Shakespeare@ is a Jersey City theater company helmed by Artistic Director and founder Sean Hagerty. This new theater company’s first production, “Hamlet” features an impressive cast of theater, film and television actors. The play blends interpretations of the dark yet beloved classic that celebrates Jersey City's diversity. “Hamlet” is one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays and is driven by the title character’s conflict with himself and his dysfunctional family which cumulates in madness and murder.

Artistic director and Shakespeare@ founder Sean Hagerty applies his expert knowledge of Shakespeare to this production which he directs. He studied classical theatre at the renowned Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and earned a Masters Degree in Shakespeare and Theatre from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he graduated with distinction. Also, an actor, producer, and teacher, Sean’s work has been seen in theaters across the US and internationally. Sean previously served as the chair of Education & Training at the prestigious international Shakespeare Theatre Association, and he has also served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts. Presently, he teaches Shakespeare and Style at The Neighborhood Playhouse. Sean recently discussed “Hamlet” and more via an exclusive interview.

Theater, directing, and producing

Meagan Meehan (MM): What sparked your interest in theater, and why did you ultimately decide to focus your study on Shakespeare?

Sean Hagerty (SH): I’d been involved in children’s and community theatre since I was a child and worked professionally as a teenager, but I had very little exposure to Shakespeare. In fact, it would be fair to say that I had no taste for it at all—hated it. I had what is probably an all too familiar experience for most people when it comes to Shakespeare.

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Somewhere around middle-school age, we’re sat down and handed a copy of “Romeo & Juliet” or perhaps “Julius Caesar” and told to read it. Which I always say is like asking a child to appreciate Beethoven by giving them the sheet music. So, for years, as an actor, Shakespeare was something I had absolutely no desire to see—let alone perform. But then as a young actor early in my career, I was on tour in the UK and while there one of my cast-mates had an extra ticket to a production of “The Tempest” by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This production was directed by Sam Mendes and featured Simon Russell Beale as Ariel.

In fact, it’s now a somewhat famous production in the RSC’s cannon. But at the time, to me, it was just another old, inaccessible play that my friend wanted to drag me to. Finally, after much cajoling, my friend convinced me to go, and I’m grateful he did because what I saw absolutely blew my mind. From the opening moment, I was brought into a world at once magical and theatrical, hysterically funny and powerfully moving, epic and intimate. After, I remember standing outside the theatre and thinking to myself, if this is what Shakespeare can be, I have to figure out how to do that.

MM: What are the biggest challenges of directing Shakespeare?

SH: At face value, I don’t know that the challenges are any different from another show. There are his language and the verse that one needs to pay close attention to as Shakespeare is telling you what to do with it. That’s one thing. But I suppose with “Hamlet,” and Shakespeare in general, one is aware these plays are very well known. They are dissected and analyzed every conceivable way and then some, and produced non-stop for over 400 years.

There are performances and productions from 50, 100, 200 years ago that are still talked about. So, one feels this need to tell a unique story but at the same time keep it as alive and fresh and vital for someone who has never seen it before.

MM: How did you get into producing and directing and what are the specific challenges of filming those roles?

SH: As an actor, I always had a sense of wanting to tell the story. In some ways, I was more interested in the music as a whole, rather than playing an instrument in the orchestra.

So, I was always watching my directors and asking questions about why this or that. I originally started producing as a young actor simply as a means to have myself seen. That led to other opportunities, which led to more, add a bit of luck and here we are. In terms of specific challenges, I suppose the primary challenge is wearing both hats. And knowing which one needs wearing now.

MM: You have a graduate degree in theater arts, are there any specific concepts you learned that you apply to your work?

SH: I suppose the biggest is the work of the scholar. Sometimes in the field, there’s a real divide between the artists and the scholars when it comes to Shakespeare.

I think they both have things of immense value for the other. I enjoyed both immensely and had even entertained getting my Ph.D. for a bit there. But in the end, I just love telling stories.

Jersey City, audiences, and future projects

MM: How did you form Shakespeare@ and why did you choose Jersey City for the location?

SH: The initial idea had been brewing for a long time. When some factors aligned and it seemed right to pursue, Jersey City was a natural choice. My wife and I have been living here since 2008, and we’ve seen the city go through some incredible growth and change. There’s always been a huge arts scene here, which now is only bigger and even more deserving of attention.

The artists and community are incredibly supportive of each other. And I think living in the shadow of NYC across the river lends us a scrappiness and hometown feel that I wouldn’t want to be without. There was no doubt in my mind where this was going to take place.

MM: Why did you choose “Hamlet” for the forthcoming run?

SH: We had another show planned for our inaugural run, but the actor we were talking to was cast as Harry Potter in the West End. I had been talking to Jonathan Forbes (Amazon's Catastrophe, iTV’s Fearless, Dublin Murders) about possibly doing show number two or three with us, so I called him up and asked if he’d be interested in doing the first one.

From there it was just a question of what did we want to do together. Jonathan was the first to suggest it actually. I was a little resistant to the idea. Not that I didn’t think Jonathan could do it, but it’s such a huge play. It seemed daunting to launch with “Hamlet.” So, it was my own trepidation that kept me from agreeing. But as I always tell my students, if something scares you, it’s a sure sign you should run straight to it. So, I had to take my own medicine in the end.

MM: What do you hope audiences will like most about your rendition of “Hamlet” and do you have other theatrical projects in the works that you would like to mention?

SH: I think our telling is unique, so I hope even the most familiar audience members will be pleasantly surprised by it. And the actors are just phenomenal. Every day I walk out of rehearsal excited to see what they can do tomorrow. We have a few projects in the works and some exciting people involved, but nothing I can speak of right now. Announcements will be forthcoming.

*****

The show will run from March 28 to April 14. To learn more visit Shakespeare-at(dot)Org

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