“Hamlet is bottomless fries.” An interview with Talia Friedenberg

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Talia Friedenberg is an actor and university student, most recently seen on the Marin Shakespeare stage as Ophelia in the 2018 Summer production of Hamlet.  She is also a former student, having participated in many Marin Shakespeare summer camps and Teen Touring Companies. Talia graciously carved out a half-hour amidst her theatre studies at U.C. Davis, to discuss the performer’s-eye-view of Marin Shakespeare, and to share some of the challenges and joys of playing a famous female role in the best-known play in the English language.

This interview was conducted by Trevor Hoffmann, Marin Shakespeare Company  Communications Manager.

TH: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me in the middle of a busy rehearsal and study schedule.  I’m hoping to hear a little bit from you about this last season and what your experience was working as a mainstage performer at Marin Shakespeare Company.  You were cast as Ophelia – and did a wonderful job if I may say so –

TF:  Thank you.

TH: I was wondering – starting with the middle of the process and working towards the edges – what was it like performing that role?

TF: It was a very new experience for me.  That run was twice as long as any other performance run I’d ever done before.  So just learning to maintain the performance and make sure that I was giving the same quality of performance for all seven weeks – that was something I was learning as I was going along.  But Ophelia is also a really cool part!  She starts in one place, and ends in such a different place that you really get to follow her arc.  There’s a sort of natural progression of her story throughout the play. By the end, she completely devolves into madness, and having that arc was helpful to me in maintaining consistency throughout the run.

TH: Would you say the performance evolved throughout the run?

TF: I felt like it took me, oh, maybe a week or two to settle in to character and the routine of performing the play in that space – because it’s an adjustment any time you begin to perform for a real audience in a space that is new to you, particularly a big outdoor space like the Forest Meadows Amphtheatre.  But after that I felt like I got more confident and grounded in her – because that was my goal, with her.  I think it’s so common to see a lot of really timid Ophelias or really submissive Ophelias — because if you just read the part, that’s sort of how she’s written.  And I really wanted to do something with her that I had never seen before, which was make her a little stronger, more grounded, a little sassy – you know?  That was my goal from the beginning, but it took a little ways into the run for that to fully develop.

TH: Well, I think that was clearly part of the character by the time I saw the show – and I thought it was compelling.  There are so many fascinating characters in Hamlet other than Hamlet – it was nice to see so many of the actors, including you, bring those flavors out.

TF: Thank you.

TH: Now, going back to one of the earlier “bookends” of that experience:  When did you decide to audition?  How did you hear about it?

TF: I’ve been going to see Marin Shakes’ shows since my family — actually, since before my family even moved to Marin.  But most consistently since we moved here when I was about 11 or 12.  And I’d been in camps – Marin Shakespeare Teen camps.  So I was familiar with the company, growing up.  I’ve done audition workshops with Bob and Lesley, the company directors, before, so I felt fairly comfortable with them.  And I heard about it because I’d auditioned in the past, so it was on my radar to check. I’d auditioned a lot when I was a teenager, basically knowing, or at least assuming, that I wasn’t going to get cast – but just as a way to practice auditioning, to be honest.

TH: Makes sense.

TF: So, I’d been in that space before. Now, what happened was, I was at school at Davis.  I went to one of my professors and said “I really want to graduate early; I just want to start my career, I want to get out of here and go start working.”  And he said to me, “Who says you have to wait until you graduate to start working?”  And that very day, I went on the Marin Shakes website – it was the first place I looked; I’d auditioned for them before, and my parents lived in the area and I knew they’d be supportive of my working near home.  And I just signed up for an audition slot.

TH: So, was this your first time on the Marin Shakespeare professional stage?

TF: On any professional stage.

TH: Oh! Cool! Congratulations – you did a great job. Now, we’ve already kind of touched on the fact that there are multiple arms of the Marin Shakespeare Company: there’s the Educational component and the Social Justice component, in addition to the Mainstage Season.  With Education: did you have much interface with the education program while you were acting over the summer?

TF: We had a couple student matinees, which were really, really fun – and I was sort of familiar with the format because I had done Marin Shakes’ Teen Touring Company as a teenager.  It really reminded me of that time in my life.  I played Juliet as a teen and I remember that when we would go to elementary schools, I would get swarmed afterward by children asking for autographs, asking me to be their sister – all of these amazing things to have people say.  And I got sort of a taste of that again, at one of the student matinees in particular; I signed about 40 programs after the show.  One person asked, and then I couldn’t say no to all of them.  The coolest part about that day was that these students had collected the bits of Ophelia’s letter that I had torn up, and that had flown everywhere on the stage, and asked me to sign those, and kept them.

TH: Oh my gosh, that’s adorable!

TF:  And really, that’s my favorite thing!  I grew up watching Shakespeare – I saw my first one when I was 6, and it’s been my favorite thing ever since.  So, I know exactly how the kids are feeling!  And the thought that I get to do this for them – that I get to be that person, now, who they might be seeing in their first play.  Especially in that show, which has a cast with very few women, I was, I think, in a position where I felt like there were probably a lot of girls who saw me on stage and maybe could identify with Ophelia moreso than other characters, just because of age and gender. The chance to be that link for them, to let them see somebody that they could identify with, was really such an amazing feeling. Truly, I got excited every time I saw kids in the audience, because I’d be thinking, “This could be their first Shakespeare play! Cool!”

TH: Did you see this as your turn to give those experiences back?

TF: That’s it, yeah.

TH: Now, maybe that moment is also the answer to my next question. In a lot of shows, there will be these moments not only for the audience, but for the actors, when something a little extra-memorable happens.  Maybe in rehearsal or a performance, you suddenly go, “Wow, I just realized something…” and it changes your interpretation of the play, or sometimes changes you as a person.  Did anything like that happen during the course of working on Hamlet?

