Alumni to Explore Many Faces of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”
When asked to describe the focus of his research and teaching, Joshua Calhoun laughs and answers, “The three things I think everyone should be interested in: Shakespeare, nature and books!”
Calhoun is fascinated by the relationship among those three elements — a relationship that may seem surprising to some, but one that the UW-Madison assistant professor relishes discussing with casual readers and experts alike.
“Shakespeare can actually be very accessible,” he explains. “It’s my job to take what could be a difficult subject and make it more approachable. I wouldn’t want to hear anyone say, ‘This is too much for me,’ or ‘I’m not smart enough.’ ”
He loves to talk Shakespeare with anyone who’s game. While finishing his dissertation in the Adirondacks of New York, he formed a group of “wonderfully engaged readers, most of whom hadn’t read Shakespeare since college,” to meet once a week for potlucks and play readings.
Moving to Madison after earning his PhD from the University of Delaware was an easy transition for the outdoorsy Calhoun, who soon found himself surrounded by both energetic students — “they’re up for a challenge, always ready to take a risk, jump in and see where hard work takes them” — and discussions around the environment and ecological conservation that have strong ties to his research.
(He’s exploring just how conscious writers and readers in Renaissance England were of the plants and animals from which their books and writing materials were made. “We don’t often think in terms of environmentalism in 16th-century literature,” he says, “but it’s very much part of the poetry and plays of the time.”)
All the more reason Calhoun is looking forward to taking in an outdoor performance at Wisconsin’s famed American Players Theatre with a group of UW-Madison alumni in August as the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s guest lecturer.
“There’s something connective about it,” he says about the open-air aspect of the performance at APT’s Up-the-Hill Theatre. “The tradition of Shakespearean theater is rooted in watching plays out of doors, and it’s an experience worth having. It’s almost overwhelming to the senses because there’s so much going on around you, and the environment that’s being portrayed on stage is actually interacting with the environment you’re in.”
The August run will mark the fifth time APT has produced “Hamlet” since 1986.
The Many “Hamlets”
“Hamlet” was written at a pivotal moment in Shakespeare’s career — at a time when he wrote some of his most famous plays (“As You Like It,” “Julius Caesar” and “Henry V,” among others), and his company moved into the now-famous Globe Theatre and began to establish its reputation. It’s also one of the Bard’s most famous works.
“If you ask someone on the street to quote a line from Shakespeare, if they know nothing else, they’ll know, ‘To be or not to be,’ ” Calhoun laughs. “It’s old hat in one sense, but in another, ‘Hamlet’ allows itself to be constantly re-created in a new way because there are so many versions.”
Because the earliest printed versions of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” are so drastically different, Calhoun says there’s always a question of how Hamlet should be staged. From which lines the director keeps or cuts, to choices the actors make, and even whether the performances take place on a small indoor stage or in a large outdoor theater, “the audience is left with a lot of room for interpretation and conversation.”
That’s exactly what Calhoun wants his alumni audience to be aware of as he prepares them for the production they’ll see together in Spring Green, Wis.
“I hope to give them the ability to walk into the play with a sense of possibility and wonderment about the decisions that have been made,” he says. “I constantly impress upon my students that there isn’t a wrong way or a right way; it’s not ‘Do I like this or not?’ The more important questions are these: What is this production trying to do? Did it accomplish its goal?
“I can’t wait for the bus ride back to Madison to ask them what they saw that they might have missed otherwise, having gone into it with new ideas of what to watch for.”
For many a Badger, American Players Theatre (APT) has provided an introduction to classical, Shakespearean drama. But for one Badger, it opened the door to the pinnacle of the American stage. APT veteran Carrie Coon MFA’06 was nominated for a Tony Award this spring.
After graduating from the UW, Coon spent four summers as part of the APT acting company, performing in such plays as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Henry V,” and Tennessee Williams’s “Night of the Iguana.” In 2010, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre cast her in the role of Honey in a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That role carried her to Broadway in 2012–13, where she was nominated for a Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role.
Read about Coon in On Wisconsin and see her Broadway profile. You can also check out her acting chops on your television at home. This fall, she’ll appear in the role of Rachel Ryan in the pilot episode of “Ironside” on NBC.