Richard III is one of the most classic examples of a fictional work that features a villain as its main character. In this guest blog entry, Smith Street Stage assistant Jeremy Harris explains the impact Shakespeare’s writing has had on modern villain protagonists like those in “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad,” and takes a look at how artistic ideas change and grow over time.
With rehearsals underway, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.
Next in our series is Hannah Sloat, who is taking on the role of Prince Hal in her Smith Street Stage debut. Hannah is a classical actress from Durham, NH and an original cast member of Broadway’s War Horse.
Can you tell me about how you got into theatre and acting?
There’s a story that my mother tells, from when I was five. I was at an outdoor theatre performance of Peter and the Wolf and I was looking up at the stage and I said, “I want to be there; I want to do that.” I was somewhat performative as a kid – I guess many of us are – but I was an only child, and I did a lot of imagination play by myself and I really enjoyed that. I ended up doing the school plays in the third and fourth grade and I joined this children’s theatre group when I was in the sixth grade, and then I really didn’t look back. I was in that group through the end of high school and I did a lot of plays with them. I had brief instances where I thought I might be a teacher or a gymnast, but neither of those happened.
This is your first show with Smith Street Stage, right?
It is, yeah. I had the good fortune of seeing Much Ado About Nothing last year. I had a couple of friends in the show, and I loved the show, I loved the atmosphere, I loved the mix of people who come with their blankets and have clearly planned to be there and have ordered a pizza or brought a picnic, and that combined with people that stop by and are just sucked into the world of the show for maybe fifteen minutes or maybe they stay for the whole thing. I loved that combination.
What sort of experience do you have doing Shakespeare?
A lot of what I’ve done in the city has been Shakespeare with small, independent companies. It’s been a while since I’ve done one – my last one was before I did War Horse, which was in 2010. So it’s been several years since I’ve done one.
So what are you doing to get back into doing Shakespeare, and the role of Prince Hal in particular?
I actually just started getting help from my boyfriend. He’s helping me to work out, lifting weights, which is not something that I often do. It’s sort of a twofold, cardio and weightlifting for the lungs and the overall capacity to be in such a big space and be open and free and have the core and the base to do that. I’m really excited to be fighting in this show. It’s been a while since I’ve been fighting with swords regularly and so I want to have the muscles to do it and be not nervous, but excited about doing it night after night.
And of course you’ve been cast as a man for this production. Are you doing anything special to prepare for that?
I talked with Joby somewhat recently about where we both were at in terms of our thinking about the role and the show. For me – and I think we’re on the same page here – the idea of Prince Hal as this human being, and one of his characteristics is that he’s a man. There are many things that I connect with Hal about, besides the gender part, like the idea of wanting something and really not wanting it at the same time. He has these big questions about what it means to have something like the kingship given to you but also needing to earn it, and earn the respect to be the king and have people want to follow you. Especially at this time, with his father having risen up and taken the crown, his footing isn’t that sure. In some ways it seems like it’s inevitable and at the same time a lot of what the plays are about is the rockiness and unevenness of it. And so I feel like, in a certain way the gender doesn’t scare me too much. I also think that it’s about relationship. And so I have to be with Falstaff as man to man, and what that relationship means – as long as it’s clear and it doesn’t feel like Falstaff hanging out with one of the bar wenches, which would be so different obviously. For me, it has more to do with understanding the relationship, and gender obviously plays a big part in the way that different people behave toward one another. Coming at it from that angle makes it the most concrete without making it about having to put on a whole bunch of false physicality. I’m not so worried about that right now, I think that those things will hopefully be able to come through the exploration of these relationships.
Are there any actors or directors who have been a particular influence on your work?
Joby and I were talking about influences on the characters and maybe taking a look at other films and other people playing this role. And he said, “Don’t do it if it’s going to mess you up,” but I had this experience in the children’s theatre company where at each show you would have a different person playing the lead role because there were so many kids. My director didn’t want twenty-five kids to sit around while four of them got to do the fun stuff. So when we did The Wizard of Oz, there were four Dorothys, there were four Wicked Witches, there were four Good Witches and so you didn’t get to rehearse the scenes all the time. You spent seventy-five percent of the time watching other people do it, which was really an amazing way to learn, because you’re able to do that thing that actors talk about a lot – we beg, borrow, and steal from wherever we can. And it gave me such a sense of how much perspective and how much talent there is, even in little Durham, New Hampshire there is so much that you can see.