Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, October 13, 2008

On small characters and alternative acting choices

I started to write this post to be published on Richmond Shakespeare's blog, but the content ended up being more focused on my personal process than I had intended, and it just wasn't appropriate for a company website.

As much as Shakespeare was an innovator, he excelled at taking established conventions and mining them for every bit of storytelling he could manage. Compleat Works jokingly refers to him as a formula writer, and there is quite a bit of truth to that statement. In addition to using a few dozen of his era's best story forms, Shakespeare was a master at using character types that his audiences would have recognized: the righteous virgin (Juliet, Desdemona, Miranda, Isabella), the unrepentant villain (Iago, Richard III, Aaron), the hothead (Mercutio, Hotspur) various clowns and heroes, cousins and fathers and brothers (not so many mothers). On paper, a lot of these characters seem interchangeable, which is why it's good that Shakespeare wrote for the stage, for our stage in particular, where personal interpretation is such an integral part of the creation of performance.

The character type that draws my attention today is that of the loyal companion. We see him in the form of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, Kent in King Lear, Antonio in Twelfth Night, and to a certain degree in Lear's Edgar, R&J's Nurse, Othello's Cassio, and As You Like It's Adam. The loyal companion is generally male and often a contemporary of the more principal protagonist. In many cases, he seems to have no agenda of his own, existing to support the main character and to serve as a sounding-board for monologues. He is always of a lower status than the friend he follows, establishing a master-servant pattern wherein the servant performs his role out of love and filial obligation to his social superior.

This is probably the detail that we have the hardest time wrapping our heads around in the 21st century. The loyal companion loves, serves and cares for his lord simply because he is his lord. There is no consideration of getting a better gig. It is no exaggeration to say that in the order of the Elizabethan universe Antonio's loving service for the shipwrecked Sebastian is a love that can be described as holy. That can be difficult for modern audiences and theatre practitioners to access.

Which brings me to Hamlet, opening October 17, in which I play the role of Horatio, the prototypical Shakespearean loyal companion. Horatio provides information to Hamlet, tries to protect him from the Ghost, obeys his commands, and basically follows him around like a puppy dog. Only a handful of times does Horatio disagree with Hamlet, notably trying to restrain him from going off with the Ghost and apparently disapproving of the prince's actions regarding Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (spoiler alert: they die). Horatio even goes so far as to attempt to drink poison to follow Hamlet beyond the living world. Hamlet stops him, and Horatio obeys his prince's final command to tell the world his story. All in all, a role that on paper lacks a lot of conflict or contradiction. Actually, it pretty much lacks any contradiction whatsoever.

I was talking with Liz Blake, no stranger to tackling the challenge of a potentially standard role, about the character a few days after we started rehearsal. I shared the thought that a female Horatio would be very interesting, particularly if she had long-standing unrequited affections for Hamlet. This would give an actor a lot of material for both internal and external conflicts, as well as a much richer emotional and strategic palate with which to play.

"You know, Andrew," Liz smiled, "Horatio doesn't have to be a girl to do all those things."

Liz has the uncanny ability to cheerfully make me feel like a blithering idiot at least twice a week.

Well shucks, the thought of Horatio being gay just hadn't crossed my mind. And it should have; there's plenty of textual support for it. Particularly interesting is Hamlet's line, "thou art e'en as just a man as ere my conversation coped withall," in the context that "conversation" and "coped" are common Shakespearean code words for sex. There are multiple references to the two men holding each other in their hearts, and Hamlet signs a letter "He that thou knowest thine, Hamlet." In the text, Hamlet confides with one person only: Horatio, whose affection is such that he can't seem to stop calling Hamlet "my lord," "my good lord," "my dear lord," and once "my sweet lord" slips out. It is only after Hamlet has died that he can speak his own secret name for his love: "sweet prince."

In researching queer Hamlets, I've been surprised to see that this angle, a rich vein for exploration by alternative and university theatres in particular, has not been nearly as frequently explored as I expected. In fact, the Oedipal Hamlet is the much more common interpretation, one I really just can't find a stitch of textual support for.

