Bringing ‘Hamlet’ to life

Roles to switch around during SMSU production

Photo by Cindy Votruba The actors in the Southwest Minnesota State University production of “Hamlet,” which opens today, switch roles during the course of the show. Seven of the 10 actors in the cast portray Hamlet during the course of the show.

MARSHALL — In Southwest Minnesota State University’s theater production of “Hamlet,” more than half the cast is playing the title role.

The SMSU Theater Department is presenting William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the SMSU Black Box Theatre. SMSU theater professor Nadine Schmidt is directing the show.

In this production, the actors shift from one role to the other, with several members of the cast playing the part of Hamlet. Schmidt said that fellow theater professor Mike Lenz had first mentioned the idea of the role of Hamlet switching around.

“Then I thought, ‘why not switch everyone around?'” Schmidt said. “It was a big task to divide up the roles to make sure everyone got to play a variety of roles and some ‘meaty’ parts.” Schmidt said she made a variety of charts, including one that shows each actor and the characters they play and one that shows each character and all the actors who play that character.

Most actors in the cast of 10 are playing between eight to 12 different roles, Schmidt said. Seven of the 10 actors play Hamlet.

“Simple costume pieces designate each character, and we have worked to have some physical and personality consistencies among the actors who play the same character.”

SMSU student Sariah Cheadle is one of the seven actors who portray Hamlet, along with several other roles. As far as acting ability goes, the show has, in some ways, been the most challenging production she has ever been part of but also the greatest learning experience, she said.

“I think the biggest challenge with switching roles throughout the show is finding, then remembering, ways to become all the different characters and making them distinct,” Cheadle said. “This means knowing each character you play really well so that you can understand what each character is feeling and what type of person they are. Portraying a lot of characters has also been fun because I get to play very different people during the same production. It’s also interesting because during one scene, I might be plotting or talking about a different character, and then later I get to be that character.”

Alex Castro, one of the community members acting in the show, said he enjoys the approach Schmidt has given them.

“It is a challenge because you have to pay attention to everyone’s performances, not just your own,” he said. “This is the fun, too. It requires us to be an ensemble and to come together to create these people and lives for the audience to experience.”

Cheadle said she thinks that everyone who plays Hamlet brings something a little different to the role.

“But we all have to observe each other and make sure we are aware of what happens in scenes we are not in,” she said. “In order to prepare for that role, I really had to focus on the text and figure out what I am saying and why I am saying it.”

Castro also gets to play Hamlet. He said he prepares for the role by watching his fellow actors when they are performing.

“Each one brings something beautifully unique to the role, themselves,” he said. “Sariah does brilliant voice work, especially showing the difference between Hamlet in his private sanity and public madness. Morgan (Benson) brings a great physicality to the role as does Thomas (Knudson). I truly enjoy getting to watch them work.”

Knowing that the shifting actors could be confusing, the cast and crew have added some elements to help the audience follow along, Schmidt said.

“There’s a prologue that establishes the costume pieces associated with each character,” she said. “There’s a scene-by-scene summary (without spoilers) and those are duplicated by projections on the stage.” Schmidt said she’s cut the script so that is should run about two hours, it has all the famous lines and scenes, but it is streamlined to hopefully heighten key themes and plot elements.

“We’ve focused on the ‘humanness’ of these characters and situations, and we’ve made sure to include the humor that is in the script, which often gets left out or overlooked,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said she hopes the students and community members involved with the show have learned some tools for Shakespeare performance that will serve them well in the future — about clarifying language, developing physicality, connecting with the characters, finding the humor, etc.

Lenz also plays live original guitar music during the show to underscore key moments, and a couple of scenes are played in a surprising location, Schmidt said.

It’s a dream to help bring “Hamlet” to life, Castro said.

“I think we have something pretty special to share with people,” he said.