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Voices of Canceled Stanford Shows: Sarah Mergen ’19 on adapting Shakespeare and directing ‘HAL’

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Sarah Mergen ’19 is/was the director and playwright of TheaterLab’s “HAL” (2020). Adapted from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Parts One & Two,” the futuristic multimedia show would have graced campus last Thursday through Saturday with the misadventures of the timeless rogue Falstaff and his royal mentee Hal. Like many Stanford performing-arts groups, Mergen and her company of 10-something actors and a dozen or so staff canceled their show in March due to rapid shifts in University COVID-19 policies. Given the buzz around Mergen’s highly creative, modern take on the “Henry IV” history plays, I spoke with her over Zoom about the creation and truncated production process for “HAL.” 

For Mergen, the works of William Shakespeare have profoundly shaped who she is today as a theater-maker and storyteller. Mergen grew up in a rural community where arts education was not readily available — for the first 10 years of her life, she had minimal exposure to theater. In middle school, however, when she got involved with a summer production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” through Murphys Creek Theater’s Mirror Project, Mergen was hooked. 

“Theater gave me a sense of community I never had before,” Mergen said. “I picked up on the Shakespearean language and memorization really quickly. I did ‘the theater thing’ subsequently for three summers.”

The Mirror Project staged separate “kids” and “professional” shows, and during her third summer, Mergen was fatefully asked to step in for the adult cast as Prospero in the professional production of “The Tempest.” 

Mergen said the incredible experience of playing Prospero cemented her love for acting and desire to seriously pursue theater in college: “I wanted to study acting at Stanford. Upon arriving here, though, I realized I didn’t quite have what it took. My true strengths lie in the storytelling and directorial aspects of theater, in taking a story that is already there and figuring out what works or not, as well as their relevance to today.” 

Mergen told The Daily she is interested in working with Shakespeare in ways that normally are not done.

“Sometimes Shakespeare is a little too removed from what exists today,” she said, adding, “Uncopyrighted material gives [theater-makers] a wonderful opportunity to play with larger archetypal narratives that already exist.” 

As an undergrad, Mergen directed Theater Lab’s “Go Ask Alice” (2016) and the Stanford Shakespeare Company’s (StanShakes) 2018 production of “Pericles.” The former production was a stage adaptation of Beatrice Sparks’s bestseller of the same name, which reimagined the book’s contents as a three-hour monologue split between nine actresses. StanShakes’s “Pericles,” in contrast, marked Mergen’s directorial debut both with a full-length play and Shakespeare. Similar to her experience playing Prospero as a teenager, the thrill of directing a Shakespeare show performed for a sold-out audience all three nights of its run made Mergen want to direct another show immediately after. Mergen made only a few narrative tweaks and revisions to Pericles and knew she wanted to “take Shakespeare much farther,” which she certainly would have accomplished with “HAL.”

Mergen told The Daily how her desire to work with Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” plays through “HAL” stemmed from her experience watching the Canadian Stratford Festival’s “Breath of Kings: Rebellion & Redemption” (2016). The production merged Shakespeare’s history plays “Richard II,” “Henry IV Parts One and Two” and “Henry V” into a four-hour show, split in two halves. Mergen notes how the show was not only “one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” but, more importantly, introduced her to Falstaff and his unique dynamic with the young crown prince Henry V, or Hal.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff is the archetypal rogue who flouts society’s expectations. As one of the Bard’s best-written characters, Falstaff offers the audience a sort of wish fulfillment with the caveat that, as the rogue, he must always be punished in the end. Mergen’s “HAL” takes as its jumping-off point the inevitability of Hal rejecting Falstaff as their mentor figure to accept their kingship. Mergen told The Daily how she felt particularly drawn to the Hal-Falstaff relationship because, for her, it raises questions of what it means to “realize one’s potential” relevant to the lives of Stanford students expected to “go out and do amazing things and be successful.” Through “HAL,” Mergen wanted to challenge whether Hal’s choice to reject Falstaff in the end is actually a good one, and if there is fulfillment outside of our modern capitalist society’s definition of potential. 

When The Daily asked Mergen to give an elevator pitch for her play, she described “HAL” as being set in the near future and centered around the two separate worlds of the Bolingbroke mega-corporation “ruled” by Henry IV and Falstaff’s underground club. Mergen initially wanted her show to be set specifically in the Berlin techno-nightclub scene, but during her year-long adaptation process decided to make it more general. A “really big” part of her directorial vision was using an alleyway stage set-up with video screens on two sides. 

“I wanted to push notions of how Shakespeare can be performed,” Mergen said. “People make a lot of assumptions about what Shakespeare can look and feel like. So I wanted my production to have an SF MOMA art-room aesthetic.”

When asked why she wanted to incorporate film into the aesthetic of her show, Mergen explained that she wanted to give her actors something to take away from the show, noting “undergraduate opportunities to participate in filmed shows are rare.” Mergen also remarked that certain elements of her directorial vision could not be realized without film. Almost all the 15th-century England battle scenes were cut because Mergen reimagined the war as a corporate scandal between Julianna Yonis 21’s Hotspur and Henry’s companies involving leaked news of corrupt management and failure to pay workers. By having the theater space exclusively populated by actors, with sets and props exchanged for urban backdrops and newsreels projected onto video screens, Mergen could focus attention on the character relationships developing onstage. 

