Fifth-grader Jeffrey Hatcher had just seen the film version of “Hamlet” starring Laurence Olivier when he suggested that his class tackle the play.
In previous years, fifth-graders at Stark Elementary in Steubenville, a small steel town in Ohio, had staged plays like “Which Witch is Which” and “The Too Friendly Donkey.”
This time, his teacher, Mrs. K. Smith (not to be confused with Mrs. M. Smith) agreed to let the class take on the Shakespearean tragedy — on the condition that the 11-year-old direct it. Not only did Hatcher direct, but he also adapted the script and acted in the production.
That first taste of theater hooked him. In fact, it was so memorable that Hatcher, a playwright and screenwriter, has created a one-man show that reflects on the experience, titled “Jeffrey Hatcher’s Hamlet.”
Last week, he performed a staged reading at the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts in Fridley. On July 14, he’ll perform at the Chaska Community Center Theater.
Hatcher, who has worked on numerous local and national-theater productions, Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and TV shows like “Columbo,” is still refining the play. It was specially commissioned to mark the 40th anniversary of Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis, and the play is part of its upcoming season.
As a part of the comical yet poignant 70-minute show, Hatcher tries to bring the audience into his creative process. For example, at Banfill-Locke, he told the 10-person crowd about various script changes he’s contemplating. Hatcher also asked them about their earliest theater memories.
Dressed in all black, Hatcher positioned himself under a handful of track lights. There was no stage; props were minimal. A table, a desk, a few books and a couple of chairs set the scene. He also incorporated a few sentimental objects, such as a skull ashtray that once belonged to his dad, which he used in the original production.
He clutched his script, looking down at it every so often, as if the lines weren’t totally “burned into my brain,” he said.
“Jeffrey Hatcher’s Hamlet” isn’t an adaptation of “Hamlet.” It’s rooted in that fifth-grade production in Steubenville, with Hatcher looking at what happened behind the scenes and the life lessons he picked up along the way.
Among the things the Banfill-Locke audience learned:
Initially, Hatcher worried not enough actors would show up to his fifth-grade casting call. He’d heard “back-channel whispers” of a coup. He believed that a kid named Chucky, his sort-of rival, was practicing an alternate play that would swoop in “when my ‘Hamlet’ crashes and burns,” Hatcher said. He talked to his dad about it. “I sighed, to show him that I had the weight of the world on my small, albeit fat shoulders.”
Hatcher had hoped to portray Hamlet, but everyone seemed to think that Bruce, who had blond hair and blue eyes, was the obvious choice. So, reluctantly, Hatcher the director bypassed Hatcher the actor and gave the role to Bruce. Hatcher cast himself as both Laertes and King Hamlet’s ghost.
Director Hatcher had to solve unforeseen problems, at least one of his own making. He tried to impress the girl playing Ophelia, giving her cattails from his mom’s garden. She had an allergic reaction and lost her voice, so another girl read the lines while Ophelia mouthed the words.
An inspiring product
On opening night, Hatcher watched everything come together in the back of the classroom. It was crammed with parents, friends, school officials and others.
The experience was so enthralling that he missed an entrance, when he was to deliver the line “do not forget.” As he recalled in his show, “I forgot to say, ‘do not forget.’ ”
Still, the production went so well that the young actors got a standing ovation — and Chucky, the suspected subversive, was the first person to stand up. The class did a second performance, and the principal asked for a holiday show (they did “A Christmas Carol”).
Since then, Hatcher has seen dozens of productions of “Hamlet” in many languages, but none are quite like that first one. “It was the most full-bodied and galvanizing experience” he’s had in his theater career, he said.
It gave him the opportunity to do everything from adapting a script to solving set problems. “It’s great to direct something that’s bigger than the actual performance itself. You’re shooting to make a good play and enrich the audience,” and the same goes for the people involved in the play, he said.
For more about the July 14 performance in Chaska, go to http://cvft.tix.com/Event.aspx?EventCode=669853. For more about the play, visit http://www.illusiontheater.org/jeffrey-hatchers-hamlet-tour-2014.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at