William Shakespeare's Hamlet as youth theater? Not a concept one might ordinarily envision. The prospect of young thespians undertaking and understanding so complex and "adult" a play, much less memorizing all those lines in Elizabethan English, boggles the mind. Step back a moment and consider Jeff Swearingen's Fun House Theatre and Film in Plano. If any troupe of young actors with a strong director can pull it off, they can. To be or not to be done well is hardly the question!
The Fun House description goes thusly: "This multimedia all-youth production of Hamlet uses the original text (edited for time) along with special effect lighting, underscoring and projections of classic artwork depicting the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark to stage an audience accessible version of one of Shakespeare's most intense works."
Before their rehearsal started one evening, Alexandra Bonifield chatted with two of Hamlet's leading ladies to get an idea of how they feel about acting at Fun House and how this particular experience has gone. Madeleine Norton, age 14, playing Queen Gertrude, has done six shows with Fun House; Kennedy Waterman, age 12, playing Rosencrantz, has done four. Both come across as poised, focused, expressive and intelligent young ladies, excited about the opportunity this show has given them to grow as actors. And they both have come to genuinely love the play.
TheaterJones: What previous shows here were you in that impacted you?
Kennedy: I played the Rose in Jeff's version of The Little Prince, called Laughter in the Stars; it was hard to find the subtleness the role needed. I had to just become the Rose, let everything else disappear. She became very real for me. I loved being the Rose.
Madeleine: I played Piggy in The Lord of the Flies. It was fun but very hard, lots of overlapping lines. I was on stage almost the whole time. When the director pushes you to do better than you think you can, it's very rewarding.
How do you feel about working with Jeff Swearingen as a director?
Madeleine: He really pushes us to go deeper; he knows we can always do better. He has such great ideas about the characters and tips on how to make things work even better. Even if a role or scene feels strange, going all out on it makes it work better. I really trust him.
Kennedy: He told me to "go all out" with every character. He taught me that the audience should always know what I'm feeling, even if it's an emotion that's hard to show.
Do you like doing comedy or drama better?
Kennedy: I'd always done comedy before our Laughter in the Stars. I love to make people laugh, but drama is great now, too; The Rose was a challenge that made me delve deep inside, so I love them both. They're just different.
What was the audition process for Hamlet like?
Madeleine: Jeff had us memorize and try out with one specific speech, and then he explained what we would be doing as different characters. He had me read a scene as Gertrude with Chris Rodenbaugh as Hamlet to see how we'd sound and look together.
How long is the show and how long have you had the script to work on and memorize?
Madeleine: It's about two hours long with two intermissions, and we've been working for over five months on it.
Has it been a tough task? How do you feel about dealing with the language?
Madeleine: Yes, but it's worth it. Jeff and Bren [Rapp, the producer] make sure we say the words just right from the start.
Kennedy: It was hard to get my mouth around the words at first. I had to memorize it right and pronounce it right. It would make my head hurt if I had to re-memorize it if I said the words wrong.
How good is your Hamlet, Chris Rodenbaugh?
Kennedy: He does such a good job!
Madeleine: He has every bit down—his facial expression and how he talks are just perfect. He has worked so hard to become Hamlet.
How did you feel about performing Shakespeare before starting this rehearsal process?
Madeleine: It's nothing like what I thought it would be. I really, really like this play. What Shakespeare creates in relationships still applies so well today.
Had you read it before?
Kennedy: I wish I had!
What's the biggest challenge playing Gertrude?
Madeleine: There is so much subtext, I have to dig deep into her character to understand what she's thinking and feeling. It's so much to deal with. She wants to do something about her son Hamlet's problems. Hamlet isn't as mad at Claudius as he is at Gertrude. Her recognition scene is very hard, where Hamlet confronts her, but it's great to do. Women didn't have life choices then like we do now.
Kennedy: There are so many quick scene changes, so many emotions to switch through. Every scene is different and challenging. We go from happy to guilty to urgent to very worried. Jaxon Beeson plays Guildenstern, my partner in the play. When Hamlet confronts us, he's so good at it; he makes us both stop pretending and be real, confess that we're there to spy on him.
How do you feel about dying in a play?
Kennedy: It's exciting that my character gets killed off.
Madeleine: I didn't know Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually died until a few weeks ago; it's so cool! Thinking about dying gives you a melancholy feeling. When I played Piggy in The Lord of the Flies, dying was a very important moment in that character's life and in the play. I take acting it very seriously.
How do you feel about kissing someone on stage?
Kennedy: At first it feels strange. I think I was 10 when I did my first stage kiss. Jeff warned us when we were really going to do it. By the end of the play when we had kissed maybe 30 times, it was okay: it's my character kissing his character, not me kissing the other actor.
Madeleine: In The Boxer I didn't know the actor I kissed that well at first; but I thought, "it's just a stage kiss." We became partners in everything we did on stage. By the end of the run, I could do whatever we had to do as we trusted and helped each other. If it makes the show work, I want to do it really right for the audience.
Anything surprise you during the rehearsal process?
Madeleine: It's been fun to the see the variety of scenes as we work towards run-throughs, some real surprises I didn't know were there, and I'm almost all off book.
Kennedy: How hard it's been to memorize the lines, but I'm all off book!
What do you hope audience will take away from seeing your Hamlet?
Kennedy: I hope they see how hard we've worked and the time we've put into it to make it really play right.
Madeleine: I hope people appreciate our effort and see it's not boring at all. I hope they love it so much they come again!
Here is the Fun House Theatre and Film video preview of Hamlet: