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  • Writer's pictureMaya Weed

The Bard at the Circus

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

Cast and creatives on the “Circusification of Hamlet.”

By Maya T. Weed

Psychotic spiderwebs, chalk-circle love letters, electronic remixes of “To be, or not to be”—a typical day in Denmark, as far as Columbia students are now concerned.

Last semester, the hottest ticket to an on-campus performance belonged to the Columbia Circus Collective’s inaugural Cabaret. Seats sold out in the blink of an eye. Those that were lucky enough to squeeze their way into the Glicker-Milstein Theatre exited with jaws agape from gravity-defying trapeze dances and sore throats from, hopefully, whooping cheers. After such a soaring debut, a question emerged: What will the circus do next?

Their fall Cabaret shared the GMT space with King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe’s production of Macbeth, performing on the same nights, back to back. This spring semester, the two groups have continued to share the stage—now collaborating on the economically dubbed Circus Hamlet. Shakespearean drama and circus art are both highly stylized forms of entertainment with loaded histories, dating back to the 16th and 18th centuries respectively. In spite of their longevity in our pop-cultural landscape, detractors often conceive of the two as acquired tastes—one typecast as haughty and academic; the other dismissed as crass and frivolous. One is filled with dense, poetic language; the other is movement-based, with little to no spoken dialogue. Often, each must fight against these preconceptions of style to inspire excitement among modern audiences. Their unique union in Circus Hamlet presents a paradoxical interplay of tradition and innovation, at times discordant with one another but, ultimately, euphoric and harmonious.

The Circus Collective was founded by Sam Landa, CC ’22, and Emma Owens, BC ’22, fulfilling their first-year dreams for such a club. The Collective’s campus presence finally blossomed in the fall of 2021. Co-presidents Owens and Landa both came to Columbia with extensive circus training and performance experience. In her interview with Ratrock Magazine, Owens speaks about her summers spent at Circus Smirkus in Greensboro, Connecticut. Landa has worked professionally in circus performance for years, recently as an aerial consultant for Moulin Rouge on Broadway, and studied at the National Circus School in Montreal. There, he was involved in a circus adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—a seed idea for this production.

Illustration by Maya Weed

Landa remembered the “many emotionally charged moments in that show” and how they “really lend themselves to dance or circus.” Shakespeare adorns his work with sword fights, lovers’ quarrels, metadramas, supernatural visitations—iconic tableaus and narratives that have become embedded in the collective knowledge of theatergoers over time. His vivid poetry and high-stakes dramas provide ample material to translate into heightened languages of movement. Inspired by his schooling in Montreal, Landa included in the constitution of the Columbia Circus Collective that their spring production should be a narrative, interdisciplinary, and theatrical experience.

If one were to adapt a Shakespeare play into a circus performance, one may initially think of The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, populated with spirits, gods, and fairies. Hamlet, often considered one of Shakespeare’s gloomiest works, does not seem like the obvious choice—which became the selfsame reason it generated unprecedented intrigue within the student theatre circuit at the start of the semester. Since the story of Hamlet has been performed and adapted countless times, Landa hedged that a two-hour adaptation of a three-and-a-half-hour text would remain coherent and satisfying. In order to integrate the circus components, he found that about two-thirds of the text needed to be chopped. Landa’s initial pitch to his collaborators was met with a rapid “no way,” but he continued to defend that physicalizing the characters’ “descent into madness” would be intensely exciting to explore through “different styles of movement.”

Landa, who choreographed Columbia Musical Theatre Society’s production of Rocky Horror Picture Show this past fall, continued working with many of the same theatre artists this semester for Circus Hamlet. Caroline Egler, BC ’24, the dramaturg of Circus Hamlet, suggested that the connection of these two forms—circus and Shakespeare—made the show more than its original intentions for both, deconstructing that original low-brow or high-brow stereotype or sensibility” that is imposed on them. She refers to the historical context in which circus performance and Renaissance dramas began: Shakespeare plays were written for a common audience (to satisfy the groundlings) as much as the Globe’s royal mezzanines, despite modern assumptions of pretension and elitism assigned to Shakespearean texts.

Landa, too, observed how circus and Shakespeare walk a fine line between past and present interests, noting, “They're both aged forms, and they both can fall into really bad stereotypes really fast—of the boring Shakespeare player, the circus with the clowns and the animals. We all know that's not the reality of either of those forms, but that's what people think of it.” In production meetings, design concepts, and the rehearsal room, then, the challenge was to unite these two forms in ways that not only complemented one another but also dug them out of their dusty traps of obsolescence.

