Stage fright is like puberty

An interview with Hamlet's Connor Toms, by Bianca G., age 18

Connor Toms is an actor, and you can tell. He’s articulate, like someone who has taken voice lessons, he knocks on wood frequently and superstitiously, and he’s so animated that he constantly shifts around in his chair. He’s currently playing the role of Hamlet at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. Here he discusses everything from how stage fright was like puberty, to how Spokane community theatre was like Waiting for Guffman.

Faking it: Toms as Hamlet at SCT. Photo by Chris Bennion.

BG: I heard the famous lines were missing. Do you feel disappointed?

BG: Do a lot of people tell you that you look like Ferris Bueller?

CT: All the time. I used to also get this actor named C. Thomas Howell. If you’ve ever seen The Outsiders, he played Pony Boy. About once a week I get that. But it’s great, I’d rather have that than Nathan Lane or somebody else.

BG: All right, well I haven’t seen the play.

CT: Oh, NO! Oh my goodness.

BG: Do you get stage fright at all?

CT: I did in high school quite a bit. Now I only get scared when my parents come. My parents are old hippies; I think they actually met on a commune. They love everything and they’ll love me and everything I do. But it’s true that I want to prove to them that I’m worthy of doing this.


Darragh Kennan, Toms and Renata Friedman in Hamlet at SCT. Photo by Chris Bennion.

BG: How did stage fright used to affect you? Shaking?

CT: Oh, absolutely: shakes, quavering voice, you know. It’s like going through puberty all over again. Also, I couldn’t look other actors on stage in the eye. I’d be too afraid.

BG: Is there a lot of spitting on stage?

CT: Yes. There have been very hysterical moments of very dignified actors in town here…I won’t mention their names. Because when you’re so excited and you’re in the moment, you don’t want the resonance of your voice or your diction to be lost in any way. I’ve had people spit onto my face, into my eye… You kind of have to shake it off and keep going with it. Just the other day I had a student matinee, and I was spitting. I spit into the front two rows and these kids just squealed and freaked out. But it was fun. Not that spitting on kids is fun, but it was fun to hear them screech about that.

BG: Have you ever forgotten a line?

CT: Oh yeah. We call it going up on a line. Every single show that I’ve ever been in, there’s been a moment where some actor on stage looked at me with just no idea. Sometimes you get kinda lost, when you’re doing eleven shows a week especially, you kinda go on autopilot. You’re up there, and you’re doing your best to say your lines, but you’re also going through your grocery list, making sure you walk the dog. Just today someone said, “The King is very … unhappy?” because they completely forgot what they were supposed to say.

BG: What’s your strategy for remembering all of these lines?

CT: It’s just spending time with the script, for me. I actually don’t memorize until I’m in the rehearsal room. I can spend hours and hours and hours on my own going over it, and I won’t remember it until I’m up, on my feet, with the other actor, with my script in hand. And then I can do it once and I got it. Shakespeare writes in iambic pentameter, so it comes out in this very lyrical, rhythmatic way. So it’s kind of like how you can memorize a song after hearing it twice. It comes pretty quick actually, especially if you’re doing Shakespeare that has rhyme.

BG: Do you like reading Shakespeare?

CT: I was lucky enough to go to a 2-week camp course in Ashland, Oregon when I was 17 and I kinda got the bug of the love for Shakespeare. I had some weird, obsessive dream to read all of Shakespeare’s plays by the time I got to college.

BG: How many are there?

CT: 37. I think I made it through about five. And I can’t say that I understood them, at all. I got a little tired of that, but I came back from that camp going “I’m gonna read them all. I’m gonna read them all!”

BG: Would you ever just Sparknotes the play?

CT: What is Sparknote?

BG: Say in high school you’re assigned to read Hamlet and you don’t want to, so you go to Sparknotes.com and they give you the summary and the analysis for free.

CT: Oh really. No way. Why would I do that?

BG: Well for me, I don’t understand what he’s saying, and I can’t relate to it, and no one talks like that, and I don’t enjoy reading it. So if I have to read it for school…sometimes people just go to Sparknotes.

CT: Interesting. That’s great.

BG: Teachers, I don’t think they like it.

CT: Well of course not. My mom’s a teacher, I’ll bet she hates it. I’ll have to ask her about that. If I’m going to be playing Hamlet I’d rather read the actual play than go to Sparknotes.com. But I can see how that would be very tempting. I’ll bet that if I was in school, that’d be a place I’d go very, very quick.

BG: So if you’re doing Hamlet for kids, they must not understand anything you’re saying.

CT: The thing is, they do. That’s the very interesting thing. One of the reasons is this adaptation is very clear.

BG: Is it original Shakespeare lines?

CT: Oh yes it is. Instead of the four and a half hour play, it is down to just this one boy and his relationship with his family. His mother, his father, his uncle, and a couple of his friends come through. The surprising thing is that there are lots of kids that might not understand the vocabulary, but they get this play. They’re moved by it and they’re very, very into it. By the end kids are getting weepy, getting sad, that happens all the time.

BG: Wow, crying? They don’t just get bored?

CT: Well there’s a couple that get bored. I can see them in the audience texting and playing rock paper scissors.

BG: Is Hamlet really crazy, or is he faking it?

