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Hamlet on Alcatraz – director makes career performing Shakespeare in unusual places

By Karola Kreitmair | 6 Dec 2010

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With the waves sloshing against the hull and the spray moistening your face, it’s hard not to feel a child-like giddiness on the boat. Your white oil cloth sash, the ‘entrance stub’ for this event, slung across your shoulders in a purposefully careless way – you don’t want to seem too keen – you anticipate the appearance of anachronistically clad watchmen who in hushed Elizabethan tones announce the presence of the ghost of the King of Denmark. And disappointed you are not.

Ava Roy has made a career staging Shakespeare plays in unusual settings. She performed Hamlet on Alcatraz this fall. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Martin)

The watchmen guide you off the boat and onto Alcatraz, where you too witness the ghost, an ominous black figure with a face wrapped in gauze, who seems to be in multiple places at the same time. From here on, you are shepherded along a labyrinthine journey through the hidden passages of Alcatraz and the crevices of Hamlet’s broken heart. The world of the play is intact on Alcatraz – Gertrude and Claudius are enjoying their freshly-found love, Polonius is berating Laertes, and Ophelia is day dreaming about Hamlet. You get the sense that this is not perpetrated for the audience’s benefit, but that you simply happened upon these people’s lives. Alcatraz, with its craggy rocks, its apocalyptic ruins, its forsaken lighthouse, is their home and you are peering in through the cracks, windows, and bars.

What seems like an integral element of the Rock is actually the incredibly complex machination of Ava Roy, director and founder of We Players, a theater company devoted to site-specific works. In 2000, Roy began producing classical plays in various untraditional locations around her Stanford University campus. Repulsed by the Stepford sheen of the manicured greens and billion-dollar research factory, she staged a brawl at an outdoor Stanford eatery which morphed into the opening scenes of Romeo and Juliet.

“That was the reason why We Players got started. It was the only thing that kept me in school,” Roy said. “I got there and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing in this [expletive] country club?’”

Not only did Roy stay in school, in the years that followed, she directed, produced and appeared in five more plays adapted from Shakespeare and Lewis Caroll. She also graduated from Stanford in 2003 with a B.A. in the self-created major of Ritual and Performance in Aesthetic Education. She laughs when people ask, “What’s your major?” “All I did with my major,” she explains, “is outline the branches of my life’s study.”

Roy’s presence is a rare mix of calmness and vigor. Her blond hair springs from her head in gravity-defying spirals – like extensions of ideas abutting against the inside of her head. In contrast, her watery blue eyes exude a soothing tranquility. When she teaches yoga, which she does at a studio in Berkeley to make ends meet, her sonorous voice swells and ebbs like a wave that carries her students through their vinyasa flow.

At 29, her resumé is impressive; in 2006 she produced and directed The Tempest, and played Caliban, at the Albany Bulb, an overgrown landfill scattered with shanty huts and found-object sculptures. In 2008 she realized a multi-level staging of Macbeth at Fort Point, the four-story brick fort at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. She played one of the witches. And in 2009, she produced and co-directed the first ever live performance on Alcatraz, Iphigenia and Other Daughters, in which she took on the role of Elektra.

With Hamlet, Roy revels in the creative discoveries that emerge from marrying an unconventional space with a classical work of theater. On Alcatraz, the weather is unforgiving, the terrain is treacherous, the acoustics are abysmal and the tourists are everywhere. Additionally, the crucial, final scene of Hamlet takes place on the only Bay Area nesting site for a particular species of the cormorant bird. The ground is off-limits for most of the year. Roy had to postpone rehearsals in this location until all cormorant chicks had hatched and learned to fly. One solitary late-bloomer delayed the show’s load-in by weeks, until mere days before opening night, and when Roy finally moved her team onto the ground it was carpeted in guano, blood and seagull corpses. “There was a lot of drama around the birds,” Roy acknowledges wearily.

But Roy embraces these challenges, and instead of trying to control them, she lets them shape her vision. Ophelia’s madness feeds off of the eerie atmosphere that lingers in the old surgery and hydrotherapy rooms of the prison’s hospital. Faraway ship bells echo Hamlet’s loneliness throughout the island and choruses of seagulls squawk melancholy motifs of doom as his tragic fate unfolds. The wind blows through the fabric of the players’ clothes in dramatic ways that seem almost deliberate. The birds inspired the dancers to perform ‘flocking exercises’ and incorporate avian sounds and physicality into their “movement vocabulary.” Roy knew that working on Alcatraz would require a sense of “discerning when to be fire and when to be water. When to step out of the way and when to step into the way.” Andrus Nichols, who plays Hamlet, agrees: “The Rock is a big character for Ava in the play.”

