Proving that Shakespeare is for all ages and all people, Westridge School in Pasadena is getting ready to open an all-female 1990’s grunge-inspired production of Hamlet, starring Madeleine Russell in the title role. Anyone who has ever worked on the play, and particularly on that role, will tell you that it is a huge undertaking and one that presents many opportunities for growth, both as an actor and as a person. Since I’m always interested in the process, I asked Russell, who is a 17-year old senior at Westridge, what it was like for her to step into the shoes of one of Shakespeare’s most tortured characters. I think you’ll be impressed at what she has to say about her experience.
How do you get inside a character like this as a young woman in the role, rather than a young man?
Because my school is single-sex, I have had the chance to play men before. I find that my approach is fairly similar for any character, male or female. I read for emotions, motivators, character shifts. I analyze their journey, always taking into consideration their present circumstances. With Hamlet, I have easier access to his feelings and thoughts. He never hides from the audience, which I find to be one of the reasons he is so compelling.
How does playing a boy affect how you move, what you think about, and how you focus?
Physically, it has affected my pitch and stride. Mentally, my focus revolves around the text, and then I translate that meaning into my movements when suitable. Although in an ideal world I would portray him as realistically as possible as a young man, I understand that ultimately, as a young woman, an exact replication is not feasible. With that in mind, what I have focused on most during this process is making Hamlet’s words and thoughts come to life.
What has been most rewarding about working on Hamlet?
The most rewarding aspect of Hamlet has been just saying his words. I am constantly amazed that I have the opportunity to speak this rich text. This is my first time working on a Shakespeare play and I quickly realized that all the answers to any actor’s question live in Shakespeare’s words. It’s all on the page. And so I feel my job is to act as the vessel through which his words can shine. My appreciation for Shakespeare’s brilliance has grown exponentially because of this show.
I have also loved watching the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes come to life. As we approach opening night, the sword fight has slowly been brought up to speed, meaning we are fighting in real time. Laertes and I duel amongst the chaos and excitement of the other characters, so the whole scene is full of energy.
How have you grown working on the role and how have your thoughts about it changed since you started rehearsals compared to where you are now, just a week before opening?
I have become more comfortable with my relationship to the audience. I found the soliloquies daunting at first but by focusing my energy on my desire to connect with the audience, I began to release my nervousness and instead felt comforted by their presence. The journey in general has been incredible, and it is still continuing. We discover new things in rehearsal daily, which makes the process all the more fun!
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Hamlet is adapted and directed by Laurie Riffe, Director of Theatre and Theatre Department Chair. The production team also includes Ned Mochel (fight director), Jeff Gardner (sound designer), Katie McDermott (scenic and properties designer), Io Hawk Sablan (costume designer), Jan Kellogg (lighting designer), Cris Capp (production manager), and Rolando Fernandez (production assistant).
Cast: Madeleine Russell (Hamlet), Dylan Jack (Claudius), Grace Olinski (Gertrude), Emma Kuhlman (Ophelia), Emma Rothenberg (Laertes), Olivia Tayback (Polonius), Marney Wood (Horatio), Brynn Ziel (Rosencrantz/Priest), Jane Hutton (Guildenstern), Grace Peacore (Ghost of King Hamlet), Lydia Mead (Gravedigger/ Player Lucianus), Sylvia Woolner (Gravedigger’s Companion/ Barnado), Sophie Grindon (Osric), Sarah Bacio (Gentlewoman/ Player Prologue), Sophia Ramirez-Brown (Player King), Penelope Boone (Player Queen), Emma Hovanec (Marcellus), and Gisele Chu (Francisco).
Hamlet is open to the public. Ticket information is below.
Oct. 24 & 25 at 7:00 pm, and Oct. 26 at 2:00 pm
Fran Norris Scoble Performing Arts Center
324 Madeline Drive, Pasadena, CA 91105
Tickets ($5 for students; $10 for adults) are available by calling (626) 799-1053 x 200 or can be purchased one hour prior to each performance at the door.