CT: No, he’s faking it. Particularly in this adaptation, trying to explain that isn’t as interesting as telling the story of this kid who makes an awkward decision, and then has to justify it. If he’s completely sane, how do you justify a completely sane person acting like this and it results in the death of his entire family; and his girlfriend; and his pseudo, possible father-in-law. Like, they all die. Because of what he does. I don’t necessarily think it’s the smartest choice for anyone to do, like I’m just going to pretend to be crazy to get away with a whole bunch of stuff. It’s something only somebody with the clout of a prince, of royalty, could probably get away with. But this was also written 400 years ago and times were different back then, so who knows? I would picture that today, that rebellious kind of phase is just grease your hair back, put a couple of earrings in, and listen to Panic at the Disco and get all emo or goth. That would be a way you could separate yourself from the crowd and get figure out secrets or the truth. You’re looking to ostracize yourself, and for Hamlet that means pretending he’s crazy.


Faking it: Toms as Hamlet at SCT. Photo by Chris Bennion.

BG: I heard the famous lines were missing. Do you feel disappointed?

CT: Sure. They were honestly discussed. The director, she was also the adapter, so she had final say. It broke her heart. She hated doing it. And it’s horrifying, and it sucks, but it makes the story clearer and therefore, it works. It’s unfortunate, but it works.

BG: Do you like performing for children better than adults?

CT: I can’t say I like anyone better. This business is so rough that you take whatever you can get. I didn’t attack Hamlet with any less gusto than I would for someone else, but we tailored my performance for a teenage audience. Kids are a harder audience than adults any day. If adults don’t like it they will sit there politely and not like it. Kids line up afterwards for your autograph, and then tell you they didn’t like the show, to your face. Kids are ruthless, but I’d much rather have an honest answer like that than an adult who’d come up and say “Aww, yeah, mmm, mm…programs, look, great.”

BG: Are you worried that after this you’ll be out of a job until you’re cast for another play?

CT: I’ve been pretty lucky for the last couple of years to always have at least the next six months planned out for me. And it is luck. It’s just what kind of work is available and who can get it. It was scary for awhile, especially when I got out of college and I wasn’t getting any work. That was terrifying. I’m now a very good waiter, and an even better bartender. But I do live off my acting wages.

BG: Would you do this for the rest of your life?

CT: If I could, yeah. I would.

BG: You’d never get sick of it?

CT: No. I don’t think so. I don’t want to sound too cheesy, but it’s too indescribable. The feelings that you have when you’re on the stage and you’re just hittin’ it and audience is lovin’ it. Now that I’ve had it, it’s like I want it all the time. Also, I don’t know of many other professions where a large group of people clap for you when you’re done. The thing is, if I ever did get bored, I’d quit immediately, because it wouldn’t be worth it to the audiences and to the people who are like me, who love it so much.

BG: Was there an epiphany moment, when you realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life?

CT: Well there wasn’t one big bomb, but there were a series of minor explosions that happened when I was 12 until I was 21 and graduated college. Not only can I do this, but I want to, and those are two completely different thoughts.

BG: So when you were my age, you pretty much knew?

CT: Pretty much. Nothing else really spoke to me, other than sitting down and listening to Nirvana all day. I started when I was four, and I did do other stuff: I played baseball, I was a wrestler, I wrote a lot of really bad poetry.

BG: Really?

CT: Yeah, oh yeah. It’s sitting in my room from when I was fourteen years old.

BG: You should send some of it to me.

CT: Alright, you just have to promise you won’t use it in this interview.

BG: Ok. So didn’t you and Holly (Teen Tix director) go to Junior High together?

CT: Yes. And then I went to Lewis and Clark high school in Spokane, Washington. Holly can testify that they had the worst drama program in the state. It was just horrifyingly bad. We had about five people, I was maybe the only guy, and no stage, no money to speak of. All of our funds went directly to the football team. I was pretty much the only one that really cared. I’m pretty sure she went to Ferris, which had this amazing budget, with musicals all the time, I was so jealous of her, and everyone that got to go to her school.

BG: How did you deal with that drama program?

CT: I did a lot of community theatre in Spokane. I hate to say this, but a lot of those shows are sub-par compared to here. I would go to school, the drama class, and then spend the rest of the night at the theatre, just hanging out with the actors there, doing shows.

BG: Is it like Waiting For Guffman?

CT: Yes, very much so.

BG: Actually?

CT: Oh yeah. You know, small town theatre people who think that they’re fantastic.

BG: Any parting words for the teenagers of the Teen Tix community?

CT: Oh jeez, no. I mean, thank you so much, this is great. This is actually my first interview, so I hope I did well. I guess just keep supporting theatre. You’re the next generation coming up, so I hope you enjoy it.

Bianca G.
February 8th, 2008

Hamlet plays at Seattle Children's Theatre through February 24th
More info and show times: http://www.sct.org/
SCT’s Ticket Office: 206-441-3322
Ticket Office Hours: Friday 9 a.m. – show time, Saturday 10 a.m. – show time, Sunday noon – show time

Seattle Children's Theatre is located at the West entrance to Seattle Center, just north of Pacific Science Center and West of the Space Needle. It is served by buses 1, 13, 15, 18, 19, 24 and 33. For bus times: tripplanner.metrokc.gov

Check out Jennifer K.'s review of Hamlet!
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