Backstage: The Old Globe's Hamlet
Theatre Corner Backstage takes an in-depth look at one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays, “Hamlet.” With countless productions over its 400-year life, The Old Globe broke box-office records with their 2017 hit featuring a diverse cast and Black lead. Hear from cast members and director Barry Edelstein on their experiences with the production, the importance of diversity in Shakespeare, and more.
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Michael Taylor: Hi, I'm Michael Taylor,
host of "Theatre Corner."
Today we bring you another special episode of "Theatre
Corner" backstage, which takes a look behind the curtain at
the making of some of our favorite onstage productions.
Join us for an in-depth look at one of Shakespeare's most iconic
plays, "Hamlet," with countless productions
over its 400-year life.
The Old Globe broke box office records with its 2017
hit, featuring a diverse cast and a Black lead.
Hear from the cast members and director Barry Edelstein as they
discuss their experience with the production.
Learn about the importance of diversity in Shakespeare and
how to cope with grief through one of Shakespeare's most
So silence your cell phones, folks,
and enjoy "Theatre Corner Backstage:
The Old Globe's Hamlet."
Hamlet: To be or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows
of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of
troubles and by opposing end them.
To die--to sleep, no more.
announcer: Spoken by the titular Prince Hamlet,
William Shakespeare's tragedy is one of the most popular and most
quoted plays in the English language,
a story of love, death, politics, and betrayal.
"Hamlet" resonates with everyone in the audience.
And though America in 2021 is a far cry from Denmark in
Elizabethan times, you'd be surprised by just how much
the themes and lessons of this play resonate in the modern era.
Barry Edelstein: "Hamlet's" been in my life a bunch of times.
You can't work seriously in Shakespeare for very long and
not grapple with it.
So I've taught it many times, taught material from "Hamlet"
to student actors.
I co-directed a production of it in graduate school.
And then, when I was in New York,
Kevin Kline played "Hamlet" at the Public Theatre,
and I was his assistant.
So the play has been a constant in my life.
Barry: Over the history of the Old Globe,
starting in 1935, the approach to Shakespeare has been more
traditional rather than less.
From time to time, there had been productions
in modern dress.
From time to time, there have been productions
shifted in time period.
But the preponderance of work at the Old Globe has been really
elaborate period work.
There's just been an aesthetic decision
kind of made over by consensus by the audience over the years
of saying, "Yeah, this is how we like our Shakespeare to look
somehow in keeping with the vibe of the play itself,
the time of the play itself.
I did a modern-dress "Winter's Tale" when I first got here.
I did an "Othello" set in Napoleonic Europe,
so I've plenty of time-shifted Shakespeare.
But when it came time to do the "Hamlet" in 2017,
I thought I'd really like to keep it in its period,
and by giving the audience that familiar entry into the play
visually, I can then take them on a more elaborate ride
to certain thematic things that I wanted to explore.
I could allow a certain kind of very,
very theatrical, at times, even operatic expression.
Hamlet: A villain kills my father,
and for that, I, his sole son,
do this same villain send to heaven.
Hamlet: He took my father grossly,
full of bread, with all his crimes broad blown,
as flush as May.
Barry: I grew up in the suburbs of New York City,
and my folks loved the theater, so, pretty common in our lives
to head into Manhattan on a weekend and catch a matinee.
Broadway mostly, musical theater stuff.
My folks loved that.
So I was always doing theater as a kid,
and when I went to college,
I knew I wanted to continue doing it.
I ended up at Tufts University, which is outside of Boston.
That's when I really kind of discovered the theater,
not just as the musicals but art theater,
the great European classic Shakespeare,
the avant-garde in America, and I had this sort of
wonderful, eye-opening experience, right?
It's what college is supposed to do and show you that there's a
world beyond the little universe that we knew.
When I graduated college, I thought,
"Okay, now what am I gonna do? I might go to graduate school.
Maybe I should go to drama school."
And so I found myself at Oxford, where I studied Shakespeare,
which featured me getting in trouble for taking an antique
Jacobean chair out of the college hall and using it
as a prop without permission.
I just ran in and said, "That looks like a nice chair."
So I grabbed it.
Next thing I know, I got summoned by the master
of the college and given a talking-to about how Jacobean
furniture is not meant to be appropriated for
It was an amazing period of, you know,
deep immersion in Shakespeare.
This was the late 1980s.
And it was at that moment that I decided this is what I wanted
I wanted to have a life making Shakespeare.
There was a new head of the drama division at Juilliard
in New York, and he was looking for somebody to
teach Shakespeare, so I went and taught Shakespeare where Jesse
Perez, who's now head of the Old Globe's actor-training program
was one of my students.
Jesse Perez: When I met Barry,
I was intimidated by him.
He was such a Shakespeare guru.
Like, I felt like he knew every play.
You could ask him a question about any character.
And as we know, the Shakespeare canon is not small.
But I just remember the passion he expressed.
He would recite Shakespeare with nothing but passion.
I was like, "Oh, man, how did he become himself,
and where did he come from, and where do you find the time to
read that much Shakespeare and know it that well, you know?"
And the truth is, the more I got to know him,
the more I started to realize that he was just a man wanting
to make theater.
Barry: I got a call from a guy named Tom Hall,
who was, once upon a time, the managing director of the Old
Globe but is now a head hunter who hires theater executives,
and he said, "The Old Globe's looking for a
new artistic director.
What do you think?"
And I said, "Oh my god, amazing.
Are you kidding-- San Diego?"
with, at that time, two young kids--
my daughter was five,
and I had a newborn.
I had a baby on the way.
And I get to be in charge, and there's three amazing theaters,
and it's one of North America's great Shakespeare theaters and
has been since 1935.
"How fast can I sign up?"
So I went through a series of interviews with the board of
the Old Globe, and in 2012, to my joy and excitement,
they hired me.
ghost: I am thy father's spirit,
doomed for a certain term to walk the night.
announcer: Hamlet's father, the deceased king,
approaches him on the battlements as an apparition,
telling of the plot of his untimely murder,
illuminating the deeds committed by his brother,
Hamlet's uncle, who has now inherited the crown and wedded
the queen, Hamlet's mother.
The ghost of Hamlet's father serves to move Hamlet forward
in his desire for revenge.
But for us in the audience, it is a visual reminder of how we
feel when we experience the death of someone we care for,
a significant wound regardless of what century we may live in.
Barry: In 2016, my dad died.
We were--yeah, I loved my dad.
We were close, of course, like fathers and sons are,
and I loved him very deeply as he did me.
And the end of his life, he was in a hospice in New Jersey for a
couple days, and I was there, sitting with him,
and to my sort of remarkable surprise,
just "Hamlet" popped into my head.
"Hamlet" popped into my head.
Shakespeare pops into my head a lot at moments of extreme
emotion, and "Hamlet" is a play about what happens to a man when
his father dies.
I mean, that is, like, so the deal about--
that's like "Hamlet's" about many, many, many things.
"Hamlet's" about all kinds of stuff,
ranging from government and international relations
to young love, but what it is absolutely centrally about is
what happens to a man when his father dies.
And there are all these lines.
Nature's common theme is death of fathers.
My father lost a father.
That father lost his.
And we're sitting there in this hospice in New Jersey
at 2 o'clock in the morning, listening to my father's raspy
breathing, and "Hamlet" is running through my head.
So I filed that away.
And when we started talking at the Globe about what Shakespeare
to do in the summer of 2017, I just thought,
you know, "Hamlet's" been on my mind.
I gotta do this.
But I also knew that somehow going through Hamlet's grief
with him might provide a positive place for me to
put my own.
Hamlet: Speak the speech, I pray you,
as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.
But if you mouth it, as many of your players do,
I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines.
Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus,
but use all gently."
announcer: Ah, yes, Hamlet's speech to the players.
To prove his uncle's crimes, Hamlet puts on a play within
the play, "The Mousetrap."
In the performance, the players reenact the murder described by
his father's spirit, just to see how the king reacts.
Hamlet: Poison in jest, no offense in the world.
Barry: One of the hardest decisions that a Shakespeare
director makes is "Well, where are we?
What world are we in?"
When it came time to do 'Hamlet," I thought I'd
really like to keep in its period, which is Jacobean
England, and I thought, "I can really take advantage of the
Globe's powerful work in elaborate period costuming.
We have one of the great costume shops in North America,
and the Globe is famous for what I sometimes jokingly refer to as
I knew a designer in New York called Kate O'Connor,
and I thought, "This is a visionary."
This is somebody who is really, really extraordinary.
So I called her up, and I said, "Would you like to come to San
Diego and do a crazy, very far-out but Jacobean production
So she did.
Kate's costume renderings are collages that expressed her
sort of wild idea about these characters and about the world
that they were in.
Many of the women's gowns in our production of Hamlet were built
from scratch, but a lot of the other stuff was "We're gonna
take this production and that production and kind of collage
the stuff together."
