Andrew Carlson’s work in Winona this summer demands more from him than in previous years.
“It is exhausting and fulfilling and unlike anything I have ever done before,” the 37-year-old said this week.
Carlson, an actor with the Great River Shakespeare Festival since 2006 and theater teacher at the University of Texas at Austin, stars as the lead in this season’s production of “Hamlet.” The tragedy is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known, and, as GRSF artistic director Doug Scholz-Carlson has said, is “arguably the greatest work of literature ever written.”
In the play, the title character embarks on a journey of revenge when his father is killed by Hamlet’s uncle, and along the way shares with audience members the powerful feelings at conflict within him.
“He experiences the whole gamut of human emotions in one play,” Carlson said. “(Hamlet) goes on wild emotional swings where he contemplates most of life’s big questions ... You are in his head in a way that you aren’t with other characters.”
Carlson isn’t kidding when he says the things that Hamlet ruminates over are large.
They, and the emotions that they evoke, are what make this role different from the many others that Carlson has tackled, both as an actor with GRSF and in other projects.
“Hamlet has such a huge soul,” Scholz-Carlson said, “and Andrew has such an ability to bring that humanity out.”
It’s what has made this year in Winona so taxing for Carlson.
And so rewarding.
“The size of the emotions, the size of the grief, the size of the love, the size of the rage, it is all contained in three hours,” Carlson said. “It’s a lot more work because it means that you have to find a way to connect individually to all of those things,” he added. “And it’s hard.”
To prepare for each show, Carlson arrives about two hours early to the Performing Arts Center at Winona State University, where GRSF performs. He reserves this block of time for reviewing text, warming up his voice, rehearsing fight scenes, and prepping himself emotionally for the whirlwind of feelings he must experience over the next several hours in front of hundreds of audience members.
“I try to connect to where (Hamlet) is starting the play,” Carlson said, “and he starts the play in deep darkness and deep grief.”
Carlson’s father, like Hamlet’s, recently passed away. The loss has allowed Carlson to better relate to his character, he said.
“I try to connect. I go through the circumstances of the play and I meditate and even will try to access some of that grief,” Carlson said about his preparation. “It’s a very solitary kind of thing. It’s me by myself and needing to just sort of be in my own headspace.”
Additional connections that exist between the actor and character, such as the character’s struggles with religion, also have allowed Carlson to more fully embody the Prince of Denmark than he otherwise might not have been able to as a younger actor, Carlson said.
“Some of the huge debates and the deep sort of spiritual self-hatred, spirit hatred, that come up are things that I experienced so much in my 20s, in particular in my early 20s,” Carlson said. “They are in my body and in my emotional memory, and I have a little perspective on them.
“By the end of the play (Hamlet) is really struggling to make a connection to God, and to purpose, and to the ‘divinity that shapes our ends’ as he calls it, and that’s a journey that I am on and I think that many of us are on who live or try to live spiritual lives."
Understandably, directors have much to consider when casting the complex role. There’s an actor’s technique and technical skills. There’s the existence of more than 400 years of prior performances of the play, by some of the most accomplished actors and directors. And there's the challenge that so many attendees are in some way familiar with the play, whether by enjoying a professional performance--or by hating reading it in a high-school English class.
“That can be a huge weight, a whole lot of cultural baggage to carry into a production,” Carlson said.
To ensure that the show remains one envisioned by GRSF and not influenced by those centuries of previous interpretations, Carlson said, it is necessary to focus on the vision for the play developed by GRSF. He trusts the director, Jim Edmondson, and the fellow actors.
Still, the role will always require someone willing to move outside of his comfort zone.
“For an actor, Hamlet is a huge challenge,” Scholz-Carlson said.
The part asks of actors and directors, “When are you old enough to have the life experience and still young enough to convincingly play Hamlet?” Scholz-Carlson said.
For Carlson, that time is now.