Tag Archives: Steven Grawrock
Sean Fanning doesn’t like scenery.
This may seem strange, considering he is the set designer for Intrepid’s current production of Hamlet, but when you hear Sean’s take on bringing Shakespeare to life, you might understand.
“It’s all about the words,” says Sean, a statement that is music to Intrepid’s ears. “You could do Shakespeare the way it’s written on a bare stage and it’s powerful because it’s so imaginative.”
To that end, Sean has created literal space on the stage at the Clayton E. Liggett for the “rottenness” of Denmark to play out. With the mere suggestion of a finished room, the landscape of the stage serves multiple purposes throughout the production without the necessity of changing sets or disguising scenery. Soaring colonnades meet ceilings which disappear into thin air, both uplifting the regality of the space as well as suggesting the distemper of the action to come.
“I see other plays that are more contemporary that rely so much on having to actually show people in location,” says Sean. “In Shakespeare, yes, it’s episodic, and yes, we’re going from place to place, but we don’t rely on all the typical conventions.”
In other words, Sean lets the audience have a say in each location, projecting their own ideas of the graveyards, the ships, the secret rooms of the palace, and the sites of hauntings onto the canvas of his design.
“Shakespeare demands so much,” he says. “If you really tried to physically transport people from location to location, you would lose some of the magic.” Best to rely on the words to carry the scene, he says. And based on the high praise he has already received (local press has hailed Sean as an unsurprisingly “in-demand designer”), he’s obviously on the mark.
“Shakespeare is one of my favorite things to do,” says Sean, who also designs all of the MFA productions at The Old Globe in Balboa Park. Hamlet is his inaugural show at Intrepid.
Sean’s design for Hamlet also captures the challenge of the thrust stage, where the audience is closer to the action, rather than gathered behind the fourth wall of a typical proscenium stage. This adds to the tension of the play, as actors have the space to move through and around the set’s dimensions without the necessity of facing all of the viewers at all times. Sean has ensured that the actors always have what they need, providing built-in places for them to sit, lie down, and hurdle over. The actors help create the locations, and Sean emphasizes, “that’s what’s so magical about it.”
“There is a sense of barrenness that the actors can fill with the words,” says Sean. “So, to me, some of the most beautiful sets are bare stages.” — T.T.
Catch a quick interview with Sean Fanning and see his path to creating Hamlet:
Hamlet runs through February 17 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas. Tickets can be purchased here.
When I sat down to chat with Wendy and Steven, my first question was the obvious one: Wait. Who is playing whom?
True to form, they began to finish each other’s sentences as they elaborated on their roles as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (respectively), for which they resumed rehearsals this week after the holiday break. In the play, these characters are old friends of Hamlet, who appear after the action of the story has begun, and whose loyalties often appear undecided. Except for a few lines of text, they are never seen apart, but always together, their names confused even by other characters in the play.
Despite a now traditional route of portraying these two as similar personalities, both Wendy and Steven are adamant about director Christy Yael’s approach of distinguishing them.
“Immediately, there’s a challenge to make it your own and different from the other person,” says Steven. “There is no challenge or worthwhileness if you’re just playing Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.”
Wendy agrees. “They can be easily disposed of or perceived as filler but, let’s face it, Tom Stoppard wrote an entire play about these characters. Even though they don’t have a ton of dialogue, they are very influential. They are the voice of the people.”
As Wendy and Steven step back into rehearsals this week, they are eager to see their ideas about their roles manifest into action and movement on the stage. Steven, a newbie to Intrepid, and Wendy, a three-show veteran, are finding their excitement about creating these characters paralleling their interest in getting to know each other as actors.
“My first question when I was cast was, ‘Who is my Guildenstern??’” says Wendy, and for a while, there was no answer. Steven, who just moved to San Diego with his family after a yearlong stint at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, had solicited local theatre companies for auditions upon his arrival. He was cast in Intrepid’s reading of Macbeth in October and eventually in Hamlet as well. “All everyone kept telling me during the reading was that I was going to love my Rosencrantz,” he says.
“Did they tell you Rosencrantz was going to be female?” Wendy asks him, curious.
“No, they didn’t right away!” laughs Steven.
As they have become acquainted, Wendy and Steven have also begun the journey of figuring out who their characters are in the context of the production. Both actors agree that there is still a lot of mystery to be unraveled. “We are still figuring out what our rhythm is going to be together,” says Wendy, and Steven agrees, adding that discovering what they are each going to bring is going to be pivotal in creating these two people.
“Often the placement of scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seems like they are not much more than ice breakers,” muses Steven when asked about how these characters fit into the story of the play as a whole. “They come before and after some fairly intense scenes, so it can seem difficult to show their reality as people.”
