After the awakening and having sampled a taste of Shakespeare, I was ready to tackle what is widely considered the greatest play ever written: Hamlet.
I had decided to pursue the role of Laertes, the brother of Ophelia and the son of Polonius. This character is a bit of a hothead and somewhat arrogant which made him the perfect character in my mind because his personality was so drastically different from my own. A friend of mine suggested I would make a good Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend. I really wanted Laertes, but decided I would take a look at Horatio.
As I prepared for the audition, I got more and more into the character of Horatio. He was so intelligent, loyal, and deep that I thought I could really do a lot with him. I ended up changing my focus to Horatio, but kept Laertes prepared as I would then be able to display some versatility at the audition. I also made a fateful decision. Prior to this audition, I had always been willing to take any role in a production. Now I had been in theatre for nearly 10 years and many of my roles had been small or bit parts. I felt it was time to view things from a business perspective. If directors saw that I was only doing unchallenging roles, there was a real danger that they may begin to think I was not capable of handling anything with some heft. So I stated that I only wanted to be considered for Horatio and Laertes. I knew I was taking a colossal chance, but I felt it to be well worth the risk.
Audition night came and I ended up reading first and as Horatio. And I started off very strongly. I had a great read with Scott as Hamlet and I felt natural and believable. When I finished my turn, I noticed a lot of people in the theatre looking impressed, but my biggest badge of honor came from my friend, David Sindelar, who smiled and nodded at me. Dave has always told things as he sees them, so to have won him over was a well earned prize, indeed.
I did get to read as Laertes and I didn’t do too badly, but there were a few others who I thought had a better attitude for the character as well as being a better fit physically. Still, Cathy asked us to return the next time to be read some more. Strangely, I was not asked to read as Horatio again, but read several times as Guildenstern which I found peculiar because I was very clear on whom I wanted to play. And I also vowed that I was going to stick to my guns. At this point, being take seriously was more important than getting cast.
That Friday, July 15, I received a call from Cathy at 6:30pm. I’ve always found this to be a little eerie and ironic because it was exactly three years to the minute I had stepped foot in the Playhouse for The Elephant Man three years prior. Our conversation went as follows:
“Chris, I’d like to talk to you about Hamlet.”
“Before I begin, I just want you to know that I think you are tremendously talented and that you have a very bright future in theatre, but at this point I just don’t think you’re experienced enough to play Horatio.”
“I see,” I replied as I sat on my couch and felt my heart plummet to the pits of my stomach.
“I really want you in this play, but you have such a young look and I just envision Horatio as being older and more settled than you are.”
“I understand,” I said, feeling my face flush white as a sheet.
“I just haven’t worked with you enough yet. But I still really want you to be part of this production because it would be a tremendous loss if we didn’t have you, but I’d like to give you a different role if you’re still interested.”
(Pause) “All right. I’ll play somebody else,” I said in a very soft voice.
“I’m really glad to hear that. I won’t be casting the show for a few more days because I’m holding callbacks for Polonius and Claudius, but I’ll be in touch soon.”
As I suspected, I ended up with the role of Guildenstern and I don’t regret taking the part. For one thing, it began my acting partnership with David Sindelar who played Rosencrantz. Although we shared a scene in Dracula, I felt this was the first time I was really working with him as my skills had now evolved dramatically and could now experiment a bit with him.
One of my fondest memories of the show actually began 2 years prior in His Girl Friday. Cathy and Scott are very big on what they call “walla wallas” which is actors improvising dialogue in crowd scenes to make it more believable. On the last day of the show, I asked Dave’s character where the editor of the newspaper was and he looked at me and, with a deadpan expression, said, “You go to hell. Go straight to hell. Don’t pass Go. Don’t collect $200.” I had to pull my hat over my face to cover the laugh that was threatening to bust out.
In Hamlet, I got a bit of payback. There is a scene where a troupe of actors arrives at the castle and Hamlet tells me of a monologue he once heard and begins to recite it. I forget the exact line, but it had to do with the color of some item. Dave took to saying that he remembered this monologue and kept trying to remember the color. During rehearsals, I kept supplying normal colors. On opening night, I said the first color which popped into my head which was, “Periwinkle”. Dave’s expression told me I caught him somewhat off guard, but he recovered with the beautiful comeback, “It’s not periwinkle”.
Another fond moment is when Hamlet was talking to the leader of the acting troupe and, in the background, Dave and I improvised a story about why we came to Denmark. It was something about Rosencrantz losing all of our money when he bet on a horse named Sloth. This story grew bigger and bigger every night, but the best thing is that nobody in the cast or audience knew what we were saying. We both were skilled enough and subtle enough that we were able to do this in a way that did not distract from the primary action.
I gained a great sense of satisfaction from this role. One actor, David Dechant, praised Dave Sindelar and myself for being able to add a third dimension to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern just through sheer strength of acting ability. We even gained notice in the review in the Omaha World-Herald which cited us as being good. My greatest compliment came from the mother of one of the BSB regulars. She was an actor, herself, and when she came to the show, she walked up to me afterwards and said, “Young man, you have shot up miles.” I felt real pride after that praise.
Unfortunately, I hit a major stumbling block after Hamlet. Scott asked me if I would play the role of Paul Trochard in the BSB’s second production, My Three Angels. I accepted and looked forward to playing a sort of villainous role. The show was plagued with trouble from the start. We didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time. We lost an actor partway through the rehearsal process due to a death in the family and he had to be replaced. And I think Hamlet took a toll on Scott’s directing and certainly on my acting.
Hamlet had been a grueling show. It’s very long and we had a 2 month rehearsal process as opposed to one, plus the 4 week run of the show. And then we jumped straight into rehearsing for My Three Angels. Playing the title role was undoubtedly arduous for Scott and I think it dulled his creativity a smidge when directing this show, especially when he was compelled to take a role in it and have his focus split. My acting, to be blunt, sucked.
I simply could not get a firm grip on the role. I had some moments that weren’t too bad, but for the most part, I just didn’t believe myself and it showed in the reviews. Although I wasn’t mentioned by name, references were made to “wooden” and “uneven” acting and I knew the references were about me and I carried it like a weight on my shoulders.
It was my first real failure as an active performer. . .but the breakthrough was soon to follow.
To be continued. . .