Q&A: "Hamlet 50/50" and The 50/50 Shakespeare Project

Author: Shakespeare at Notre Dame

Q&A: "Hamlet 50/50" and The 50/50 Shakespeare Project

We’re thrilled to be bringing Hamlet back to Notre Dame this summer as part of the annual Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival. Hamlet 50/50 features Xavier King as Hamlet, Madeline Calais as Ophelia, TayLar as Gertrude, and Peter Simon Hilton as Claudius. The set design is by NDSF’s resident scenic designer, Marcus Stephens, and the costume design is contributed by Elivia Bovenzi Blitz. The production is directed by Vanessa Morosco, whose credits include productions for the American Shakespeare Center, Palm Beach Dramaworks, and the Southwest Shakespeare Festival. Vanessa also adapted the text with Peter Simon Hilton.

But you might notice we’re calling it Hamlet 50/50. Why? Is it a new play? The same play, but with just extra stuff added? What does this “50/50 Shakespeare” thing even mean, anyway?

Read on to learn more.

What is Hamlet 50/50?

Hamlet 50/50 is a world premiere adaptation of Hamlet by Vanessa Morosco and Peter Simon Hilton, which serves as the main production of the 2023 Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival. The text has been adapted as part of the 50/50 Shakespeare Project.

Is it a different Hamlet?

No. It is the same play that’s been thrilling audiences for hundreds of years. Hamlet is an enormously powerful story about characters that wrestle with guilt, friendship, revenge, and madness in very human and relatable ways. It’s also not a rewritten version of the play – all of the famous lines and characters are there. It’s simply a new perspective on this always fascinating story, and we’re excited for our audiences to be a part of the experience.

Sounds interesting. But when I sit in my seat, what can I expect to see? How will this be different from any other Shakespeare performance I’ve ever seen?

From a workplace perspective, you’ll see a production crew that’s more balanced and inclusive in gender. You’ll see a more inclusive gender balance in the cast as well, each of whom has been given a role that has been translated into a contemporary level of importance. All of the famous lines are there – but they might be spoken by different characters. All of the characters are there – but each character has a new perspective and position within the story. And with this cast and crew in place, the audience is in for a more engaging experience of Hamlet than was ever before possible. We’re not trying to change the world – but we are trying to create a production of Hamlet that’s as thrilling, moving, and exciting as any that have come before, and letting an entirely new way of thinking guide us through the work. Where other productions have had female actors playing male roles, Hamlet 50/50 takes a different route, offering us a 50/50 balance of lines between male and female characters

But you’re messing with an iconic text!

Here’s the thing: Because of its length, Hamlet is almost always cut down to a more manageable size to meet the expectations of a contemporary audience. There is actually no definitive text of Hamlet, due to the variations between the early texts published during Shakespeare’s lifetime and just after. In fact, no original copy of Shakespeare’s plays exists today. Unlike modern texts which have agreed-upon definitive editions that represent the author’s intent, Hamlet has been subject to editing, interpretation, and revision for hundreds of years.

Why adapt the text? What’s wrong with it?

Nothing’s wrong with the text, per se – there’s a good reason it’s a classic play. But here’s the thing: in the original play, only about 8% of the lines of dialogue are assigned to female-identifying characters. If you’re committed to creating more balanced and equitable productions for theatre, then choosing this text immediately puts you at a disadvantage. The 50/50 approach seeks to bring more equality into the workplace of Shakespeare, further upstream than it ever has been before.

What do you mean, “the workplace of Shakespeare”?

Theatres are places where professionals go to work every single day. A modern workplace can’t have just 8% of its staff be female – it wouldn’t be fair or equitable, and in many places it might even be illegal. From a gender perspective, the traditional workplace of Shakespeare is incredibly inequitable. Because the male characters end up driving the story more than the females, the access to a full, contemporary audience is therefore limited. So the 50/50 Shakespeare Project seeks to provide the balance that aligns with our notions of how a modern workplace should be.

What makes you think you’re qualified to adapt Shakespeare in this manner anyway?

It’s actually a great story. Vanessa and Peter have spent over 30 years as practitioners of Shakespeare. They’ve also spent years working in the corporate sector in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), nationally and internationally. They’ve created drama-based training to facilitate training for DEI, sexual harassment, and cultural differences for huge multinational companies. This is where both of those lanes come together – the workplace of Shakespeare is where all of these experiences converge.

So what is the 50/50 Shakespeare Project?

It is a project that aims to create a more balanced and equitable workplace for the practitioners of Shakespeare by adapting the text to fit current modern, more inclusive business models, which ultimately creates a more inclusive experience for the audience.

How does the process work?

Broadly speaking, it’s about reshaping the text to provide more quality in both the cast and the production company as a whole. The 50/50 Shakespeare Project isn’t designed to introduce ideas that don’t already exist in the play, or to change Shakespeare’s world. There are three main goals:

  1. Responsibly adjusting the gender identification of certain characters

  2. Reallocating some text and action to achieve gender equity throughout the plays

  3. Rebalancing the power dynamic imbedded in the text and structure of the plays that exists because of the standard business model of early modern English drama

There were a few things I didn’t like about it…

And that’s totally fine! The 50/50 Shakespeare Project is just that – a project, one that’s always in progress. There are no absolute decisions and feedback is always welcome. Feel free to join us at one of our two talk-backs after the shows on August 18th and 25th to learn more about how Hamlet 50/50 came to be. Or you can join the preshow “orientations” on Aug. 19, 23, and 26 at 6:30 p.m. to learn more.