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Hamlet in the Hudson Valley

“We are in it together on stage.”
Actor Simone Stadler (Gertrude, Player)

In early May, I had the opportunity to see seven young professional actors from Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival bring Hamlet alive on stages at two high schools in the Hudson Valley region of New York: Beacon High School and White Plains High School. Director Devin Brain focused the 90-minute production on story elements most compelling to young audiences. The cast entered carrying a trunk which contained everything for them to perform the play. When the actors were not performing they remained on stage sitting on chairs parallel to one another. Sometimes when an actor was speaking of a character they would point to them on the chair. The story really came alive on the stage for these students.

Rehearsals for the actors started after the Parkland shooting and the theme of revenge was significant to current societal events. Throughout the performances, the students were nodding their heads. During the post-performance discussions with the cast and stage manager, students had profound questions that confirmed they were understanding the play and it affected them. Even in the hallways following performances, actors continued to have encounters with students who continued to have discussions. At one school on tour, a group of students interested in tech stayed afterward to talk with the stage manager.

Student responses
“Things really hit home”
“Today, Hamlet wouldn’t get away with these actions”

The connection between the students and actors happen in ways that are unexpected. For example, actor Jarrod Bates (Hamlet) discovered students started a fan page on Instagram for him. He continued to gain followers throughout the tour. The actors said a highlight of the tour was performing this play for students at Mount Pleasant Blythedale Union Free School in Valhalla, NY. The school is at Blythedale Children’s Hospital and provides long-term rehabilitative care for children recovering from traumatic injuries and illnesses. The company has had a long-term relationship with the school and their residency has become an integral part of their curriculum.

All of the ten schools on the tour had the opportunity to not only see the live performance but gain a deeper understanding of Hamlet through residencies with Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s team of teaching artists. These residencies included five days of activities with students in the classroom through examining the play themes and imagery, Shakespeare’s language and iambic pentameter, character analysis, and culminating in students on their feet performing scenes. The opportunity to bring Shakespeare directly to the students for an extended period of time really shows the devotion and relationship between the company and the school.

“Several groups of girls mentioned the love of their dads, a break-up, the loss of a family unit. Many students felt tragedy with us of the fact that Hamlet dies and Horatio is all that’s left of the situation. I thought I could just give a lesson but that vulnerability as a person is a real game changer.”
Teaching Artist Erin Salm