Setting the Scene: The Scenic Design of “Hamlet 50/50”

By Jennifer Thorup Birkett

Scenic designer Marcus Stephens describes the moment in which he heard the Hamlet 50/50 pitch as an “ah-ha moment,” a long-sought-after solution to a perennial problem regarding the casting of male-presenting actors and the lack of female roles. But he also saw the project as a way to not merely keep Shakespeare alive, but to keep Shakespeare relevant and to address the current climate of union strikes and work equity in the arts.

While designing, Stephens kept two phrases in mind: utility and original practice. “Original practice” refers to the ways in which Shakespeare’s company originally utilized a theater’s resources (trap doors, canons, etc) to stage their productions. In designing the set for Hamlet 50/50, Stephens sought a negotiation between the past and the present and a celebration of the practical / the reusable. For inspiration, Stephens looked to intellectual and aesthetic movements such as the Russian revolution and Nordic minimalism (think IKEA storage solutions). The result is a set which celebrates texture, honest materials, and clean lines.

In building the set, Stephens and technical director / scenic artist Jeff Szymanowski focused on maneuverability and actor interaction, wanting to give more ownership to the players on the stage. Although initially appearing as one connected structure, doors open, and panels pull away to create separate spaces. In many ways, the set is a collection of building blocks all working together to tell a story–much like the cast itself.

It is easy to hear metaphors of the 50/50 project ringing throughout Szymanowski’s building process as he discusses the need for extra support when wooden framing, which is typically hidden, moves into a more central role. Notions of equitable practice and distribution of labor come forth as Szymanowski discusses uniting two 1x pieces of wood, rather than simply use 1 2x, as a way to lighten the load and ultimately make the structure stronger. From the design, to the construction, and eventually to the movement by the actors on the stage, this set is a beautiful example of teamwork and practicality.

Function and Freedom: The Costume Design of “Hamlet 50/50”

“The triumph of simplicity is important,” says Hamlet 50/50 costume designer Elivia Bovenzi Blitz, and her work for this production is certainly a triumph in that regard. For this brand new, world premiere adaptation of Hamlet, Blitz collaborated with director Vanessa Morosco to create a dynamic, familiar-yet-new look to the costumes which conveys the essence of character in a bold and unique fashion. 

Getting Oriented

Blitz’s work for Hamlet 50/50 began in early 2023. Blitz had worked with director Vanessa Morosco in the past, and Morosco’s direction to her design crew for this production was to find their own inspiration for creating the world of the play. For Blitz, that was a good thing – not having a set idea in mind helped her to bring innovative ideas to the table. 

As a designer, Blitz’s typical approach is to use the costumes to show the differences in power in the world of the play, and to convey the character without them having to say a word. As the process evolved, Blitz settled on a blend of her own personal style (favoring mixed patterns for the players) with a cleaner, more Scandinavian aesthetic that was functional and utilitarian.

Blitz’s approach was to create a contemporary look, without being period-specific. The design is relatively modern, but not necessarily of the real world. It’s an elevated style using details that define characters, such as the capes that we see on Gertrude and Claudius: a look that denotes regal and ceremonial authority, but blended with more everyday styles.

Function and Freedom

In a typical Shakespeare production, certain characters have more preferential treatment, based on their importance in the story; Shakespeare doesn’t necessarily call for multiple elaborate looks and changes. In Hamlet 50/50, however, everyone has a more equitable amount.

As Blitz describes it, function and freedom became the two most important characteristics of the 50/50 ethos when applied to the costumes. Part of the conversation was making the backstage elements more equitable – for example, making sure that costumes for women don’t take longer to change than those of the men. Footwear was another important piece of the puzzle; the intent was to create more ways for actors to move around the stage by keeping actors out of footwear, like high heels, that might limit their motion. 

One element of the costume design that reflects the 50/50 ethos is the choice to put all of the characters in gender-neutral trousers, which allow for functionality and freedom of movement without fear of exposure. For Ophelia, the skirt was a careful choice, one that conveyed youth and innocence. But other characters’ costumes have skirts as a layer amongst other layers. Similarly, Claudius’s cape was originally designed to be shorter, but in the development process, it became more of an Elizabethan-inspired style which lives over one shoulder. “I didn’t want him to look like a magician!” Blitz laughs. 

The 50/50 production ethos extended into the build of the costumes as well. For Hamlet 50/50, the idea was to give the shop an opportunity to build more things and use more of their skills and talents in a better way, instead of just altering store-bought clothing. Costume builds were assigned in a different manner; Blitz’s list of dream builds seemed impossible at first, but to her surprise, the shop didn’t flinch at the ask, and actually even surpassed it. 

