When Bob Frazer makes his Bard on the Beach debut this week, he'll be realizing a dream he's had since his teens.
"When I was in Grade 11, I decided I was going to play Hamlet," recalls the 34-year-old actor on a lunch break from rehearsal at the Playhouse production office, "and for 17 years, I swear to God, there has been an edition of Hamlet by my bedside."
Ironically, it was the threat of being turfed from his high-school drama class in Penticton that made Frazer realize he wanted to be an actor. "One day my teacher called my parents and said, 'Okay, we're kicking him out of acting class because he fools around too much.'?" Frazer was furious. "I thought 'Screw her, I'm gonna stay in that class.'?" He was so determined to prove that he could take acting seriously that he not only started working harder at school, he immediately went out and got a job doing dinner theatre.
It was shortly afterward that Frazer had his first encounter with Hamlet. "I was given the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy to do in class," he recalls, "and just before I was about to perform it, my teacher handed me a Bible and she said, 'Here, read this while you're doing it.' And it was like a wash over me; I got goose bumps while I was saying it. It was just one of those moments: I got it, I understood it all, and I thought, 'That's it.'?"
After high school, Frazer moved to Vancouver to continue his acting studies but was dismayed to learn that students had to audition up to a year in advance for the theatre programs at Studio 58 and Douglas College. He registered for other courses at Douglas, then made daily visits to theatre-program head Dorothy Jones to inquire if any spots had opened up, until she finally relented and let him into the course. He subsequently attended Studio 58, graduating in 1994.
Frazer's had lots of stage work since then, and he seems equally at home in comic and dramatic roles. When asked if he has a favourite type of part, he says, "I love being goofy, I love being a fool, but I especially love those characters who-in brief moments-wear their heart on their sleeve." He cites Charlie, the young soldier he played in the 2003 Playhouse and Belfry Theatre coproduction of Mary's Wedding, and the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie. "Gentleman Caller is another part that I've always wanted to play," says Frazer. He got his chance last year with Liffy Productions, and his work earned him a Jessie nomination.
But Hamlet-at Bard on the Beach's Studio Stage in Vanier Park from tonight (June 30) until September 23-poses a whole new set of challenges. "It's really hard," says Frazer. "Hamlet goes through everything. He has this huge range; it's massive. I mean, Hamlet steps on-stage and is exposed from the get-go. He's honest, he's vulnerable."
He's also lonely. Frazer characterizes Hamlet's experience as one of repeated abandonment: by his father, who dies; by his mother, who remarries and denies Hamlet's grief; by Ophelia, who rejects him; by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who profess their friendship but are really spying on him. As a result, he says, "A real trap with this character can be disengagement. You can cut yourself from every character on-stage, and from the audience. But what happens if you don't push people away? And what happens if you need the audience? All those soliloquies-he's saying, 'Are you with me? Do you get this? Are you watching this? Help!'?"
Another challenge is finding a fresh take on a familiar text. "You say, 'To be or not to be,' and I guarantee you that 95 percent of the population will be able to say, 'That is the question,'?" the actor observes. "It's easy to fall into recital, and it's very difficult to stay in the moment and be present in every single discovery."
And some of those discoveries are pretty dark. "Almost everybody has at some point contemplated it [suicide]," says Frazer. "But who contemplates it as deeply as Hamlet does? It's a scary thing because as an actor, you have to reach those levels-otherwise you're lying to the audience."
Frazer credits his kids-Madelyn is four and Jackson is two-with helping keep him sane during this process. "For about three hours every night, while I'm home with them," he says, "I make sure that I put it away, because they're all about life."
Being a dad also has something in common with his current job. "I have a lot of friends who are becoming fathers," says Frazer. "They ask you, 'What's it like to have a kid?' You can't explain it. The kid comes out, and there's this overwhelming feeling of fear, joy, nerves, everything….Playing Hamlet is the same way. You don't know till you do it."