February 13, 2003

How it Came To Be

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On April 24th the lights will dim, the curtain will rise at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts and we will see a new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While you can bet that Hamlet will see a ghost, kill Polonius and fence Laertes, the staging of the play will be something that has no counterpart. Indeed, from the time when Hamlet was chosen as one of this season’s plays, the production has been unique to its own circumstances. There has been a lot of interest in the language in a Shakespeare play, which is perhaps the most difficult thing that a Shakespearean actor confronts. But the written language does not preclude a fresh production. The preliminary idea for the Schwartz production is consciously tied to its Cornell and Ithaca surroundings and to the contemporary landscape.

This was no less the case for the upcoming production of Hamlet. The play had to compete with others. It is weighed by a selection committee that is open to anyone who wants to attend. Then designers and directors expressed their feelings and interest in working on it, until Hamlet was finally selected by the Artistic Director, David Feldshuh. Among the most important considerations in putting on any play at the Schwartz Center are that year’s class of actors and potential ticket sales.

Hamlet, for example, is one of the semester’s subscription plays that will be put on in the Kiplinger theatre, which seats around 460 people. With six performances of Hamlet, there will be 2760 tickets to sell, a number that will not be satisfied by the Cornell community alone. In reality, the larger Ithaca community will fill half the seats. With a small percentage of funding coming from Cornell, the play needs to appeal to the public in order to cover its expenses. Although the production of Hamlet will inevitably teach the developing student actors through direction and advice from the resident actors, the Cornell Theatre is not a classroom masquerading as a play. It can’t be, because a poor showing at the box office will hurt future productions. As was the case for Hamlet, Feldshuh’s own preferences lead him to seek out at least one Shakespeare play each season, and they are usually some of that season’s most financially successful plays.

But while Shakespeare is basically an annual fixture at the Schwartz center, the April production of Hamlet was handpicked for both its immediacy and its pool of actors. Before this April, Hamlet had not played at Cornell for 20 years. And when I asked Feldshuh if the play could have been staged four years ago, he gave me a flat ‘no.’ So why should this season be any different? In addition to having a director who has headed the Shakespeare Festival in Kansas City, those of you who have seen the 2001 Schwartz Center production of Amadeus should be able to answer this question with ease. The confidence in that production has been brought on by the play’s talented lead, Ben Williams ’03, who among other things is credited for an acclaimed performance as Mozart in Amadeus. Hamlet’s director, Bruce Levitt, calls him a ‘virtue’ to the play, Williams has already begun preparing for the part. Williams likens his preparation for Hamlet to training for a sport, and this analogy is not undeserving since Williams has been doing cardiovascular work and making his body flexible enough to fit the demanding role.

‘Vision’ would be the most accurate word to describe Hamlet’s present state. The play has been on Levitt’s mind since the summer of 2001, and the many ways to interpret the text and