Bell brings method to the madness of “Hamlet”

English Teacher James Bell is directing his own adaptation of “Hamlet,” to be performed at Oak Park and River Forest High School in March.

Bell has loved Shakespeare throughout his educational career. “Shakespeare has been in either the background or forefront for all my education after high school,” he said.  Bell studied Shakespeare and Renaissance literary culture at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he received his master’s degree. Later, Bell became an English teacher and theater director at OPRF. He has kept his love for Shakespeare prominent through his Shakespeare class, Shakespeare slam team and involvement in directing Shakespeare plays. 

Bell chose to direct “Hamlet” in 2023 because, “Hamlet is a character that has suffered loss and trauma, and also has a lot of privilege that he hasn’t fully unpacked yet. I think coming out of the pandemic, we’re still processing what that meant to all of us and the suffering and loss that we felt.”

The show will be performed on March 16, 17 and 18 in the Little Theater, and has a cast of 13. The story closely follows William Shakespeare’s original “Hamlet,” which is about a young prince whose late father, the former King of Denmark, comes back as a ghost. From this apparition Hamlet learns that the current king, his uncle, killed his father to take the throne and marry his mother. The ghost asks for revenge, and Hamlet must contemplate committing a murder to avenge his fathers death. 

Hamlet will be played by junior and long time theater enthusiast Lauren Rainey. Rainey said her father encouraged her interest in acting from a young age by sending her to acting camps and programs to develop her talent. For Hamlet, Rainey went into auditions with pure excitement as to her, “Hamlet is the pinnacle of Shakespeare.”

Rainey said she was happy to hear Bell was the director of this show since he had helped coach her last year when she won the school Shakespeare monologue competition, going on to win regionals. Rainey has also been a part of the Shakespeare slam team. 

Rainey walked into auditions eager to play any role. As part of the audition process, actors were asked which roles they were excited to play.  After auditions were held, Bell assigned the actors to the roles he thought best fit them and would allow the actors to thrive. 

That Rainey identifies as female did not stop Bell from casting her in a traditionally male role.“Fifteen years ago, it would have been kind of provocative to put someone who identifies as female to play Hamlet,” he said. Although it may still raise some questions, today what matters is, “Lauren was cast as Hamlet because she was the right fit for this particular role,” he said.

Junior Lindsay Chyna is the assistant director. With theater involvement since third grade as an actor in musicals and plays, Chyna was excited to take on the role of assistant directing because she wants to experience the “other sides of things”  by being on production staff rather than acting.

Chyna’s relationship with Bell began her sophomore year. After having him as an English teacher and reading Hamlet in class, “…we were hoping he would choose to direct Hamlet for the next year.” 

She is drawn into the story because, “there are a lot of secrets and drama between the characters and they all learn about themselves as they interact with other characters.”

The actors have begun developing their characters in rehearsals. The environment during rehearsals is calm: the cast is definitely a community and the production coming together is very much a team effort. These early rehearsals begin with a table read where the cast gathers around to read through the script before putting the play on its feet. 

Ultimately, the cast and crew hope the play draws big crowds when it opens March 16. “It would be great to see a full house,” Chyna said.