A Leading Role TASIS Today’s Reni Scheifele interviews Kay Hamblin February, 2010 TT: Kay, going back in time, can you think of a particular highlight? Kay: This year I am enjoying the opportunity of working in a new theater, the Palmer Cultural Center. But one thing remains constant: teaching student actors. These are wonderful students – enthusiastic, creative, dedicated, and entertaining. Once an actor experiences a responsive audience, the fun begins. The actors return for the next production, and so does the audience. Being onstage creates a new level of self-awareness; it breeds confidence. Cast and crew become friends as well as teammates. Despite the hours of effort onstage in rehearsal and performance, many students raise their grades. Acting requires discipline and a working knowledge of time management. The skills developed working on a production last long after the applause has softened and the lights have dimmed. An important highlight was certainly the performance of The Tempest in the new theater. Performing The Tempest was a very difficult challenge, and it was very exciting to do it. It was also very exciting to have Mark Aeschliman on stage with his daughter and have him in the play as a teacher and as a friend, [alongside] his daughter Hilary. And Andrew Pelly as a student taking on the very difficult role of Prospero. It wasn’t a comedy, although it had comic and light-hearted moments. It wasn’t a tragedy either. It’s a play which is very difficult to define. It has often been assumed that it is one of Shakespeare’s goodbyes as a playwright. Many of the lines refer to that, such as, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…” All of these things were wonderful to bring into the new theater, for the new beginning of our time here at TASIS. TT: Regarding the performances you have done for TASIS, were there other highlights or a most memorable moment? Kay: The productions over the years – while I’ve been working on them, they were all highlights. Your life is totally focused on what you are doing. Not just my life, but the students’ lives too. And if it’s a musical, the musical director’s life would also be focused on it. I’m now working with Jonathan Morris, and he and I are both very focused on South Pacific. But I was equally focused on South Pacific when I was working on it with Todd Fletcher in 2003. TT: So whatever performance you are doing, once it’s on stage and you see the play come to life, it’s always a highlight? Kay: That’s what I think. It’s the highlight of the performance which is that most memorable moment. It’s almost impossible for me to pick out any particular moment. In terms of the most memorable production, I would single out Romeo and Juliet in 2006, because the students who performed that had been with me for four years, such as James Eichner, and others for three years, doing Shakespeare. That group was a real ensemble group and that’s why we have the DVD of the rehearsals. This play is immortalized in this DVD and everyone got the chance to speak. By that time, our relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company was firmly established and it had become a regular thing that we were using costumes from the RSC. TT: How did this relationship come about? Did it happen during your years at TASIS England? Kay: Yes. I met with Alison Mitchell who was the head of the Royal Shakespeare Company costume hire. We enjoyed each other’s company and trusted each other, so she felt it was OK to rent costumes out to a highschool-age group. We had done our very first production, The Taming of the Shrew, with local tailors doing the costumes, and the cost was enormous. The costumes were attractive but not properly weighted for the stage and they didn’t have the right flair. Once we moved into using professional
Nola Seta ’07 & James Eichner ’07 perform in the 2006 performance of Romeo and Juliet
costumes, it was impossible for me to go back to using something, for Shakespeare at least, that hadn’t been designed for what we were doing. I feel the kids deserve those costumes because they work so hard. Also, it does help them grow into their characters. We move them away from their daily clothing, which brings on a daily-life attitude. But when you put on a costume you become another character, and if you put on a well-made costume that’s been tailored to fit you, so that you know you look good and you feel good, then you are free to move out onto the stage with full confidence. This is a very important step and TASIS supported it with my budget. TT: Who is helping you with the sets? Kay: For the past years, Derick Chappel from TASIS England has been coming here to do the sets for us. At one such occasion, I asked him to teach sword-fighting, which we needed for the Shakespeare plays, as well as some stage combat. This collaboration still continues and he also acted as a technical consultant for the new theater. TT: Can you recollect any apprehensive moments or instances when something didn’t work as you had planned, or where you had to make some last-minute changes? Kay: I would say, in every play. With every production, something goes wrong, and the art of theater is making the necessary adjustments. You cover for the error so it doesn’t show. The actors often have to do it themselves, on stage. I tend to double-cast the productions, so when someone drops out, there is someone else ready to step in. This is very helpful and it also gives twice as many people the opportunity to perform. Our casts average around 40, for all performances. Both characters are present at all the rehearsals so that they are getting all the information. The funniest little faux-pas that occurred, which we couldn’t help, was at one time when we were performing Oklahoma in the tent. One of the actors was singing, “What a beautiful morning...and the sky a golden yellow...” – and the rain was pouring on the tent to the point that he had to sing over the sound of this deluge hitting the canvas of the tent. In another production, Much Ado About Nothing, a little kitten decided to visit our production every night. The audience would see this cat go up on stage and walk around. You could just watch the progress of the cat by watching the eyes of the audience. One of the students later said, “I can’t believe it – I’ve been upstaged by a cat!” TT: What will you be performing next, as your farewell production? Kay: We will be doing South Pacific. We originally performed it in Hadsall in 2003. There were so many kids in the cast that they were sitting right next to the audience, practically in their lap, particularly when the boys turned to sing. But it was wonderful and everyone loved it. Although all those productions in Hadsall were overcrowded, stuffy, and hot, and there weren’t very good sidelines, people loved the “cabaret” atmosphere of the theater. A big post had been put up right in the middle of the stage to prevent the roof from potentially sagging. So we were trying to use this post, for example, pretending it was a tree, or leaning against it. Something always goes wrong, but you make it work, so it looks like you planned it that way. That was a very exciting production. The students loved doing it, and we will be doing it again now. TT: This time, there won’t be a post… Kay: That’s right. It will be in our wonderful new theater. This time, we will have proper sight lines and there will be plenty of space for the dancing. Gillian Eames is choreographing. Jonathan Morris is doing his usual wonderful job getting everyone to sing – and anyone who thinks they can’t sing, he still gets them to sing. I continue to have students approach me, saying, “I don’t think I can act but I’d like to work backstage.” Of course, we’ll put them all on stage... we’ll have them do the backstage work as well as act. I found that most students who start out backstage, within six months they are on stage. So we might as well start them out on stage and have them get used to it. Because that’s were they really want to be, they just don’t know it. Even if they start out being only backstage in one production, in
the next production, most will enjoy having a small part. We are a school, not a professional organization, so the goal is to help students grow and challenge themselves. They can join in any of the productions, Shakespeare or the musical, if they have an interest – that’s all that matters. The interest comes first, and then it’s my job to make sure that it works. TT: Do you find that initially students are more interested in doing a musical, but once they get involved with Shakespeare, they are just as enthusiastic? Kay: At this point in our program, most are equally enthusiastic. There are a few students who want to do Shakespeare and do not want to do a musical. And there are also some students who want to do a musical and do not wish to do Shakespeare. But in terms of the number of students who wish to do one or the other, it’s about the same number. In the beginning, when I first came to TASIS, I tried to encourage some Shakespeare and we did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. That was one of the productions I did in non-traditional dress – I rented tuxedos. I did a very physical production with the men all wearing tuxedos and the girls wearing evening dresses. They all looked great and it was a very interesting production. But the students at that time were not ready or interested in taking on what Lynn Aeschliman would call “real” Shakespeare. It was at the cast party for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that she asked me, “When are you going to direct real Shakespeare?” “Next fall, The Taming of the Shrew,” I answered, trying to sound convincing to her and to the actors gathered around in Casa Fleming. The students just went along with it, because by that point, we had worked together long enough and the productions were perceived as something they could trust. They felt the productions were good enough that they could go ahead and do Shakespeare. And so it began, a yearly Shakespeare production: Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, A Comedy of Errors, and The