All the books are sold, Spring is on its way and Locust Grove is moving on to our next exciting event! This Thursday, at 7pm, members of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival will be giving a candlelight reading of Hamlet! The reading will take place in the Great Parlor on the second floor of the house, so seating is limited to 60. As of this writing, we have 45 reservations, so call 502-897-9845 to reserve your seats now! You can find more information on the event here. Doors open at 6:30, and the reading begins at 7pm. I love all things Shakespeare, so I asked a few questions of Tony Milder and Megan Massie, two Artistic Associates or “actor educators” with Kentucky Shakespeare, about the process of preparing and presenting a historic reading of Locust Grove. Enjoy, and let’s hope all’s well that ends well!
What is the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and what is your role?
Megan: Kentucky Shakespeare is the oldest free Shakespeare Festival in the nation and the largest touring provider of in-school arts education in the state of Kentucky. Our mission is to bring the works of Shakespeare to people of all walks of life and make them accessible, educational, and entertaining. My duties include being an actor, education artist, sales associate, and education coordinator.
Tony: I go to schools throughout the Commonwealth performing and teaching Shakespeare with my awesome tour partner Megan. We both also appear in the summer shows in the park: some people might recognize me as Puck or Horatio and Megan as Ophelia or Catherine. And no, every 3rd grader in the state, we are not married. Kentucky Shakespeare put[s]on free shows in Central Park in Old Louisville every summer, and we’re working on expanding into other parks and locations like Locust Grove in the region to try to reach as many people as possible.
How did the partnership between Locust Grove and KY Shakespeare develop?
Megan: We are a community-based organization and have been reaching out to different cultural partners throughout Louisville. Locust Grove is such a wonderful, historic institution that we wanted to be a part of the exciting work they were already doing. After a meeting between their directors and ours, all agreed on pursuing a partnership.
How is preparing a dramatic reading different from rehearsing for a full production?
Megan: The rehearsal process for a reading is compacted. Instead of rehearsing for 3-5 weeks, the rehearsal is only 3-5 hours! Generally, the blocking (what we call stage movement), props, and costume requirements are minimal and any notes that we need, we have our scripts in front of us to reference. Of course, performing a full-scale Shakespeare production means no scripts in hand, multiple costumes, and multiple props, depending on the demands of the show. That being said, in both types of performance, there is an incredible amount of text work that the actors and directors must do. Understanding what you are saying is the first step in portraying a story to the audience, especially in Shakespeare. If I don’t know what I’m saying or what my character wants, how will the audience know? This textual process often takes hours of homework. But I must admit, I love that part!
Tony: Preparing for a reading is definitely less involved. There is, however, the added challenge of playing multiple characters and getting those differences across with only the voice; a lot more is put on the actors’ shoulders in this sense than what would normally happen on a full production. No matter what, though, we still do all of the prep work that goes into dissecting a character such as examining the language used, looking up words we don’t know, and finding the scansion for each line (analyzing the iambic pentameter that Shakespeare is famous for using; finding the rhythm of the line). Typically, we’ll put up a full stage production in about a month. Sometimes, we’ll get together the afternoon before a staged reading to look through it before the performance that night.
Megan: In this particular reading of Hamlet, we are fortunate to have already performed the play and I believe the entire reading cast has played his or her part before. I will be playing Ophelia, whom I played from February to August of last year. This reading will be more like seeing an old friend than meeting a new one. But I can assure you our familiarity with the text will only serve to enhance the excitement and vitality in Shakespeare’s timeless tale of revenge.
The rehearsal will consist of reading the play and getting blocking/music notes from the director, stopping and starting as we go along. Then after a small break and a final read through rehearsal, the audience arrives!
Tony: Since we don’t need to memorize the lines for a reading, most of the focus goes into fleshing out and separating the characters vocally since we don’t have much chance for movement. We usually do this kind of work on our own; we won’t get together until a week before or sometimes even the day of the reading to put it all together. At that time, we’ll read through the script for the first time as a group, and the director will add in some rudimentary blocking (movement). Sometimes, we only have a chance to do it all once in rehearsal before we put it in front of an audience, which is very exciting for me personally because it adds a more improvisational nature to the script.
What is the significance of performing in the Great Parlor at Locust Grove? Can you give some historical background on performing in spaces like this?
