This story is the first in a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

TROUPE 2846 from Kansas’ Garden City High School will make its International Thespian Festival main stage debut with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The troupe presented a Chapter Select Showcase of the student-directed The Story of My Life in 2016.

STORY

Johb Silva as Claudius and Nathan Ayala in the title role of Garden City High School's production of Hamlet.

Johb Silva as Claudius and Nathan Ayala in the title role of Hamlet. Photo by Karime Loya.

Returning home to Denmark from his studies at the University of Wittenberg, the young prince Hamlet finds his life turned upside down. His father has died unexpectedly, and his mother, Gertrude, has hastily remarried. Now, Hamlet’s uncle, his father’s brother Claudius, sits with Gertrude on the country’s throne. For two months, Hamlet has been in a state of heavy mourning, and his mother and uncle criticize him for his inability to let go of his grief and move on with his life.

One night, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his late father, who shocks him with news that he was murdered by Claudius. To avenge his father’s death, Hamlet feigns madness, pushing away his closest friends and his sometime girlfriend, Ophelia. He even employs a group of traveling actors to stage a play mirroring Cladius’ betrayal with hopes of entrapping his uncle and securing a confession. Unfortunately, Hamlet’s ill-designed plan spirals out of his control, with tragic consequences for his family and his kingdom.

BACKGROUND

Historians believe Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600, roughly the same time during which he penned Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor. An earlier play by Thomas Kyd likely influenced Shakespeare’s script, with both versions based on scholar Saxo Grammaticus’ 13th century history of Denmark, Gesta Danorum, which includes the tale of a Danish king murdered by his brother and avenged by his son, Amleth.

Garden City director Barbara Hilt also found inspiration in the 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, directed by Simon Godwin and starring Paapa Essiedu. It used graffiti art created by the prince to hint at his psychological state.

Troupe 2846’s production

Barbara Hilt believes everyone should have the opportunity to experience William Shakespeare, and she’s been building toward a production of Hamlet since she came to Garden City High School seven years ago. In spring 2017, Hilt directed Romeo and Juliet. While three of her Hamlet cast members also appeared in that show, the rest are undertaking their first Shakespeare play.

Hilt’s Hamlet, a version edited by her sister and fellow teacher Robyn Hilt, is staged in an ambiguous time that could be the past, present, or future. Hamlet, like Thespian junior Nathan Ayala who plays the role, is an artist. Ayala drew the images of the Herculean labors used on vinyl panels for the set, and he paints a canvas onstage throughout his “To be or not to be” speech. The play-within-a-play uses influences from pop art for its costumes and makeup. Original music composed by Garden City graduate and former technical theatre student Antonio Vargas also plays an integral role in illuminating Hamlet’s state of mind throughout the production.

Hilt’s students embraced the show’s challenges with enthusiasm. “Our students really dived into the plot and themes of Hamlet from the start,” Hilt said. “We did quite a bit of character analysis with each actor and worked through the text by analyzing every part of the script. There is a lot of stopping, defining, and analyzing of text as you develop a show like this, especially when working with students who are largely second-generation immigrants to the United States. Vocabulary becomes incredibly important in developing these roles. It helps that members of the directing staff all have English for Speakers of Other Languages certifications. Many members of our audience struggle with language barriers as well, since English language learners make up a large percentage of our school population.”

While students might struggle with the text, they easily relate to the universality of Hamlet’s themes. “I have students facing real-world issues — big issues — and they need to be heard,” Hilt said. “Prior to this production, one of our students was forced to return to El Salvador because of immigration issues. There are students who are struggling just to get to school every day for various reasons. No one expects a school in the middle of Kansas, where the closest town is three hours away, to have stories like our students have, to face the things their families have faced, and then take their free time to be in a Shakespeare production.

“The themes in Hamlet correspond directly to some of the issues our country and community are facing right now,” Hilt continued. “Shakespeare tackles all the elements of human emotional experience in this play. We have the opportunity to build a diverse cast, portray universal themes, and bring our students’ perspective to this work. It is incredibly exciting to see the world through their eyes and help them craft a show with substantial social and political themes from 400 years ago that are still current in our own political and social climate today.”

Ayala agrees. “The best part for me about playing Hamlet was getting to try new things I had never done in any other show,” he said. “There are so many big emotions I get to play around with, and it’s so much fun. That being said, it’s also the most challenging part of the show. Having to portray huge emotions is definitely draining.”

Ayala encourages students new to performing Shakespeare to approach the work with an open mind. “There’s so much there for you in the script,” he advised. “Most of the text has a double meaning, so really study it and make sure you know what it means.”

Hilt is thrilled her students will have the opportunity to revisit Hamlet in Lincoln at the International Thespian Festival. “One of the challenges we always face is that our students don’t get the biggest audiences in Garden City,” she said. “We have a group of patrons who always support us that we appreciate very much, but then there are individuals at the high school and in the community who have never seen live theatre. Our houses have grown in size, but we never have sold-out houses. I am so excited for them to have a full house!”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. Revenge is central to the play. Hamlet believes he must avenge his father’s death; however, his actions result directly or indirectly in the deaths of several characters. Seeking retaliation for the deaths of his father and sister, Laertes agrees to Claudius’ plan to murder Hamlet. Do you believe either man’s actions are justified? Why or why not?
  2. The play has inspired significant debate about whether Hamlet is going insane or just pretending to be. What do you think? Use specific examples to support your decision.
  3. Garden City director Barbara Hilt said she chose not to identify the specific period in which their production is set, approaching Hamlet as though it could be the past, present, or future. Why do you think she made that decision? How did it impact your experience watching the show?
  4. How did Garden City’s production employ painting and music to help tell Hamlet’s story? Do you think the school was successful in its use of these elements?
  5. Revenge, loyalty, mortality, feminism, and art are among the many themes explored in Hamlet. Which of these resonated most with you?

ACTIVITIES

  1. Those new to Shakespeare can be intimidated by his poetic language, but there’s no need to be. Retaining its original meaning, take Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy and convert it, line by line, into your own words. How did this exercise change your understanding or appreciation of the speech?
  2. The story of Hamlet has been adapted many times and even inspired the animated movie The Lion King. Choose one film adaptation of Hamlet and compare and contrast the choices in that production with the original play.
  3. As audience members, our understanding of the play’s plot comes primarily from Hamlet’s perspective. Choose one of the show’s other characters (for example, Ophelia, Gertrude, or Laertes) and write a blog or journal entry about the events of the play from their perspective.

RESOURCES

Read
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (full text available through Project Gutenberg)
Folger Shakespeare Library Hamlet webpage
Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet webpage

Listen
University of Oxford Hamlet podcast
Shakespeare Unlimited podcast “The ABCs of Performing Hamlet

Watch
Garden City High School Hamlet excerpts and interviews
Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet synopsis
Royal Shakespeare Company, “To be or not to be,” performed by Paapa Essiedu
Royal Shakespeare Company, “Exploring a Soliloquy,” with Paapa Essiedu
… and more than 50 film adaptations of the play, from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged version.

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Thespians Onstage

    Thespians Onstage

    Send photos from your recent productions

    Feb 22, 2019

    Inside ITF - Day Seven

    Inside ITF - Day Seven

    I guess this is goodbye

    Mar 20, 2019

    Dear Festival Diary

    Dear Festival Diary

    A daily chronicle of the 2018 International Thespian Festival

    Feb 11, 2019