Hamlet Dramaturgy

Informing Bethany Lutheran College's Spring 2013 Production. Shows at: April 19, 20, 26, 27 at 7:30pm and April 21 at 2pm

Styling a Production: The Industrialization of Hamlet

Almost every theatre production you go to any more has been modernized or had some outside concept applied to it. The same is true of our production of Hamlet. Some of you have probably read the Designer Series post about the director, Peter Bloedel and his ideas for the concept, but how does that process work in theatre? This post will explore the process of determining style for a production and how the Hamlet came to look and feel the way it does.



First, let’s define our terms. In theatre, the term stylization refers in part to the inability to render a period perfectly onstage so the period must be adapted given the limitations of working in a different era.

The term stylization can also describe the process of generalizing or idealizing a period. When used appropriately, stylizing a period can create a more relatable aesthetic, with fewer concrete connotations. When stylization is abused it can make a production lose an important sense of reality that lends the play significance.

Sheldon Cheney describes stylization in his article “On Stylization” as “properly suggest[ing] a unity, an all-embracing mood or tone, which runs through every department of the director’s work, binding play, acting and staging in one atmosphere, and serving to give one impression.”

Thus the work of stylization falls under the director’s job, as the head of the artistic vision of a production, they ultimately choose the style of the production and then are in charge of maintaining that tone throughout all aspects of the production. They are the heart and soul of the process of styling a production.

Step One: Read the Play

This might seem obvious but this is always the first step in deciding the aesthetic of a show. Before making any decisions a director has to read the script and get a feel for the playwright’s purpose. To be clear, the concept has to enhance the message and themes of the script or it does not serve the production.

While it might be cool to say that Hamlet is a pirate and Denmark is a metaphor for the Caribbean, if there is not textual support to justify your choice it loses some artistic merit and detracts from the purpose of the production.

Jack Sparrow

Thoughtful, but not really Hamlet.

In order to choose an appropriate style for the production the director must read the script free of biases and other preconceived notions of what the production should look like. Obviously this is not always avoidable, but the purpose of this first read, or what is more likely the first few reads, is to understand the story. Subsequent readings will help assess what the purpose of the play is, the major themes, and narrow down what draws you to the text.

After all of that has happened, then a director can begin to think about styles that exemplify the production and will enhance the story being told.

Choosing a Style

When deciding how your production will be unique and tell the story effectively the director must consider where the action is set in the play itself. Hamlet is set in Denmark and there are a multitude of references to Denmark, this makes moving the location of the play to the Caribbean difficult to justify.

Perhaps the text specifically alludes to the place and era the production is set in but if you can justify altering that meaning, you certainly have the creative liberty to interpret the script as you wish.

Our specific production of Hamlet focuses on the relevant themes and emotions. Where the play is placed geographically or within the understanding of time is less pertinent than the realization that these emotions and themes are universal and timeless.

Pete certainly wanted to set Hamlet in a more relatable context, to make that connection simpler and to match the aesthetic of the dark, gritty tone of the production; it follows then that he would choose to move Denmark into a more recent past, albeit an ambiguous time.

This is not a show made to alienate people, Hamlet is a charismatic “everyman” that speaks directly to the audience. If he speaks out of an aesthetic that the audience doesn’t like to doesn’t connect with, that can interfere with the purpose of the show. In order to find that aesthetic a director will likely sift through images or video they feel connects with the ideas they want to bring forth. Style can be influenced from films, historical events, movements in art, images in nature, or even more abstract concepts.

In the case of Hamlet, Pete was greatly influenced by the Finkelstein design, and went from that image on to research similar looks and feelings. Eventually he settled on an ambiguous place that drew visual inspiration from style of the 1880s through the 1940s.

Applying a Style

Once the style of the production is determined, the director is in charge of communicating the style of the production and its purpose to the designers. The director must also remember to carry it out the style with his direction and blocking.

Even while Hamlet is feigning madness in a goofy fashion or the players are acting out a comedic farce, the director must protect the overarching tone of the production. For example, Pete uses harsh angles in his blocking and intense, violent emotion to solidify the play between light and dark in our production

From the design application, a large part of the stylization process is in determining inspirational images and discovering an agreed upon vocabulary for discussing the production. In order to communicate as a team, the designers and director must understand the images influencing each design and agree upon terms for styles and periods.

For example, when Emily Kimball, the costume designer, understood the look Pete was going for, she turned to Pinterest to stockpile images on a board specifically for Hamlet. This became an easy format to share inspiration with Pete. The more she pinned, the more the style of the production as a whole became more modern, eventually settling in the 1930s and 40s primarily.


Stylized Hamlet. Kaboom!

When a production is properly styled it can make the audience think and feel differently about a story. Hamlet seems more significant and more sinister when set in an aesthetic that matches the action of the play and is placed in a period more similar to our own time.

Lydia Grabau, Dramaturg

Works Referenced

Definitions of stylization for the arts.

On Stylization” by Sheldon Cheney.

Various discussions with director, Peter Bloedel.

George R. Kernodle’s “Style, Stylization, and Styles of Acting.”

Period Style for the Theatre by Douglas A. Russell.

Play Directing: Analysis, Communication, and Style by Francis Hodge and Michael McLain.

J. Michael Gillette’s Theatrical Design and Production: An Introduction to Scene Design and Construction, Lighting, Sound, Costume and Makeup.


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This entry was posted on April 19, 2013 by in Notes from the Dramaturg, Production.

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