Barry: But how're you gonna do a ghost,
the ghost of Hamlet's dead father shows up
and walks around.
The text tells us that he's in armor,
but that's all we know.
Sometimes he's just human.
Other times, in the movies, you can do special effects and give
him an aura.
And what're you gonna do?
You're gonna make him look really dead and decrepit,
or are you gonna make him look robust?
Is he gonna be larger than a normal human being?
Is he gonna be smaller?
How do you do it?
So we got talking about it, right?
And here's how theater works is that no one person ever
has an idea.
People spitball stuff and throw ideas around.
And so we said, "Okay, he's gotta be armed."
And honestly, I can't even remember who it was who said,
"Well, what if he lights up?
What if somehow he's glowing?"
Michael Genet: The ghost costume is something--
just a incredible design because it's made out of
fabric that's actually made out of plastic,
but what runs through it are thousands and thousands of
And I've got, like, eight different battery packs
attached to me, and through the control booth,
they light me up, and I look like I'm about to go into the
space shuttle and go to the moon.
Barry: So we decided to go down that route and
got a wonderfully expressionistic, colorful,
very, very rich and elaborate world out of costumes.
Hamlet: To be or not to be, that is the question.
Barry: The central concern of the production was, really,
about the looming presence of this dead father in
The set designer, Timothy Mackabee,
came up with this great idea to make that metaphor present in
the show, a giant statue of the dead king,
huge thing that loomed over the stage in the production.
Dave Buess: They gave us a photo from a French suit of
armor in the scale that we knew that it needed to be 11 feet
tall, and so those were the parameters that we had.
Luckily, we also had this suit of armor in our stock that we
could refer to, and the tricky point,
at that point, was deciding how we were gonna build this because
we knew we didn't wanna build a whole suit of armor out
That would be too heavy.
So we yielded to making it out of plastic.
We ended up purchasing a pizza oven so we could take sheets of
these, this plastic, and actually put it into the
pizza oven, get it to just before a melting point,
and then take it out and form it over the blanks that we created.
ghost: I am thy father's spirit,
doomed for a certain term to walk the night.
Dave: Whenever we do the show outside on our festival stage,
we know that we need to account for weather.
The banquet tables, we'll use an oil-based sealer.
All of the other little desserts and foods were actually ones
that we manufactured.
So we have really good techniques at using spray foam.
It's a great product for making pastries and breads 'cause it
creates this wonderful pillow, and you can color it really well
once it seals over.
A while latex cotton looks exactly like icing on a cake.
And you throw that into a piping bag,
and you can bake a great cake.
It's wonderful using these different materials that'll
hold up for performances so that we really can make sure that
these props are protected but also reflect what the look was
on opening night, 'cause we want every audience member to see the
set the same way.
Barry: Shakespeare wrote his plays for an outdoor theater.
The Globe in London had no roof.
This space has a grandeur to it and an epic scale to it that
somehow captures the cosmic size of Hamlet.
And when you're talking about huge themes of death and of a
man's love for his father who's dead and hoping to get released
to heaven if his son will only take action,
The massive size of the experience and the deep
well of emotion sort of feels fitting in this kind of venue.
announcer: But there's more to this production
than its timeless story.
The folks who are behind the scenes and on stage are just
as, if not more, important.
After all, Shakespeare wrote these plays for a bare stage.
They didn't have fancy backdrops,
lighting, and electronic sound.
What they did have was a company of talented actors.
Diversity on stage is more important now than ever before,
and that's the beauty of Shakespeare in
These stories can be realized in all walks of life,
and all actors, regardless of gender,
race, or nationality, can and should be allowed to play any
character in Shakespeare's canon.
Jesse: One of the major reasons people come to
our MFA program is they get to do Shakespeare at a professional
level at the Globe, and basically,
our students, all 14 of them, get to audition for the summer
programming here at the Globe, which is two major Shakespeare
plays out on the festival stage outdoors.
And what that does is it gives the opportunity for our students
to be in a professional rehearsal environment.
It's just invaluable for an actor, you know,
and especially an actor of color when we're rarely
given the opportunities to actually be in Shakespeare
plays, and so we have to support them,
knowing that they're the future.
They are the people that are paving the way for our program
to keep bringing in more BIPOC artists,
and it'd be a safe place for them to grow and actually
exercise their craft.
Amara James Aja: And it's an incredible chance to
see the dedication that's required to
help tell these stories.
It gave me the chance to integrate what it
was that I had learned in the class over the years I found
really useful as a performer.
