HAMLET%28PaulaCourt%29.jpgThe Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet is making its hotly anticipated state-side debut at St. Ann’s Warehouse, following performances in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin. The company has previously tossed Chekhov, O’Neill, and Miller into their deconstructive blender; this is their first Shakespearean scramble.

Gothamist swung over to St. Ann’s during rehearsals for Hamlet and sat down with Scott Shepherd, who also collaborates with Elevator Repair Service. (Everything is connected: The Artistic Director of Elevator Repair Service – who just brought the acclaimed No Great Society to New York Theater Workshop – is John Collins, the same John Collins who designs sound for the Wooster Group.) As for Scott Shepherd, he not only plays the sweet prince himself but, as we learned during the interview, was the driving force behind the decision to stage Hamlet.

How long have you been working on this?
I don’t know, maybe a couple of years? It’s always hard to tell because we work on so many things at once that it’s hard to go back and add up. But it’s been on and off with other shows. We’ve been touring and working on an opera, which is the next show.

What is that?
It’s La Didone, an opera written in 1641 by Cavalli. We were commissioned to do it, but Liz [LeCompte, Artistic Director of the Wooster Group] didn’t want to do it, but they kept asking her so she finally caved. It’s an Italian opera from the baroque era, when opera was sort of just getting started and didn’t know what it wanted to be yet. And the music is all for lute and harpsichord, it doesn’t sound like what you think of as opera. It’s not really an orchestra. We’ve got a lute and keyboard with a harpsichord setting, there’s also electric guitar and we’ve thrown a movie into the mix. An old science fiction movie. Well, not as old as the opera.

And everyone is going to be singing?
Yes, but most of the singing will be done by real opera singers we’re working with.

So they say every actor’s dream is to play Hamlet. Is this something that was your idea?

It was on my mind. I had directed a production of Hamlet in college and ever since then the text had been bouncing around in my mind. I would sort of catch myself saying it on the street and had to remember to stop talking to myself.

I just started getting together with [Wooster Group member] Kate [Valk] and some other actors, sort of as an after school project at the Performing Garage. But I didn’t really know why, I just wanted to get together and read the play. It was sort of in the back of my mind that if I showed enough interest in this that Liz would want to do something with it. Which is, I guess, what eventually happened.

So what’s the approach to this; what ideas are fueling this production?
Well the biggest thing in our approach to this is the Richard Burton production that Liz became obsessed with. When we first started Liz wanted to watch as many different Hamlet productions we could find. So we were watching Ethan Hawke and Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson, and listening to old recordings if we could find them. And the one that she really hooked into was this recording of Richard Burton doing it on Broadway in 1964.

She had actually seen that production live. It was a bid deal because Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had just sort of gotten together and it was scandalous because they were married to other people. The show opened in Toronto and there was talk of not letting Burton in the country because of the adultery scandal. But eventually that got settled.

They did it on Broadway; it was directed by John Gielgud. The idea was that it was a rehearsal production; people were supposedly in their own street clothes, although if you read the book all the actors had gone to tailors and very carefully selected their “rehearsal” clothes.

And there was no real set, just wooden platforms. It was something that was experimental at the time. For Liz it was nostalgic to look back and say, “That was experimental theater for Broadway in ‘64.” And the show we had just done [Poor Theater] was partly about [Jerzy] Grotowski, which is another thing from the beginning of Liz’s career when she first starting working in NY. Grotowski was a huge, new trendy influence on downtown theater. And so we had done a sort of smaller nostalgia trip in that show where we had tried to reproduce a little chunk of a Grotowski production from the sixties.

So when she saw this [Richard Burton] show it was the only one out of all the Hamlet videos we saw that was just a stage version on tape – we had watched all these movie adaptations. This had been recorded live in a Broadway theater. In fact it was sort of an entrepreneurial idea by the producer Alexander Cohen, who later invented Pay-Per-View. This idea was to bring a Broadway show to the entire country. They would record it just on one night and give it to the whole country all at the same time, so it would be released in movie theaters but only run for like two days. So you would have this feeling that the whole country was seeing one performance of a Broadway show. And then the film would be destroyed the way performance disappears in theater.

Yeah, so all the copies were destroyed – or thought to be destroyed. One copy was found by Burton’s ex-wife after he died. So when Liz heard that she freaked out. It was like, “Oh yeah, they tried to take this theater piece and turn it into a movie. We’re going to try and turn it back into a piece of theater.”

So that’s the main idea we started with. When I’d been working on my own with those other actors and Kate Valk, we got kind of obsessed with the rhythm of the verse and trying to figure out why some lines are written in verse and some speeches are written in prose. Since both are there, there must be some difference that’s intended. And so we were just experimenting with very basic things where when the line stops you have to take a pause and you’re not allowed to take a pause where the line doesn’t stop. This doesn’t always make sense in terms of where the sentences begin and end and where the thoughts begin and end. Sort of forcing people to just obey those line breaks became very interesting; it would perforate the speech in such a way that let a kind of clarity in that was hard to achieve just by trying to make it mean something.

So I was into that idea – to speak the verse very strictly. But the recording we had of Richard Burton and those guys, of course they spoke it very freely and just delivered it however they thought was right according to the meaning in the sentences. So the first thing we did was to go into that film and re-edit it so they were always stopping at a line break – in the sections that are verse – and not stopping in the middle. So I would take the film in Final Cut and if there was a pause where I didn’t like it I would just cut it out with the video attached and move it somewhere where I thought there needed to be a pause. So now we use that video which has all these jumps in it which gives us a physicality which is a little bit strange and removed.

The same thing happens with the vocal performances because the tendency is to pause in order to make some sort of emotional leap from one state to another so that when you take that pause out you get a jump that is sort of startling. And inserting a pause where there wasn’t one also creates interesting effects.

So that was the first alteration we made to the source movie. And then Liz decided, “Well, we’ll project it on a huge tapestry in the back, which will be a moving image of the old black and white film with Richard Burton.” And so we started to erase some of those figures who were being replaced by the actors on stage.

But that’s very tedious work; it turns out we had to get a team of specialists to come in – we called them Erasers. They would just sit at the computer all day taking the figures out. You have to go find whatever background they’re standing in front of from another shot and place it in front of where there body is. And you just see the ghost of their figure moving across the stage. And then they have other effects to obscure the original from time to time just so there’s some relationship there. And it turns the movie into the ghost of something that’s gone or decaying.

Seems fitting for Hamlet.
Yeah, that thing looms over us; the ghost of our father looming over us telling us what to do.

Did you edit much out of the play itself?

We mostly went with what their edits were. They had already condensed it to about three hours, I think. When you read the book Gielgud is always worried about people being able to catch their trains home.

Hamlet continues at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO through March 25th. Tickets, which are selling out well in advance, cost $37.50. (Photo of Scott Shepherd by Paula Court.)