This spring, the Classical Studio of NYU Tisch School of the Arts produced Hamlet in what scholars have deduced to be the play’s Original Pronunciation (OP), more than 400 years ago on the very first opening night of the play. This was the first full-length OP production of any Shakespeare play in New York City.
To document this premiere OP process in an educational setting, we kept a communal class blog of our experience. I wrote twice: once at the very beginning of the process, and once at the very end. The following post is my first of two, copied and pasted from the private OP Hamlet blog.(1.27.2016)
“Release the poo!” After rehearsal this evening, Mamie and I spoke for an indefensibly long time in the context of pressing to-do lists and sleep deprivation. A few hours earlier, when Louis had emphatically directed Ari, who is playing Polonius, to release his line: “Affection! Poo! you speak like a green girl . . .” (Hamlet I.iii), I laughed because it was a poop joke. Mamie laughed because I laughed. We both laughed because even the regal Daniel Spector laughed.
During our 5 week break from the classical studio, it was very easy to remember fall semester with great fondness: Daniel and Louis as great, forgiving chums; acting as a struggle past; rehearsals as a big ball of play time. It wasn’t until I was in the room this evening, back in the swing of things, that I remembered the gook that accompanies this process. Those beautiful times that I remember so confidently were borne of some persistent discontents.
“Must I remember?” (Hamlet I.ii). Daniel Light was deep in a trance, his eyes closed, his metronomically bobbing head keeping in time to Hamlet’s verse, spoken by Salber. She was wielding her word endings like David’s pebble, hurtling this choice detail in the face of the Original Pronunciation Goliath–what if no one can understand us? After four months of this studio, our verse work has become ingrained, the rhythm second nature, and almost never a cause for a note. Antithesis, jaw-dropping, leaving our hands out of the conversation: these great burdens have largely left our conversation in rehearsal. It’s like not noticing someone’s hair growing until you’ve been apart for five weeks. We’ve already come a long way. Entranced Daniel (or as I plan to call him, Entraniel) certainly appreciated our progress as Salber spoke. Wow, I thought. He’s really feeling it! Then Salber finished speaking, and Daniel’s head kept bobbing–until he woke up, his face was flushed from a stolen nap. I was dismayed at this reminder of the exhaustion this semester holds for us, what last semester held. (“Would you be comfortable with me putting this in the blog post?” I asked, the only one who caught him. He smiled: “I don’t care what you write.”)
“. . . Let me not think on’t” (Hamlet I.ii). Maggie was weeping, Charlie was weeping, Georgette was weeping. This is a sad play, as Mamie and I only just remembered as we spoke after rehearsal. “Oh shit” (Hamelt V.ii). It was only the first day of running the scene, and already people were trying to kill each other and hugging dead bodies. People really thrust themselves in there, and it was both very impressive and very scary for me, sitting on the sidelines for the majority of rehearsal. Everyone else is so good. They all look so prepared. I thought it would be a good idea to do a blog post for a night when I’m mostly observing, but watching without doing is terrifying for someone with a chronic sense of falling behind. It was safer sitting by with a pencil. “Tomorrow, I’ll have to bring it, work, be proud, kill myself,” I wrote in my notes. Because as Devan’s character explained how if Ophelia brought herself to the water, she killed herself, but if the water was brought to her, she died–it seemed all too relevant to jumping into the work this semester. We bring ourselves to the water every day. (No, Laura, you love your art! Well, Laura, sometimes fear makes us say things we don’t mean.)
Louis’s been bringing himself to the water for 25 years here. This is his 25th(ish) return from winter break. This weeping and dying is back-to-business for him. Louis told Devan, the Grave Digger, to “be proud of that” when she says she works “all the days i’ the year”. To be proud of her work as would someone would be who ran a drugstore and stayed in business for 30 years, he said. It’s a funny business Louis has here, all the days i’ the semester. Everything looks pretty much the same as last semester, except 1) everyone’s wearing some variation of hiking boots or Dr. Marten’s for the snow, 2) Daniel Spector’s grown a beard, and 3) Ari’s grown a mid-sized shrub. Bringing ourselves to the water, at least 6 times a week until mid-May.
And if there’s one flaw we’ve held onto from last semester, it’s the love affair with our mistakes, and the fetishizing of struggle for our art. (Note to self: don’t use suicide as a metaphor for my art.)
I did get to work for a few minutes, saying lines I forgot I had, and almost falling on my face in my haste to get onstage for the entrance I almost missed. (But my mistakes have, “of late, made many tenders of [their] affection to me!” (Hamlet I.iii).) And in a world where everyone is speaking in this dialect that is just inconstant enough to prevent latching onto a pattern, I found it hard to listen when I couldn’t understand what people were saying. And that made it very hard not to fall into “acting” in order to be doing something, anything. I heard Irish or Scottish inflections to some lines, probably subconsciously brought in from movies and TV, which was a more familiar lilt. I’m not sure it’s a good thing though–it’s enough right now just to bring the barebones dialect into our reality. I’m not interested in another element of “putting on” at the beginning of this grounding process.
Mamie told me about her budding relationship with Ophelia: a character who’s had a lot put upon her over time. “I could give her any other name,” she said, and then she wouldn’t have to bother with all the ideas and associations that come with OPHELIA. “She can talk however I want, she can eat whatever I want,” Mamie went on. “That’s why it’s still interesting when new people play her.” She then declared the basis of her latest Classical Studio theory: “Do whatever the fuck you want,” she said. “Do whatever the fuck you want, but do,” I added.
“It’s all fairly simple what we’re asking people to do,” Louis had said, in the cabaret space a few blocks earlier. (We’ll bring ourselves to the water daily.) And he asked us to consider: “What do I know right now.” He meant for our characters. Still:
- I’m looking forward to walks home from rehearsal.
- Sometimes you do have to release the poo to get on to the work.
- I want to settle for nothing but listening next time, even if I have to be curled up on the ground with my eyes closed to focus strongly enough.
- Exercises in projecting word endings yield great results for OP.
- Even when Daniel Spector is looking INTENTLY out the window he’s listening.
- Despite our conversations about phone use, the only two cell phones that made appearances were Louis’s and Daniel’s.
- When people say, “It’s going to be fine, it’s going to be great,” it means the opposite.
- Actually though, it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be great.