degree in Theatre (Secondary Education) from the University of New Hampshire and is currently posted in scenic St. Paul Minnesota..
Travis Bedard

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  • Judd’s loss to himself via sword cannot only be confirmed, but was also well documented. Exhibit A.


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