In Part 2 of a series of interviews with the cast of I Hate Hamlet at 2nd Star Productions, meet Zak Zeeks.
Joel: Please introduce yourself and tell our readers where they may have seen you in the past year on local stages?
Zak: Hi! I’m Zak Zeeks, and I’ve been acting in the Baltimore/DC metro area for about eight years. I’m not terribly active and haven’t been in a production since Funny Money with 2nd Star last year. But when I heard that the company was doing I Hate Hamlet (and that the Wakefields were directing), there was no doubt in my mind that I had to audition.
Why did you want to be part of I Hate Hamlet?
I’m selfish, really. As I said before, I’m not all that active, so for me to audition for a show, it has to be something that really resonates with me; something that I can believe, connect, and even struggle with. The role itself isn’t much of a stretch—young actor wrestles with challenging play—but the opportunity to introspect and communicate the human element of performance that’s so rarely explored, particularly in live theatre… that was what drew me to the show. It’s a side of theatre you don’t normally see.
I also get to make out with my real-life fiancée on-stage. That’s kinda neat, too.
What does the show have to say to audiences of all ages?
Doubt permeates the entire show. Realization of one’s potential, romance and true love, the uncertainty of death—it permeates the entire show, with each character exhibiting their own unique insecurities, ones we face at unique times in our lives. The few characters who aren’t vulnerable are ridiculed for being self-absorbed and having near-sociopathic levels of confidence. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a pretty reassuring play.
That’s for the older folks, though. I think that younger audiences (we’re talking PG-13 here) will enjoy the show’s irreverence of the classical literature their schools mandate an appreciation for. But my hope is that they’ll eventually come around to the brilliance of Shakespeare…I think that is definitely a challenge we face as a cast.
Who do you play in the show and how do you relate to your character?
I play Andrew Rally, a television actor who moves to New York in an effort to establish himself as a legitimate actor after the cancellation of his hit show. It’s sort of hard to talk about how I relate to the character…one of the first notes John (the director) gave us was to play our characters pretty close to the chest and the importance of being earnest (haha) for the purposes of this show.
Because of that, I’m not really sure where the line between myself and Andrew begins and ends? I think Andrew is a cynic within reason—he’s confident in his abilities, but anxious about new territory. Things are played to extremes in the show (it’s a comedy, right?), but so much of the turmoil Andrew experiences and how he reacts are real to me that it’s sometimes difficult to make a distinction.
Have you appeared in other productions of I Hate Hamlet before and who did you play and how is this production different and unique?
I have not! First time doing the show.
What is your favorite scene in the show that you are not in and what is your favorite scene that you are in?
Favorite scene I’m not in is probably a scene where Gary, a slimeball agent from Los Angeles, admits he doesn’t “get” theatre. The character is crass, self-obsessed and annoying, but he’s not entirely unrelatable! Dan plays the part with such energy and conviction that it’s not hard to imagine he’s going to be a mouthpiece for the more skeptical members of our audience.
Favorite scene I’m in… I really can’t pick. Sorry, I know that’s a cop-out. The entire show has just been like a dream to me—I’m a fan of small, intimate casts. When that cast is packed with some actors you’ve known and admired for years, others you’ve grown with during the production, and your real-life fiancée…it’s really hard to pick favorites.
Which character in the show is most like you and why?
That one’s easy. My character, Andrew. He’s just me, played up for a comedy.
What do you admire most about your fellow castmates’ performances?
One of the reasons I like small casts so much is that there is an opportunity for each character to bring something entirely unique, distinct to the show. With bigger casts, there can’t help but be some overlaps—mannerisms, character traits, deliveries—either in the characters themselves or in the actors that perform them. I think each member of this cast has capitalized on the opportunity to make their role and place in the show their own, and the variety of the performances brings a vibrance to the show.
How did you prepare for your role and what were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you resolve them?
Outside of the normal introspection that’s a natural part of the process (yeah I know blah blah blah), our director had given everyone in the cast some material as inspiration for our performances. Mine was a television show that mirrored the events of the play very closely. Watching a performance of an actor, playing an actor, playing an actor, playing an actor…well, that’s a very hard thing to come by. The show as a whole gave me a great deal of perspective not just on my own part, but on the monumental task of putting on Hamlet as a whole—the struggle of each character, castmate and director that makes the show so powerful. It was eye-opening.
As for challenges—and this is going to be very strange and metacognitive but bear with me—when I first was offered the role, I had envisioned doing a deep dive into the intricacies of Shakespearian performance. It’s very different. There are certain techniques and approaches actors take when performing his work that don’t exist or just aren’t practical in modern theatre. I started to go down that rabbit hold but eventually stopped myself. I felt like I was learning too much—like it might affect my performance of an actor trying to be an actor. Might be a bit of a spoiler here, but you never actually end up seeing Andrew perform Hamlet…for all but one brief glimpse, that’s left to the imagination. I wanted to leave that, conceptually, at the theatre he performs in. He’s ignorant of proper Shakespearian techniques for a large majority of the show, and even when on opening night after weeks of training and rehearsal, he is still just a neophyte wracked by his insecurities. And while the end result probably would have been me, Zak, just as wobbly and novice as the actor trying to tackle Hamlet in just six weeks, I didn’t want to accidentally convey any sense of ease or comfortability in the performance. Even when Andrew has newfound confidence, I envision a son in an ill-fitting suit.
What was the best advice or suggestions your director gave you about playing your character?
I don’t think it was anything specific, or one real piece of advice, but John was amazing at giving direction on how to tune my performance. A lot of my theatre background is either in over-the-top character roles, or playing more reserved, serious characters in dramatic plays. Playing a character that was all-at-once believable while being animated enough to feel at home in a comedy was, strangely, kind of a challenge for me. John and I were already familiar, so I already knew that he was an incredible comic actor, and he wasn’t afraid to either push me forward or reign me back in during rehearsals. For an actor used to being so used to being one or the other, having a talented actor that could watch from the outside and give direction was invaluable.
Why should audience goers bring their families to see I Hate Hamlet?
I Hate Hamlet walks that fine line of being a great, meaningful comedy without being a total farce. It achieves sentimentality without pretense or melodrama. It strikes a balance between the extremes, and the result is a show that I think offers everyone something to hold onto. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
I Hate Hamlet plays from February 6-22, 2015 at 2nd Star Productions performing at Bowie Playhouse – 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call (410) 757-5700 or (301) 832-4819, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of ‘I Hate Hamlet’ at 2nd Star Productions: Part 1: Fred Nelson.
Meet the Cast of ‘I Hate Hamlet’ at 2nd Star Productions: Part 2: Zak Zeeks.