Tony: Most of Shakespeare’s plays premiered in The Globe, a large, open-roofed structure where the audience surrounded the stage in a sea of laughing, eating, and drinking. In the midst of this, the play would be going on, and the actors would sometimes literally be fighting for attention (hence the many direct addresses Shakespeare puts into his scripts). For a more indoor space, patrons could head to the nearby Blackfriars Theatre where plays could be lit by candlelight, though Shakespeare had no stake in this place until near the end of his life. Basically, spaces like the Great Parlor were not common for performance. That is, unless serious money was involved: Queen Elizabeth I or King James I often requested special performances for their Court, so the whole troupe would travel to a palace to perform at one of the great halls. Nobles would also request performances at their country houses and estates, but these would still likely be held in rooms much larger than the Great Parlor. It probably wouldn’t be until sometime in the 19th century when “closet dramas,” plays read by a solitary person or a small group, became popular, and Shakespearean performance moved into a more intimate setting. Interestingly enough, this was also the same time period as some of the grandest theatrical productions of the Bard’s plays; many think the closer setting was a response to the popular spectacle, an attempt by the Romantics to focus on the language of the plays.
This happens to also be the time that the house at Locust Grove was built (circa 1792). If Romanticism ever reached the farms of Kentucky, it could be that some of Shakespeare’s work was read in the mansion, maybe even in the Great Parlor. Personally, I always like to imagine members of a family putting on plays by candlelight to entertain each other during a long winter, though I’m not sure there are any historical documents to support that. But we can pretend for one night, can’t we?
Megan: When I visited Locust Grove for the first time for our reading of Macbeth, I learned that the family library at Locust Grove had many volumes of Shakespeare’s works. It was a common practice in that day to have dramatic readings in large house parlors; in rural areas theatres were not close by and television and movies were many years away. We wanted to continue the parlor tradition by performing Shakespearean readings similarly to how they would have – no sets, minimal costumes, minimal props, and of course, by candlelight.
What can our visitors expect during the performance?
Tony: Intimacy. I know that’s a dangerous word to start out with, but that’s the key difference between this event and what we do in the parks: you are literally put into a small room with wild actors who are set loose with a script and told to go for it. It’s a well-known trait of Shakespeare’s to have his actors speak directly to his audience, and in a theater, one might feel a bit safe in anonymity, a part of the glaze of a general crowd. In this room, however, there are fewer places to hide: eye contact will be made. You may be addressed. You may even be (accidentally) spat upon (most likely by me, and I apologize profusely in advance from the dry comfort of my computer self). You will see and hear a broader range of performance from the actors since everything is no longer intended to fill a 1,000-seat theater; now, there are only about 50. It will be like seeing a movie being made in front of your eyes where every sound, every breath, even yours in the audience, contributes to the story. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most introspective works, exploring and contrasting the private and public worlds of a tortured prince; it’s one that I think will work particularly well in this setting.
Megan: I think they can expect is a good time hearing one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and my personal favorite.
What else would you like your audience to know before they arrive?
Tony: It’s a very interesting thing doing a reading as an actor. On one hand, you have the safety of the script in your hand. Normally, in the process of putting together a full production, there comes a time when you have to let go of your script, and it’s a lot like making Linus let go of his security blanket: you’ve got the book of answers in your hand, and you have to set it down and have all of that information in your head. It’s always a necessary milestone. This frees up your hands to do things, and suddenly your head is up, and your eyes can focus on your fellow actors and the audience. It’s part of what makes the connection so immediate in theater, this freedom. But in a reading, the script is still there, so there’s a shield for the actor. You feel safe, but you have to push a little harder to connect. Being at least somewhat familiar with your words helps since you can maximize your time looking up, but you will still have to tilt your head down every once in a while to check back in. It’s kind of a constantly recurring reminder to both the actor and the audience that these words are all planned, and they’ve all been said before. The goal with most full productions is to make them feel as natural and off-the-cuff as possible, but staged readings feel like they bring the playwright into the room, and the focus goes to the words rather than the spectacle. This works well for Shakespeare, though, since it’s his beautiful language that’s carried him through the years.
Thank you so much for sharing with us, Megan and Tony! We’re all so excited to see the performance! For more local Shakespeare fun, visit Kentucky Shakespeare online here. And if you know any theater and history loving kids, Locust Grove will be hosting a session of Camp Shakespeare THIS SUMMER from June 8-June 12 for ages 7-15! Tons of information about camps is right here. Reservations are open! And don’t forget your reservation for Hamlet–this Thursday at 7pm! Is something rotten in the state of Denmark? Is there method in Hamlet’s madness? What is the question anyway? All and more will be answered on Thursday!
*All photographs courtesy of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival via Tony Milder and Megan Massie. Thank you!*