Ian Lassiter: Barry did a damn fine job of bringing
out a lot of people of color to represent the royal family,
which is a huge step, and it makes a big statement,
and we have such a great bunch of people,
and Barry was such a good director that you don't--
the audiences don't spend any time thinking,
"Oh, why aren't they Danish?
Why don't they look Danish?"
Just enjoying the story, and we just happen to be mostly people
Jesse: How do you cast in an open way and see American actors
in this English playwright?
How do we make it American stories?
And I think it starts with casting.
It's who's saying those words.
And if we're gonna tell American stories,
we have to bring everyone along.
How do you bring more people to the theater?
Tell their story.
Show them an image of a Black Hamlet,
and see who comes to the theater then.
If we can do this with any playwright,
we should be able to do it with Shakespeare.
I mean, he's in the public domain.
He's written such rich stories with so many different
characters, so many different people in the same scene,
and I think that's my main focus,
being a BIPOC artist myself, you know,
knowing that I went through my own journey to get where I got,
and it wasn't easy.
I confronted bias, opinions about my work.
I don't think anybody will ever be like,
"Wow, your 'Hamlet' was the best 'Hamlet' I've ever seen,"
especially a White audience.
Do I expect maybe a Latinx cohort to come over to me
and be like, "Now I can see myself doing 'Hamlet'"?
That's more important to me than the definitive
Barry: It is a somehow mistaken reading to think that
because Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark,
he can only and entirely be one thing.
The humanity of the role is encompassing,
and if you talk to--
and I know you've done this, Michael.
You've talked to so many Black actors in the course of your
show, and they will tell you, especially if they're actors
of a certain age, they've been told at times that Shakespeare's
not for them.
"Okay, you can play Othello. You can play Aaron the Moor.
You can play the Prince of Morocco in 'The Merchant of
Venice,' but that's it."
It is exclusion, saying, "Sorry, that's for us.
That's not for you."
And generations of American theater artists have been
working so hard to break that down across every kind of line--
ableism, gender, you name it-- and together we're gonna make
this very, very rich thing in a true, American, wonderful
mix of cultures.
Barry: So, during the pandemic,
the Globe has pivoted its programming to digital
platforms, and we're doing all kinds of stuff in Zoom
and YouTube, Facebook Live.
One of the things we decided to do was turn to radio drama.
There's a rich tradition going back to the beginning of the
radio medium of plays on the air,
but also Shakespeare on the radio is spectacular because
it's all about the language.
It really forefronts, foregrounds, the words
themselves, and if you listen to it,
especially as I've been doing while we've been working on
headphones, there's an intimacy to it.
There's a personal connection to the language that's hard to get
in the theater.
Hamlet: Horatio, the potent poison quite o'ercrows
Barry: It's fun to be back out here on this stage and
remember the show because, listening to it in its new form,
I can remember the traces, but also it will capture the
enormous passion and power of the words,
and the great thing about radio is that's all there is.
You're imagining all of it, and these actors have been able to
bring all that stuff from three years ago,
back to a much more compact, intimate and,
I think, every bit equally powerful rendition of the play.
Barry: As I said before, Shakespeare comes to me
all the time.
He always seems to be one step ahead.
He always seems to have already encountered all the things that,
to us, seem new, and we're all fragile.
We're all vulnerable, and we need help to cope.
So why Shakespeare?
Because he got there before we did,
and by turning to him, we can understand something about the
moment that we're in, in ways richer than we could imagine.
Jesse: It is very interesting when life parallels art and
what it does to an artist to use a work of art in order
to release or find a finality to something you've experienced
because you're still searching on what it meant.
And as you know, you know, as Hamlet continues on his search
on "Why, why, why?"
and "What do I mean now?"
his father's ghost visits him.
Now, of course, as actor--right?--
we always do what are the imaginary circumstances,
but I wonder if you, as a person living through life
and experiencing loss of life, what the mind does,
and who visits you in your dreams,
and if you've ever had your father come back and visit you
after he's passed, and wonder if you've righted everything that
this man, who taught you, who raised you,
who held you in his arms, if you've done what he thought
you would do, if you became who he thought you would become?
And I feel, if you get it at the right time--right?--
it's all in the timing.
The work becomes that much more important, raw, and immediate.
announcer: We love this play for the universality
of its story, the orchestration of language,
and the unforgettable characters that will endure
on the world's stages.
"Hamlet" lives in us all and will continue to play on as long
as our imagination desires to be fed.
Horatio: Now cracks a noble heart.
Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to
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