Building character is emblematic of Mergen’s artistic process as both the director and self-proclaimed “script adaptor” of “HAL.” Mergen cites Orson Welles’s “Chimes At Midnight” (1965) movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” — in which Welles performs extensive character work with Falstaff — as one of her primary inspirations for her project. Mergen first developed her show concept last March in conjunction with Gracie Goheen ’20 and last April and May pitched it to Stanford Honors in the Arts and Theater Lab, respectively. When “HAL” was approved by Theater Lab, Mergen spent all summer working on the story through a creative process involving listening to music and re-reading her script multiple times to get a feel for all possible story arcs, for what scenes she wanted to keep in the show. During fall quarter, she generated various narrative outlines with post-it notes, revising the script in earnest from December through the start of cast and staff solicitation Weeks 4 and 5 of winter quarter. 

The most notable deviations from Shakespeare’s canonical “Henry IV” in Mergen’s “HAL” are not just the gender-swaps — Hal, Henry IV and Hotspur are all gendered female — but also the added complication of a romantic relationship between Hal (Paloma Aisenberg ’22) and Falstaff (David Mazouz ’23). While minimal romantic intrigue in original renditions of “Henry IV” may be reason enough to introduce new relationships, Mergen wanted to develop a Hal-Falstaff pairing for far more nuanced reasons that tie into her production’s core questions around personal potential. The Daily learned that Mergen wanted “HAL” to explore why “the rogue” is always a man, and how as a result, women historically have been able to “access the rogue” only through pursuing a romantic relationship with them — instead of obtaining that life for themselves. Mergen referred to Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise as a pop-culture example of this dynamic. While Hal’s consorting with the club-owning DJ Falstaff creates narrative tension with her conventionally successful business tycoon mom Henry IV, Hal is humbled when mom is diagnosed with cancer and publicly denounces Falstaff in the play’s finale — this time at a big corporate meeting surrounded by business executives. 

“The production ends on that note — of Hal realizing she cannot have the fulfilling life she imagined with Falstaff, and choosing instead to take on the responsibility of managing her family’s company,” Mergen explained. “The final scene had a big musical montage of what happens to Hal trying to prove to the world that she can take on the Bolingbroke company and all its responsibilities as a 25-year-old. Unfortunately, Hal does not find herself happy in the corporate business world.” 

Mergen elaborated on how “HAL” as an adaptation of a historically political theater responds to our current cultural and political moment: “The rapid momentum that our society has and by which it tells us what we need to do to be happy and successful is all within a capitalist framework. ‘HAL’ is a challenge to ‘the productivity cult’ that tells us that we have to be this one thing and the repercussions this mentality has on the mental health of young adults like Stanford students and their quality of life after Stanford. Political performance pieces should engage with politics in the place and time where things are going up. ‘HAL’ is immediately relevant to the struggles Stanford students face with realizing their potential.” 

Mergen also reflected on how she explored “a lot” with her character work with Evie Johnson ’21’s Henry IV billionaire CEO.

“Henry is sold the narrative that if she succeeds in a capitalist framework, she is empowered,” Mergen said. “But behind the optics of being a powerful feminist icon she is completely miserable. … In ‘HAL’ there was a scene in which Henry destroys a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In,’ and I think this breakdown scene would have made a huge impact on the audience.”

Mergen’s jovial demeanor sobered when The Daily asked her to share how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the “HAL” company and describe her thoughts on the abbreviated production.

“We had a cast of 10 or so people,” she said. “Though auditions went really well, the tech hiring process did not go super smoothly. We struggled to find a sound designer and our costume designer dropped midway, but our production manager, Kerstin Heinrich ’20, covered many of the technical jobs. But as of Week Seven, we had two major videographers involved and ‘everything was pat.’ The rehearsal room is where things work best, where I have the most confidence and experience. My assistant director, Parth Garg ’23, was logging upwards of 25 hours because blocking is surprisingly difficult, and it was my first time mentoring, but also because he took on assistant producer responsibilities.” 

Mergen took a breath: “Everything was going fine — until it wasn’t. I first heard rumors about the 150-person ban in my directing and production management class. We had this one actress who was also in [Rams Head Theatrical Society’s] ‘Pippin,’ so when they cancelled rehearsals around Week 8, I was excited to suddenly have her free. We were all joking around — ‘oh, the show is going to get canceled’ — and boom, spring quarter is online. At that point, Stanford did not specify when students could come back. It’s such a bummer because if they have given us more time or a better notice of what was to come, ‘HAL’ could have gotten a full film recording. As it is, we have nothing we can salvage from the show.” 

When asked how she has coped during quarantine in light of “HAL” being canceled, Mergen looked incredibly disheartened yet persisted in her reflections: “It took me at least two weeks to process. I wasn’t in touch with my emotions, and there was this one day where I just started crying. There is technically this arts grant that I could apply for, but now I do not want to try anything because I am scared it could be ripped away again.” Mergen paused, sighing, “No one tells you how to grieve a rehearsal process.” 

*****

Despite the devastating emotional and artistic impact of the pandemic on “HAL” and so many other Stanford student-artists, April has showered this year with innovative art projects and initiatives. Stanford students have taken to social media to create wholesome new content and give heartwarming Zoom performances. Through sharing the stories of students involved with shows never performed on stage, the ongoing Arts & Life Daily series “Voices of Cancelled Stanford Shows” hopes to celebrate and bring to light art and communities otherwise perceived as lost to COVID-19. If you or someone you know has a story on the pandemic and performing-arts that you want to see represented in The Daily, please fill out this form

Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Natalie Francis '22 (Music Desk Editor) is a Classics major still figuring out how to combine her passions for classical civilization, eco-criticism and musical performance. A California native, you will find her jamming out to an eclectic mix of Hadestown, Legally Blonde, Frozen II, Surf's Up, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.