Blog & Other Projects

Someone Is Naked in the State of Denmark

September 20, 2017

By Annie McDonough

Four weeks ago, any New Yorker looking for a free Shakespeare fix might head to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where they would find a star-studded production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream playing inside an intricate Fairyland. One month before that, they would find a controversial staging of Julius Caesar, starring a Trump look-a-like and the occasional conservative protestor. Today, however, Central Park’s preeminent offering of free Shakespeare features something audiences can’t find anywhere else – full frontal male nudity.

A nude production of Hamlet featuring a cast of all-male actors enjoyed a two-day engagement in front of the King Jagiello monument in Central Park this week. The play was produced by Torn Out Theater, a year-old company whose debut work was a nude production of The Tempest featuring an all-female cast last August.

On Friday, September 8, an audience trickled in before the 5 p.m. performance, setting up lawn chairs and picnic blankets around the stage. The “stage”, in this case, consisted of a paved round clearing and a stretch of pedestrian walkway between the statue of the Polish king and Turtle Pond.

To accommodate a larger audience, Torn Out Theater moved its production of Hamlet to this spot for September 7 and 8, after presenting four shows in Prospect Park this August.

As audience members chatted and took pictures of the pond, Belvedere Castle, and the empty Delacorte Theater on the other side of the water, it was unclear just how many of them knew what they were getting into.

Rocheleh Ziffer, who had moved to New York from Australia five days earlier, was spending a free afternoon wandering around Central Park for the first time. “I just saw the sign saying ‘Free Admission’ and was like, ‘Sweet! Until I get a job I need all the free things I can get.’”

As for the more controversial element of the show, Ziffer was walking in blind. “It’s a performance of Hamlet,” she says. “That’s all I know.”

When Ziffer learns that she won’t just be sitting down to two and a half hours of Shakespeare, but two and a half hours of nude Shakespeare, she breaks into laughter. And then she learns that the show will only feature male performers, including the actors portraying female characters. “Is that weird?” she asks. “Do I look like the biggest creep now?”

Director and Torn Out Theater co-founder Pitr Strait doesn’t hit you with the full frontal from the get-go, and not every character gets fully nude. Those who do shed their layers, do so at a point of emotional vulnerability, a moment of honesty, or in a spell of madness.

For Shakespeare novices, a basic understanding of Hamlet’s character can be had from the observation that once Hamlet gets nude early in the first act, he stays that way until the final bows.

Of the two female characters in the play, only Ophelia undresses completely. After her father dies, Ophelia finally bares her true emotions, and in this production, the full male form.

The deceitful and villainous King Claudius, on the other hand, only takes his shirt off for a brief scene, and for the rest of the play, dons a drape-y costume with many loose layers.

In a show about lies, deceit, and power hungry men, Strait says, emotional nakedness is what sets Hamlet apart. “At some point, he says, ‘Fuck it. I’m just gonna be who I am, I’m not gonna pretend, I’m not gonna throw off my inky cloak, I’m not gonna smile cause my new dad tells me to, I’m gonna be myself, I’m gonna get to the truth’,” Strait explains.

When the actors exited a scene or awaited their next entrance, they either stayed behind the curtain at the King Jagiello statue, or huddled naked in a roped off section of bushes behind the stage, on the edge of Turtle Pond. From across the pond, the view of that section of bramble may have given an onlooker quite a different impression of what was going on over here.

While most New York theaters’ biggest audience etiquette problems include crinkly candy wrappers and texting during the show, the company of Torn Out Theater’s Hamlet could control very little about its surroundings.

What qualified as “upstage” was essentially an ordinary paved walkway in Central Park. While ushers attempted to keep passerby out of the makeshift stage, some determined pedestrians refused to be rerouted.

One usher pleaded loudly with a middle-aged woman to keep her from crossing the stage in the middle of a scene between Hamlet and Polonius. The woman ignored the usher, striding through the scene, not looking up from her phone as a nude Hamlet ran right in front of her.

At other times, a man wearing headphones walked through a fight scene between a naked Hamlet and Laertes; a group of people interrupted a somber moment during Ophelia’s funeral scene; and a young man on a skateboard rolled past the stage while laughing, causing Strait to gesture at him with both of his middle fingers.

