Arts & Culture

Asolo Repertory Theatre’s The Tragedy of Hamlet

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While Asolo Repertory Theatre has a host of outreach and education programs, perhaps the most exciting is the fall tour that brings exciting 45-minute modern adaptations of classic literature to schools and community venues throughout the Sunshine State. And for this year’s tour — which started September 27 and ends November 22 — it’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, an all-new adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic. It’s the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, after all, so there’s no better time to explore one of his literary and theatrical masterpieces.

The tour’s company features the entire third-year class of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. Before each performance, company members load up a van with minimal set pieces, props, and costumes, as well as a sound system, then the 11-person cast heads to a school or community venue and brings in all of the equipment, sets it up, does warm ups and a quick fight call to ensure stage combat goes well, gets into costume and is ready to perform. All of this happens within 90 minutes of arrival.

And just as often as not, they pack it all up and repeat the process at another school or venue the same day. “As of right now,” reports Education & Outreach Director Kathryn Moroney, “there are 62 performances on the calendar in about 42 different places. So it’s a pretty busy nine weeks!” She points out that it requires quite a bit of flexibility to go into an unfamiliar location — which could be a cafeteria, multi-purpose room, or a theater space — and be ready to do a show.

When asked why they went with Shakespeare for the touring project versus, say, Arthur Miller, Noel Coward, or Lillian Hellman, Moroney explains that Shakespeare hits a sweet spot. The performers — who just finished the second year curriculum that focuses on Shakespeare and a rigorous London theater summer training session — are eager to share some of what they’ve learned. And while schools have different needs throughout different years of the curriculum, Shakespeare is often on the docket. “We can bring something beyond what the teachers do,” says Moroney. “We can take the classic works of literature and bring them to life for young audiences. Yes, Shakespeare is writing about themes like truth and loyalty, but those aren’t just vague ideas when performed by actors. At our shows, audiences can witness how poetry transforms into behavior.” Audiences quickly understand that what they’re watching is real, or at least deeply echoes the behaviors and challenges of real people. The truth and relevance speak across the ages to students of today.

What if the students haven’t yet read Hamlet? No problem. While some schools adjust their class readings to match what the tour brings them, others aren’t able to do so. Some students won’t be reading Shakespeare until spring, so the tour becomes a springboard that sparks their curiosity and helps them explore its possibilities even before opening the text. A performance can also serve as a comparison with another Shakespeare work that they read. Or it can simply be an introduction to Shakespeare in general, a literary giant whose work they will read at some point in their school careers.

Part of the fun and educational value is the informal Q&A period with the cast after the performance. Moroney says, “There’s a bit of time immediately afterwards for the cast to introduce themselves and answer questions from the audience. Kids are often more vocal than adults, so these discussions can be quite memorable.” The cast hears honest reactions to the work — and many feel challenged and inspired by the students. Audiences also share written reflections after the performance. It’s interesting how readily students make connections and draw comparisons between stories of today and Shakespeare’s stories. This is exactly how people in love behave, they often point out, or this is what jealousy is like in middle school. Their writing demonstrates that watching a play is not a passive experience, but that the audience can make a personal connection with these texts centuries after it was written.

Last year, the fall tour reached over 14,000 students and adults, and the calendar this year seems comparable, reports Moroney. The Tragedy of Hamlet is especially important because it has such a prominent place in the curriculum, so the demand has been high from day one. “The truth is that our calendar is so full that we don’t have as many performance days as we’d like,” says Moroney. “We’re nearly at capacity now.” This makes sense since their fall tour program — now in its 7th year — has been particularly successful and well-received.

“It’s my fourth season here,” explains Moroney, “and this program existed before I arrived. Yet it was one of the things I was most excited about in terms of Asolo Rep’s offerings. It’s really a great match between a serious need that schools have and what we have to share.”

For more information on Asolo Repertory Theatre’s education programs in general or The Tragedy of Hamlet tour in specific, please visit asolorep.org/education or call (941) 351-9010 ext. 3307.

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