TF: There were a lot of little moments throughout.  For instance: Steve Price (who played Polonius) and I had a lot of entrances together.  And he would always whisper something to me, in character, right before we were about to go on.  And that was one of my favorite parts of the show – just having those little exchanges with Steve.  Sometimes they’d be different – he’d say one thing one night and something else in that same entrance the next night, and sometimes I’d go into the scene thinking about where he was as Polonius, and what he’d given me, as Ophelia, to think about.

Another moment that came to mind occurred during a performance.  There’s a moment during Ophelia’s “mad” scene – during which I don’t look at my brother, Laertes, the whole time – and then there is a moment where we finally make eye contact.  And, I don’t know why but one night, Hunter Scott MacNair, who played Laertes, was just sobbing.  He was just so there, and it completely changed my impulses in that moment.  Not that the staging changed, because I had been directed to go to him and interact with him then, sort of “in my own little world”. But my instinct, in that moment, given how devastated and emotional he was, was to comfort him! And of course I couldn’t drop the madness, so it turned into this really layered, emotional moment for the characters.  Now, I don’t know if it was totally visible to the audience, or how much of that carried all the way off stage, because it all came off of a look in his eyes.  But as a performer, that really hit me in a certain way that changed everything.

TH: At least one more thing I’m eager to know about Hamlet: That play is a beast –

TF: Heh! Yep.

TH: And not just because it’s long, but because everybody knows it; people’s expectations are always high, and they are also always extremely personalized and varied.  Did that create any pressure for you, going into the show?  If so, how did you cope with it?

TF: I definitely did!  I was very aware, having grown up with Shakespeare, that people are very picky about Hamlet.  And just, as a quick side note, there’s something that I have been saying since, at some point in the rehearsal process when we were working with all these experts – Rob Clare and Barry Kraft – and I realized that you could spend your entire life studying Hamlet and never reach the bottom of the possibilities. I started saying, at least to my family, “Hamlet is like bottomless fries.”  You keep digging.  I saw Hamlet at the Globe Theatre later in the summer, and watching their Ophelia make a couple of choices I thought, “Oh, I really wish I’d done that!” and “I wish I’d thought of that!”  So, you will always feel that you could have done more, or at least that there is room to find more, in Hamlet, on every level.  It’s just so rich, and I love that!

[Editor’s Note: Rob Clare and Barry Kraft are expert Shakespeare text coaches. Rob has been an actor at the Royal Shakespeare Company, staff member at the UK’s National Theatre and has taught and directed Shakespeare around the world.  Barry spent 30 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as an actor and dramaturg. Barry appeared as the Spirit of Hamlet’s dead father, the Player King, and Gravedigger in Hamlet.]

Anyway, with the pressure: yes, I did feel a lot of pressure, especially being so young and this being my first professional experience, and really wanting to do it justice.  But I knew where I wanted to take her, from the very beginning. As I said, I’d seen Hamlet a couple of times, and felt that Ophelia was always just timid and submissive; when she went crazy, it wasn’t that different from the way she was at the beginning.  And I decided that I wanted to make the Ophelia that I would want to see, and used that as my guide. I’d really never seen an Ophelia that was what I wanted to see from Ophelia.  I had to figure, “It’s going to be different, some people aren’t going to like it, but I’ve also got to believe that there will be some girl or some woman in the audience who would understand or identify with Ophelia differently or more than they had at other shows.

TH: Do you think you accomplished that?

TF: Yeah. Lots of women and girls would come up to me after the shows as I’d be leaving and comment about that specifically.  And that was the best feeling in the world.

TH: That’s lovely.  Have you ever taught for Marin Shakespeare, or thought about it?

TF: Yes!  It was so funny – we closed Hamlet on the mainstage on a Sunday, and the next day Robyn (who played Rosencrantz) and I started teaching Hamlet to 8-to-12-year-olds for two weeks in one of the Shakespeare Camps.  That was really amazing also – just talking about “full circle”.  We taught it at Marin Art and Garden Center – where I did camp when I was a teenager doing Marin Shakes camps.  So that was an emotional and amazing experience – topped off by the fact that one of my best friends, whom I’d met through Teen Touring and then camps, came to see my students in the show at the place where we had met and done Shakespeare together as teens!  So that performance camp was wonderful from every angle – so many things came together; it was a great first time teaching Shakespeare, which is something else I’ve always wanted to do!  I had a blast, and it only made me want to teach more.

TH:  The symmetry there is wonderful!  Is there anything else that comes to mind that I’ve missed, or that you want to share regarding your time working with Marin Shakespeare this summer?

TF: Oooh, let’s see…  I guess, as a young actor, just barely at the beginning of my career, being given this role was very much a gift.  It was – how do I explain this?  It gave me so much.  When I auditioned, the thought of being cast as Ophelia was not even on my radar.  Being given that role, at this point in my career – and yes, I’ve been doing Shakespeare for a really long time, and I knew that I could handle it – but being given the opportunity to actually do it, was really just incredible.  I’m so grateful to have had that experience – especially in a setting where I felt there was an element of safety to it because I grew up in the area and had already been involved in the company.  But that Bob Currier, the director of Hamlet and Artistic Director of Marin Shakes, was prepared to trust me with the role, was very reassuring. It was a good mix of pressures, responsibilities, and a rapport that made it possible for me to do my best work.  I know a lot of young actors do not get that, at least not right away, so I’m very humbled to have had that.

TH: Are you planning to audition for Marin Shakespeare in the future?

TF: Oh, I’m planning on it, absolutely.

TH: Excellent.  Thank you so much for your time, Talia!

TF:  Of course. Thanks for reaching out!