Tempest. TT: And now it’s a fixture. Kay: Now, it’s something regular and I hope it continues to be, because it’s very exciting and it’s very satisfying, not only to the director but also to the participants and to the actors. For everyone involved, to hear the lines and to actually learn Shakespeare, there is no way to learn it better than by saying the lines on stage as they were meant to be said. TT: Is this learning process more difficult because of the Shakespearian language? Kay: Yes indeed, but it is a good learning exercise. It can come naturally to some students, and hopefully it does by the time we work with it. It’s also about getting over that fear of Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is so readable, it has such beautiful cadence and rhythms. The difficulty is in the time constraints. Because we do Shakespeare on Family Weekend, it sometimes gives us only five weeks to rehearse. I use the original text, not a “watered-down” text or something that has been cut down for school groups. However, I make some deletions or do some cutting to make it possible for our audiences to watch a Shakespeare play. When you go to a play in London, it can be four hours long. TT: Have you ever had a production where you felt you would have needed more time to rehearse, or when you thought it was not quite as ready as you would have liked it to be? Kay: Yes, every time we approach a dress rehearsal. You go into the dress rehearsal, thinking, “Oh, this is not ready...we are never going to make it.” And then, you have a miraculous dress rehearsal. Occasionally, you have a horrendous dress rehearsal. But between the dress rehearsal and opening night, it fixes itself. TT: How much time is there between the dress rehearsal and opening night? Kay: Usually a few days. Sometimes, one day. It just depends. We used to do six-night performances. Now that we have the Palmer Cultural Center, we can do a
four-night run as opposed to a six-night run, because we can seat more people. I think it’s very important to do more than two nights whenever possible, because it takes two nights for the students to get used to working with a “real” audience. And our audiences have always been full, filled with students, teachers, and parents, and they are generally very responsive. But then there might be a night when the audience perhaps isn’t quite as responsive. They are enjoying it, but maybe they don’t laugh or applaud after each scene. When I go backstage during the intermission, the students worry about what they have been doing wrong. Of course, they are doing fine, but I need to support them by saying, “Just keep going, keep selling the show, keep staying in character and do your very best.” The audience is just responding in a different way. The way the audience responds deeply affects the cast. But everybody comes through. TT: Having to overcome difficulties on stage, do students become more self-confident in the process? Kay: It’s just like practicing the piano. The more you practice, hopefully, the better you’ll become. The students work hard at memorization and make sure that the memorization doesn’t sound like memorization. So that I don’t need to say, “You sound like you are reading a phonebook – get into the character.” Then the lines will come more easily. I do think that the skills the students learn or develop in the theater stay with them for their whole lives – to be able to speak well and to feel comfortable in front of other people, to learn how to work with people and to support one another, and not wanting to outshine one another. All those things you take with you when you leave. I think our students remember their experiences on stage at TASIS fondly. They remember them not just as good performances but also as social experiences. There is a lot of camaraderie and fun that goes on backstage and after rehearsal, and the challenge of working together on a final project that is a shared effort. TT: And not least of all the success of the performance? Kay: Exactly. The success, and that each person counts. It doesn’t matter whether you have a small line or many lines. Every single person on stage matters at all times. We do a lot of teaching in the process of putting on a production. TT: How will you remember your years at TASIS? Kay: With pleasure. What began as a job for me became a way of life. I originally chose to be in Switzerland to be closer to my two sons, Colin and Seth, who have visited me here many times with their families and friends. I am leaving to return to my family, which now includes my grandchildren, Zoe and Max. I have enjoyed teaching other people’s children. I look forward to being once again with my own, and hope I have something to teach their children. I will leave with many fond memories. Mrs. Fleming and Lynn Aeschliman have both always supported everything I have done. I will remember my wonderful students and colleagues, and I will remember the classical beauty of the TASIS campus, but I will be moving to a different kind of beauty: think of me with my family walking along the Pacific Ocean.