Unlike Ziffer or any puzzled onlookers, some audience members knew what they were walking into, and braced themselves for the nudity ahead. Still, they weren’t quite sure how it would figure into the play.

“I knew about it going in, but I thought it was surprisingly well-done,” says Billy Cohen, an actor and friend of Jake Robertson (Hamlet), after the play. “I was expecting it to be, I don’t know, weird.”

Jeuel Pana, a graduate student in public health at NYU, came with a friend, looking for something free and different to do for the weekend. While he appreciated the performance, Pana also found it absurd. “I was probably laughing the whole time, but trying not to be obvious,” he says.

What started out last year as an effort to promote female body positivity in The Tempest, turned into something of a dare for Strait and Torn Out Theater’s co-founder Alice Mottola to do the same for men. After The Tempest, they were asked, ‘why not do an all- male production next?’ “That was a very easy challenge to accept,” Strait says. He recalls telling his critics, “We’ll absolutely do that.”

For Robertson, the “absolutely” came after a long discussion with Strait about how the nudity would factor into Strait’s production. “I wanted to make sure it was trying to bring the story to life in a different way, and it was a part of the life of the play,” Robertson says.

The challenge of appearing nude for nearly all of the two-and-a-half-hour-long play was matched only by the daunting prospect of doing a character as monumental as Hamlet justice – something Robertson hadn’t fully considered until after he agreed to the nudity. “Then it was like, ‘oh shoot, now I have to be Hamlet’,” he says.

Robertson doesn’t deny being nervous to bare everything in front of the audience.
The actor eschewed the traditional brooding, antisocial interpretation of the unfortunate prince, portraying Hamlet instead as energetic and impassioned. After the play, Robertson is animated in a different way, hugging his friends and his mother goodbye, and re-enacting an awkward collision with a pedestrian during his first nude show in Prospect Park.

Strait’s Hamlet lost one or two-dozen audience members during intermission, but throughout the play, some baffled passerby turned into attentive viewers, keeping the size of the audience roughly the same, at around one hundred people.

For some audience members, the nudity was an insightful interpretation of the play. “I thought it was basically kind of indicative of Hamlet’s unraveling, and kind of the way that spread through the setting, which I found was accurate,” says Cohen.

Pana, however, had doubts. “It’s a serious play, but then they’re nude,” he says. “I’m not sure, do we take them seriously or not?

Strait and Robertson were always prepared for skeptic audiences. “I think a lot of people who come to this show are probably like, ‘this is just some gimmick that they’re doing’,” Robertson says.

But Strait experienced some validation when he read the review of another production of Hamlet this summer. Oscar Isaac and Keegan-Michael Key starred in a sold-out and critically acclaimed production of Hamlet at the Public Theater, and though Strait didn’t know it before staging his version, the two productions shared more than a common text.

In a review of Hamlet at the Public, The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote, “I totally bought Hamlet’s running around in his underpants for his ‘antic disposition’ scenes.”

“At first I was like, ‘oh no, they did it,’” Strait said of the moment he read Brantley’s review. “But then I think it was my wife actually who was like, ‘no, this means that you’re not crazy. You didn’t just make up a gimmick for this, other people are working on the same wavelength, it’s just you’re gonna go all the way with it.’”

There was no clear consensus on Torn Out Theater’s Hamlet, though if the sizeable turnout indicated anything, it was at least an interest in free Shakespeare, nude Shakespeare, or both.

Written for NYU’s graduate journalism magazine class.

Jared Kirby Tells Stories with Violence

November 20, 2017

Jared Kirby is no stranger to a good fight. In a day full of combat lessons, stunt coordination, and fencing practice, Kirby runs from one location to another, all to get in a full day’s worth of fighting. Kirby is an internationally recognized fencing master and has trained actors and martial artists for off-Broadway plays and well-known films and television shows. Violence, he says, is not just a visual effect, but an important storytelling tool and means of character development. Through teaching seminars around the world, coordinating fights on screen, and mentoring up-and-coming fight directors, Kirby has devoted his life to teaching others to see violence as the art that it is.

Former Vice President Joe Biden Shares Perspective with Colgate

Published in The Colgate Maroon-News

March 29, 2017

On Friday, March 24, former Vice President Joe Biden told Colgate students, families, staff and faculty, that he regrets not being President of the United States.

