Graham Hamilton in the title role of Hamlet in this Folger Theatre production directed by Joseph Haj. Photo by Carol Pratt, courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library
The NEA’s Josephine Reed talks with director Joseph Haj about his production of Hamlet at the Folger.
Joe Haj: I know this from the theater that I lead now. If I can persuade our community that we are making a play because it has any kind of relevance or resonance to their own lives we can make almost anything. And the day that I invite our community to come in and admire our art and our genius and then go away, nothing good happens. And so if you're approaching a "Hamlet" there's just no sense. I mean I don't care about how people bowed 400 years ago, like I don't care. I don't think I mean this is what, I mean somebody should care. It's important, I guess, anthropologically somehow but it's not important in terms of making the play. What's important in terms of making the play is how do we make a "Hamlet" right now in D.C. in 2010 that actually has something to do with people's own lives and experience. So I just try to figure out how to help people be able-- try to help a community come in and feel the play, feel the journey. It's a tragedy. And it's only a tragedy if you love Hamlet. Like I've seen so many productions where you sort of don't like him from the very beginning. You know it's a tragedy only if you believe in this young person's possibility and how that life is ruined.
Jo Reed: I'm Josephine Reed with the National Endowment for the Arts, and that was director Joseph Haj. In the spring of 2010, Joseph Haj directed a production of "Hamlet" at the theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Joe took some time between dress rehearsals to talk to me about the experience. Here's our conversation.
Jo Reed: Joseph Haj, you are bringing "Hamlet" to the Folger. First of all, why "Hamlet"? Why do you want to tackle that play?
Joe Haj: Well, you know, it's one of those mountain top shows; it's brilliant and spectacularly difficult. And so, the challenge of it, I guess. It's just one of the great plays. So when the Folger called and asked me if I would direct it I leapt at the chance. I thought it would be amazing.
Jo Reed: Here's my question. How do you take a play that is that's so well known to so many of us and how do you have the audience listen to it with fresh ears?
Joe Haj: Yes, that's a great question. So I've known I'm directing it for well over a year now and a lot of the process of it is okay, well, now we sit down and read the play with an idea about directing it. And all of the former productions, all of the times that I've read the play, other productions that I've seen of the play, films that I've seen of the play, are all sort of scrolling through one's brain as you read these things. And as you start to study the text in some sort of substantive way those things start to fall away and you start to realize what you understand about the play which leads to an approach to the play. It's hard. It's hard. On the first day of rehearsal I really challenged the company and before that challenged the designers - without any desire to thumb nose at tradition and also with no desire to embrace it whole cloth - that we just looked at the text from zero. We just look at it as if it had just fallen into our laps and explore the play from that place. And that's been a great, great exercise. And I think in the main we've really managed to divest ourselves from creating a production that overly belongs to someone else's idea about it. It feels very true to me, very true to the spirits in the room, the people who have made this production at the Folger. So it's its own unique animal and I'm very excited about it.
Jo Reed: Can you talk a little about some of the challenges of putting this play on?
Joe Haj: Yes. So some of the challenges, we're doing it with 12 actors, so there's doubling and trebling of roles and figuring out sort of the logistical challenge and how we solve the play within the play, the mousetrap and doing that as a film because we wouldn't have actors to both play it and watch it. So it's led to some really creative ideas in terms of how we'd tell the story of the play. The Folger space itself it's a magnificent intimate, intimate room. And interestingly the theater that I lead back home in my other job is a 550 seat very deep thrust almost like being in the round. And so a lot of my work as a director in that space is to get small and truthful work amplified in such a way that it can actually reach the back wall of that theater even when your back is to some portion of the audience at any time. So a lot of my work as a director is getting actors to scale up. And the great beauty of doing this play in that gorgeous space at the Folger, in a small intimate space is you just have to tell the truth. So a lot of the work is helping the actors do, in fact, less not more which is both a great challenge and a great, great, gift. You know, you know, the play, the play itself - "Hamlet" is the longest play - so how we cut the play, how we edited the play because I'm not sure anybody is very interested in the four-and-a-half hour "Hamlet", so part of the challenge is how we were going to organize that text in such a way that it could tell the stories we were more most interested in. So what else? It's a great designers, great company of actors. And I've had about as a good a time making this play as I've ever had making anything. You have great actors and off you go.
