Second-grade school plays can change lives. Just ask Michael Bayler.
"I was an extremely shy child, as in cry-when-strangers-looked-at-me shy," Bayler said. "The year before, I saw the play that our school always put on and really enjoyed it, and my mom encouraged me to try out when auditions came up for that year's play. I ended up playing three small parts and loved the experience."
Bayler, from Big Rock, Illinois, is a third-year MFA candidate in acting in the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. This semester, he acts the title role of "Hamlet," the fourth production of IU Theatre's 2019-20 season.
The production runs Dec. 6 to 7 and Dec. 10 to 14 at Ruth N. Halls Theatre in the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster; by telephone at 812-855-1103; at the IU Auditorium box office, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday; and at the IU Theatre and Dance box office one hour before the show.
Bayler recently answered questions about his background, his artistry and the upcoming production.
Question: Acting in "Hamlet" is your MFA thesis. What challenges and opportunities does the character Hamlet provide?
Answer: A lot. A whole lot. Hamlet has over a third of the dialogue in Shakespeare's longest play.
One of the biggest challenges is to shake off the fact that you are playing Hamlet, who is the second-most-analyzed literary character in history behind Jesus, and the fact that everyone has an opinion on the play and the character. It can easily steer your focus to "How do I play the conceptual idea of Hamlet?" as opposed to "Who is this person, and what is he going through and going after?"
There are so many choices at an actor's disposal that are valid for Hamlet's motives and actions. Picking and choosing my direction has been an ongoing and always-developing process.
There is also a challenge in the performing of Hamlet's "feigned madness." Playing crazy is never an active choice; however, Hamlet uses the idea of madness for a purpose. The trick is how do you take something that is inactive but make it purposeful.
The challenges of this role are also the greatest opportunities. The opportunities you have to tackle some of Shakespeare's most beautiful and poetic language, to work through these daunting challenges, and to buckle into and be open to the roller coaster of circumstances and scenarios, are an actor's dream.
Q: What traits or characteristics should an actor have?
A: Every actor brings their own characteristics to the table, and that makes them all unique. However, there are traits that I have found to be successful for myself.
First is humility. I am beyond thankful every day to do what I do and to actually be able to do it. Another quality is the passion for this work. It's the process of creation and the discovery of the story that make the performance what it is.
I try to be someone whom people want to work with. This means showing up on time ready to work, being prepared and being a good, kind and focused presence in the room.
Being coachable is the big one for me. You do yourself a big disservice if you close yourself off from the wealth of other perspectives that are brought to the table to collaborate with. Finally, compassion for the story you are telling, for the person's life you are portraying, for your other collaborators and, most importantly, for yourself.
Q: How does research hone your performance?
A: All the details that impact my process boil down to research and rehearsal. Your research will inform choices you explore or questions you have in rehearsal. Throughout rehearsal, you become aware of more things you should research or investigate for yourself outside of rehearsal. This cycle keeps your curiosity always engaged and your investigation of story and character always moving forward and never stagnant.
Q: What might audience members want to take special notice of in the performances of "Hamlet"?
A: The characters in "Hamlet" are human beings with wants, needs, desires, motives and causes. Yes, the circumstances are heightened, but the conflict and quest for what is right and true is something that is universal.
In Shakespeare, there is no subtext, and the thoughts of each character come on the line supported by the rhythm of the poetry. So for an audience, I'd say be present, listen and be open to the humanity within the story.
Q: How have you evolved as an artist and person during your tenure in the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance?
A: I have grown so much throughout my time here at IU, and I am immensely grateful for the experience that I have been able to have. More than anything I feel I have become more aware, open, trusting and centered in my work as an artist and as myself as a person. I have a stronger vocabulary and understanding of my body and voice as my instrument.
This institution has encouraged me from day one to throw away a fear of failure or a pressure to be right and instead foster exploration and adventure in the work.