None of this is to say that this is a "gay Hamlet." There's nothing going on between Hamlet and Horatio; Horatio is simply in love with his prince, and has been for years. It's not even a matter of Horatio having the label "gay" placed on him, it's entirely the personal focus of him being deep in unrequited love. He doesn't love men, he loves Hamlet. There are no overt references to it, it doesn't change the production's theme and staging. It's something for me to play with, and for Jeff (Hamlet) to decide whether or not he knew about. (And how could he not? If Horatio is nearly as emotionally naked as the actor playing him, there's no real hiding it.) But it changes every moment of the play for me, gives me an immediate and accessible goal. It gives me some very powerful substitutions, and juicy double-meanings in my scenes with Hamlet. It provides some unexpected conflict when Ophelia (a perfectly nice girl who obviously makes Hamlet so very happy, damn her eyes) is in the scene. It's a hearty piece of meat for the actor, and it's anything to avoid playing Horatio as what the Washington Blade referred to in a 2007 review as "Hamlet's true and trusted sidekick."

Horatio needs to transcend the loyal follower type for Hamlet to achieve its best success. After all it is Horatio, not any of the larger characters who dominates the play's opening and closing moments, setting up our first and final impressions of the story. (In their defense, all of the principals are dead for the play's denouement.) But that's all just "words, words, words." Really, I just needed an objective to sink my teeth into, something that both transcends and supports the loyal servant role Shakespeare so lovingly wrote.

Horatio is a character who is felt less in the text than in the performance; his often-silent presence in witness to Hamlet's drama speaking louder than lines. It's a lot more interesting to stand silently in the presence of the man you're in love with--who just happens to be your lord.

Hamlet runs from October 17 - November 9. Go to for tickets.

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  • At 10/13/2008 2:18 PM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    First off Andrew - thanks for this most thoughtful posting. It hits so many elements that have driven my thinking in approaching character roles both large and small in various productions. And as someone whose career has included the roles of Horatio, Antonio (Twelfth Night) and Adam (As You Like It), I have some experience and personal insight into this "loyal companion" subject, if not great wisdom about it. So I will share my own personal perspectives in the hope they may provide another viewpoint for consideration.

    I played Horatio in college, when I'd had fewer life experiences than when I played Antonio and Adam more recently. At that time my perspective was mainly of someone who loved another man as a dear friend; at that time in my life, that friendship was forged largely on the athletic field of competition and in the dorm rooms of college where we swilled cheap beer and relentlessly pursued female affections. Could Horatio be gay? Of course - though masculine love need not be gay. In our modern world we tend to demonstrate male love less overtly. We shake hands with a half a hug; we buy a friend a beer; we listen while he relates his latest tale of woe. The love is there and understood. There's no need to blurt an uncomfortable "I love you, man", (though we enjoy seeing such a scene played out in a TV commercial character's attempt to wrest a beer from his own father in a clumsy ruse!) Yet given my more "macho" approach to playing Horatio in my college days, our production (which like so many others cut Fortinbras' entrance) ended with Hamlet dying in my arms and the final "Now cracks a noble of angels sing thee to thy rest". Horatio sobs with heartbreak. Again - possibly gay love? Sure. Or simply the honest, overwhelming grief of seeing a beloved friend die violently before your eyes, and right in your arms.

    Fast forward a few decades. As Twelfth Night's Antonio, I definitely allowed for a character who could be gay and in love with Sebastian. But I chose not to play the character as overtly gay. To reduce Antonio to a stereotype would, to my mind, diminish the purity of his love. Instead, it was the qualities of the person in Sebastian Antonio loved so much, and served as reason for his loyalty. That loyalty included a willingness to die for his friend. That same loyalty applied to As You Like It's Adam, whose loyalty extended from his beloved original master to his surviving sons. Indeed, Adam invokes that memory in breaking up a fight between the sons in Act 1, scene 1: "...for your father's remembrance, be at accord."

