When people collaborate, it’s a beautiful thing, especially when it’s a team of people who are passionate about the same cause. In this case, it’s bringing an awareness to mental illness on the screen in a real and creative way. I share this passion with the team behind Kate Marie Smith’s solo show, “One Woman Hamlet” (“One Woman Hamlet: Shake(speare) the Stigma on Mental Health”). The film is adapted from the stage play of the same name. Kate Marie Smith tells her story of depression through the lens of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Kate is a Chicago actress, and we recently featured her and director Kseni Avonavi’s film “Jack and Anna”. Kseni has once again taken on the director role for “One Woman Hamlet,” along with Ayesha Abouelazm. They filmed and did post-production during the pandemic, and a lot of the magic of bringing this stage play to life on the screen was done during the post-production process, thanks to editor/DP/VFX & sound designer Brian Naughton. I was fortunate to speak with the whole team about their film. Cinema Femme is also fortunate to be premiering the film on our Eventive platform this Thursday evening at 7:30 PM Central. Register for the free screening (donations welcome), followed by a LIVE Q&A with the team.

Kate Marie Smith, Kseni Avonavi, Ayesha Abouelazm, and Brian Naughton

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?

KATE MARIE SMITH: I started writing it about 4 1/2 years ago. I’m 31 now and started writing the show when I was 27. At that time in my life I had just discovered a year and a half prior that I was dealing with mental illness and was in the process of being diagnosed. In processing that diagnosis, I wrote this play for my younger self. If I had seen this when I was in elementary school or junior high or high school, perhaps my life would have been a little easier, and maybe I wouldn’t have come close to suicide twice. So it’s for that younger person and it’s for me as I process where I’m at. It’s also a way for me to portray the stigma that really exists around mental health, mental illness, but also around feelings in general, and try to speak to that and have representation for that, so that we can all feel a little less alone and a little more comfortable walking through the world. 

AYESHA ABOUELAZM: I was honored to be a part of this project because I was helping Kseni cast for “Jack and Anna”, and we cast Kate for Jack. So Kate has been connected with Kseni over the past couple years through the festival circuit, and I had worked as a casting director on Kseni’s work and Kseni has worked as a script supervisor on my films. Kate came to us around last spring, and this was right when the pandemic hit, and pitched this beautiful project to us. And I remember Kseni and I were sitting at a coffee shop and we were like, “heck, yes” to the project. First of all, these two are incredible–also Brian, I love Brian coming on board. I work so well with them. Kate came with such a powerful project, and I’m a strong believer in anything that invites one’s participation in a dialogue I want to be involved in. I knew this was such a beautiful take on Hamlet that also allows Kate to talk about the stigma behind suicide while opening up that dialogue. That is a conversation that needs to be had, so I was like, “heck, yes”, and we went from there. I’m honored completely.

KSENI AVONAVI: I enjoyed working with both Kate and Ayesha in past projects. We all did so well working together, and when the pandemic hit, I was especially devastated by seeing how the theater and film community was affected. It was so heartbreaking. This is supposed to be a stage play and it was such a great project, so I just felt like I wanted to do something about it. We were now in this media where everything is online and I’m like, “oh, there are so many stage shows made to the screen like with ‘Hamilton.'” I saw another version of ‘Hamlet’ with Benedict Cumberbatch, and I felt like we can do something like this. Also, this topic of mental health is very personal to me. Everything about mental health is personal to me. I also had my own personal experience dealing with mental health back in Russia, and it was something I wanted to bring to the screen. I’m so happy I found my team for this project. 

BRIAN NAUGHTON: Kseni had approached me back in January, and I had seen “Jack and Anna.” I was a big fan of the film, of Kseni as a filmmaker, and of Kate as an actress, she was amazing. So when it was brought to me, I jumped at the opportunity to work with both of them. While learning more about the project and talking about mental health, the question became what does this project actually mean as a stage play, and how could we use this medium for making it into a film? How can we use that medium to elevate it, how can we get the messaging across in a way that might not get there with the stage play? I really wanted to see how we could play with it, because the show is playful at times. I really love how Kate put this together where it’s not just serious talk. It’s fun at times, and it’s serious at times, which allows the audience to go through the whole gamut of emotions. I was just really honored that they came to me with the opportunity, and I’m so happy that I said yes.

