We’ve started working on Bill Cain’s THE LAST WHITE MAN, and given that Shakespeare’s HAMLET features prominently in the story, it’s inevitable that theatre tales around that most venerable play will emerge in the rehearsal hall. There are the legendary performances, the sword fight mishaps, brilliant – or outlandish – interpretations, the films, the comparisons, the remembrances of those no longer with us, which text has the final say, costumes to remember or forget. A rich history, indeed.
My HAMLET experience yields, more or less, the shape of my theatre life’s roadmap, at least from my college years onward. Having finally decided that my future was destined more toward the stage as actor rather than the skies as flyer, my significant theatre training was received at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. It was a terrific department, great profs, and a nice new facility called Rarig Center with four theatre spaces: proscenium, thrust, black box and inthe- round. With its gifted, dedicated faculty, Rarig was a perfect laboratory for young, would-be theatre professionals.
Among the required classes was stage combat and fencing. Now, this seemed right up my alley, having dabbled in improvised Pro Wrestling exhibitions with a few friends in our high school cafeteria during the waning minutes of lunch hour. I took to the swords very well and after two semesters, found myself filling in as the class instructor to cover for a grad student who had seized an off-campus, professional opportunity. Little did I know how much that fencing – these swords and daggers, retreats and advances, parries, thrusts and cuts – would influence my future.
Fast forward to graduating with a BA in Theatre Arts from the U of M, a very respectable and pretty much useless degree in terms of professional employment. After a discouraging Midwest audition tour, I returned to my day job as a residential fence builder at an Anchor Fence branch in Minneapolis. I’m hoping that a few of those fence installations are still standing straight and true to this day. But pounding posts and stretching wire was not my life’s destiny. Drastic action was required. The answer? Grad school, of course!
The U of M Theatre MFA program was affiliated with the Guthrie Theatre. One auditioned for the Big G folks because your second grad year would be spent carrying spears on Tyrone’s unique and pioneering stage (incidentally, Milwaukee was a finalist as a potential location for Mr. Guthrie’s regional theatre movement). As an unvarnished 24 year-old, I could string enough words together, make myself heard and occasionally believed: the Guthrie said they had spears in need of carrying right then, so “no need for grad school, just come be a journeyman actor with us.” Great.
We were a company of actors, still a priority for many theatres in the late 70s. Among this seasoned group of pros was Randall Duk Kim, who would be playing Hamlet mid-season along with other roles in that year’s repertory. First off, Randy portrayed a forceful and Machiavellian Bishop Nicholas, running his corner of a turbulent world from his death bed in Henrik Ibsen’s challenging epic, THE PRETENDERS. Incidentally, in my role as minor pretender Sigurd Ribbung, I spoke my first words from a professional stage; which was frightening. But I survived.
On into the season, as we began to rehearse HAMLET, I was involved in the sword fight rehearsals because my character, Barnardo, would be handling a weapon. The fight choreographer was a wonderful, old-school, Errol Flynn-era legend named Patrick (Paddy) Crean. My mental picture of him remains: red athletic training suit, white scarf at the neck, a vital shock of white hair and dashing mustache. A charmer. At 67 years young, he still had an eye for the ladies. And he believed in “ZA,” his trademark word for the panache he asked actors to bring to their stage fencing work.
Though the rehearsal process spanned 4-5 weeks, Paddy had been booked for only the first 6 days. He taught the techniques, the choreography and the theatrical sense of the HAMLET duels, but then would not be returning until tech time. Learning this, I sensed a gap in the planning – a complex duel such as Hamlet/Laertes requires almost daily practice and refinement. My U of M training gave me the temerity to offer my services as fight captain, to work with the fighters throughout rehearsal and the performance run. This brought me into direct, collegial contact with Mr. Kim and with Guy Paul, our Laertes, and gave me an outlet for sharing my particular skills. The experience would prove itself invaluable, though not immediately.
Flash forward to early 1980, when ADC Electronics provided my slim paycheck as a receiving clerk. One April day, a phone call for me was routed to our department. Anne Occhiogrosso, co-founder of American Players Theatre along with Randy Kim, was on the line.
Their inaugural season was soon to begin but they needed to replace an actor. They remembered me from our Guthrie year and invited me to join their bold and daring enterprise: Shakespeare in the middle of the driftless hills of Wisconsin.
What I thought would be a great summer acting job turned into a seven-year relationship with passionate and talented theatre colleagues who opened my eyes to a world of classical plays and serious-minded pursuit of acting excellence. Those years, replete with pre-season training, post-season tours and glorious summers of rotating rep on the APT stage, forged my instrument and sensibilities into an artist with confidence and a realized purpose for the work at hand. True, there were some rocky times along the way, but I treasure those developing years – mosquitoes and all – as the opportunity of a lifetime.
In 1986, APT season 7, Shakespeare’s HAMLET was on the docket in which Randy Kim would reprise his Guthrie performance, this time in the un-cut First Folio version. Myself, clad in magnificent red and purple robes and a sharp-angled beard and mustache, would play the dastardly King Claudius. Once again, the fencing was infused with “ZA” under Paddy Crean’s watchful eye. It was a four-hour show and under the right weather conditions, it was a theatre feast for our audience and playtime for us actors.
Mr. Kim suggested that in the next season, he and I would switch roles, and I would get my chance at those 7 brilliant arias and Hamlet’s transformative journey. Alas, there were events that summer which led to changes of plan, and what was once to be became not to be. The great Dane had eluded me, and to this day – long past my time to play a college student looking for revenge – I occasionally brush up against the dramatic events at Elsinore. Bill Cain’s play offers such an occasion, and we are joyfully preparing a new take on what many view as the western world’s most brilliant play. The readiness is all.
See you at the theatre.
Tickets for THE LAST WHITE MAN are now on sale at https://nextact.org/shows/the-last-white-man/?tickets. This production is offered live at 255 S. Water Street as well as virtually. Performances run April 14 – May 8, 2022.