“As a costume designer, you have to be so multifaceted,” Blitz notes. “You have to be able to perceive actors’ individual needs, read body language, and be very intuitive and diplomatic. No one’s on the operating table – it is not life or death. We have high standards for our work, but we want to execute it as simply and easily as possible.”

Learn more about Hamlet 50/50 at Performances run Aug. 15-27, 2023 at the University of Notre Dame – don’t miss it!

“Hamlet 50/50” and the Workplace of Shakespeare

By Jennifer Thorup Birkett

“Alas, Poor Yorick. We Knew Him”

Hamlet is nothing if not iconic. Behind “to be or not to be,” perhaps the most recognized (and most misquoted) line from Hamlet is the prince’s lament to the skull in the graveyard: “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio.” However, in Vanessa Morosco and Peter Simon Hilton’s new 2023 adaptation, Hamlet 50/50, the infamous line now reads: “Alas, poor Yorick. We knew him, Cousin.” Representative of Morosco and Hilton’s lofty goal to improve gender equity in the workplace of Shakespeare practitioners, the memory of Yorick and the subsequent philosophizing on the meaning of life and death is now a shared venture between Hamlet and his female cousin, Horatio.

As long-time theater practitioners and professional trainers in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Morosco and Hilton have spent significant time considering the mutual responsibilities of Shakespeare’s characters. When playing Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, for example, the two noticed that although Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s most vibrant and feisty female characters, Benedick still has more lines, drives all the conversations, actively leads the action, and has greater access to the audience via soliloquies and asides. Morosco and Hilton acknowledge that this inequality stems from a historic precedent, specifically the teacher / apprentice role model established during Shakespeare’s time, where younger boy actors played the female roles and the older, more senior ranking, male actors played the male roles. But, both Morosco and Hilton fervently believe that if Shakespeare had been writing with female actresses in mind, things might have been different.

As an actor himself, Shakespeare wrote his plays with his actors and theatre patrons in mind. Lines were written with cues to help players know when to enter and exit; words and actions were cut or altered based on actors’ performances and audience reactions. Similarly, Morosco and Hilton’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s work brings the needs of modern theatre practitioners and audiences to the forefront.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 8.5% of all the lines are spoken by female characters and 91.5% spoken by male characters. Morosco and Hilton’s adaptation asks the question: “what would happen if that ratio was 50/50?”

Other Shakespeare companies, and productions, have asked similar questions and pushed similar boundaries. The famous Globe Theater in London, for example, has implemented a gender-blind casting policy which promises a 1:1 ratio of male-presenting actors and female-presenting actresses on stage at each performance. Famous productions, such as the 2017-2018 Donmar Warehouse’s trilogy present all-female casts. Of course, many modern theater companies have responded to gender inequality in Shakespeare’s plays by simply not performing them at all. However, Hamlet 50/50 delivers new ideas and new solutions. Instead of just putting more female-presenting bodies on the stage by cross-dressing male roles or swapping a character’s sex from male to female, Morosco and Hilton’s adaptation looks to actually expand the roles of the female characters already present in Shakespeare’s text.

Yes, the traditionally male scholar, Horatio, is now Hamlet’s noble female cousin, and the officers of the watch are now the house maids of the palace, but the roles of Gertrude and Ophelia are also significantly enhanced. Gertrude is no longer simply wife to the King, but the Queen Regent, tasked with running the country and comforting her son. Ophelia delivers the “To be or not to be” speech as she contemplates her decision to take her own life.

As Morosco and Hilton have emphasized, their goal is not to change Shakespeare, but to partner with Shakespeare in bringing 16th and 17th century plays into the modern world, making it easier for theater companies to put on Shakespeare productions, and redistributing the labor of performance.

“Romeo and Juliet” Spring 2023 Tour: Entry #5

By Jonathan Oldfield

John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio

Another week, another state! As our flight touched down in Cleveland, top points must go to Grace Andrews who was the first to successful announce…

“We’re not in Kansas anymore!” 

We were met in the airport by our lovely contact Keith, who would also look after us at the theatre for the week, before travelling all the way across the city west-east to the John Carroll Campus.

A welcome feast awaited our weary, well- travelled souls, heads still sore from the Super Bowl win the night before. The faculty of JCU gave us an incredibly warm welcome and with a full schedule of classes planned for the week, we headed back to the hotel to get some rest, stomachs full.

This seems like a good a time as any to say a few words about our teaching. Alongside the production of Romeo and Juliet, each week we partner up with professors at our host university and lead workshops with their students. These classes can vary greatly, and is one of the great adventures of this tour – sometimes you’re working with 5 English Literature students and then the next day with 80 Psychology majors. Some people have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Shakespeare, and for some they are meeting it for the first time in your class. In each case, our focus is bringing Shakespeare’s words to life from an actor’s perspective. In what ways can looking at a Romeo monologue help Business students with their public speaking? How can The Iliad be staged and performed? What does Shakespeare’a poetry tell us about the history of the theatre? 

In every case, it’s very exciting to meet a new bunch of students and get them up on their feet and learning in a different way. It also helps provide clarity and insight into the Romeo and Juliet text for us as well – affecting and altering performances across the tour as we get to know these characters more and more.

After three performances and 26 classes in Cleveland, we had a well-earned cocktail or two with our hosts, before planning our day off in Ohio.

The group decided to split – Team A (Kaffe and Tom) explored the Art Museum in town before visiting the world famous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whilst Team B (me, Hillary and Grace) took a trip out of town to visit Lake Eerie. 

As I write these words, we’re now flying towards Huntsville Alabama, where our penultimate residency awaits – The University of Northern Alabama! 

“Romeo and Juliet” Spring 2023 Tour: Entry #4

By Jonathan Oldfield

Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas

“Kansas, it’s not that bad”. I’m reading an iron-on patch that I’ve found in a store in Aggieville (the shopping and bar area of Manhattan, Kansas), I laugh out loud, catching the attention of the otherwise distracted owner. I have to buy it. The words perfectly encapsulate the self-deprecating humour of the inhabitants of this town. 

“The weather’s nice today” 

“It’s not that bad”

“This building is beautiful”

“It’s not that bad” 

You get the picture. Kansans are never knowingly ones to brag. Manhattan (affectionately known as the Little Apple) is a compact town flanked by an army base and our host Kansas State University. People are happy here. Not just those we meet, but statistically too. Manhattan has a lower cost of living and higher quality of life than the average US town, and has sparked a brand of well-publicised t-shirts sporting the word MANHAPPINESS. 

The other thing you’ll see all over town is a deep purple logo of a cat’s face – on cars, buildings, lampposts, t-shirts, shoes and cutlery (!). KYU’s purple sports team, known as The Wildcats, is hard to miss and whilst none of us are particularly impassioned sports fans, we are very excited to head to see the Wildcats play basketball. After an initial kerfuffle with the tickets, we enter the court (arena? Pitch? Please help me with the terminology!). It’s gladiatorial. A large section of student fans, all on their feet, are chanting “K…..Y…..U!”. Families with kids, couples on dates, alumni from the university, it seems like all of Manhattan is here. Deathly silence falls as the national anthem is sung, then KYU’s band strikes up a song. Without missing a beat, the whole student section begins to dance. A kind of animatronic, puppet shuffle. Forward, back, forward back. Like they’d just pulled their back, or were repeatedly reaching to tie their shoes. It’s thrilling. We join in. The game begins and it’s overwhelmingly entertaining. End to end play, then every time there is a break, a time out, or a change of players, something exciting happens – a quiz, an interview, cheerleaders show us their moves. We’re hooked, and find ourselves turning up on the ‘dance cam’ at one point!

But that’s not the only sport we’ve encountered this week. The Super Bowl, taking place on Sunday, becomes a focus of our week – where should we watch the game? How do the rules work? What time should we try and get a table? It’s a particularly exciting year because the Kansas City Chiefs are playing. So we’re in the second best state to be able to watch them win. Now, bear with me as I explain this confusion. Kansas state is different from Kansas City which is, in fact, in Missouri. But Kansas City, which is very close to Kansas State, has a lot of fans from Kansas State itself, as well as from Missouri. Which is all to say, that the atmosphere in the bar as we enter at 4pm on Sunday was electric. The Chiefs are the underdog of the game, with the Philadelphia Eagles being the favourites.

American football is an odd combination of being both incredibly slow, and deeply violent. The teams stop and start more than they play, but when they play, it’s all-out physical fighting. With less that 1 minute 30 left on the clock, the Chiefs clinch it, and the whole bar storms the street! The exuberant night is rounded off with a local delicacy – the pickleback – a shot of whiskey accompanied by a shot of pickle juice. Sounds disgusting, but I can confirm it’s actually delicious. 

Aside from the sports, we performed in the beautiful McCain Auditorium, which feels like a Kansan Barbican, to one of our most enthusiastic (and largest!) crowds yet. We relished the opportunity to grow the show to almost stadium size, making the story all the more funny and all the more tragic. 

And now, onwards to Ohio! Bye bye Kansas (I’ll save my Wizard of Oz joke for next time…)