Wendy elaborates. “The more I reread the play the more I love what these two characters represent,” she says. “They bring Hamlet down to earth and make him accessible to the audience. This is a guy who has goofy friends!”
Whatever the motivations of these characters, it is clear that Wendy and Steven are ready to move from the extensive table work they have been doing for the past month and into the action onstage. While the table work is necessary to clarify intentions and motivations and specific moments of the play, for these two it is walking the walk – in this case, alongside one another – that will truly bring the characters to life.
“I’m a firm believer that I’m as good as my scene partner,” says Wendy. “I need to elevate my game for the other person. I love the idea of it being so seamless and breathing as one machine and telling the story together. I think, as a cast, we are all very invested.”
Steven has no hesitations jumping in with her, even though this is his first production with this crew. “It’s immensely gratifying to come into this group right after studying in Scotland,” he admits. “I’ve been awed to come back to a group of people who work with a process that is so professional and so familiar.”
Wendy is more than happy to put Steven’s mind at ease with regards to his debut show in San Diego.
“This is such a great group – I can’t stress that enough,” she says. “We’re going to have a fun time together. They are a supportive, fun, smart, risk taking group of actors and designers and directors.”
Then, she adds, “Take us all with a grain of salt, though.”
We have a laugh and I thank them for their time. I can’t help but smile when they answer, in unison, “No problem!”
We will see you on stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. – T.T.
Hamlet previews January 30 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre on the campus of San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas. For more information about tickets and showtimes, click here.
Dr. Gideon Rappaport sits at the end of a long table onstage at the Clayton E. Liggett, head bowed in concentration. On his left, the new Arden Edition of Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins, lies open on the table. On his right, a working draft of the script for Intrepid’s upcoming production of Hamlet is stacked neatly. Pencil in hand, he glances repeatedly from one to the other, flipping pages, making small notations, and nodding his head. But most of all, he’s listening.
On the other end of the table sits the cast, who have come together for the first read through of the play that will be mounted at the end of January. Even though this is technically their first rehearsal together, relationships and intentions have already begun to develop. The actors spend the evening trying out the words, pronouncing them trippingly on the tongue, and looking to Gideon, who will act as dramaturge for this production, for any adjustments. By the end of the rehearsal, he has individual notes for each player, as well as a few technical reminders for the whole cast: “Don’t hit the helping verbs. Seek out antithesis. Don’t emphasize pronouns.”
While most of the actors are Shakespearean veterans, Gideon is more than qualified to deliver his instruction. Currently an English teacher at La Jolla Country Day School, he has also taught Shakespeare in hallowed academic halls around the country, including on the campuses of Hamilton College, SUNY Cortland, Concordia University, and the University of New Hampshire. His Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Brandeis University doesn’t hurt his reputation as a Shakespearean guru, either. Neither does the quote from the Bard that serves as the outgoing voicemail greeting on his cell phone.
Gideon’s stint as Intrepid’s dramaturge comes at an auspicious time. He is currently putting together a new annotated edition of Hamlet for students, teachers, actors, and directors which will feature Shakespeare’s text on one side, with his own commentary on the other. This commentary will feature everything from thematic notes to definitions, language insights, contextual analysis, and other relevant information. Needless to say, Gideon is currently fully entrenched in this project, and will therefore quickly and easily impart his readily available Danish prince knowledge upon anyone within earshot. “Just tell me when to stop talking,” he says often, and with a smile.
So, what exactly is it about Hamlet that makes this play so discussion-worthy? Easy. “It’s the single most misunderstood play of Shakespeare’s,” says Gideon. “People over the years have gone wrong about what it is really about.” He attributes this misunderstanding to the shifting priorities of society and the changing relevance of religion and spirituality.
“It’s a deeply spiritual play,” he continues. “It’s Shakespeare’s examination of how to live well in a morally complex universe where the choices seem unclear. How do you do the right thing when there seems to be paradoxical explanations of what that is? Hamlet’s story is a test case which generalizes to universal significance.”
Of course, that is a lot for a new cast to take in on the first rehearsal, and after some lengthy discourse on wood carving metaphors, the nature of evil, and revenge play traditions, Gideon finally takes a breath. “Of course, we have plenty of time to talk more about all that,” he says.
Aside from the questions of spirituality and universal significance, Gideon acknowledges that there is always one question on everyone’s mind when they are trying to unravel the tangled layers of Shakespeare’s longest play: Is Hamlet mad?
Well, Dr. Rappaport?
Gideon smiles the cryptic smile of a teacher who knows the answer but doesn’t want to give his students too much information.
“He definitely flies into passions,” he says carefully. “But, he also has moments of reason…” We get it, Professor. We’ll talk after the show. — T.T.
Hamlet previews on January 26 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas.