Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! at Toronto Fringe (a review)

Zip & Shakes make Hamlet approachable for kids

Zip & Shakes make Hamlet approachable for kids

Your dad just died. Your mom married your uncle, who stole your crown. Your girlfriend went bonkers. And your best friends are trying to kill you.

You thought being an 8-year-old was tough.

Who in their right minds would try to turn Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a puppet show for kids? Shakey-Shake and Friends would, offering  Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! at Toronto FringeKids! 2015.

Before you even step into the theatre, you know that the producers understand the challenge they’ve set for themselves.

“We’re doing the whole thing (deaths and all), but in a light-hearted way,” reads a sign outside the theatre. “Everyone who dies gets a very silly ghost sheet and continue to comment on the action! (It’s not too scary.)”

And as far as I’m concerned, they deliver on their promise. From the moment the lights come up to the second they finally drop, the puppeteers put everything they have into entertaining their audience.

Whether it’s one of the characters, or the erstwhile hosts Shakes and Zip (pictured above), somebody always steps forward to help the kids understand what’s going on. And they do it without ever coming across as teacher-y, or at least, not for very long without a heavy dose of silliness hard on its heels.

What does the “to be or not to be” speech mean? Why does Hamlet’s mom not clue in to what’s going on? It’s all explained, gently and sweetly, to the kids without ever being condescending.

And nicely, the cast knows that their audience extends well beyond the 6- to 10-year-olds. Throughout the play, there are jokes for all ages and references from popular events and news items from last week, last year and last century.

This appears to be a very good decision, because about 85% of the capacity premiere crowd was well beyond puberty.

Having spent some time as a puppeteer, I didn’t think the puppetry technique was particularly solid, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one who cared. It didn’t seem to stop the wall-to-wall smiles and laughter that held the audience from start to finish.

I thought all of the performances were quite strong, but the show was absolutely stolen—if laughter volume is any indication—by Shakes/Polonius. Even in death, this character managed laughs that literally stopped the show.

Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! is easily the most entertaining hour I have spent in years.

[Review first appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]

Adapt or die

Image

Recently, I’ve read a couple of screenplays based on novels, and with this albeit low number of examples, let me start by saying thank goodness I have yet to find a book I wish to adapt for screen. The process, it would seem, is tedious and fraught with perils.

Odds are, especially if you are just starting out as a writer, you’ve chosen to adapt a specific book because you love it.

You love the way it is written. You love the story it tells. You love the characters. You may even love the paper on which it’s printed or its cover art.

Congratulations. You’re doomed.

I say this not to be mean but to point out that the book was written as a book for very specific reasons. The format and structure of a novel is incredibly different from that of a film.

At its simplest, you have the space in a novel to indulge yourself in narrative and character introspection. More simply put, you can describe a setting or reaction in such detail that if linearly translated to a screenplay, it would result in ten minutes of film focused exclusively on waves rolling across a beach or on the angle of an eyebrow raised over the left eye of your heroine.

Even simpler, novels are verbal, ironically, while films are visual.

And unless you’re planning on running a voice over throughout your movie—please say no—I have no idea what your characters are thinking. I can try to guess from their facial expressions, but it is a guess and will have as much to do with how easy it was to find a parking place in the megaplex as it does with the actor’s talent.

The novel could afford to be 500 or 1000 pages. Your screenplay can’t.

I love Kenneth Branagh. I love Shakespeare. Branagh did a very linear interpretation of Hamlet for film. I was bored. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet? Held my attention and was entertaining. [Compare the two “alas, poor Yorick” scenes linked here.]

The difference? A very sharp editorial knife.

So, I am going to ask you to take the thing you love and hack it. Cut it with broad strokes and wild abandon. This is no place for finesse.

This isn’t about trimming paragraphs. It is about slashing subplots or entire chapters. It is about burning away all of the decorative niceties until you reach the essence that turns your crank.

Be cruel. Be ruthless. Be honest.

Take that Sistine Chapel and reduce it to the handful of bricks that make you sweaty; that keep you coming back time after time.

It will feel like murder. In some ways, it is. But it’s murder for the greater good, because once you’ve hit that core, you can begin to rebuild. You can start to rescue some of the elements you set aside earlier or add new ones that are truly unique to your vision.

What is that core? I don’t know. That’s for you to decide.

Maybe it was the setting. Perhaps it was the relationship between two characters.

Whatever it is, find it and make that your story. That is what you love. That is why you keep coming back for more.

Honour that and you’ll have a screenplay worth turning into a movie.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission. I’m adaptable that way.)

Dara Marks at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

Engaging the Feminine Heroic

Dara Marks

In a follow-up to her very popular Transformational Arc talk of previous years, Dara Marks took us through another aspect of character development, something she calls the feminine heroic. A counterpart to the well known hero’s journey, the feminine heroic completes the hero’s character and thus is not necessarily tied simply to female heroes. Rather, it encapsulates the feminine side of everyone’s natures.

Transformational Arc

She explains, as writers, we are constantly trying to understand the narrative in which we are living, but we experience that narrative from a very personal perspective. Thus, in her canonical transformational arc, there is both an outer realm, where external forces act upon the hero, and an inner realm, the more personal influences. We grow, she says, only in relationship to demands on us to grow, and the external realm stimulates the internal reckoning.

The union of the feminine and masculine brings about wholeness in the character. It is a combination of the masculine spirit, which represents all that we can be, and the feminine soul, the deepness of our authentic self. Marks offers the example of a tree, which may reach toward the sky, but is only as strong as the root system that provides it nutrients.

Everything we are in life is what comes from deep within ourselves.

Marks presented this relatively complicated diagram that illustrated the hero’s external and internal journey (and in many ways, reflects our own journey through counseling or life itself). To the left, we find the Ego Self, where the onus is on my aspirations and beliefs of me. To the right is the True Self, which is understood after reflection and denotes my understanding of myself in the universe.

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

Ego Self: All early development, even that of a child, relies very heavily on the development of the Ego, a sense of will and determination. We believe that we’re in charge, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So if we start the journey in the Ego Self realm, we can look at the External or Masculine side and the Internal or Feminine side of ourselves.

Masculine Ego: In the top left quadrant, we have the Call to Life, the external mission that demands we strive or ascend to a greater level. We assert the force of our will on the universe. This area therefore is associated with a youthful and energetic quality. We have to move forward. We cannot let fear hold us back. To do this, we must sacrifice our feminine side, pushing those feelings down, or we cannot move forward.

Marks suggests that the tragedy of Hamlet was that he couldn’t get beyond his feminine side when he needed to move forward. She also gives the very literal example of Agamemnon, who was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia before the Greek ships would be allowed to voyage to Troy.

Feminine Ego: In the lower left quadrant of the diagram, we see the influence the masculine decision has on the feminine ego. We suffer a wound because part of us is no longer valued. We are literally abandoning a key part of our self and this will have a lingering effect. While we appear invincible externally, we are very vulnerable internally.

Thus, the feminine side needs to be rescued by the proverbial knight on a white charger. Marks is quick to point out that this is no time for political correctness as at this stage in our development, we just don’t have the internal skills to rescue ourselves.

She goes back to Greek myth to show how this works, focusing on the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the latter of whom was abducted to the underworld by Hades to become his wife. Demeter was distraught at the loss of her daughter and journeyed to the underworld to bring her back to the surface.

The underworld experience may be difficult, but it is educational and we need to journey through it to come out more whole in the next stage.

Marriage of Death: The combination of the masculine and feminine ego is what Marks calls the Marriage of Death. Anytime we strive to become something new, it means the death to other aspects of our being. We just can’t strive at all things at the same time. But this marriage is not designed to last.

As Marks points out, the problem with striving is that it is doomed to failure. We can’t be rich enough, strong enough, famous enough, whatever enough. And it is at the moment of realization that our dreams are doomed that we have a Crisis of Faith (masculine side), which leads to an Awakening of Potential (feminine side). We move closer to the discovery of our true self, the right hand side of the diagram.

Masculine True Self: As the masculine ego passes through its crisis of faith, it suffers a fall from the unattainable heights, which converts the Call to Life into a Battle for Life. For self-renewal, it is essential that our delusions and illusions are shed during this descent, such as the belief that we are in control of our lives. And thus, at this stage, it is the masculine self that needs rescuing.

Marks offers the example of Odysseus (a popular subject at TSC this year) and the knowledge that his journey home was his great undoing as he loses more and more of his ego self (including his ships, crew, etc). The second half of his journey is literally the journey homeward toward his true self.

Feminine True Self: And who rescues the masculine true self? As the masculine side becomes more vulnerable, the feminine side becomes emboldened. We heal our wounds and reunite, turning pain and suffering into love and creativity.

The way out of our self-imposed purgatory is through compassion. We have to hear the story and then feel and acknowledge the pain. And it is only when the pain is given voice that it can move back from the underworld into life.

Marks exemplifies this aspect with the myth of Inanna and Erishkegal (which I do not know as well and so simply provide a link).

Sacred Marriage/True Self: It is at this point, through the sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine that we finally achieve the true self.

NOTE: All images and illustrations are property and copyright of Dara Marks and are used here without permission.