“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #4

By Sam Hill

Grace College couldn’t be more of a change from Purdue. Whereas Purdue is a public university with 54,000 students, Grace is a private, Christian university with less than 2,000. The students attend chapel three times a week. It is a small, intimate campus; pretty, and the students smile at you as you walk by.

The students here are beyond friendly. Every need, every request is met with a smile and a ‘no problem at all’ or a ‘sure!’ Campus is easy to navigate, but of course I still got lost. Two very kind students escorted me to my class, which happened to be a Spanish class. I was particularly excited for this class as Elena, the teacher, had asked me during my meeting, ‘Do you like pastries?’ Is the Pope a Catholic? I had expected one pastry, but Elena had brought in an entire platter of Mexican pastries from a local baker. Gracias Dios.

Grace is situated near Winona Lake. Of course, when I say lake, I mean an American lake, which to an English person looks more like a small sea. Around the lake are trails through the woods that wind, like a rattlesnake, around the campus. Lucy and I headed out for a run and dodged, ducked, dipped, dived and dodged (guess the film?) through the Indiana countryside.

We have had the great privilege of being given access to the canteen here. Which means we get free, healthy food, I cannot emphasise how much of a blessing this is for us. The food is good quality, with plenty of vegetables on offer, which, in America, can be hard to come by. We get asked a lot about British cuisine and its terrible international reputation. I don’t want to seem defensive and trust me I LOVE U.S food, especially Culvers and the warm cookies they have at the canteen here. But British food has come a long way in the last 20 years or so. London has a wide array of different cuisines from all around the world. And look, I just feel the need to point out that a few U.S foods are just plain weird. If you’ll humour me….

Example A: Biscuits and gravy. These are a sort of a savoury scone with a meat sauce. I do not know what ‘meat’ goes into the ‘meat sauce’ but the fact that it is hard to tell, tells any reader what to expect.

Example B: Pickled sausage, I made the mistake of getting a pickled sausage from a store. What can I say, I love Jerky and Biltong, I thought this would be in the same ball-park, but it is not. All I can say is “no, no, no, never again”.

Example C: Pickles. Some pickles here are excellent. The pickled cucumbers you get with your burger. SUBLIME! But some of the pickles you get have a very strange mix of flavours. They taste sort of cinnamon-like, giving the gherkins a bizarre Christmas flavour. That’s the only way I can describe it. Christmas in a jar. But not a good Christmas, the kind of Christmas where everyone argues… and drinks too much… and someone burns the turkey.

Anyway, diatribe over…

It’s a big weekend this weekend as it is the Super Bowl. The biggest game in American sports. The 49ers and the Chiefs take on each other. The American way seems to be to throw a Super Bowl party so we threw our very own party in the hotel. We decked the lobby out with a case of beers, chips-n- dip, and wings. Did you know an expected 1.4 billion wings get eaten during the Super Bowl? Most of our snacks were very kindly brought by our new friend Niki, who worked at the hotel. We were also joined by our wonderful Techie Chris, who had done all our lighting, as well as being a general legend. We were all surprised by how much we enjoyed the game itself. The game stops an awful lot, but the entertainment doesn’t-with A-List celebrities appearing in the adverts, Usher doing the half time show and everyone chatting as the game unfolds. Although sadly the Chiefs won (I wanted the 49ers to win), we were very happy to have had experienced our own slice of American culture.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Spring 2024 Tour: Entry #3

By Sam Hill

We arrived at Purdue University, a prestigious public university in West Lafayette, Indiana. We were immediately impressed by… the hotel!! The on-campus hotel is a fantastic 4-star establishment staffed predominantly by students and alumni. We excitedly ran into our rooms like kids on their first holiday. I even had a little jump on the bed- I’m 29 years old… We were even more delighted to discover that there was a bar in the hotel serving an excellent cocktail list and an impressive collection of Japanese whisky and scotch. I could feel my wallet getting lighter already, not that it was particularly heavy in the first place…

The campus here is massive and the rapidly growing student body numbers around 54,000 students. Purdue is a university primarily focused on engineering and is proud to have produced more astronauts than any other university in the U.S (possibly the world??) including Neil Armstrong. You may well ask, “what can a group of actors, teaching classes on Shakespeare, do for students who are looking to start careers in Engineering?”. Well, quite a lot. Most jobs involve presenting in some capacity: pitching your ideas to other people, selling your product, making a power point presentation and more. We teach students to present their ideas confidently, articulately and with ease. Shakespeare’s language is specific and conveys exactly what the author wants to say, by studying Shakespeare, students learn the importance of being specific and accurate in their communication with others. I would argue that if you master these skills before you enter the professional world, little will stand in your way.

Purdue has been a week of great questions. My favourites are the questions about England. These include, “have you ever ridden a double decker bus?” (yes). “Have you ever had Vimto?” (Yes). Do you prefer dogs or frogs? (sorry what?!). But my personal favourite goes to Cooper, in the Q and A after our performance for school children, Cooper asked, ‘why is Bottom so funny?’ Cooper, I would say you made my day, but I think its more accurate to say you made my whole year, thank you!

Our final performance finished, we went to the Boiler Maker Bar and relaxed with a cocktail. However, we were all exhausted after a great week of teaching and performing so retired to bed (relatively early). After a lie-in, we were fresh and wondered into down-town West Lafayette. Two audience members, Linda and Cliff, had invited us to see Artist’s Own: an independent art gallery. Linda was one of a group of local artists who ran the gallery. What an experience that turned out to be. We saw pottery, lovingly made by local artists, a mind-blowing exhibition of pieces by local high schoolers, as well as paintings and jewelry.

Cliff, Linda’s husband, had literally retired two days before. He was (and clearly at heart still is!) a scientist specialising in insects. Cliff told me about the Cicada Broods about to emerge in the U.S this year. In brief, Cicada’s are a grasshopper-like insect that spend years hibernating underground. A ‘brood’ of Cicadas will hibernate for a set number of years. One brood might hibernate for 13 years, another brood might hibernate for 17 years. Here comes the interesting part: this year Brood XIII and Brood XIX will emerge at the same time. They will dig tunnels to the surface and swarm the local area, but there is a crossover zone in parts of Indiana and Illinois, where both broods will converge and emerge at the same time. The last time a double Cicada brood emerged in the US, the year was 1803, Thomas Jefferson was president and George III sat on the throne of England.

Anyway, that is plenty from me! Cliff and Linda, thank you for your kindness, we hope to see you in London! Now on to Grace College, our final stop in Indiana.

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 shakespeare.nd.edu. 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.