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.

“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.

NDSF 2022 Professional Company cast announced; tickets on sale Apr. 23

The Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival is thrilled to announce the cast and performance locations for the 2022 Professional Company performance of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Chris Anthony. 

Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed romance will be brought to life by an extraordinary ensemble of local and national progressionals alongside students and MFA graduates from programs across the country. 

Tickets for Romeo and Juliet will be available for purchase on William Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, 2022, at 

Romeo and Juliet Cast: 

  • Jess Alexander: Mercutio
  • Louis Arata: Montague
  • Marlon Burnley: Benvolio
  • MaConnia Chesser*: Nurse
  • David Chudzynski: Prince
  • James Cullinane: Paris
  • Zach Harness: Tybalt
  • Josie Mi: Juliet
  • Matt Monaco*: Lord Capulet
  • Tiana Mudzimurema: Ensemble
  • Gabe Ozaki: Balthazar
  • Krosby Roza: Romeo
  • Chauncy Thomas*: Friar Lawrence
  • Rachel Thomas: Ensemble
  • Carolina Vargas: Lady Capulet

* This artist appears through the courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.

Visit for more information. Be sure to follow our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram accounts for all of the latest updates. 

NDSF 2022 Touring Company cast and locations announced!

The Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival is thrilled to announce the cast and performance locations for the 2022 Touring Company performance of All’s Well That Ends Well, directed by Scotty Arnold. 

The All’s Well That Ends Well cast combines local professionals with students and MFA graduates from a wide range of colleges & universities including CalArts, Northeastern University, DePaul Universitry, the University of Southern California, St. Mary’s College, the University of Notre Dame, and many more. 

This year’s production will travel to multiple locations across Michiana, including stops in Mishawaka, Elkhart, Valparaiso, Goshen, Niles, St. Joseph, and more. 

All’s Well That Ends Well Cast: 

  • Jess Alexander: Lord 1 (Captain Dumaine)
  • Louis Arata: La Few
  • David Chudzynski: King
  • James Cullinane: Lord 2 (His brother)
  • Zach Harness: Bertram
  • Josie Mi: Mariana
  • Tiana Mudzimurema: Diana
  • Gabe Ozaki: Parolles
  • Allison Pajor: Countess
  • Krosby Roza: Soldier 1 (Interpreter)
  • Rachel Thomas: Helen

All’s Well That Ends Well Performance Schedule: 

Visit to learn more about the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival. 

Midsummer in December

By Grant Mudge

The December full moon arrives at 12:12am on 12/12, known as the Full Cold Moon. It’s the same date we selected for Lavina Jadhwani’s master class, in anticipation of her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The class will run from 7-9pm.

It’s known also as the Long Night’s Moon, and both names have roots in First Nation or Native American traditions, occurring as it does on or near the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, this year the 21st. It’s also called the Moon Before Yule, the Oak Moon, and the Bitter Moon.

Naturally, this had me thinking of the Moon in Midsummer. Some of you may know Earth’s satellite plays a special role in my house.

There’s even a hint of direct reference in the play, though Theseus here is speaking more about Chastity than Winter, and contrasting with more Earthly fruitfulness:

“Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires;
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father’s choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mew’d,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice-blessed they that master so their blood,
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distill’d,
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness. ” I.i

It’s a distillation of the fertile growth of summer living on, perhaps in progeny. Like a flower distilled into perfume outliving the blossom itself.

The cycles of the Moon and the Seasons of course are often tied to fertility rites, marriages, and festivals whether of high summer, deep winter, or harvest. In the very first sentence of Shakespeare’s play, Theseus bemoans the slow approach of a new Moon, whose pace and chastity “lingers his desires.” Hippolyta assures him that the time will quickly pass and that the Moon will arrive in four days, “like to a silver bow/ New-bent in Heaven.” She will “behold the night of our solemnities.” One assumes chaste Diana will occasionally look away.

Moments later in the same scene, Egeus decries Lysander’s singing of feigning verses to Hermia “by moonlight” and of course the Queen of the Fairies herself proclaims the Moon to be “pale in her anger,” who “washes all the air that rheumatic diseases do abound,” among other disastrous climate changes. The speech is a key reason I’ve selected Midsummer for 2020.

The troupe of workmen rehearsing a play for Theseus and Hippolyta’s royal marriage need moonlight in their play because, “you know, Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight.” Nick Bottom later greets the actor presenting Moonshine with “Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams.”

Even Cupid’s arrows are “quenched in the chaste beams of the watery Moon,” and after forty-seven other references, it is not Theseus who speaks the final mention of the Moon, as the Dream fades into morning, but Puck:

“Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the Moon.”

I’m intrigued and delighted to see that as we reach the antipodal solstice of our coming 20th Anniversary NDSF Season, the full Moon will usher in some winter cheer on the 12th day of December. Maybe we’ll howl at the Full Cold Moon.

It should be a terrific occasion and I look forward to everyone meeting Lavina Jadhwani.

See you then.