Kate Marie Smith playing Hamlet and having a sword fight with Laertes (Hamlet) puppet

MARTIN: Kate, can you talk about those different mediums that you brought to telling your story? I haven’t seen anything like that before. The only other one woman show performance that I saw brought to the screen was Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag”. Can you talk about that?

SMITH: I love that question, because I remember a TED talk on how our muses are what guide us creatively. It’s like this other thing that influences you. My muse gets distracted really easily. I like to have different things to play with each day in the rehearsal room. I like to play the ukulele, I love puppets. I love music, I love loop stations and I like filming. And originally when this is a play version, I knew that I wanted to film something beforehand. So it was really born out of my love of things. I love serious conversations, but I also like to laugh in the middle of them, and that’s how I retain it best, and it effects me best. So I knew that I wanted there to be levity. But going into the film version, Keseni, Ayesha, and Brian all brought new beautifully creative ideas, which I felt so grateful for. Not to give anything away, but there were some beautiful pop ups that Brian thought of, and they add so much to the film. Kseni and Ayesha saw things in the room that I could not see. It was such a gift to work with people when we were so isolated.

MARTIN: Ayesha and Kseni, how did you team up and what was your co-vision of bringing Kate’s one woman show to the screen?

ABOUELAZM: It’s funny you ask that, because I’ve never co-directed before. I’ve always been the main director. Kseni is a good friend of mine and I respect her work. I remember sitting down with her and being like, “Okay, how are we going to do this? How do you want to split this up?” And she’s like, “No, let’s do it together. We have the same vision.” And she was right, which was incredible. I’ve been on sets where I disagree with a DP more than a co-director.

We were coming together and it was beautiful. I was a little worried, but in a good way, because I didn’t want to ruin our friendship. The experience actually made us stronger. I told her, “I will co-direct with you again.” So I was very happy about that. 

Before I pass it to Kseni, another thing that we were discussing is that I have a theater past. I’m not as incredible as Kate, but I was an actress before becoming a director. So I know the difference between stage acting and acting in theater and film. I was telling Kseni, “I am so excited to direct this, but how are we going to take the power of this stage play and also add elements for the film?” That was a struggle for me thinking ahead. But looking at the piece now, I’m so happy with it, and again so proud to be working with this crew. But that was a challenge that we talked about. I don’t know if you want to add to that Kseni.

AVONAVI: Sure, I just want to add that with any project, whether it be filmmaking or any other art, it all comes down to teamwork. You have the project and the goal is to bring it to life. With your team, you need to brainstorm and think about how to do it better together. As Ayesha mentioned, she had a theater background, and I had experience with theater in a small way. In Russia, I took acting classes and I worked in theater for a while, but nothing more. I’m so much about the visual, bringing in more visual elements, and we actually discovered a lot of different ways to use these visual moments during post-production. People don’t mention the post-production process enough, but it is such a big thing, because the film changes so much during that period. During post-production, we found better ways to make the film more powerful and entertaining, so we could support Kate’s performance. We had so much fun with this process. But again, it’s so much about working together, making compromises, finding better solutions, and just listening to each other. One of us will say, “I’ve got this idea, why don’t we try this, or let’s try to film this from this angle, or how about that?” This is how I see it.

MARTIN: Brian, can you talk about the technical aspects you brought to this film and how it elevated the process?

NAUGHTON: Just to echo what Kseni and Ayesha said with it being just a great collaborative experience, from the first day we stepped on set, everyone’s voice was heard, which made it a lot easier to explore the different avenues we could have gone down. Whether we went down one avenue or not, we had the ability to open those doors and see what was behind them. That really helped me in post-production to have the freedom to have and create a little animated Kate head pop up on the screen, and react with the video. That was something that Kate had mentioned wanting to do on camera, and we just weren’t able to pull it off. In the editing process, I decided to do it for her to see if she liked it, and she did. That’s really how this project went for us. We trusted each other, while encouraging and believing in each other. It really helped get the final film to where it is now, because like Kseni said, you step on set, and it’s one thing. It doesn’t get to where it’s at without everyone moving in the same direction. And these three were great to work with, all the way from the start to the finish to here.