Members of the Circus Hamlet offered out-of-context spoilers about the show that felt anything but tired—moments that tickled them in rehearsal or bits they thought would pique the curiosity of potential viewers. Actor John Howley, CC ’25, who played Claudius, spoke, in the fashion of a Lewis Carroll riddle, ofa water bowl that is also used as a doorway.” Curious, indeed. Nina Dia, CC ’25, who played Ophelia, shared an inside joke around the layered meanings of the phrase, “What ‘slayeth’ Polonius?,” calling the father of her character “circus incarnate.” As portrayed by the adeptly funny Shayan Hooshmand, CC ’23, Polonius is a shrewd clown, attempting to juggle between scenes of sabotage. Choreographer Julia Patella, BC ’25, warned that “multiple people will be falling out of the sky,” while Landa teased, Probably the sexiest character in our show is the one that you would least expect to be the sexiest … And I think that will make sense when people see it.Already from these answers, the gleeful ingenuity and playfulness that fueled this team’s creative process was apparent. They dedicated themselves thoroughly to finding the originality and modern fun from Elizabethan iambs and aerial silks.

Egler recalled a moment in rehearsal with the actress playing Hamlet, Ry Spada, CC ’24: We were talking through where we wanted to take Hamlet, and there was a point where we were like, ‘What music would Hamlet listen to?’ and she was like, ‘Oh, hyperpop, obviously.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, totally.’” The questions then became: “Do we want it to have a very contemporary feel?” These thoughts opened up a world of possible aesthetic and character choices, such as leaning into the “Big Brother” presence of Claudius, or the reality-TV persona of Gertrude, played by Josie Bourelly, CC ’23—all while remaining grounded in a stifling and abstracted Elsinore. Egler described the Ghost in their play as “much less literally Hamlet’s father and much more an embodiment of the revenge that his father felt.” As the Ghost, Angela Zhang, CC ’22, ethereally floated from aerial silks while accompanied by the intentful lyrics of Nina Simone ballads, then later returned to smile with sinister amusement as bloodshed and vengeance overtook the stage.

When abstracting Shakespeare outside of its original time and place, the levels of specificity can vary. Patella, who also worked with Landa and Egler on Rocky Horror, described the aura of the show as edgy and dreamlike at the same time,” finding that “it feels beyond reality.” This adaptation, aesthetically shaped by the drama’s emotional and psychological contours rather than a concrete historical context, gives space for the relay race of text-based scenes, dance numbers, and circus acts to switch off as organically as possible. Landa did not shy away from mixing mediums, also incorporating film projections that overlaid the chic, austere set design of Kristian Woerner, CC ’22. The footage ranged from live playbacks—of Claudius’ face during the players’ performance, for example—to black-and-white psychology lessons from the 1950s.

To make this structure succeed, Egler and Landa worked diligently to achieve the proper ratio of text to movement—conducting rather significant surgery on the darling of Shakespeare’s Folio. Their text evolved throughout the casting process and rehearsals, allowing for discoveries in the room to inform the final script. For instance, Landa found that rising emotional stakes would often trigger the transitions into circus performance. “I’m matching that risk with physical risks,” Landa explains. “Matching that escalation of energy with the escalation of the physicality is the logical way to do it.” On a few occasions, text that initially survived the cuts eventually proved to weigh the circus and dance performance down. Landa mused that there is a “heightened sense of risk that circus has that other art forms don’t have, and that’s what makes it circus. And I think … that with Hamlet, the stakes are high. And so it makes sense to match it with a higher-stakes performance element.”

Not long before our interview, based on several weeks of rehearsal, blocking, choreography, and music, Landa had an ‘aha moment’: They needed to add a circus double for Hamlet. Ophelia was already tripartite, with an actor, a dancer, and a contortionist working in tandem to portray her. Spada’s Hamlet, by contrast, had begun as a figure that primarily operated within the text-based mode of the show. After devising daring, energetic circus numbers for the production, it became clear that Hamlet needed to join that world of heightened physical expression.

Circus performer Maia Castro-Santos, CC ’25, became the vessel for Hamlet’s inner anxiety when it exploded beyond the bounds of words. The flexibility to make bold course corrections was of paramount importance throughout this development process—flexibility of limbs as well as language. Necessary changes to the script piled up with each passing day. Patella employed this adaptability in her choreography, as the cast inspired motifs and energies of dance for their characters. For Hamlet, Patella took note of Spada’s “jagged edges,” detailing that “there’s a really interesting way that she holds tension in her arms. And so I created a phrase of movement that centered around her.” For one sequence, ensemble dancers adopted Spada’s tension as a manifestation of Hamlet’s deeply wound-up body and soul.