    Which brings me to my final point drawn on my perspectives of playing these characters. You pointed out, Andrew, that these "loyal companions" seem to have no agenda of their own, making it difficult to create the "back story", the "moment before" an actor often uses to drive specific acting choices. I don't see it quite the same way; in fact, I believe the point of these characters is the very moral substance they bring to Shakespeare's scripts. The plays are far from being about Horatio, or Antonio, or Adam; indeed, the latter two are arguably very minor characters. Yet they bring with them a love of integrity, honesty, friendship, loyalty. They see in their friends and masters the qualities we all admire in both leaders and in our own relationships, whether those relationships be romantic, friendly, or professional. It is the qualities of the characters they support that they love to the very death, and which they are willing to defend with their own lives. The purity and complete devotion these loyal companions show help to illuminate the moral worth of their betters, who - not surprisingly - never use their superior social status over their dear friends. Shakespeare's loyal companions served in an earlier era to show us how being a person of upright moral fiber supercedes social position. It helped a society driven wholly by social status in his time to relate to characters who did what was right, in spite of (or despite) their own social status.

    The loyal companion gives us a moral compass to gauge what is right and what is wrong in productions where heroes display self doubt and vulnerability, and villains demonstrate motives for their crimes that allow us to see some of our own ethical dilemmas in their choices. But at the heart of it all, the loyal companion is unwavering. Even if his friend is unsure, we can be sure that the loyal companion's love and devotion will be there to the very end.

    Exeunt all.

  • At 10/13/2008 3:11 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    And why don't you write your own blog, Frank? I thought of you and your work a lot while I was writing this post.

    There's a story about Michael Chekhov, Anton's nephew, while he was an actor with the Moscow Art Theatre. Apparently, he was in some two-line role in a play, but he made such a passel of character choices and was acting his ass off so hard that he drew focus in the scene. Stanislavski, who was directing, couldn't get him to back off of his choices, and Chekhov just wrecked the play. His self-indulgent choices, artistically valid to him, ruined a play that wasn't very much about his character.

    (For the record, Chekhov went on to become one of the 20th century's most important acting theorists.)

    You, Frank, have always been an actor who knows his role on the stage and in the storytelling of the play, and that is a rare gift. I like to think I know when to be unobtrusive as well, and what dramatic function my character serves in the scene and in the play. When I make a choice like this, I am careful to always make it in agreement with the director, to justify it in the context of the text and the production, and to make sure it doesn't suck too much.

    This was a largely internal choice. In fact, I kept it from most of the cast for several weeks, figuring that if Horatio is going to be in the closet he's going to be IN the closet. It's not going to draw attention to itself; in fact it will most likely be all but invisible to most audience members.

    It's about needing something beyond Shakespeare's character. It's about theatre giving me permission to find something beyond.

  • At 10/13/2008 3:20 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    And regarding your thoughts on the point of the LC characters being a reflection of love, honesty and integrity, I couldn't agree more. My only fear is that a modern audience, swimming in a grey sea of relativistic values, finds it difficult to latch onto one of these characters. Even modern scholarship about Horatio differs tremendously from the writings a mere half-century ago. Unswerving love and loyalty are not such clear concepts today as they should be.

  • At 10/13/2008 5:06 PM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    "It's about theatre giving me permission to find something beyond". Amen to that. I hope that goes for the audience as well in enjoying your performance, and for all of us in the theatre whether onstage or in the house.

    And I would beg to differ Andrew - I believe modern audiences are drawn to characters such as Horatio precisely BECAUSE there is no moral "true north" in today's anything-goes, rationalize-to-your-heart's content society. Beyond the absolute and often uncompromising, restrictive choices offered by religion, the devotion of characters such as Horatio in the theatre give us an alternative: Live by your values while avoiding harsh judgments of others UNLESS they seek to harm you or your loved ones. Then strike without remorse when the only other choice is to allow someone to commit violent acts.

    And thanks for your comments about the role of storytelling of the play. I enjoy having my "moments" as much as any other actor. I'd prefer to find them in the context of the scene and the script and the direction of the production. The last few years I've been lucky enough to enjoy some terrific direction (that would include AYLI and AYLI 2: Like Harder, among others!) My performances have, I think, improved by listening more closely to my directors than I've done before. At least I hope so.

  • At 10/15/2008 1:51 PM , Blogger Dave T said...

    Fascinating explication of your process, Andrew, and interesting responses, Frank. Thanks for the articulate look inside an actor's mind.

  • At 10/15/2008 2:15 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Thank you kindly, Dave. That's exactly what I write this silly blog for.

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