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The First Female Hamlet in This Year's Houston Shakespeare Festival

(L-R) Derrick Moore (Laertes), Shannon Uphold (Ophelia) and Shannon Hill (Hamlet) in Hamlet.
(L-R) Derrick Moore (Laertes), Shannon Uphold (Ophelia) and Shannon Hill (Hamlet) in Hamlet.
Photo courtesy of Houston Shakespeare Festival

Shannon Hill, a 2013 graduate of the University of Houston theater master’s program, will be the first woman to play the title role in Hamlet in the Houston Shakespeare Festival. Her background in many ways makes her a natural for it since when she was in grad school she achieved “an advanced actor combatant certification” in six different weapons.

“Rapier dagger, knife, single sword, small sword, quarter staff and unarmed [fists],” she rattles off quickly adding that in the five years since she hasn’t kept up with all of them. “As a woman in theater I don’t get the chance to do stage combat.”

But now she will once again and pronounces herself more than ready for it.

“Jack [Young, artistic director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival] was very keen on the actors playing these roles. So gender wasn’t part of it so much,” Hill said.

Young had a lot to do with Hill going to UH to begin with. A graduate of Western Michigan University, she auditioned in Chicago for grad programs and says Young was there. “He was the only person that pushed me during my audition to go beyond what I thought I was capable of. That was a challenge I wanted to accept.”

She got in theater to begin with because “I love telling stories and I think there’s an importance to telling them and watching them as part of the human experience.”

As for portraying the sometimes dreary Danish prince?

“It’s one of the greatest roles ever written and the chance to say these words that are so iconic – to explore the journey that Hamlet goes on is a gift.”

In describing her character Hill says “At the beginning of the play he’s an unsure young man who feels hurt by the events in his life. As the play progresses he kind of comes of age as a good leader and fufills his promises.”

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Those promises, of course, are that he would avenge his father – which he does by killing his uncle, King Claudius – and that he doesn’t hurt his mother, Gertrude.

Unusual compared to previous years is that the two casts are relatively small with eight actors in Hamlet, she said. “Every single actor in this production is carrying a huge load. Everyone is equally impressive and important.”

The story rolls out in about two hours and ten minutes (there have been some not insignificant cuts to the Fortinbraus disagreement with Poland ) She is prepared for the Houston heat at the outdoor event at Miller Outdoor Theatre, saying she once did a musical in the summer in Palo Duro, TX, weating 1800s style clothing. “I am not a stranger to performing in the heat.”

Performances of Hamlet are scheduled for 8:15 p.m. on July 27, 29, 31, and August 2 and 4 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. Shown in repertory with Comedy of Errors. For information, visit the Houston Shakespeare Festival website. Free.

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