Roy said the waves, ships, wind and bird calls of Alcatraz added to Hamlet's mystique. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Martin)

Though Roy’s resumé is impressive,  upon closer inspection, it begins to reveal gaps. Two full years went by between Roy’s last production at Stanford and The Tempest. Another two years passed

between that play and Macbeth. And yet another year before Iphigenia. With the possible exception of Broadway shows, theater productions do not require two full years of preparation. What was Roy doing in this time?

In a way, she was cultivating her own fire… her own water. Roy believes, in life, times of high intensity should be offset with times of tranquility and revitalization, like different frequencies harmonizing in an orchestra, she says. Her favorite metaphor is that of having to fill the well so that it can be drawn from again.

“I want to honor the cycle of a fallow period before a big project. Four or five months before doing a big project, I try and live really simply and quietly,” she explains.

Before The Tempest, Roy grabbed her backpack and headed for Crete, where she spent several months camping out in a river valley and living at a yoga center. She subsisted off little more than the fruits of the land. Before Macbeth she decamped to Puerto Ángel, a tiny fishing village on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and spent her days on boats learning to trawl fish.

After Macbeth closed, San Francisco park services invited Roy onto Alcatraz. Roy knew this would be her most ambitious project to date, and she grappled with which piece to produce. Hamlet was her immediate choice, but she had doubts: did she really want to have to navigate the bureaucratic machinery of San Francisco park services, cajole fifty odd artists into volunteering hundreds of hours of their time, perform logistical wizardry to pull off a seamless ambulatory experience on a 22-acre set, schedule rehearsals around rigid ferry and bird nesting times and direct the most difficult piece of theater in the English canon? Before she could make this decision, she knew she had to fill the well, and this time she had to make it very full.

Roy returned to Mexico, where, through the sailing grapevine, she caught wind of a single-hander (someone who sails alone) who wanted to cross to Hawaii, 4,000 miles away. The man was looking for crew. Roy stationed herself on the beach where this sailor was supposed to land. For days, whenever a boat appeared on the horizon and a sailor would row his dinghy to shore, she would swim out to meet him and ask, “Are you the guy?” as she helped him pull his boat in. Finally she found the guy. Bill was an introverted fifty-something with gray stubble and a penchant for mismatched socks. “Are you looking for crew?” she asked swimming boatside. “Maybe…” he replied warily. “Let’s talk,” she said.

Less than 24 hours later, they set sail for Hawaii. Despite being out at sea with a total stranger, having barely enough provisions to last for the entire journey, and being hungover from an all-night clubbing session the night before, Roy soon realized that this journey would be life-altering: 36 days and 3,400 nautical miles without any outside human contact.

“There’s no equivalent for 300 dolphins coming and swimming with you for hours and leaping and doing this crazy choreography, or when the whole sky falls into the ocean, because of the night time fluorescence in the water,” Roy said. “It’s like you’re inside a snow globe of stars, with the sky going all the way to the horizon.”

After 36 days at sea with a stranger, Roy finally settled her mind upon staging Hamlet on Alcatraz.

All the glory aside, “there’s no illusion of who’s in control, and it’s not you,” Roy says. But rather than being at the mercy of the elements, “you’re very much in relationship with your fate, because you’re working with the boat, and you’re working with the elements and you’re in conversation with the waves and trying to harness the wind.”

Which is exactly what it’s like producing Hamlet on Alcatraz, Roy explains: leaving space for the magic of discovery, while at the same time taking initiative and guiding the arc of the exploration.

Roy landed in Hawaii, after 36 days in a tiny boat with a stranger, who even then remained a stranger. “Dude could live off instant coffee and cigarettes,” she says. Thirty-six days of “every shade of blue and black and silver, where the sun turns this liquid mercury color on the water.” Where “we’re with ourselves and can’t get out of our own skins.” Pondering, “just like Hamlet: Is your mind the source of your of liberation or the thing that confines you?”

After hobbling onto land with sea legs, the first thing Roy did was call Andrus Nichols. She had made up her mind: Hamlet on Alcatraz.

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