“Do I regret not being president? Yes. Do I regret not running for president? In light of what was going on in my life at the time, no I don’t regret it. I made the right decision,” Biden said.

Several national news networks picked up this portion of Biden’s lecture at Colgate, part of the Kerschner Family Series Global Leaders at Colgate, which has, in past years, hosted notable guests such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Following a speech on the unraveling of the middle class in the midst of a digital revolution, Biden sat down with President Brian Casey, and spoke about his decision not to run for president in 2016.

In August 2013, his son, Beau Biden, was diagnosed with glioblastoma in the brain. At the time of diagnosis, the cancer was stage four. The younger Biden died in May 2015, after a recurrence of the brain cancer.

“I had planned on running for president,” the former Vice President said. “Although it would have been a very difficult primary, I think I could’ve won. I don’t know. Maybe not.”

Biden said he planned to announce whether or not he would run by the fall of 2015, and in deciding long after other candidates, the press began to think he was playing a guessing game.

“I couldn’t tell them about my boy,” Biden said. “He didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for him.”

Though Biden said he believed he could have brought a country in need of unity together, he knew that because of what was going on with his son at the time, he was not the best qualified person for the job.

“I didn’t run because no man or woman should announce for President of the United States unless they can look the public in the eye and say, ‘I promise you, I’m giving 100 percent of my attention and dedication to this effort.’ I knew I couldn’t do that,” Biden said.

In his answer to Casey’s first question about his decision not to run, Biden spoke in a soft, somber tone, clearly thinking carefully through each word he uttered.

In his lecture preceding the Q&A session, however, he offered an impassioned plea on behalf of the working middle class man.

Biden presented the phenomenon of the fourth Industrial Revolution – defined by exponential scientific and technological advancement in recent and coming years – as both an opportunity for growth and a real danger to job security for middle class workers.

According to Biden, automated warehouses, artificial intelligence and even online shopping make Americans more productive. That productivity, however, may come at the cost of the workers whose jobs are eliminated through technological advancement.

“I believe, on balance, these transformations are changes for the benefit of humanity,” Biden said. “They can benefit the average person, by bringing exciting new choices to consumers, to new kinds of jobs that, hopefully, are good paying for workers. But these changes are going to come with real peril. And they’re going to require us, in government and in society, to be proactive, at the front end of this exponential change that we’re expecting to occur.”

Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1942, told the now-familiar story of his father losing his job in Scranton and leaving his siblings with their grandfather for a short time to go find work in Wilmington, Delaware, the city to which they would all eventually relocate.

“Ever since that experience with my father, my siblings and I heard repeatedly, when any man or woman would lose a job – a friend, a neighbor, somebody – my dad would say, ‘Joey, remember – a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect,’” Biden said.

Although it’s a narrative that Biden repeated throughout the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, it still rang true in light of one takeaway of the 2016 election – that Clinton lost middle class voters to Donald Trump. The Pew Research Center recorded President Obama winning 53 percent of middle-income communities in 2008, while Clinton was only able to hold onto 48 percent of that vote last November.

In the question and answer session with Casey, Biden said that he believed that part of the reason Clinton lost the election was because the average, middle class worker was crying out for help, and the Democrats didn’t hear him.

“She got three million more votes than [Trump] did, notwithstanding his math,” Biden said. “But it mattered on the margins. It mattered a lot.”

Biden’s lecture focused on improving the state of the middle class, not just to win their vote in the next election, but to ease their struggle and improve standards of living in the meantime.

Biden prescribed “five core pillars” to build off of in the coming years to ensure that the fourth Industrial Revolution results in a net benefit for humanity. Those pillars include increased access to affordable education and job training, continued assurance of basic protections and benefits for workers, a concerted effort to modernize infrastructure, a more progressive tax bill and expanded access to capital.

During the lecture, he expounded upon each pillar in great detail, emphasizing the importance of education that can keep up with the pace of technological advancement, a tax code that requires everybody to pay proportionally their fair share and a clearer path for entrepreneurs and small businesses to take their ideas from their heads, to the market.

