Hamlet holds a sacred place in the canon. It’s been done in both the literal and figurative sense by everyone from Laurence Olivier to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Hamlet Project, however, may actually add something. It isn’t just an interpretation of Hamlet, it’s every interpretation of Hamlet, cut down and repackaged as a two-hour drinking game. Every production offers opportunities to reinterpret the play as the actor playing Hamlet makes decisions to guide and interpret the production. The goal is a wacky accessibility, but that’s not to say it’s dumbed down. The Hamlet Project aims for a sweet spot: a clear, fun introduction for those unfamiliar with the Bard, yet also a satisfying re-mix for the experts.
“Hamlet is one of those shows that people stay away from because it’s so dense,” says Michelle Maurer, co-founder of The Hamlet Project Chicago. “This project breaks down that barrier for people who have never seen Shakespeare, never understood Hamlet, or are super Shakespeare buffs and can appreciate the accessibility in what we’re doing.”
The Hamlet Project began in Los Angeles, founded by UC Irvine graduates Beth Lopes and Jesse Sharp in 2011, partly as a way for Sharp to play his dream role. The Hamlet Project evolved into an ensemble endeavor—a way to have a group of talented collaborators play roles they may not get in more traditional productions. Lopes and Sharp realized that their approach also made Hamlet more accessible to a wide range of audiences. Lopes responded to the new crowds they were attracting by paring the script to under two hours—stripping it down to its essentials while maintaining its through-line. The Hamlet Project LA began playing to packed audiences; it currently has branches in Chicago and New York. The Hamlet Project Chicago—the local chapter founded by fellow-UC Irvine grads Michelle Maurer, Erika Haaland and Danielle Whaley—was the first big test-run.
It’s easy to stave off melancholy when a speech lamenting the decay of youth is punctuated by photos of Miley Cyrus parading across the stage.
“We’re franchising this project that was so successful in LA and bringing everything great about it to the city where we think it’s truly appreciated and embraced,” says Maurer. Location makes a big difference. Every actor brings something unique to their roles. In one of Lopes’s earlier rounds in LA, her female Hamlet appeared for her graveyard soliloquy to Yorick holding a positive pregnancy test. “The speech came alive,” says Beth. “It was so tangible what she was talking about.” In Chicago’s “Round Three” production, which Lopes directed at The Public House Theater, Victoria Blade, playing Ophelia, brought her tap-dancing skills into her final scene, that famous descent into madness. Actor and director decided on the spot that the taps could take the place of Ophelia’s flowers. Blade followed suit with her hands standing in for wings, flapping to exhaustion. “It goes from being really funny to pretty impressive to really sad in a moment,” Lopes recalled. “That middle ground—I love living there.”
The audience plays just as pivotal a role in shaping the performance and keeping the energy in that sweet spot. Like in any production, the actors draw from the audience’s energy and—this is the crucial beauty of the drinking-game format—the audience is more than a polite spectator. They play along. They get tipsy. The relationship between the performers and the community becomes essential to the show’s success.
The Hamlet Project’s format touches on the spirit of the original Globe performances in ways that other productions often do not. “This is how it was originally done,” says Maurer. “The elites got to sit there all poised and whatnot up in the boxes, but the majority of folks who came to see Shakespeare were dirty, drunk, standing in the pit of the theater yelling up to the stage. This is essentially that in the 21st century.”
At The Hamlet Project, a ringing bell signals an occasion to drink. “One drink every time ‘king’ is said; two drinks every time the word ‘drink’ is said; three drinks every time a word is said three times in succession,” says Lopes. “That bell rings so many times that it’s impossible for you not to be drunk after the show is over.” Lopes describes a moment in rehearsal when one of the actors missed a bell-ringing cue in the first scene: “‘You cannot miss ‘kings’ in this first scene’” she admonished him, “because this is the scene where we tell the audience, ‘We got you.’” The same principle holds true for the role of Polonius, played by a volunteer from the audience inserted directly into the performance. Already written in the manuscript as a bumbling character, a nervous volunteer fits the role perfectly. Part of the job of the ensemble is to help him feel supported and comfortabl
"Hamlet was never one of my favorites ... but through this project I've really grown to love it."
The Hamlet Project never forgets that it is, in fact, producing a play and a shared experience with the audience. It toys with, but never succumbs to, Hamlet’s darkness. Of course, it’s easier to stave off melancholy when a speech lamenting the decay of youth is punctuated by photos of Miley Cyrus parading across the stage.
Humor turns out to be an extremely effective way of breaking down barriers for the audience. “If you’re making a joke of something and people are laughing at it, it means that they are understanding what the basis was for what you’re making the joke about,” says Lopes. It enhances the audience’s connection to the language and to the story in a way they may not have expected from a Shakespearean production.
I had to wonder what makes Chicago audiences special—why Chicago is, as Maurer described, the place where The Hamlet Project really belongs. “Chicago people drink a lot—they really do,” she joked. Lopes described the Chicago audience a bit more diplomatically. “It seems like a very Shakespeare-literate audience here,” she said. “There were a lot of jokes they laughed at heartily that maybe wouldn’t have been caught in other cities.” Those varying reactions can lead the ensemble to ever more discoveries, something Lopes understands very well. “Hamlet was never one of my favorites,” she confesses. “People love it and talk about it being one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. I never really got it to be honest, but I feel like through this project I've really grown to love it.”
Beth Lopes, the founder of The Hamlet Project, earned a BFA in drama with a minor in classics from New York University, and an MFA in directing from UC Irvine. While living in New York she helped to found two theater companies: Thirsty Turtle Productions and the New York Neo-Classical Ensemble (the latter focusing on producing Shakespeare). Now based in Los Angeles, Beth's favorite projects include: Or What You Will; The Crucible; The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream (the later two with The New Swan Shakespeare Festival), as well as her continued work on The Hamlet Project.
The Hamlet Project