“One Woman Hamlet” team with Ayesha Abouelazm, Kseni Avonavi, Brian Naughton, Kate Marie Smith with Laertes (Hamlet) puppet

MARTIN: What do you hope people see in your film?

SMITH: I hope that they see a person. I hope if they don’t relate to me at all, they see me as a human and can empathize. Or maybe they see the reflection of somebody they know that deals with mental illness, or maybe they see themselves. But I hope that when they look at it, they either realize there is a lot of people similar to me, or perhaps not similar to me, but dealing with mental illness and the stigma that exists around it. Or perhaps they’ll feel less alone because they see a shadow of themselves. Representation is so important. I hope we all told the story well enough that it can resonate in the heart. And I think we have.

ABOUELAZM: To echo what Kate said, I just want to bring an awareness. I think this subject is just something that is thrown under the rug. And I’m speaking from personal experience as an Egyptian-American. This is something that Egyptian immigrant parents do not talk about. I think this is important for every culture to talk about and to learn. It’s a participation and a dialogue. Another thing I want to echo from what Kate said earlier is that you can see a reflection of yourself, you can see a friend, you can see a sister or a brother. The beauty of this piece is it could be you. The problem with mental illness is when people talk about it, they talk about it like it is its own entity. ‘That’s not you, so you’re good.’ And I hate that. I hate that because it makes us think, ‘the active shooter has mental health issues which are one out of a million. I’m not mentally ill, so I’m good.’ That’s a problem. That active shooter could have been me, right? So this is a participation of dialogue. This could be you, this could be me, and I’m just hoping to bring that awareness. 

AVONAVI: On each of my projects, I always want to bring positive change. First, I hope that any of the projects I do has a learned element that can support someone. When I was watching the last cut, there was a moment that resonated with me personally. I had this emotional moment, and I was like, ‘I need this now, I need to hear these words from Kate because this is how I feel right now. And she’s helping me. If I feel that this is helping me as I watch this, it should help other people as well.’ I’m honored to be part of this project because it speaks and says so much. She speaks directly to you. And I really hope that people can find support through this project. 

I’m from Russia, and I don’t feel like people in Russia pay enough attention to people who have mental health issues. I wish they would, but they don’t. And I wish there was a project like this back in Russia to help people who struggle with mental illness.

NAUGHTON: What I hope is that this film will peel away a layer of that stigma that is so associated with mental health, whether you think that you’re outside of it, and you don’t want to go near it, and stay as far away as possible, or if you’re somebody who is suffering who thinks you can’t speak up because you feel stigmatized by the topic in general. As a society it is taboo, and that can be upended simply by having a conversation with someone. Maybe just ask someone about how they are doing. A lot of people are afraid to take that step and if this can break that barrier down a bit, then I’d be tremendously happy that this was able to effect somebody in that way.

MARTIN: This is a question specifically for Kate, why Hamlet?

SMITH: I auditioned for Hamlet four years ago, and I asked to read for Hamlet. And I knew I wouldn’t get it because they don’t usually cast Hamlet as a woman. I read Hamlet for the first time when I was 10. I didn’t really get Shakespeare then, and I didn’t fall in love with his work until I was older. There was something about reading one of those soliloquies, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.” To me, that line basically means, “I’m just sad, and I don’t know why.” I don’t think everybody reads Hamlet that way. But that’s always how I read Hamlet. The play is about losing somebody and the trauma of that. When I read the script, Hamlet has been dealing with depression without knowing it, just like me, and is dealing with the triggers of that. I think the gift of great scripts is that everybody gets to put a little of themselves into it. I saw that in Hamlet and I wanted to incorporate it. It’s also really hard to talk about yourself. If this was a play with me just sharing my stories, it would be really, really fucking hard for me. But to have the gift of poetry and puppets and music to help me is huge too, and healing. I think the hardest parts of the script for me are my stories, and those are the parts I’ve rewritten most. I mean, it’s all the same story right? But to be Kate is much harder to be Hamlet. And I’m proud of myself for being able to be both of those things.

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