With her aerial skills and intricate hula-hoop choreography, Castro-Santos brought to Hamlet’s portrait a “kind of wildness to the way she performs circus choreography,” Patella affirmed. To signify their connection to one another, Castro-Santos and Spada held a hoop between them and, as through a mirror, reflected their gestures with precise synchronicity. After establishing their bond, Castro-Santos stepped into the spotlight, splitting from Spada to perform dizzying routines at climactic moments throughout the show: for Hamlet’s harassment of Ophelia, panic post-murder of Polonius, and duel with Laertes, for example. This additional layer of embodiment required a skillful manipulation of tension and release, resembling the push and pull between the modes of Shakespeare text and circus arts, as well as Hamlet’s seeming composure and madness.

The fusion of acting, dance, and circus performance also inspired unique readings of this well-worn text, tailored to each performer’s strengths in storytelling. As Claudius, rising star Howley participated fairly little in the production’s circus acts or dance scenes, staying grounded in the playtext and looming over the action (actualized by projecting his face onto the back wall of the stage). And yet, his delivery of Claudius’ soliloquies garnered just as much applause as the airborne circus tricks. The character’s firm fixture in the text came in part from Howley’s facility with Shakespearean language, but also from how the team developed an understanding of the character during table work and early days of blocking.

“I think the reason he doesn’t engage in the circus and dance of it all is because he’s putting on this kingly façade,” Howley theorizes. “He is a deeply insecure and anxious man. He’s not a sociopath ... He’s a very regretful person who’s just trying to get him, and his wife in particular, out of this mess.” With interiority and emotional turmoil at the fore in this production, Howley noted that Claudius’ and Gertrude’s genuine love for one another added considerable pressure to his character’s composure—a love that varies in authenticity with every incarnation. His usurper is much more anguished and on high alert than, say, the coldly shrugging Sir Patrick Stewart in the 2010 RSC film. The circus and dance that swarms around Claudius “is part of the chaos he is trying to subdue,” according to Howley.

Nina Dia, the actor behind the acting-dancing-circus Ophelia trinity, played another major Shakespearean lass as Lady Macbeth in the fall production of Macbeth. She stressed the great difference between working on these two characters: the scheming Scottish queen and the short-lived Danish daughter. Dia said that all three Ophelias discovered that her character “is very much an internal person” that possesses an “inner hurricane.” She continued, “Instead of keeping that bottled up in me, having to pull overtime to try and make that internalized turmoil read, I’ve been given these amazing tools of the circus and the dance Ophelias to expand it in a way that gives Ophelia her due when it comes to what she’s really feeling and what her complexity is.”

Patella performed as dance Ophelia in addition to her choreography duties, while circus Ophelia was played by Alex Bilder, BC ’24. Before auditions, Landa did not anticipate casting multiple performers for Ophelia, but the vision for the character to exist in all three realms of expression led to this creative solution when three talented performers presented themselves. They all discussed and explored the character together from the early days of rehearsal, ensuring everyone was on the same page. Patella delineates the three of them as the “stages of her descent into madness.” She explains that “Nina’s role in Ophelia is more subdued, and when I enter the picture, I start to physicalize tensions that are bubbling up under the surface.” Then, “when we transition into circus Ophelia, to Alex Bilder’s contortion, now we’ve reached the point of resignation and final decision. Each of their performances informed the next, especially as they found common gestural languages to extend between the three of them like a connecting thread.

To signal to the audience the moment at which one Ophelia spawns another, the performers walk in precise lockstep before splitting apart, all adorned in delicate pastel dresses. Ophelia’s death traditionally occurs offstage, unseen. Here, by the time Bilder entered the frame, a water basin had emerged onstage, looming as Ophelia’s watery tomb. Dia, Patella, and Bilder stepped in and out of the shimmering water, one after the other, until only the latter remained—the last shard of Ophelia’s broken world. A skilled contortionist, Bilder performed a beautifully anguished movement piece, her body and spirit wrestling with the water. With Gertrude’s famously lyrical account, which concludes with a blunt reminder of “muddy death,” the overlay of circus and poetry expressed the complex and oftentimes horrid beauty found in this tragedy.

On its own, Ophelia’s character(s) epitomizes the complex trade-offs within the production’s Shakespeare-circus relationship. The structure may at first seem disorienting and disjointed, but at its best, it transcended these expectations to prove immensely effective in forwarding the tense, psychological themes at the heart of Hamlet. This celebration of sharp, unique talent, however, only ran for three days in a campus black box theatre, and did so on a student club budget. Landa made sure to applaud the GMT staff, which includes student workers, who offered a generous amount of time and energy to execute the production’s steep technical demands. Without giving away details or making promises, Landa and Egler hinted at their hopes of reviving this project beyond its GMT lifespan. Those who waited in vain in the ticket line that wrapped around the Diana Event Oval may want to keep their eyes peeled for future announcements.

The rest may not be silence … quite yet. Rather, the reverberation from this bold duet of verse and circus may inspire subsequent student artists—resonating with that central quality of circus Landa earlier defined—to take another risk.


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