It’s the end of the first week of classes and Stirlings is bustling, the indoor area once again open to the public. Students are eagerly catching up with one another, asking about how they spent their summers and how they feel about their new courses. Dakota Collins (C’22), a theatre fellow in his final year, has spent all summer anticipating his lead role in Sewanee’s fall production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Collins first became involved in revitalizing his high school theatre department as a freshman in Grease. “That was the first show my school had done in years” he says, remembering the camaraderie that came from participating in theatre with his friends in an environment where the fine arts were just regaining traction. The experience of working on a production drove him to seek out summer programs, which is how Collins found the Nashville Shakespeare Festival.
Collins spent three summers as an apprentice for the festival, which he affectionately refers to as “Nashville Shakes.” Long days were spent engaging in vocal and physical training, including stage combat. Collins grins as he happily anticipates rehearsing the fencing scene in Hamlet. Through this experience , he also established a relationship to Shakespeare’s works specifically, that now feels inseparable from his growth as an actor.
He gained not only technical knowledge from the internship, but also a certain ethos. When explaining his approach to preparing for the upcoming role, he takes a moment to echo the words of his former apprentice coach: “If you can’t think it, you can’t speak it. And if you can’t speak it, you can’t act it.”
While some may imagine that Collins spent the months since his casting meticulously memorizing his lines, he says that he chose not to focus on memorization, and instead on determining the intent behind Shakespeare’s choices as a writer. He notes the Shakespeare Lexicon as a reference in the process, using it to investigate the meaning behind Shakespeare’s words in the particular instances of their usage.
“Everyone knows the line ‘to be or not to be,’ but what is he saying?” Collins says. “What brought [Hamlet] to think that?” By now the script is on the picnic table between us, and Collins flips through pages of scanned soliloquies, every line surrounded by a swarm of annotations.
What Collins is most excited to return to is the community–something that feels all the more precious in our pandemic-era world. He emphasizes his excitement to rehearse with the cast, delighting in the process of working on a shared passion with others.
Acknowledging the emotional weight of the play, and the intensity of some of the scenes that he and his castmates will perform together, he welcomes the experience of such dramatic acting. He recalls observing a pair of best friends in the first Nashville Shakespeare Festival production he was involved in, and how, having performed a climactic argument onstage, they would find each other after the show and immediately embrace, dissolving the tension that had been created.
“That’s what I love about theatre–you have the room to practice these, I mean, frankly very human instincts toward violence and grief and outburst–and then you can put it all away because it’s not you.” And what do we need now–performers and audience alike–more than the cathartic experience of such anxieties in the removed capacity allowed by theatre?
The role of Hamlet is one that Collins didn’t expect to have the opportunity to play so early in his acting career. Although usually portrayed by actors in their late twenties to thirties, the role of Hamlet feels especially relatable and immediate to college students, Collins asserts. “And that’s part of what makes it so tragic, is that he’s just lost his father and he’s having to take on all of this responsibility” he elaborates.
Furthermore, the role has some personal significance to Collins. He recalls visiting Sewanee’s campus with two friends as prospective students, and the three of them imagining what their time at the university could look like together. “What if we did Hamlet our senior year?” he remembers one of them asking.
When it was announced that Hamlet would be produced for the Advent 2021 semester, likely as Collins’ last show, he admits with a laugh, “I sobbed–for an hour. It was disgusting”. The surreal nature of that memory still with him, he felt working on Hamlet at all would be “a gift”.
Audiences will be able to experience Hamlet for themselves at the Proctor Hill Theater in the Tennessee Williams Center during the last two weekends of October 2021.