Jo Reed: And also you did mention the Folger and I do want to talk about that. It really is such a special place.
Joe Haj: Yes.
Jo Reed: And the theater is quite unique in its intimacy.
Joe Haj: Yes. I'll share a really amazing experience I had. So I was in D.C. for production meetings and Jack Herrick who's the composer and plays the music live in the piece, he's one of the Red Clay Ramblers, and we were here together. We've worked together before. We were here for a production meeting, a design meeting. And the Folger folks said look, we've got a couple of scholars in town and we're going to do a tour down in the vault, do you and Jack want to go? And I thought, well, yes, I'll go look at books. And I had the biggest experience. I mean we went down there and I mean it's astonishing there are 224 something like that extant First Folios in the world and the Folger has 79 of them. I mean it's crazy. So just going through these stacks of incredible, incredible books. And then we were talking down this one narrow aisle and there's this shelf filled with "Hamlet" books. And I said, "Well, what are all of these?" And they took these books down and it was the prompt book for Edmund Kean's "Hamlet"; the prompt book for Garrick's "Hamlet"; the prompt book for Barrymore's "Hamlet." And they opened and sort of flipped through some of these pages and there are just notes filling the margins. And they were just a group of people in a room wrestling with this great text, the same way that we were charged to do. And I just, I felt, myself obviously making no comparisons but I felt myself in a continuum of theater artists who have wrestled with this play for 400 years and that experience really helped shift how we were to approach rehearsals which was from the first day to share with the company: there is no absolute "Hamlet", not the play, not the character. All that's left to us is the exploration and we work and we work and we explore and explore and at a certain point we open the doors and folks come in and they watch. And feeling myself, feeling ourselves, the production sort of in the river of this long, long history of theater artists who have wrestled with this play. It was kind of wonderful and profound.
Jo Reed: You know, it seems to me it would be sort of a struggle or you must feel bifurcated because one on hand, of course, you want to approach the play as though it just landed in your lap. And on the other hand you have all of these years of scholarship and thought that have been devoted to the play and you're also at the Folger which is the seat of Shakespeare in the United States. And how do you avail yourself of that and at the same time bring a fresh perspective?
Joe Haj: Yes, it's a really great question. I think central to that is to recognize that what the academy's job is relative to Shakespeare is very different than what my job is relative to Shakespeare. So I read everything, everything, everything. We have a wonderful dramaturge who just shared so much. There's this article, there's this piece, there's piece of scholarship, there's this thinker and I read everything. And then, you sort of have to throw it all away and make the play with the people in the room. You know the scholarship is useful to a theater maker, exactly to the extent that it ignites imagination and that's it. Beyond that, then it's a program note, that's what libraries are for. That's what scholarship is for. And our job is to make the play. You know there are things great wonderful thinkers who have written brilliantly about "Hamlet" and you read it and you're like well, that's kind of brilliant but it has no purchase. Like you could never get that idea activated in a production of the play, never. We have different jobs. It's wonderful to be able to go through the piles of scholarship on "Hamlet" and indeed any of Shakespeare's plays. There's no shortage of research that was done. But one has to be careful of making theater around scholarship. You kind of have to make the play based on its emotional and psychological life. And yes, it's textual life as well. But there's so many productions that are categorically ruined by some sort of fealty to scholarship.
Jo Reed: Well, you know, it's interesting because, I think, we often approach Shakespeare with such reverence. I'm surprised we don't genuflect before we go into our seat.
Jo Reed: And it's really hard to remember that when he was writing plays and producing plays he was doing it for people like you, like me, like the butcher, like the baker, like the guy who picks up the trash.
Joe Haj: That's right. Yes, a craftsperson and making work and undoubtedly rewriting for his company, he was making work for his group of actors and writing to their skills and writing to what he thought would get over for an audience.
Jo Reed: That was Joseph Haj. He directed "Hamlet" in the spring of 2010 at the Folger Shakespeare Library. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.