- By gentleguide
- On Sat 14 Jul 2018
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and arguably one of the most well known in all of English literature. Making this work accessible to younger performers and audiences can be a great challenge, and yet that is the goal for Class Act Productions (CAP) in Altoona. This year’s CAP Classic production of Hamlet coincides with the city’s Altoona 150 celebration, and takes place in Haines Park beginning July 26th.
According to the board for CAP-Altoona, the focus of the CAP Classic is to provide opportunities for their youth actors to dig deeper into more classical theatrical works in an outdoor performance setting. During the rehearsal process, they get to learn the basics of script analysis. This season that means interpreting the writing style of Shakespeare, where many have their first exposure to blank verse and iambic pentameter.
The Undiscovered Country
The director for Hamlet is Jolene Gentzler, and she is charged with creating the show with her cast of fourteen young actors, ranging in age from 13 to 21. Last year, she directed Twelfth Night for CAP’s summer Shakespeare presentation, but Hamlet has its own share of obstacles. And it’s not just about adjusting to the youth of the performers.
“The first challenge for me was cutting the script to a more manageable production time,” says Gentzler. “Since we are outdoors and have no lighting equipment other than the sun for our production, we could not mount a 2-3 hour production of Hamlet. I have tried to cut the script so that much of the familiar action and dialogue remains, but we are really getting down to the meat and potatoes of the story.”
“Since we believe that Shakespeare is best produced and enjoyed outdoors, we do have very minimal set and staging. This gives us an opportunity to teach our youth actors about minimal staging and projection, while enjoying the beauty of Haines Park in Altoona. The youth actors learn that they have to be big and loud in order to fill the space and to compete with traffic, lawnmowers, and locusts!”
“Also, since Hamlet is a darker material than Twelfth Night or some of the other comedies we have done, I did have to make some cuts for questionable language or situations to make it more age-appropriate for our youth actors. We work from the No Fear Shakespeare version of the script to help with understanding of the language and we have had many discussions with the cast about characters and relationships. We also have improv games and exercises that we play to help with pronunciation of character names and places and to help cement relationships.”
What Dreams May Come
Aiding Gentzler in her endeavors are her husband Joseph Gentzler as her assistant director, and two experienced adult performers, Craig Petersen and Kristin Larson. While previous summer productions have been cast entirely with youth performers, having the kids see seasoned veterans in certain parts lets the kids observe talented and knowledgeable individuals as part of their learning process.
“We had talked about adding adults as mentors for the CAP Classic for the past few years,” says Gentzler, “and due to the heavy subject matter of a show like Hamlet, this year seemed to be a good fit to try it. We had originally planned for 2-4 roles to be filled by adults, depending on the number of youth actors that we had at auditions. We wanted to be able to provide mentors for the kids, while also being mindful of not taking an opportunity away from a youth actor.”
“So, in the end, only 2 roles were filled by adults: the roles of Claudius and Gertrude. These two roles were the most age appropriate to be played by adults and are in a majority of the show to provide good modelling for our younger actors. Craig Petersen and Kristin Larson have stepped into those roles and are helping to model good theatre etiquette for the youth actors. The CAP Classic provides a more challenging theatre experience and the youth actors have responded well to working with adult actors.”
In addition to the CAP Classic Shakespeare performance each summer, the organization provides a number of other opportunities for the younger set to learn and develop their theatre abilities. CAP has three “mainstage” shows each year (with their 100th production, Mary Poppins Jr., taking place this November). They also present a Lunch n’ Laughs series aimed at the very young, and numerous summer camp activities in their headquarters in Altoona.
To Be, or Not to Be
Gentzler has found a home with CAP, and wants to make sure she can help provide the same things she discovered about theatre and belonging when she was younger. “I started doing theatre in high school, and I believe that it truly saved my life. It gave me something that I finally felt like I was good at, it gave me a place where I felt I belonged with others who had the same interests. It also helped me find my voice and my self-confidence. I did not have much opportunity to do theatre before high school, we did not have a place like CAP Theatre.”
“One of the reasons that CAP is so special to me is that I see it doing all these same things for the children and young adults that perform there. Directing the CAP Classic has been a learning and growing experience for me, and the kids that participate in it truly do inspire me to be bigger and bolder and braver, as we always tell them to be. The fact that 14 young actors want to spend their summer learning and performing Shakespeare is amazing to me! It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there in front of an audience, and I think it takes even more courage to do that while tackling some chewy language and iambic pentameter!”
Some might think that such young actors performing Hamlet might be, at the very least, a daunting task. Yet, with perseverance and desire, CAP-Altoona will create such art. And, as the character Polonius states in the play, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” You can enjoy their efforts for four performances at Haines Park, located at 711 3rd Ave SE in Altoona. Shows are Thursday July 26 through Saturday July 28 at 7pm, and a Sunday matinee on July 29 at 2. Tickets will be available at the Park, and in case of inclement weather the show will be moved to CAP-Altoona’s regular performance space at 201 1st Ave S.