“I know in Washington, I’m referred to as Middle Class Joe,” Biden said. “In Washington, that’s not meant as a compliment. It means, ‘he’s not that sophisticated.’ But I’m sophisticated enough to know what built this country. What makes us unique among all democracies.”

Biden went on to describe the meaning of America as possibility, but some students in attendance felt his speech focused unevenly on possibilities for the middle class.

Student Government Association (SGA) President Matthew Swain said he was a bit taken aback to hear the former Vice President describe the foundation of the United States as a white, middle class family making around $90,000 a year.

“He framed this as, ‘this was the history of America, and these are the individuals who built this country, and are struggling, and are struggling the most,’ which I was surprised about,” Swain said. “I don’t find these to be the individuals who are struggling the most, or the individuals solely responsible for making America what it is today.”

Senior Grace Western had a similar reaction.

“I think he chose (or whoever did) something moderate to cater to the audience and not to ‘politicize’ Colgate and alienate certain alums, parents or students,” Western said. “I think he had valid and important points, but he failed to acknowledge and implicate the way we understand race, which heavily impacts what he was discussing about white people and the middle class.”

Biden’s argument, however, was predicated on his belief that creating pathways to the middle class can be a benefit to all Americans.

“I believe that a thriving and growing middle class has been the main reason for not only our economic stability, but also our political stability, and the social stability in our democracy,” he said. “When the middle class does well, the wealthy do very, very well, and the poor have a way up.”

Mixed opinions on the focus of Biden’s speech seemed to echo the debate over what it was that cost Clinton the election last November. Senior Kerinne O’Connor indicated that she sees this conversation as a benefit, rather than a point of contention.

“I think his speech opens up an important dialogue on campus, especially in regards to what he could have done better,” she said.

Prior to Biden’s scheduled lecture, select student leaders from SGA and other student groups, were invited to an intimate meet-and-greet and short lecture with the former vice president.

Swain said one of the most powerful moments in that meeting came from a question asking what the university should be doing better, and Biden’s response that more selective institutions like Colgate are less likely to report sexual assault cases.

“He looked directly at President Casey and said, ‘this is something that you need to be doing. And for the men in the room, you need to be helping with this as well. This is a really big deal,’” Swain said.

O’Connor noted that, while she will remember the entirety of Biden’s visit as a highlight of her Colgate experience, the part she enjoyed most was the Q&A session.

“[Through question and answer], we got a sense of what [Biden] holds important,” she said.

In his conversation with President Casey, Biden said that he and President Obama always intended to allow the new administration room to grow, as most outgoing administrations have traditionally done with their successors.

Earlier that day, President Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan canceled a vote to repeal large portions of the Affordable Care Act, which had been a major campaign promise for Trump.

“We’re trying to be graceful, like every other former President and Vice President,” Biden said. “We’re meant to give the new team an opportunity, give them a shot. Turns out, we were basically giving them enough rope.”

While Biden said he believes that the overwhelming decency of Republicans in Congress will allow them to stiffen their backbones to President Trump in future matters as he said they did on Friday, there are some achievements made in the past eight years, which the Trump administration will not be able to erase, no matter how hard they try.

“The public has moved beyond their government,” Biden said. “They’re in a different place. And civil rights, and civil liberties – he will try [to reverse progress], but it will not stand.”

When President Casey followed up this point, asking Biden to address a crowd of students with palpable fear that progress in civil rights and liberties will be reversed, Biden stood up to speak directly to the audience, injecting unrelenting fervor in his words for the last twenty minutes of the event.

“The reason why it’s not going to happen is because of you,” he said. “You can’t remain silent.”

Following thirty-six years in the Senate, and eight more in the vice presidency, Biden is still confident that there are stronger forces uniting Americans than there are factors that divide them.

What he said worries him, however, are attempts by White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and President Trump to delegitimize those forces, our political institutions and the Fourth Estate.

“What is it that pulls us together?” Biden asked. “We agreed on a set of rules, broad rules. The court has the last word. The president has limited power. The Congress need be responsive. And the press is the referee. Sometimes they’re not wearing a striped shirt, but on balance, they do.”

Biden ended the night with a call-to-action, addressing the students packed in Sanford Field House and hanging on to his every word.

“We’re counting on you,” Biden said. “And no excuses. I got there when I was twenty-nine.”

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