Kevin Black, a producer, writer and director who is also a professor of practice at the University of Arizona’s School of Theatre, Film and Television, has loved Hamlet for decades. In 2018, though, he started to get serious about doing a unique, multimedia production of the show, featuring film clips, projections, and an immersive audience experience—all set in a fictional Denmark surveilled by artificial intelligence.
When he heard BRINK Foundation was launching Pidgin Palace Arts, a “contemporary art gallery and pan-generational media lab,” he thought it was a good match. He reached out to Danny Vinik, the “creative czar” of BRINK and executive director of BRINK Foundation, and the idea for what would become Hamlet: Fine Revolution started to grow.
But when COVID-19 took the world by storm, they paused. Vinik held a virtual opening for Pidgin Palace in summer 2020 instead, and Black and his team put together a seven-minute snapshot of the show. Since then, they’ve been working carefully, patiently, devotedly, on getting the show ready to present to a live audience—and for live audiences to be safely allowed to see it.
2018, 2019, early 2020.... They often feel like so distant it’s like they’re a part of not just another century, but another dimension. And so, there’s a particular comfort these days that comes with consuming timeless pieces of art. Shakespeare’s work is among the best examples. People today still fall hopelessly and ridiculously in love just as Romeo and Juliet did. We make things more complicated than they ever needed to be, like the characters in Twelfth Night. And, like Hamlet, we sometimes find ourselves throwing up our hands and wondering whether the whole thing might not just be futile.
“He had this marvelous, uncanny ability to write a play that was open to modes of telling,” says Black, who produces, directs and stars in the show. “It’s not that it’s a new story every time, but it’s open to different methods of telling the story, and it travels time really, really well. I think it’s been commonly established for, actually, centuries: You can do Shakespeare in whatever you’re wearing that day.”
And it was Hamlet in particular, the show that brought us “To be or not to be” and “to thine own self be true” that Black was most excited to, as he calls it, “remix.”
“The more you look at it, the more layered it is,” he says. “And what it’s kind of famous for is raising questions. It’s just this fascinating combination of incredibly exciting revenge tragedy with all these explorations and considerations of what it means to be alive.”
In case you didn’t read Hamlet in high school, or since, the premise: Prince Hamlet’s father recently died, and his uncle Claudius swooped in IMMEDIATELY to marry Hamlet’s mom and take over the ruling of the country of Denmark. Suspicious. Then Hamlet’s father appears to him as a ghost and asks him to avenge him.
In this production, which received funding from the UA College of Fine Arts and Office of Research, Innovation and Impact, the audience will literally be in the middle of the show, sitting in swivel chairs so they can turn to see action wherever it’s happening. (Black was careful to block it in a way that wouldn’t give anyone whiplash.) The characters use handheld devices. People in the castle are being constantly surveilled. For example, in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene, one of the show’s most famous, traditionally, King Claudius and an accomplice are watching an interaction between Hamlet and his beloved, Ophelia, from behind a pillar or curtain. In this production, the scene is played on a television screen, and King Claudius joins the audience in watching the video unfold on a television screen, as though everyone is watching a live feed from another area of the castle.
Black’s concept—combining the timelessness of Hamlet’s story with ultra-modern depictions of surveillance—fits in well with Pidgin Palace’s mission, which, according to Vinik, is to educate people about the way internet algorithms can leave them in “filter bubbles” of sensationalized content, and about the dangers and impact of artificial intelligence—which is no longer in the distant future, but surrounding us today. These lessons are especially important, he says, in such polarized times.
“Humanity’s always been kind of yin and yang,” Vinik says. “Even the very nature of the internet is composed of ones and zeros for binary.”
Total immersion in a theatrical experience is a stark contrast to the past few years, during which we’ve all Zoomed to death, or as Black puts it “pivoted to the point of nausea.”
“We’re trying to make sure it’s not something that’s framed or far away,” he says. “I want the closeness to be something that’s exciting and revelatory about the story.”